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  • The Dysfunction of Ritual in Early Confucianism by Michael David Kaulana Ing
  • Paul Nicholas Vogt
The Dysfunction of Ritual in Early Confucianism. By Michael David Kaulana Ing. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. xii + 292. Paper $35.00, isbn 9780199924912.

Like ritual itself, the study of ritual both benefits and suffers from vague categorical boundaries, allowing it to incorporate various interests of its performers, participants, and observers. In arguing for the usefulness of this ambiguity to early Chinese ritualists, Michael David Kaulana Ing, in his The Dysfunction of Ritual in Early Confucianism, has provided early China studies with a long-overdue gateway into one of early China’s richest and most theoretically diverse texts. Ing’s “‘discursively informed description’ of the Liji” (p. 15) should spur on a new era of work moving beyond the Daxue and the Zhongyong to delve into the hinterlands of the ancient classic.

Ing opens by situating his work with respect to ongoing dialogues both inside and outside the early China field: “I am writing about the Liji, but I am writing for the fields of ritual studies and Confucian ethics” (p. 16). Surveys of relevant issues in these fields provide the organizational basis for the book’s early chapters (pp. 1–3), establishing Ing’s take on his key terms of “ritual” (Ing is admirably explicit that “the term ‘ritual’ is not simply equated with the term li 礼” [pp. 19–20]) and “dysfunction” (“synonymous with failure” [p. 9]). A sub-categorization and analysis of the latter concept in chapter 2, “A Typology of Dysfunction,” builds the framework for the rest of the study, introducing such key concepts as “dysfunctions in competency” versus “dysfunctions in efficacy” (p. 44) and “preventable and unpreventable failures” (p. 45) that inform discussions of the psychological implications of success, failure, and change in ritual in the subsequent chapters.

A proposed distinction between “competency” and “fluency” is key to Ing’s exploration of efforts to protect against failure in ritual in chapter 4, “Preventing Dysfunction.” “Competency,” for Ing, is the ability to follow correctly the “ritual script,” the set of rules conventionally assumed to apply to any particular rite, a key idea that underlies Ing’s entire approach (pp. 8, 44). “Fluency,” by contrast, refers to the learned ability of a practiced ritual performer, or “ritual agent” in Ing’s parlance, to make changes to this “ritual script” in order to ensure the success of the rite under less-than-ideal circumstances (p. 9). External factors may, however, exceed the ability of the “fluent ritual agent” to manage, guaranteeing the failure of a rite regardless [End Page 812] of its performer’s conduct (pp. 9–10). The problem of distinguishing between the failure of a rite due to insufficiently fluent performance and its failure due to insurmountable circumstances (“preventable and unpreventable failures in efficacy,” in Ing’s words [pp. 9–10, esp. p. 178]) produces “productive anxieties” (chapter 8, title), which, for Ing, offer a raison d’être for early Confucian ritual specialists in the form of “opportunities for recreating and reinventing the ritual tradition” (p. 203).

In general, Ing makes heavy use of linguistic metaphors—thus the “ritual script” (p. 8) is interpreted and modified by “fluent ritual agents” (p. 9) based in part on “cultural grammar” (p. 28), fulfilling its “expressive functions” (p. 33).1 This vocabulary complements Ing’s intriguing examination of what might be called the “metaphorical concepts” of ritual in the Liji, particularly that of water and of the dikes that restrain it. Ing argues artfully and convincingly for the role of these metaphors in shaping the discussion of ritual at several points in the Liji (pp. 19–20, 30–32, 107, 158, 165–166).2 The historical construct of the connections between language (yan) and ritual (li) put forth in chapter 5, “The Inevitability of Failure”—a powerful chapter overall, thanks to its close and consistent reading of the “Liyun”—offers support from the source itself for Ing’s tendency to conceive of ritual in linguistic terms (pp. 120–121, 128).

At points, the strength of the “ritual script” metaphor threatens to subvert Ing’s explanations. Ing repeatedly describes the need for...


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