Skip to content
Home » Norm/礼


Author: Chen Bisheng


” Rites”[1] is the core concept of Chinese culture. Most of the dynasties in Chinese history have made ceremonies and rituals, which is why ancient China is known as “a country whose people value etiquette highly.” However, it is complicated to understand the concept of ” rites.” The main reason is that the concept of ” rites” is multifaceted.

First of all, the meaning of “rites” is “rules” in a general sense.

An essential Chinese classic, “The Book of Rites,” contains a chapter called “Rites Yun[2],” which describes the origin of rites: “Therefore rites must originate from the almighty one[3].” Before heaven and earth were divided, there were already “rites.” Therefore, rites are rules in the most general sense. Everything has its own internal rules, and these internal rules are the nature of rites. The four cycles of spring, summer, autumn, and winter in the Heavenly Tao, and the difference between high and low in the Earthly Tao, are all rules of expression of rites. When we listen to music, music moves the heart because its tune follows the heart’s rhythm.

In Chinese civilization, rites, in the general sense of “rules,” distinguish man from beasts. In the Book of Rites, the Qu[4] Rites says: “A parrot has the power of language, but it is still a bird, and an orangutan also has the power of language, but it is still a beast. Now, if man does not observe the rites, even if he still has the power of language, what is the difference between his heart and that of a beast? It is because beasts do not have rites that they are incestuous. Therefore, when the sages appeared, they established rites to teach people so that they would have rites and know how to distinguish themselves from beasts” The difference between man and beasts is not whether they have language or not. The difference between man and beast is that man has manners, while beasts have no manners. Therefore, the relationship between human beings is not biological but ethical, and rites are the core element to ensure ethicality. For this reason, the Chinese often use the difference between human and beast as an example to evaluate the violation of the fundamental moral bottom line, such as “A man is worse than a beast”, “Even a vicious tiger will not eat its cub”, and so on.

At the same time, the rites are also the foundation of why the state and society were established. Xunzi, a Confucian scholar of the Warring States period, elaborated on the origin of rites in his Treatise on Rites, saying, “From where do rites originate? The answer is that human beings are born with desires, and when desires cannot be satisfied, they cannot give up the pursuit of their desires, and when the pursuit has no limits and boundaries, it is impossible not to produce disputes. Furthermore, mutual disputes give rise to chaos, and chaos leads to poverty. The ancient sages abhorred this chaotic situation, so they established rites to distinguish the boundaries, thus satisfying people’s desires within the limits of rites and supplying them to guarantee the pursuit of desires. Ensuring that man’s desires do not exceed the limits of material supply and that material supply does not go on to satisfy man’s desires indefinitely, the two restrain each other and promote each other, which is precisely why rites arose.” Xunzi presupposes a society like Hobbes’ “state of nature”, in which people have all kinds of desires. However, the desires can never be exhausted, so they have desires for everything external, and when such desires exceed a certain standard, they will have conflicts with others, and the more conflicts and confrontation over material things, the more chaotic the state and society will be and even collapse. Therefore, the sages who made the rites set the rules and boundaries to maintain the state and society in a normal state, and thus, the “rites” were created.

Second, “rites” are a series of etiquette norms.

Among the ancient Chinese texts, “Yi[5] Rites” is a typical classical text that records etiquette norms. However, during the Han Dynasty, the Yi Rites became the ” Rite Scriptures”.In this book, specific rituals such as coming-of-age ceremonies, weddings, funeral ceremonies, sacrificial ceremonies, and countryside were recorded. These rituals were mainly based on the rituals of different stages of life and the way people bonded with each other on different occasions.

