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Confucius

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Convergence of the Confucian Ethics and the Rituals:
Examining the Esthetic Culture within Li

Ye In Christopher Kwon
A&I: Confucius and His Critics
Professor Seungjoo Yoon
November 21, 2014
Confucius remarks, “In referring time and again to observing ritual propriety (li), how could I just be talking about gifts of jade and silk? In referring time and again to making music (yue), how could I just be talking about bells and drums?” There is an implied intersection between arts and ethical morality in Confucian thoughts. The arts allow one, a particular student, to enrichment of self-cultivation, observance of the esthetic aspect of the ritual propriety, and the development of an artistic expression of the self- that is subject to ethical and moral questions; therefore, artistic work such as the traditional Chinese calligraphy (though not music) is an exhibition of Confucian moral quintessence that embody one’s character and the corporeality.
The Analects place a great deal of importance on ritual propriety and the practice thereof. More specifically implicated within this context is the appreciation of arts such as music, poetry, and archery. To the extent to which Michael Nylan and Thomas Wilson elevate Confucius as the “Exalted King of Culture,” the cultural and artistic aspect of the rituals is significant in Confucianism. In defense of his fervent advocacy of the esthetic culture, Confucius refers to the Zhou Dynasty that “looked back to the Xia and Shang Dynasties,” and appraises it as “Such wealth of culture!” The wealth of culture is, in essence, is inclusive of the traditional rituals and the arts- its li. These rituals and arts that had previously been used as instruments to serve the gods, through the Confucian scope, take on a more secular notion; they primarily serve the human lives. Thus in the Analects 1.12 Confucius states, “Achieving harmony (he) is the most valuable function of observing ritual propriety (li). In the ways of the Former Kings, the achievement of harmony made them elegant, and was a guiding standard in all things large and small.” Implicit here is the notion of traditional culture within li and the observance of which, by any means, must serve humanistic ends- whether personal or collective.
For Confucius, since the rituals, a holistic entity of traditional culture, was essential in bringing about social harmony, the arts too were seen as active in actualizing two interrelated ends: self-cultivation and social harmony. Confucius held that “One stands to be improved by the enjoyment found in attuning oneself to the rhythms of ritual propriety and music.” He also maintained in the Analects 12.15 to “Learn broadly of culture (wen), discipline this learning through observing ritual propriety (li).” He further adds in the Analects 7.6 to “…sojourn in the arts.” It is explicit that the early Confucians (those who had partook in the transcription of the Analects) viewed moral and cultural adherence as interlaced, for practicing the arts and rituals allowed one to cultivate the self and to ultimately become a good person, a process that is at the heart of a harmonious state. Again, it is important to affirm the implications of the cultural development; it entails the basic premise that the arts- perhaps, but convincingly- are intrinsic parts of the culture (wen), embodied primarily by li. In further examining the adherence to li, Confucius presents the ideal way of observing. The Analects 15.18 witnesses Confucius articulation as such: “Having a sense of appropriate conduct (yi) as one’s basic disposition (zhi), developing it by observing ritual propriety (li), expressing it with modesty … this then is an exemplary person.” Hence, yi leads to the belief that one’s cultural development contributes to the process of cultivation.
Though the concept may render itself in a simplistic form, Confucius is keen to strike down his moral parameters in observing li and wen. The Analects 6.18 is a prime example in which “The Master said, ‘When one’s basic disposition (zhi) overwhelms refinement (wen), the person is boorish; when refinement overwhelms one’s basic disposition, the person is an officious scribe. It is only when one’s basic disposition and refinement are in appropriate balance that you have the exemplary person (junzi).’” The balance between two extremes in partaking in the esthetic culture is essential primarily because one’s ritual action can have a lasting impact on making of the personal character or disposition. David L. Hall and Roger T. Ames says that the “disposition of making the ritual action one’s own and displaying oneself in that conduct.” Confucius clarifies that one mustn’t follow the li blindly, but one must learn how to skillfully apply them; this, in turn, is the process of personalizing of the rites, a pivotal component of the self-cultivation. For this reason, Confucius criticizes those who simply go through the motions of ritual action. Merely mimicking Confucius would be a huge mistake.
Furthermore, Hall and Ames argues, “The notion of formal li action overlaps with the body, in that li actions are embodiments or formalizations of meaning and value that accumulate to constitute a cultural tradition.” The “formal li action,” as referred to, now certainly has its position in the cultural traditions that any followers of Confucius must observe. A Confucian holds that, in developing technique, artists gain the knowledge of an aforementioned appropriate artistic work. Take a calligrapher for example; he or she understands the spatial logic of the characters, master brushwork, comprehends the process of composition, and is mindful of the variations in style- all of which are, symbolically, the essences of a “formal li action.” It is also an implied process of finding the ‘balance’ in li, specifically in its artistic (calligraphic, in this instance) aspect.
How does one achieve the ultimate calligraphic li? It is only logical to contend that repetitious copying and practicing of the work of a master would suffice- it often works in our daily lives. However, as noted earlier, Confucius holds that copying must move beyond simple replication if the art is to be carried out formally, therefore valued as the process of self-cultivation. Indeed, the process of freely tracing and imitating the great calligraphic works of old paves the path for a personal appropriation of the artistic aspect of li- it does allow creativity. In making a calligraphic work of art personal, the calligrapher must adhere to the strict rules, as would a Confucian in observing the “formal li action.” Simultaneously, however, a calligrapher must make sure that the process of calligraphic construction must reveal the true character of oneself, as would a Confucian through a complete devotion to li. On a bigger scale, as Confucius stresses, enacting the rites of a tradition is not a mindless process, but individuals, within the ethical context, must personalize the rites (making the process all the more realistic and intimate than the ways of the Zhou).
