Thursday, March 09, 2006

The Book of Rites (Li Ki)

The Book of Rites (Li Ki) is a compilation of ancient Chinese religious ceremonies and rituals practised during the eighth to the fifth century B.C. Propriety (Li) is one of the cardinal virtues to be cultivated by a practising Confucian or Daoist.

Whether it was fate or destiny, the Book of Rites was the first Classic that I had laid my hands on while in England and read during my teens. From its study and the references, one had progressed to the four Confucian books and the remaining four classics which helped change a once prodigal son (the teenager) into a man who knows the proper conduct of a Junzi. A change in character is a way to change fate.

One has James Legge to thank for his scholarly works and dedicated efforts over several decades to ensure the West and those educated in English to gain access to these ancient classics and books. Without his sincerity, earnestness, dedication and thorough research, it would be difficult to obtain a complete reliable set of the four books and five classics to read and study.

Perhaps because of his occupation as a Jesuit Priest and therefore his beliefs, Legge did not practise divination otherwise he could have provided a deeper understanding into the Book of Changes (I Ching, Yijing, Zhouyi, or the Yi). Probably it explains why Carl Jung preferred Richard Wilhelm’s translation of the Zhouyi over that of Legge. Both Jung and Wilhelm had put the Zhouyi to the test and found the divinations accurate and the Yi profound. Nonetheless James Legge stands out as one of the great Sinologists for the past century and the half. One seldom find his understanding of ancient Chinese thoughts and the Zhouyi wanting.

The various translations of ancient books, classics and Daoist texts by James Legge are included in what I call the right books to read. Perhaps those who often discourse on Confucian and Daoist doctrines in public forums may find his various translations worthy to read to gain a deeper insight to what the ancients actually thought and said.

No, you do not acquire an in depth knowledge by reading hundreds of translations of the Tao Te Ching or the I Ching over several decades. Unless you really want to fool yourself into thinking that you really know Chinese minds and their ancient cultures just by reading several translations of the same book(s). Even after reading the right books, we still need to put the acquired theoretical knowledge into practice, the reason for the far journey whether we are a trained or a self taught Confucian, Daoist or Buddhist cultivator.

In his introduction on the Book of Rites (Li Ki), Legge has written the following remarks that highlighted his thorough research and in depth knowledge of ancient Chinese thoughts and studies. Readers who want to fine tune their understanding of propriety (Li) and why both the ancient Daoists (except for Zhuangzi) and Confucians cultivate the same four cardinal virtues can possibly derive some meanings from Legge’s ensuing explanations (in italics):

Confucius said, 'It is by the Odes that the mind is aroused; by the Rules of Propriety (Li) that the character is established; from Music that the finish is received.' On another occasion he said, 'Without the Rules of Propriety, respectfulness becomes laborious bustle; carefulness, timidity; boldness, insubordination; and straightforwardness, rudeness.'

The Chinese character Li admits of a great variety of terms in translating a work where it abounds into any of our western languages. In order fully to apprehend its significance, we must try to get hold of the fundamental ideas which it was intended to convey. And these are two. First, when we consult the Shwo Wan, the oldest Chinese dictionary, we find Li defined as 'a step or act; that whereby we serve spiritual beings and obtain happiness.'

Next, the character is used, in moral and philosophical disquisitions, to designate one of the primary constituents of human nature.
Those, as set forth by Mencius, are four; 'not fused into us from without,' not produced, that is, by any force of circumstances, but 'belonging naturally to us, as our four limbs do.' They are benevolence (Ren), righteousness (Yi), propriety (Li), and understanding (Zhi).
Our possession of the first is proved by the feeling of distress at the sight of suffering; of the second, by our feelings of shame and dislike; of the third, by our feelings of modesty and courtesy; of the fourth, by our consciousness of approving and disapproving.

Thus the character Li, in the concrete application of it, denotes the manifestations, and in its imperative use, the rules, of propriety. This twofold symbolism of it--the religious and the moral--must be kept in mind in the study of our classic. A life ordered in harmony with it would realize the highest Chinese ideal, and surely a very high ideal, of human character.

But never and, nowhere has it been possible for men to maintain this high standard of living. In China and elsewhere the Li have become, in the usages of society in its various relationships, matters of course, forms without the spirit, and hence we cannot always translate the character by the same term. [Legge.]

Do note that the remarks of Confucius and Mencius uttered more than two thousand years ago are still relevant today. The Yi and the ancient sages have never indicated it was easy to become a Junzi, a Da Ren, a Sage or an Immortal. It is all up to us. Only the earnest and sincere can endure the far journey.

In mourning for my father, and in line with the Book of Rites one did not play the guitar, sing or listen to music for three years after his death in January 2001. Although I explained the required three years mourning to my young daughter, she still pestered me to play the guitar to accompany her singing. No, she did not get her wish fulfilled that Christmas nor the subsequent two. And it has nothing to do with misogyny, more to do with filial piety, if you know what I mean.

1 comment:

maz said...

dear Allan
James Legge was not a Jesuit priest, but a scots 'congregationalist' (Protestant).

best wishes