Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

Recent Dissertation on Bio-spiritual Practices and Ritual Theories

With his permission, I post here the abstract of Ori Trevor’s recent UPenn dissertation. I believe that Ori will keep on eye on this post, so please feel free to comment or raise questions.

Embodying the Way: Bio-spiritual Practices and Ritual Theories in Early and Medieval China
Ori Tavor, University of Pennsylvania, East Asian Languages and Civilization
Supervisor: Paul R. Goldin


The recent emergence of Ritual Studies as an interdisciplinary academic field has engendered a renewed interest in ritual practices. In Chinese Studies, this has led to a surge in research devoted to the reconstruction of ancient rituals through textual resources. It has also resulted in the examination of contemporary practices through anthropological field work. Painting a clear picture of the rich history of ritual in China entails more than studying ritual practices using modern methodologies, however; it also involves understanding the ritual theories that helped shape them. My dissertation surveys a variety of texts from the Warring States to the Early Medieval periods that can all be read as attempts to “theorize” ritual. I examine three theories, written by the Confucian philosopher Xunzi, a group of Western Han literati, and the Daoist liturgist Lu Xiujing, against the backdrop of contemporaneous individual self-cultivation practices. I demonstrate that ritual was often depicted as a technology of the body, a technique of self-cultivation that allows man, through the medium of his own body, to assert his influence on the world or even transcend it. By tracing the similarities and transformations in ritual theory over a period of a thousand years, I demonstrate that, despite the evident differences in their sociopolitical and religious agendas, all three ritual theorists shared a common belief in the ultimate efficacy of ritual over the individual self-cultivation techniques advocated by their rivals. I conclude by situating Chinese ritual theory in the broader context of Ritual Studies and demonstrate how the insights I have obtained open up new ways of thinking about ritual, the body, and the relationship between them. I argue that the distinctive philosophical and cosmological assumptions that surfaced in Early and Medieval China have produced ritual theories that are fundamentally different from their Western counterparts. Distilling a Chinese approach to the theorization of ritual can thus offer alternative solutions to the challenges faced by contemporary scholars, such as the role and meaning of ritual in the modern world.

October 19th, 2012 Posted by | Daoism, Ritual, Xunzi | 4 comments

4 Responses to Recent Dissertation on Bio-spiritual Practices and Ritual Theories

  1. Bill Haines says:

    This looks very interesting. Thanks Steve and, thanks Ori!

    If I understand the abstract, which I may not, it says that in the long tradition, the main view about the value of ritual was that it could give a kind of power to the person engaging in it.

    That’s a surprise to me. From the few early Confucian texts that I’ve looked at, I had got a different impression. My sense of the early view has been that:

    a. Ritual was understood to be something that benefits mainly the community by promoting harmony, rather than something that benefits the individual considered separately.

    b. Ritual was seen as developing each person’s sense of herself as playing a secure part in a collective cooperative order, allaying the insecurity that leads to a concern for one’s own power. (Of course, there’s power and there’s power.)

    c. The value of ritual for the individual was seen not in ritual’s enabling the individual to influence the world, but rather in ritual’s enabling the world to influence the individual: educating her and training up her general respectfulness.

    Here’s my favorite example, from the Liji:

    In bad years, when the grain is not growing well, the ruler at his meals will not make the offering of the lungs, nor will his horses be fed on grain. His special road will not be kept clean and swept, nor at sacrifices will his musical instruments be hung on their stands. Great officers will not eat the large grained millet; and (other) officers will not have music at their drinking. (Legge modified)

    The point seems transparent enough in the ritual itself. The badness of the year is communicated to the ruler in the medium of the quality of his immediate environment, keeping him aware of the situation and attentive to it.

    Similarly, I think:

    The ceremonies at the seasonal court audiences are to show (míng 明) the right relations between ruler and subject; those of friendly messages and inquiries, to secure mutual honor and respect between the feudal lords; those of mourning and sacrifice, to show the goodwill of subordinates and sons; those of rural drinking, to show the [proper] order between young and old; and those of marriage, to show the [proper] separation of males and females. Those ceremonies prevent disorder, like embankments preventing the overflow of water.