In Chinese civilization, ethical human relations are the most important way of human bonding. There are “Five Ethics” in ancient China, which include five different kinds of ethical human relations: father and son, husband and wife, brother, monarch and subject, and friend. Among them, father and son, husband and wife, and brother are internal family relationships, while monarch and subject and friend are political and social relationships beyond the family. The five ethics are outlined by father and son, monarch and subject. The ethics of father and son and monarch and subject are one to make a family and one to make a country. The father’s morality is “kindness,” and the son’s morality is “filial piety”. If both parties can practice the required morality, the family will be harmonious. Ethical human relations are united with each other under morality. The morality of the monarch is “righteousness,” and the subject’s morality is “loyalty”. If the monarch is righteous and the subject is loyal, the country will be ruled, and if the family and the country are harmonious and ruled, the world[6] will be at peace. Whether it is father and son, monarch and subject, husband and wife, brother and friend, establishing these ethical human relations mainly relies on “rites”.

A passage in the Book of Rites, Qu Rites, shows that morality must be implemented in rites to be achieved and that all relations must be established in the regulation of rites.The Qu Rites says: “Morality and benevolence cannot be achieved without the help of rites; teaching and instructing the people to follow the right path is not perfect without the help of rites; distinguishing the correct in disputes and cases cannot be decided without rites; without rites, monarchs and subjects, superiors and subordinates, fathers and sons, and brothers cannot determine their right position; without rites, teachers and students cannot be close to each other when they learn to be officials and learn knowledge; Without rites, the order and position of the court, the training of the army, the holding of official positions, and the execution of decrees would lose their majesty; without rites, the prayers and sacrifices for the ancestors and gods would not be pious and solemn enough.” In short, the concrete implementation of morality must be implemented in the behavior that conforms to the rites. The implementation of edification must rely on the rites. The relationship between monarchs and subjects, fathers and sons, husbands and wifes, and other human relations must be implemented in rites. Actions at court and in the military must have rites in order to have majesty. Sacrifices to the gods of heaven, earth, and ancestors must be implemented in the rites to reflect piety. In a word, rites, as codes of conduct, are the concrete expression of the implementation of human ethics and morality.

For instance, the Book of Filial Piety says, “A filial son should serve his father with the utmost respect in the daily life at home, with a happy and cheerful mood in serving his father for food and living, with anxiousness when his father is sick, with grief when his father dies and arrange the funeral and other affairs, and with seriousness when he pays respect to the sacrifices of his ancestors. When these five things are done, the requirements of service are fulfilled.” These words describe the performance of the filial son in serving his father at different stages. However, all these feelings of the filial son must be concretely implemented in ritualistic behavior. For example, “sacrifice” is a ritual of sacrifice. Of all the rites, the ritual of sacrifice is the most vital because it communicates with one’s dead ancestors. In order to perform the rituals, there must be places and materials, so the “Qu Rites” in the Book of Rites says, “When a cultured man of nobility wants to build a house, the clan temple is the first place.” “Where all kinds of household utensils are to be made, the sacrificial objects are first.” That is to say when a house of a cultured nobleman is about to build a house, the clan temple for sacrificing ancestors is the first thing to be made, and when all kinds of utensils will cast, the utensils for sacrificing ancestors are the first thing to be made. Moreover, ancestor worship, the ancestral temple where the ancestral gods and goddesses are placed, also became an important symbol of the hierarchy, so the “Kingly System[7]” said, the Son of Heaven has seven temples, Vassal five temples, three temples of the QingDafu and a temple of the Shi[8]. Different ranks have different temples. Moreover, the intrinsic meaning of the clan temple rituals is the expression of the father-son ethos, the memorial of the ancestors, while the extrinsic meaning enables the whole clan born of the same ancestors to coalesce. Thus, the rituals in the clan temples have extra political and social significance except for ethical significance.

Further, ” rites” is also the general term for the state’s system of rules and regulations, commonly referred to as the “ritual and music system.