The abovementioned reciprocation process of calligraphic arts reflects the work embodies the corporeality of the artist. Under the premise that each calligraphic character is something of an autograph, a text from the Feicao Shu, a treatise on calligraphy from the Eastern Han dynasty elucidates: “All men differ in their energy (qi) and blood (xue), and vary in their sinew and bones; the heart-mind (xin) may be dispersed or dense; the hand may be skilled or clumsy. The beauty or ugliness of calligraphy is in the heart-mind and hand.” The famous saying, ‘Zi ru qi ren,’ or “Writing is like the person” comes to mind. Though hard to grasp such abstract concept of the “heart” and “mind,” it raises an important question whether the art truly influences the quality of the artists’ characters. “Blood” and qi are connected concepts and refer to the way in which the calligraphic characters flow together in collective dynamic motion; they do not flow individually but across an entire array of characters, so that calligraphic works themselves can possess the energetic character of the calligrapher’s body. Though the text is not of Confucian origin nor a Mencian, it serves to point out that the ancient Chinese saw that observing calligraphy is analogous to measuring and discovering the nature of the work’s heart (xin), referred to as the energetic nexus of an artist’s body.
In calligraphy, the artist’s character is presented by means of embodied form, and the task consequently becomes that of discriminating quality of character or level of refinement by evaluating the quality of work; concurrently, to the Confucian view, the work may reveal the state of the artist’s heart-mind (xin). The Analects 17.22 shows a glimpse of Confucius’s perspective on this matter: “The Master said, ‘There are problems ahead for those who spend their whole day filling their stomachs without ever exercising their heart-and-mind (xin).’” Despite the presence of a humorous undertone, Confucius makes it certain that the heart-and-mind connection, particularly embodied in the artistic tradition, can and will serve as the gage of the artists’ character.
On that account, yet another question concerning the relationship between ethics and the arts, namely, can morally flawed individuals create good art? Consider how a Confucian would judge the character of others. Confucius advised in the Analects 2.19, “Watch their actions, observe their motives, examine wherein they dwell content; won’t you know what kind of person they are?” He further elaborates few verses later in the Analects 2.22 that he is “not sure that anyone who does not make good on their word (xin) is viable as a person. If a large carriage does not have a pin for its yoke, how can you drive anywhere?” In judging the character in the context of the adherence to the esthetic li, the consistency of one’s words and actions is at the center of the ethical debate.
Confucius is quite clear that the moral ideals that he espouses are not only idealistic and difficult to attain but also somewhat forgiving of the inconsistencies one may possess (as mentioned in the previous review paper). The Analects 7.26 shows his ultimate grief: “The Master said, ‘I will never get to meet a sage (sheng ren)—I would be content to meet an exemplary person (junzi).’ The Master said, ‘I will never get to meet a truly efficacious person (shanren)—I would be content to meet someone who is constant. It is difficult indeed for persons to be constant in a world where nothing is taken to be something, emptiness is taken to be fullness, and poverty is taken to be comfort.’” He adds in the Analects 7.33 that “In the niceties of culture (wen), I am perhaps like other people, but as far as personally succeeding in living the life of the exemplary person, I have accomplished little.” By stating so, Confucius keeps himself out of the limelight. More important, however, is the connection between the prospect of such notoriously difficult life and the observance of the esthetic rituals- the essences of culture. On this ground, there mayn’t be a reason to judge the works of arts on a strict ethical distinction between good and bad, let alone judge the individual artists’ moral qualities. Atop these foundations, the Confucian principles hold that the artists are certainly not to be misconstrued as sages but may still be qualified of creating works of art that have a high degree of ethical and artistic value.
In combining the many complexities of the previously elaborated concepts, Confucian philosophy first acknowledges the development that artists must undergo in acquiring their art. This development puts large emphasis on not only the technical artistic abilities, shown in through the practices of calligraphy, but also the process of moral developments and character building. A Confucian relationship between the aesthetic and ethical value may be summarized as such: Confucianism denies the moral autonomy of artistic works and argues that arts should serve the interest of the communities and states that they inhabit. For the Confucian, a virtue essential to any practice- artistic and otherwise- is the authentic adoption of its li, without which the goods internal to the practice cannot be actualized since mere imitation is inadequate. As previously established, culture, especially the artistic factor, is one of the most important aspects of li. “The Master taught under four categories: culture (wen), proper conduct (xing), doing one’s utmost (zhong), and making good on one’s word (xin),” says in the Analects 7.25. These are interrelated values.
Perhaps, the Confucian way of judging ones’ character is parallel to that of judging the works of art. In judging another, one observes behaviors, particularly the moral actions, in order to assess whether they are virtuous, noble, and adheres to the strict, if not highly idealistic, Confucian lifestyle. Similarly, in judging the artistic work in the form of Chinese calligraphy, a critic (Confucius in particular) would observe the esthetic details to reveal aspects of the artist’s moral refinement (wen). The Confucian morality that unites aesthetic value with ethical value may seem radical, but there is no reason for it to be considered on the opposite end of the spectrum- aesthetic autonomy. Nylan and Wilson summarizes as such, “the quintessential Chinese self as religious or artistic, two qualities that they see as somehow spiritual.” Confucius gives us a moral foundation through which one must observe the rituals and indulge in esthetic culture that would idealistically lead to political stability and personal growth. As we see from Yan Hui’s testimony, Confucius brought his ethical tenets through the transference of tradition, the arts, the culture, and the rituals; “The Master is good at drawing me forward a step at a time; he broadens me with culture (wen) and disciplines my behavior through the observance of ritual propriety (li).”

