In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Signs of the Sacred: The Confucian Body and Symbolic Power
  • Lim Tae-seung (bio)


The sociology of symbolic power, as put forth by Pierre Bourdieu, treats the relations between behavior and socio-cultural structure. Bourdieu comprehends culture as a form of capital that follows certain laws of accumulation, exchange, and operation, and emphasizes that its symbolic form plays an important role in establishing and maintaining power structures.1 Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital comprises a variety of resources such as language capabilities, general cultural consciousness, aesthetic symbols, educational information, and level of education.2 His analysis of cultural capital reveals three different processes of its formation.3 First, education fosters its formation, internalizing it through the socialization process of individuals and from an early age casting a cognitive matrix to appreciate cultural commodities. In this case, cultural capital exists as an internal property of individual subjects. Second, cultural capital exists in an objective form as, for instance, books and artistic products, which in turn demand appreciation by a connoisseur. Third, in Bourdieu’s theory cultural capital exists as an institutional form, that is, in the form of educational institutions.

The relations between symbolic form and power to which Bourdieu draws attention also matter much in the Analects, which may be regarded as the cognitive world of Confucius and his disciples. In retrospect, the early Confucian school (rujia 儒家) was also concerned with the three conditions of cultural capital that Bourdieu mentioned, namely its internalization, objectification, and institutionalization. A Confucian man of honor and integrity (junzi 君子) was considered an agent for passing on and practicing the school’s guidelines and doctrines through achieving the ideal of “cultivating oneself and rectifying others” (xiuji zhiren 修己治人). In his efforts to fulfill the agent’s role, he was called upon to acquire cultural capital. If we put the three conditions just mentioned into Confucian context, they can be termed “standardization of bodily motions based on everyday rules of conduct,” “acquiring literati qualifications through the cultivation of the six classical arts” (liuyi 六藝), and “Confucian learning” (ruxue 儒學) (in later ages for the government exams), respectively. Just as the focus has been shifted from economic capital to cultural capital in recent years, so in Confucius’s feudal era there had occurred a shift from the ascriptive capital accrued through hereditary status to cultural capital based on merit, vested in such prestigious figures as Confucian literati and men of honor and integrity. It was precisely cultural capital that empowered them to enter officialdom through [End Page 1030] government examinations, to perform literati functions, and to exercise monopolistic power over the production and use of the discourse of the times.

Confucius created a new concept of “culture as power” by attaching a new meaning to the concept of the “power endowed by god” of the Xia and Shang dynasties and inheriting the power forged by the insistence on propriety (li 禮) of the Western Zhou dynasty. Confucius provided the cultural capital essential to a man of honor and integrity. For him, cultural capital was represented by stylized cultural symbols, which by being used as a prerequisite and manifestation of power turned into symbolic power. Symbolic power is the most obvious and effective form of power. Confucius’s innovation was to enhance cultural capital as the prerequisite for men of honor and integrity and to render it essential to power. This innovation entailed a new definition of the nature of Confucianism itself.

As many scholars have pointed out, the Confucian school manifested a variety of forms in its relation to state power in order to bolster its dominance.4 For example, Li Zehou analyzes how Confucius’s notion of benevolence (ren 仁) was related to his conception of propriety (li 禮) as buttressing the order of blood-related hierarchical clan-based society.5 Jin Guantao analyzes how the feudal system of ancient China was maintained by a successful functioning of the patrilineal clan system.6 Li Xiantang shows how the pre-Qin autocratic regimes were assisted by the Confucian school in their appropriation of the dao 道 to create legitimacy, and how they acquired the power to interpret the truth by creating institutions and rituals.7 The civil service exams are highlighted by Yan...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 1030-1051
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.