    It seems to me that the audience of the showing is the participants.

    But it is true that in every case the ritual is something that people do, so that its efficacy is their efficacy.

  2. It’s a very interesting dissertation!

  3. Bill Haines says:

    In David Wong’s paper “Relational and Autonomous Selves” (Journal of Chinese Philosophy 31:4 (December 2004) 419–432), he discusses a seeming regress in the relational conception of the “self”:

    If one’s self is a shared consciousness of one’s roles and relationships, there must be some “one” who takes these roles and stands in these relationships. … If I am simply the sum of my relationships, then who or what is the entity standing in each of these particular relationships?

    That’s the problem, and here’s a solution he offers:

    A way out of these difficulties is to take the one who stands in all the self’s relationships as a biological organism. We begin life embodied as biological organisms and become persons by entering into relationship with others of our kind. This implies that classical Chinese thinkers held an inherently social conception of the person…

    For my part I don’t understand the “relational conception” well enough to know whether the apparent problem is a real one. But I have a couple of problems with this solution.

    First, there’s a problem about what’s meant by “biological organism.” Is it not part of human biology that we are social animals? That we think, that we have identities and language and culture? That we have five senses and four duan, or at least are disposed to sacrifice ourselves for kin? What part of me is extra-biological? Perhaps by “biological organism” David means “body” – for as Aristotle said, matter individuates. So the picture attributed to early Confucians would involve a strong distinction between my body and – me, or the rest of me?

    Second, surely the relationships that are supposed to count are mainly social relationships such as friendship, marriage, etc. But these would seem to be relationships with persons, not with sub-persons such as (on one view) bodies are. Otherwise “He only loves my body” would hardly be a fair complaint.

    I’ve been taking a roundabout path toward asking about this part of Ori Tavor’s dissertation abstract:

    I demonstrate that ritual was often depicted as a technology of the body, a technique of self-cultivation that allows man, through the medium of his own body, to assert his influence on the world or even transcend it.

    I’m wondering if what’s meant by “body” here can be expressed in some clearer way – a way that, for example, does not automatically categorize making statements, barking orders, or writing texts as plain examples of influencing the world through the medium of one’s body.

    My own thoughts turn toward ritual as display or communication, suggesting that by “through the medium of one’s body” one might mean positions of bodies, movements of bodies, and spatiotemporal relations among bodies (e.g. one walking behind the other) as themselves signs (not e.g. mere causes of signs).

    (Of course that is still not a perfectly clear distinction; one might want to supplement it with a distinction among modes of observing – e.g. too simply, “it’s not what you hear when you listen to those people, it’s what you see when you look at them” – or by listing and excluding e.g. spoken and written language.)

    But perhaps the theorists Ori looks at see the body as operating not as the material of a special set of signs to be received, but rather in some other way.

  4. Bill Haines says:

    I demonstrate that ritual was often depicted as a technology of the body, a technique of self-cultivation that allows man, through the medium of his own body, to assert his influence on the world or even transcend it.

    OK, that at least says that ritual was often seen as a practiced way of accomplishing something – it doesn’t have to be read as saying anything more. Thus it is perfectly consistent with the familiar (a)(b)(c) view I laid out above (for a more detailed view see my papers on Youzi and on moral intuition; references in contributor blurb). But what puzzles and intrigues me is the suggestion that the view uncovered is a novel and promising view of ritual for today.

    … the insights I have obtained open up new ways of thinking about ritual … alternative solutions to the challenges faced by contemporary scholars, such as the role and meaning of ritual in the modern world.

    What kind of influencing or transcending are meant?

    Transcending: The idea of using bodily movement to achieve transcendence is familiar from the Hindu and related traditions; one thinks of meditative practices, the yoga of making and breaking fine pottery, and the rigors of duty in general.

    Influencing: the idea that Native Americans have thought they could influence the weather by dancing is a commonplace of popular culture; but perhaps the dance was conceived as a kind of prayer to personal gods. Without personal gods the mechanism would have to be different. But the mechanism has to be plausible today, or at least not radically implausible, to bear out the claim in the abstract.

    What is the new and promising idea?

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