Confucianism and Family Rituals in Imperial China: A Social History of Writing about Rites


To explore the historical connections between Confucianism and Chinese society, this book examines the social and cultural processes through which Confucian texts on family rituals were written, circulated, interpreted, and used as guides to action. Weddings, funerals, and ancestral rites were central features of Chinese culture; they gave drama to transitions in people's lives and conveyed conceptions of the hierarchy of society and the interdependency of the living and the dead. Patricia Ebrey's social history ...
See more details below
This Hardcover is Not Available through
Sending request ...


To explore the historical connections between Confucianism and Chinese society, this book examines the social and cultural processes through which Confucian texts on family rituals were written, circulated, interpreted, and used as guides to action. Weddings, funerals, and ancestral rites were central features of Chinese culture; they gave drama to transitions in people's lives and conveyed conceptions of the hierarchy of society and the interdependency of the living and the dead. Patricia Ebrey's social history of Confucian texts shows much about how Chinese culture was created in a social setting, through the participation of people at all social levels. Books, like Chu Hsi's Family Rituals and its dozens of revisions, were important in forming ritual behavior in China because of the general respect for literature, the early spread of printing, and the absence of an ecclesiastic establishment authorized to rule on the acceptability of variations in ritual behavior. Ebrey shows how more and more of what people commonly did was approved in the liturgies and thus brought into the realm labeled Confucian.
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691031507
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 10/27/1991
  • Series: Princeton Legacy Library Series
  • Pages: 292
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.60 (h) x 1.07 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Confucianism and Family Rituals in Imperial China

A Social History of Writing About Rites

By Patricia Buckley Ebrey


Copyright © 1991 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-03150-7



Scholars of Chinese civilization have often identified ancestor-oriented family rituals as keys to Chinese culture. In 1849 the missionary and later diplomat S. W. Williams wrote that ancestral rites had had "an influence in the formation of Chinese character, in upholding good order, promoting industry, and cultivating habits of peaceful thrift, beyond all estimation." Benjamin Schwartz has described "the orientation to ancestor worship" as "central to the entire development of Chinese civilization" and Francis L. K. Hsu as "an active ingredient in every aspect of Chinese society." Distinctive features of Chinese family organization have been attributed to ideas about ancestors; Maurice Freedman, for instance, explained that the popular idea that "the dead are somehow dependent on the living for sustenance and support" made it "essential that men and women leave behind them offspring, borne or adopted, to serve them in their mortuary needs." Most observers have judged the social effects of ancestor-oriented rites in largely positive terms. Criticisms have also sometimes been voiced, however. James Addison charged these rites with fostering extreme conservatism: "any change appears disrespectful to the departed; and the dead thus rule the living." Edwin D. Harvey argued that they threatened "the welfare and standards of living of the masses" by promoting large families.

Periodic offerings of food and drink to ancestors were the ancestor-oriented ritual par excellence, but ancestors were also central to the other family rituals: cappings and pinning (initiation ceremonies for men and women respectively), weddings, and funerals. Capping and pinning introduce family members to the ancestors as adults and prepare them for marriage. Marriages provide for new family members who will serve the ancestors. Funerals and burials concern the gradual transformation of the dead into ancestral spirits. The way people performed these rituals not only enhanced their understandings of ancestors, but also contributed to the relatively high degree of social integration in late imperial China. James Watson and Evelyn Rawski have asserted that "the rituals performed at marriage and at death were central to definitions of Chinese cultural identity."

The importance of family rituals in Chinese society and culture is not surprising in comparative terms. Anthropologists studying a wide variety of societies have repeatedly shown how rituals create and convey basic cultural premises. Through the performance of rituals people act out many of the most fundamental structures of meaning in their society, the sets of ideas and discriminations that help them interpret themselves and their relations to others. Ritual action, thus, helps reproduce culture, especially the realm of culture that seldom enters into conscious choice, the realm taken for granted, left outside the limits of debate. The principles conveyed in this way frequently serve to legitimate the social and political structure, making social distinctions part of what is taken to be in the nature of things. Participation in rituals is a public and bodily way to acknowledge these social and cosmic orders. Yet rituals do not simply express distinctions. Through a symbolic logic special to rituals, distinctions can be both expressed and denied; a single ritual or ritual sequence can both confirm distinctions and overcome them, creating sentiments of solidarity and unity. Rituals, thus, do not simply reinforce the principles of a society that exists for other reasons; they are implicated in the creation of the distinctions on which the society is based and the dynamics of resolving conflicts. In the Chinese case, it has long been recognized that notions of patrilineality and assumptions about the mutual dependence of the living and the dead—ideas that structured Chinese kinship organization—were conveyed through family rituals. Conceptions of gender inequalities and social hierarchies that were basic to social relations beyond kinship—how to serve and be served, the ambiguities of dependence and deference—were also reproduced through the performance of weddings, funerals, and ancestral rites.