In Chinese civilization, the understanding of core concepts is often closely linked to specific classics. During the Western Han Dynasty, the term ” Rite Scriptures” referred to the etiquette norms in the Yi Rites, and in this sense, the specific categories of “rites” were mainly coming-of-age ceremonies, weddings, funeral ceremonies, sacrificial ceremonies, and other ceremonies. These ceremonies are “rites” in a narrow meaning. At the end of the Han Dynasty, many scholars felt that these specific ceremonies could not summarize the broad concept of “rites,” so Zheng Xuan was the leader in incorporating the Zhou Rites into the system of rites. In their understanding, the Zhou Rites were produced by the Duke of Zhou at the beginning of the Zhou Dynasty, and it was only because of the practice of the Zhou Ritesthat the world was peaceful for centuries.

The Zhou Rites were a record of etiquette norms and the rules and regulations that shaped the entire state. The Zhou Rites were divided into six officials: the Heavenly Official, the Earthly Official, the Spring Official, the Summer Official, the Autumn Official, and the Winter Official. Each of these major officials had sixty people under its jurisdiction, making a total of 360 officials. Zheng Xuan, a master of rites in the late Han Dynasty, believed that the Zhou Rites as the  “Rites Scripture” and that the Yi Rites were only the specific norms of the Rites Scripture. Zheng Xuan’s study of rites had a decisive influence on future generations so that the concept of “rites” was not only a norm of etiquette but also a state system of rules and regulations.

In the Zhou Rites, the function of the spring official Grand Zongbo is the operation of various rites. The rites performed by the Spring Official Grand Zongbo[9] include the rituals of sacrificing to the gods of heaven, the sun, moon, and stars, the community and the ancestor monarchs, as well as the rituals of the Son of Heaven going on patrol to the vassal states and the vassals making pilgrimages to the son of heaven’s state. These rituals are associated with a series of relationships related to the formation and operation of the state: the relationship between the son of heaven and the heaven, the relationship between the son of heaven and the vassals, the relationship between the vassals, the relationship between war and penalties. In Chinese history, almost every dynasty since the Han Dynasty was established, the emperor would promulgate the ritual and music system of that dynasty, the basic template of which was the rituals of the Spring Officials, the Grand Zongbo, who were in the position of the Zhou Rites.

Among these state systems, the Rituals of the Southern Suburbs to Heaven was the most important. According to the documents, during the Zhou Dynasty, the Duke of Zhou began to offer sacrifices to heaven in the southern suburbs, and later dynasties confirmed the political legitimacy of their dynasties through the ritual of offering sacrifices to heaven in the southern suburbs. Chinese tradition believes that the rise of every dynasty is due to the “Heavenly Mandate,” and after the Han Dynasty, the supreme ruler of the dynasty, the emperor, had a “rite status,,” i.e., “Son of Heaven “Only as the son of heaven could he gain the legitimacy to rule the world. Furthermore, as the son of heaven, he had to make sacrifices to heaven on a regular day every year. Moreover, only the Son of Heaven is qualified to sacrifice to heaven. Thus, in Chinese history, the rituals of the southern suburbs were related to the interpretation of “heaven,” whether it was an objective existence overhead, a force of will, or a personal god that could directly give birth to sons and reproduce offspring, and these different understandings constituted the core issue of cosmology in different dynasties.

To sum up, the “rites” in Chinese civilization are the basic rules of human life and the specific norms of etiquette and can express the general rules and regulations of the family and state. It can be said that the concrete expression of ” rites” is appropriate behavior, and the extension of its concept is almost all-encompassing. If we look at the contrast between Chinese and Western civilizations, the Chinese tradition’s understanding of ” rites” is one of the roots of the diversity between Chinese and Western civilizations. Chinese civilization emphasizes the continuity of nature and culture, which is especially evident in the case of rites. In the Book of Rites, it is said that rites are “close to the way of heaven and following human emotions”.  The ancient Chinese understanding of “nature” has two main dimensions: one is to interpret heaven and earth as natural existence, and to understand human beings and history from the rhythms of heaven and earth, such as the Four Seasons, Yin and Yang, and the Five Elements; the other is to understand human nature as a result of nature, so the natural emotions of human beings are settled in rites, such as emphasizing only by being filial at home,one can be loyal to the state. In ancient China, every generation of sage kings “made rituals and music,” meaning that the sage kings were causing to arise rituals and music according to the inner rules of nature. In this way, rituals and music as a culture were not the result of the sage kings’ creations but were formed naturally. Therefore, Chinese civilization places more emphasis on the continuity of nature and culture.

