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  • Creating Confucian Authority: The Field of Ritual Learning in Early China to 9 CE by Robert Chard
  • Andrew Lambert (bio)
Robert Chard. Creating Confucian Authority: The Field of Ritual Learning in Early China to 9 CE. Sinica Leidensia, vol. 152. Leiden, New York, and Köln: E. J. Brill, 2021. viii, 223 pp. Hardcover $49.00, isbn 978-90-04-46191-8. E-book (PDF) $49.00, isbn 978-90-04-46531-2.

Robert Chard's book explores how li (禮)—a term typically translated as "ritual" but which the author approaches with great care—became central to Confucian identity and gradually came to order the political realm in early China. In Chard's words, the book traces "the early formation and evolution of Ritual Learning from before the time of Confucius to the end of the Western Han Dynasty in 9 CE: what it was in different periods, who mastered it, how it was deployed, and what it reveals about the interactions between Confucian Ru and political power" (p. 3). The book explores how a recognized body of ritual practice and norms emerged during this time, eventually becoming codified knowledge in canonical texts. "Ritual learning"—Chard's key term—is defined broadly, as "the study and practice of li" (p. 5) and "all knowledge related to the various aspects of li in early China" (p. 9). The frequent use of the pinyin li is deliberate, as the author seeks to retain its broad range of implications, in contrast to a more constrained term such as "ritual."

Chard is careful to limit the scope of his inquiry into li. Excluded, for example, is consideration of analytic treatments of li found in canonical Confucian texts, such as the Xunzi, parts of the Liji and Han cosmological discourse (p. 17). Also, circumvented is the modern trend toward understanding the Confucian tradition in the abstract, as a set of general theoretical commitments or philosophical positions. Instead, using a method described as "cultural history," Chard seeks to understand the practices that constitute early Confucian li, and how knowledge of those practices (rather than other non-Confucian esoteric ritual practices) influenced the formation of later imperial ritual, thereby establishing the Confucian tradition at the heart of state affairs. A further feature of the author's approach is an emphasis on the visual impact of ritual practice (again, in contrast to a more theoretical understanding of ritual). This builds on the author's earlier work, and on the work of other scholars, such as Robert Eno's claim that the driving concern of the early Confucian movement was physical training and mastery, rather than an ideology or set of ideas (p. 9). Understood as a practical and cultural phenomenon, Chard offers four [End Page 177] characteristics of li (pp. 7–8). These are: a "socio-cultural order based on ritual institutions instituted by governments" (lizhi 禮制), "visible, technical mastery," or "ritual performance" (liyi 禮儀), a code of "civilized ethical behavior" (liyi 禮義), and "a regimen of self-cultivation" (xiushen 修身) to which "the personal observation of li was central."

The heart of the book consists of three long chapters, each examining a historical period in the development of ritual learning. The chapters move from the Spring and Autumn period, through the Warring States and early Han, and culminate with a study of Confucian ritual's ascendency in the late Western Han (206 B.C.E.–9 C.E.). Chapter 2 covers the first of these three putative stages of ritual learning and focuses on the understanding of li during the Spring and Autumn Era, particularly as portrayed in the Zuo zhuan. At this time, li was one branch of learning, alongside those such as knowledge of the Book of Songs and music. We find a portrait of li as a body of knowledge whose application and significance are in transition: from a "code of conduct among the aristocracy" to a set of practices that were, through Confucius, "made … available to a somewhat broader segment of society" (p. 83). Even though older social orders ruptured, precise observance and visible display of li remained closely linked to social status; however, li also came to be understood as a physical practice that...