Bibliography Ames, Roger T., and Henry Rosemont Jr. The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation. New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 1998.

Bush, Susan, and Christian Murck. Theories of the Arts in China. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Hall, David L., and Roger T. Ames. Thinking Through Confucius. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.

Nylan, Michael, and Thomas Wilson. Lives of Confucius. New York: Doubleday Religion, 2010.

--------------------------------------------
[ 1 ]. Roger T. Ames and Henry Rosemont, Jr., The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation (New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 1998), 206.
[ 2 ]. Michael Nylan and Thomas Wilson, Lives of Confucius (New York: Doubleday Religion, 2010), 147.
[ 3 ]. Ames and Rosemont Jr., The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation, 85.
[ 4 ]. Ames and Rosemont Jr., The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation, 74.
[ 5 ]. Ames and Rosemont Jr., The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation, 197.
[ 6 ]. Ames and Rosemont Jr., The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation, 157
[ 7 ]. Ames and Rosemont Jr., The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation, 112.
[ 8 ]. Ames and Rosemont Jr., The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation, 188.
[ 9 ]. Ames and Rosemont Jr., The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation, 107.
[ 10 ]. David L. Hall and Roger T. Ames, Thinking Through Confucius (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987), 96.
[ 11 ]. Hall and Ames, Thinking Through Confucius, 88.
[ 12 ]. Susan Bush and Christian Murck, Theories of the Arts in China (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 83.
[ 13 ]. Ames and Rosemont Jr., The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation, 210.
[ 14 ]. Ames and Rosemont Jr., The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation, 80.
[ 15 ]. Ames and Rosemont Jr., The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation, 81.
[ 16 ]. Ames and Rosemont Jr., The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation, 116.
[ 17 ]. Ames and Rosemont Jr., The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation, 118.
[ 18 ]. Ames and Rosemont Jr., The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation, 116.
[ 19 ]. Nylan and Wilson, Lives of Confucius, 226.
[ 20 ]. Ames and Rosemont Jr., The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation, 128.

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