Li (Confucian)

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Li (simplified Chinese: ; traditional Chinese: ; pinyin: ) is a classical Chinese word which finds its most extensive use in Confucian and post-Confucian Chinese philosophy. Li encompasses not a definitive object but rather a somewhat abstract idea; as such, it is translated in a number of different ways. Most often, li is described using some form of the word 'ritual' (as in Burton Watson's 'rites', and Henry Rosemont and Roger Ames' 'ritual propriety'), but it has also been translated as 'customs', 'etiquette', 'morals', and 'rules of proper behavior', among other terms.


The rites of li are not rites in the Western conception of religious custom. Rather, li embodies the entire spectrum of interaction with humans, nature, and even material objects. Confucius includes in his discussions of li such diverse topics as learning, tea drinking, titles, mourning, and governance. Xunzi cites "songs and laughter, weeping and lamentation...rice and millet, fish and meat...the wearing of ceremonial caps, embroidered robes, and patterned silks, or of fasting clothes and mourning clothes...unspacious rooms and very nonsecluded halls, hard mats, seats and flooring" (Watson 1969) as vital parts of the fabric of li.

The concept of Chinese rites is sometimes compared with the Western concept of culture (钱玄、钱兴奇编:三礼词典,自序 p. 1).

For an example of a li, see Yili.

Approaches to Li[edit]

Among the earliest historical discussions on Li stands the 25th year of Zhao Gong Chinese: 鲁昭公 in the Zuo Zhuan.

Li consists of the norms of proper social behavior as taught to others by fathers, village elders and government officials. The teachings of li promoted ideals such as filial piety, brotherliness, righteousness, good faith and loyalty (Arthur F. Wright and Dennis Twitchett's 'Confucian Personalities'). The influence of li guided public expectations, such as the loyalty to superiors and respect for elders in the community.

Continuous with the emphasis on community, following li included the internalization of action, which both yields the comforting feeling of tradition and allows one to become "more open to the panoply of sensations of the experience" (Rosemont 2005). But it should also maintain a healthy practice of selflessness, both in the actions themselves and in the proper example which is set for one's brothers. Approaches in the community, as well as personal approaches together demonstrate how li pervades in all things, the broad and the detailed, the good and the bad, the form and the formlessness. This is the complete realization of li.

The rituals and practices of li are dynamic in nature. Li practices have been revised and evaluated throughout time to reflect the emerging views and beliefs found in society (W.L. Leonsg's 'Li and Change'). Although these practices may change, which happens very slowly over time, the fundamental ideals remain at the core of li, which largely relate to social order.

Li in Government[edit]

Confucius envisioned proper government being guided by the principles of Li. Some Confucians proposed the perfectibility of human beings with learning Li as an important part of that process. Overall, Confucians believed governments should place more emphasis on Li and rely much less on penal punishment when they govern.

Confucius stressed the importance of the rites as fundamental to proper governmental leadership. In his sayings, Confucius regarded feudal lords in China that adopted the Chinese rites as being just rulers of the Central States. Contrarily, feudal lords that did not adopt these rites were considered uncivilized, not worthy of being considered Chinese or part of the Central States (Spring and Autumn Annals).

Li should be practiced by all members of the society. Li also involves the superior treating the inferior with propriety and respect. As Confucius said "a prince should employ his minister according to the rules of propriety (Li); ministers should serve their prince with loyalty" (Analects, 3:19).

In quotations[edit]

Li (ritual propriety) is the "one term by which the [traditional Chinese] historiographers could name all the principles of conservatism they advanced in the speeches of their characters." (Schaberg, p. 15)

See also[edit]


  • Ames, Roger T., Rosemont Jr., Henry (Translators). "Analects of Confucius." Ballantine Books: 1998
  • Brash, Graham. "The Sayings of Confucius." Graham Brash (Pte.) Ltd Singapore: 1988
  • Confucius. "The Li Ji" Shandong Friendship Press: 2000
  • Lau, D.C. (Translator). Confucius: The Analects. The Chinese University Press: 1992
  • Nylan, Michael. "Li" in The Encyclopedia of Confucianism RoutledgeCurzon: 2003
  • Henry Rosemont, Jr. Lecture, Brown University, 2005
  • David Schaberg, A Patterned Past: Form and Thought in Early Chinese Historiography, Cambridge MA 2005 (Harvard East Asian Monographs)
  • Twitchett, Denis and Wright, Arthur F. "Confucian Personalities." Stanford University Press: 1962
  • Watson, Burton (Translator). "Basic Writings of Mo Tzu, Hsun Tzu, and Han Fei Tzu." Columbia University Press: 1963
  • Qiuming, Zuo (Commentary) "Selections from Spring and Autumn Annals." Shandong Friendship Press: 2000