What does make the Chinese case unusual is the longevity of much of the symbolic content of these family rituals. Many steps described in the early classics as aristocratic practice continued to be performed two thousand years later by common people, despite great changes in social structure and the introduction of radically different cosmological conceptions with Buddhism. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, nearly every home had an ancestral altar where offerings were made at regular intervals. For major rites all the members of the family would assemble and show obeisance. Betrothals were negotiated between family heads with the help of go-betweens and confirmed with the exchange of gifts. Grooms fetched their brides to their own homes, where the major festivities took place. Funerals regularly involved wailing, placing food and drink before a symbol of the deceased, mourning garments, notification of friends and relatives, and visits of condolence. Bodies were laid out in clothes, wrapped in shrouds, and placed in thick coffins. The procession to the graveyard was a major public ceremony, and post-burial rites of various sorts were commonly performed. If rituals convey basic cosmic principles legitimating the social order, how could the same principles legitimate markedly different social formations? If family rituals validate the social distinctions underlying family organization, how could they work as well in different types of families? Historical investigation can provide insight into these questions because it allows one to see the effects of change and thus to distinguish correspondences and co-occurrences from causes and effects.

In order to explore the historical relationship between Chinese family rituals and Chinese society, in this book I focus on the mediating role of texts. In the case of a highly literate, stratified society like China, it is too simplistic to talk simply of rituals and social organization. The production, interpretation, certification, circulation, and use of texts all played major roles in perpetuating and redesigning ritual forms. The most relevant texts were ones tied to the Confucian intellectual tradition. One of the early Confucian classics, the I-Ii [Etiquette and ritual], provided step-by-step instructions on how shih (lower officers, gentlemen) should perform family rituals. Another of the classics, the Li-chi [Record of ritual], provided interpretations of these and other rituals. From Han times (202 B.C.–A.D. 220) on, these texts set many of the parameters of debate within Confucianism about how family rituals should be performed. Nevertheless the imperial governments regularly issued detailed liturgies for the emperor, his relatives, and officials, and some scholars wrote unofficial guides to proper official performance. From the Sung dynasty (960–1279) on, liturgies were available for people in general, not divided by political rank, most notably the Family Rituals compiled by the great Neo-Confucian philosopher Chu Hsi (1130–1200), using an earlier manual by the statesman Ssu-ma Kuang (1019–1086) and the ideas of the philosopher Ch'eng I (1033–1107). After the publication of Chu Hsi's Family Rituals in the early thirteenth century, it quickly became the standard reference work on the proper way to perform these family rituals. In less than a century two commentaries had been written for it, and a set of illustrations had been prepared that commonly came to be published with it. In Ming (1368–1644) and Ch'ing (1644–1911) times, dozens of expanded, revised, and simplified versions of it were published, the best known of which was by Ch'iu Chün (1421–1495). These Confucian liturgies were among the most common books in circulation in late imperial China. Familiarity with them shaped how people approached the performance of rites: they saw family rituals not simply as sets of gestures and words, but gestures and words for which there were written sources of authority. Those who had power over the production of these texts had influence over the ritual behavior of both the educated and uneducated and through that the creation of some of their most deeply held mental, moral, and emotional constructs.

In other societies besides China, texts have played significant roles in mediating the relationship between ritual and society. In both Christian and Islamic societies there were liturgical texts that described how rituals should be performed and experts who claimed special knowledge in the interpretation of these texts. China's experts, however, were not clerics, invested with special powers beyond literacy. In China there was no institutional structure comparable to the ecclesiastical establishments of the West or the Islamic world able to rule on the interpretation of canonical texts, to enforce adherence to Confucian liturgical schedules, or to provide trained experts to officiate. In China the Family Rituals may have become orthodox, but interpretation of it remained elastic and adherence to it remained voluntary. Not only did the church in the West regularly issue rules on key family ceremonies (baptism, confirmation, weddings, last rites, funerals, masses for the dead), but it had ways to discipline both church members and clergy in case of deviations. The Chinese state did regularly issue guidelines for the performance of these rites, and made considerable efforts to publicize them. Yet it provided very little in the way of discipline for either ordinary people or the experts they employed. Moreover, the state did not deny support for Buddhism, even though Buddhist practices were invariably rejected in Confucian liturgies. Thus Confucian texts influenced ritual performance through social and political processes rather different from those in the premodern West. Understanding these distinctively Chinese mechanisms for achieving social and cultural cohesion is a major goal of this book.

In Confucian theory, ritual was seen as an alternative to force. People who routinely performed proper rituals were expected to recognize their social and ethical obligations and act on them. Yet power clearly entered into the relationships of rituals, texts, and society. Power is an intrinsic aspect of ritual itself. Those participating in a ritual are constrained to act in highly invariant ways. Ideas, including ideas about how to perform rituals, also have power, a power that can be enhanced through publication, certification, and promotion. The state frequently asserted its supremacy in the realm of instituting rites. When private scholars wrote or edited liturgies, they were intruding on this role, attempting to redefine and reformulate the standards of ritualized behavior and often to appropriate to themselves established traditions that in the process they subtly altered.