[1] Since this concept has a wide range of meanings and there is no precise English word for it, we use the standard translation of “礼”(Li) in the Book of Rites(礼记) for the general term, which is Rites. When it comes to different interpretations, this translation will use different words such as “etiquette,” “manner,” ceremony,” and “ritual.” Nevertheless, they are all “礼” in Chinese.

[2] Yun is the Chinese word for “运,” in different contexts, it will include the meaning of destiny, fortune, foreordination, operation, movement, etc.

[3] One in this context does not refer to God, but to the concept of “一”(Yi) in Chinese philosophy, which exists before heaven and earth and is the origin of all things. Unlike God, this concept is more emphasis on materiality.

[4] This is also a chapter of the Book of Rites, where the word “曲”(Qu) means specific and subtle things.

[5] The Chinese word “仪(Yi)” has the meaning of rituals in accordance with certain procedures; specific systems and laws; human behavior and actions.

[6] In the original Chinese context, the word was “天下(Tianxia)”, a set of changing concepts based on the distinction between “华(Hua)” and “夷(Yi)”and on the distances of closeness and affinity, the original meaning of which was the group of human beings living together under the heaven, and therefore close to the word “world”.

[7] In Chinese, it is “王制(Wang Zhi)”, which is also a chapter in the Book of Rites.

[8] This was based on the feudal system during the Western Zhou period, where the nobility was ranked in the following order: Son of Heaven of the Zhou(周天子) – Vassals(诸侯) – QingDafu(卿大夫) – Shi(士).

[9] The Grand Zongbo(大宗伯) was the official in charge of rituals, and the officials who assisted him were called Junior Zongbo(小宗伯).

This post is also available in: Chinese (Simplified) French

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Nicolas Chapuis, Ambassador of the European Union to China

Mutual understanding is the foundation of international relations. If globalization leads us to use a common lexicon, we often tend to forget that meanings differ from one culture to the other. Lack of understanding or, sometimes, confusion in meaning, breaks communication.

When China speaks in a foreign language, it uses a lexicon that is more often than never not on par with its own history and culture. It uses words to which it may assign, consciously or unconsciously, different meanings. No dialogue can be effective if interlocutors disagree on the very meaning of what they say to each other.

More than 2000 years ago, Confucius noted the imperative “to assign proper meanings to concepts”, zheng ming 正名. That is precisely what this digital platform offers by attempting to bridge the gap of cultural differences, while respecting the essential value of cultural diversity without falling in the trap of cultural relativism. This initiative aims thus to confront key concepts between Europe and China by designing a methodical guide to handle and solve eventual misunderstandings.

Remarkably, the origin of this project stems back to the 1980’s when a number of dialogues contributed to create a trustworthy network of scholars in Europe and in China. With the renewed support of the European Union, the ‘EU-China Forum on Cultural Misunderstandings’ gathers a group of high level European and Chinese intellectuals who share the awareness that cultural misunderstandings impede mutual comprehension and positive interactions between the EU and China at all levels.

The digital platform ambitions to be a constant, accessible and tangible instrument for uploading contributions and conducting initial debates in preparation of the November 2021 Forum.

The contributions of all participating authors will be included in the EU-China Dictionary of Misunderstandings, published digitally and eventually also in a physical form. It intends to be a meaningful, scientific and literate instrument for the benefit of mutual understanding between Europe and China.

It is certainly my hope that this editorial project of a Europe-China Dictionary of Misunderstandings may constitute a reference tool for further research and exchanges.


Nicolas Chapuis
Ambassador of the European Union to the People’s Republic of China 
May 2021

Cookies policy and management