restricted access Ritual in Early China: Meaning, Practice, Function, and Context
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Ritual in Early China:
Meaning, Practice, Function, and Context
Michael David Kaulana Ing. The Dysfunction of Ritual in Early Confucianism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. 285 pp. Hardcover $99.00, isbn 978-0-19-992489-9. Paperback $35.00, isbn 978-0-19-992491-2.

The primary aim of this work is most laudable and long overdue: to bring greater attention to the too often neglected classic, the Book of Rites (Liji 禮記). Michael [End Page 530] Ing claims that the Book of Rites is important not only for understanding early Confucian views about ritual but also because it makes significant contributions to ritual theory; in other words, it is not only a book about rituals but a reflection on the nature of ritual as well. He further argues that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way a number of scholars, among them this reviewer, have understood crucial features of Confucian ritual. He seeks to correct this error by establishing what he calls the “tragic” sense of early Confucian ritual. There is much to ponder in Ing’s work. No one should doubt his claim for the importance of the Book of Rites, and all should admire his decision to apply ritual theory’s recent focus on failures of ritual to the cases one can find in the Book of Rites as well as the Confucian tradition more generally.

After an introduction in which he sketches the overall aims and structure of his work, Ing presents eight separate chapters, followed by a conclusion and an appendix on the history of the text. I will focus on the arguments and evidence presented in the eight core chapters.

Chapter 1 introduces the notion of ritual Ing finds in the Book of Rites, which we might describe as a functional conception of ritual: “[R]ituals are scripted performances enacted by human beings for the purposes of ordering the world” (p. 18). This sounds reasonable as a first approximation, though missing here is the connection rituals have with the past. Furthermore, this conception does not seem to appreciate the ways in which rituals work to shape and influence not only those who perform them but those who observe their performance. Ing does recognize some of these important aspects of rituals later in the chapter when he discusses “pressive,” “impressive,” and “expressive” functions of ritual. If I understand him correctly, the neologism “pressive” is a general term encompassing the latter two types (p. 28). The “impressive” function concerns ritual’s effects “upon the participants” (p. 28), but I would also think it exerts effects and, therefore, impresses upon observers as well. The “expressive” function concerns “the expression of human disposition” (p. 33). This analysis sounds very much like what I proposed many years ago when I compared rituals (roughly) to juggling, which is both an excellent way to develop dexterity (impressive) and an excellent way to display it (expressive).1 I found Ing’s notion of “disposition” a bit obscure; perhaps it is meant to include emotions such as grief as well as cultivated affective states such as reverence; if this is what he had in mind, a more complete and careful exposition of these points would have been most helpful. Ing also introduces the ideas of ritual agents and ritual fluency in this chapter. I never quite understood why he chose the word “agent” as opposed to something like “participant”: The former attributes a much more independent and autonomous character to those who perform rituals; the latter is a more inclusive term and seems more appropriate for Confucian views on ritual. Kongzi talked about “overcoming the self and returning to ritual.” The concept of ritual agent seems out of place in such contexts. Ritual fluency makes good sense as a quality of ritual performance, and Ing uses it in [End Page 531] something like this sense when he says advanced “ritual agents … spontaneously act in accordance with ritual” (p. 36), but he also uses it to describe how such agents “navigate their way through the world” (p. 36). This makes it seem as if fluency is a general quality displayed by virtuous individuals and is not in any special way...


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