The ways texts mediated between ritual and society can be roughly divided into three processes: authorship, certification and circulation, and influence on performance. Each of these processes was complex in its own right. Authors were never passive vehicles for generating the rituals appropriate to a given society. Authors' mentalities were shaped in diverse ways by the social world around them. They had personal experience of the performance of family rituals and these experiences informed what they considered true and desirable. They had ideas not directly tied to ritual but that impinged on their thinking about how rituals should be performed, such as ideas about death and souls, the differences between men and women, and the sanctity and authority of the classics. Moreover when they wrote a book, they were not merely expressing ideas; they were performing an act that had social and political implications.

After texts were written, they needed to circulate to have much influence on how rituals were performed. Scholars, officials, and readers all took part in the process of certifying and circulating texts on ritual. Scholars attempted to establish the validity or invalidity of each others' texts in intellectual debate. The government, through its officials, encouraged adherence to particular texts. The readers of texts participated in granting them authority by buying the ones they found most useful. Those who wished to promote the use of particular liturgies were thus constrained by a partially free market: a book would not be widely purchased if it specified ritual forms most people found impossible to follow.

The circulation of liturgical texts could have shaped ritual behavior even of illiterates who had never seen a copy of any text. Knowing that such books existed, they would have assumed that there was a textual explanation for any step in a rite, much as we assume there is a physical explanation for the weather without being able to state it; this assumption would affect in subtle ways their notions of what they were doing and their willingness to improvise. But texts can also be consulted to decide what to do in a rite. Consulting a text is an act of interpretation. Even highly educated scholars disagreed on how to consult the Family Rituals. Did one take a free interpretation, seeking to distinguish essential principles from trivial, amendable details? Or did one take a literal interpretation, attempting to enact all of the steps and procedures described? In China there was no clerical hierarchy to rule on the validity of conflicting interpretations, so differences of opinion were accepted as inevitable.

Influence in the Chinese case was also made more problematic because Confucianism was not the only set of ideas present in Chinese society. The Confucian discourse tended to dominate discussion of family rituals, but it never succeeded in excluding all rivals. Temple-based worship of gods communicated ideas about the ways spirits were most efficaciously served. Buddhist and Taoist priests professed expertise in performing ceremonies that would aid the salvation of the dead. Astrologers and geomancers claimed special knowledge about how to select spouses and grave sites and decide on the best timing of each step in funerals and weddings. It was not enough for Confucian prescriptions to be widely known: they also had to be as compelling as alternatives or reconcilable with them.

The historical sources I have been able to draw on to study these processes are inevitably uneven. Confucian writings are best suited to presenting an internal view of the Confucian discourse on family rituals, of showing how authors interpreted earlier texts, analyzed contradictions among them, and shifted the issues of debate. To examine as well the ways external social, political, and cultural circumstances shaped their interpretations, I have tried to draw attention to the historical context in which writers lived. Scholars like Ssu-ma Kuang, Ch'eng I, Chu Hsi, and Ch'iu Chiin negotiated between two complicated worlds. One was the world of the people they knew, a world that included people who sang at weddings, made offerings to their ancestors on Buddhist holidays, and who consulted experts to select burial sites. This world of people and their ritual practices was confusing and inconsistent. People admitted to contradictory beliefs; their practices derived from divergent traditions; and those in one place did things differently than those in another. We often stress the more regular features of this world and label them society or social structure. But to the individual author the particularity of his own experience—what he saw and did—was as powerful as more general patterns, even ones he could explain.


Excerpted from Confucianism and Family Rituals in Imperial China by Patricia Buckley Ebrey. Copyright © 1991 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Read More Show Less

Table of Contents


Preface, ix,
Abbreviations, xi,
Chapter One Introduction, 3,
Chapter Two The Early Confucian Discourse on Family Rites, 14,
Chapter Three Redesigning Ancestral Rites for a New Elite in the Eleventh Century, 45,
Chapter Four Combating Heterodoxy and Vulgarity in Weddings and Funerals, 68,
Chapter Five Chu Hsi's Authorship of the Family Rituals, 102,
Chapter Six The Orthodoxy of Chu Hsi's Family Rituals, 145,
Chapter Seven Revised Versions of the Family Rituals Written during the Ming Dynasty, 167,
Chapter Eight Intellectuals' Reevaluation of the Family Rituals in the Ch'ing Dynasty, 188,
Chapter Nine Confucian Texts and the Performance of Rituals, 202,
Chapter Ten Conclusions, 220,
Appendix A List of Revised Versions of the Family Rituals, 231,
Glossary, 237,
Sources Cited, 241,
Index, 265,

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star


4 Star


3 Star


2 Star


1 Star


Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation


  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously

    If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
    Why is this product inappropriate?
    Comments (optional)