New Book: Ing on the Dysfunction of Ritual

Blog contributor Michael Ing’s first book, The Dysfunction of Ritual in Early Confucianism, has just been published by Oxford University Press. Many congratulations, Michael! (Paperback and hardback simultaneously: nice!) A brief description follows; more details are available at the OUP website above. 

In The Dysfunction of Ritual in Early Confucianism Michael Ing describes how early Confucians coped with situations where their rituals failed to achieve their intended aims. In contrast to most contemporary interpreters of Confucianism, Ing demonstrates that early Confucian texts can be read as arguments for ambiguity in ritual failure. If, as discussed in one text, Confucius builds a tomb for his parents unlike the tombs of antiquity, and rains fall causing the tomb to collapse, it is not immediately clear whether this failure was the result of random misfortune or the result of Confucius straying from the ritual script by building a tomb incongruent with those of antiquity. The Liji (Record of Ritual)–one of the most significant, yet least studied, texts of Confucianism–poses many of these situations and suggests that the line between preventable and unpreventable failures of ritual is not always clear. Ritual performance, in this view, is a performance of risk. It entails rendering oneself vulnerable to the agency of others; and resigning oneself to the need to vary from the successful rituals of past, thereby moving into untested and uncertain territory. Ing’s book is the first monograph in English about the Liji–a text that purports to be the writings of Confucius’ immediate disciples, and part of the earliest canon of Confucian texts called ”The Five Classics,” included in the canon several centuries before the Analects. It challenges some common assumptions of contemporary interpreters of Confucian ethics–in particular the assumption that a cultivated ritual agent is able to recognize which failures are within his sphere of control to prevent and thereby render his happiness invulnerable to ritual failure.

4 replies on “New Book: Ing on the Dysfunction of Ritual”

  1. I went to Amazon to “Look Inside!”, and from what I’ve seen, the book seems to me very clear, very smart, and very important.

    I was especially curious to see whether Michael talks about LY 1.12 (an extremely influential passage in anglophone Confucius studies, which says either that the function of ritual is to promote harmony or (according to Zhu Xi, Kupperman and Slingerland) that ritual should be performed with the ease of second nature — as discussed in and under Hagop Sarkissian’s 2/6/10 post). Apparently the book doesn’t touch on that passage, as the book is mainly about the Liji; though I gather that the book’s general view fits the first reading, broadly understood so as to encompass some of the general vision reflected in the second reading.

    I found that Michael says that since the Liji makes many statements about the purpose of rituals and of ritual, I am wrong to have argued in “Confucianism and Moral Intuition” that the early Confucians “were not theorists” (Ing, p. 26 and n. 35). I’d like to quibble about exactly what I said and meant, but my text admits a variety of readings. Anyway it looks as though the book finds sophisticated general views about ritual that are worth taking seriously.

    Michael, if you’re here I have a question for you about the Liji. I suppose ritual is especially important for kinds of interaction in which it’s difficult to maintain harmony – say, interaction among unequals or strangers. These days we, or anyway I, think that one of the most important kinds of interaction like that is discussion: not the kind of discussion that aims simply at one person teaching or counseling another, but the kind of discussion in which both sides are expected to contribute (even if they’re only trying to figure out how to follow their common teacher), and what they might offer isn’t narrowly circumscribed in advance, and may include reasons against what the other person has said. Philosophy teachers focus on training students to do this, and liberal civilization, or civilization simply, depends on it. I wonder whether the Liji speaks to this kind of interaction?

  2. Hi Bill,

    Thanks for browsing through the book. Regarding your question about discussion/interaction, the Liji, I would say, speaks to this issue about as much as texts such as the Mengzi does. There are situations of dialogue that extend beyond the kind of interactions that occur in the Lunyu, but the Liji does not theorize about these dialogues the way it might be said that it theorizes about li (and I should add that I apologize that your only appearance in the book is on this issue of theory). While these kinds of student-disciple interactions do fit under a kind of broad category of li, the Liji seems to be more concerned with rituals related to mourning and sacrifice (as can be seen in this word cloud:

    That said, there is a chapter on learning (學記), which might be read to have a little to say about this. On a related note, you might want to speak with Aaron Stalnaker, whose current project is on master-disciple relationships in early China.

    A text that seems to be more concerned with the kind of dialogue you’re looking for, at least in early China, is the Salt and Iron Discourses (鹽鐵論), which features extended back and forth discussions between a court official (御史大夫) and a scholar (文學, usually understood as someone representing a Confucian view). While the text sides with the 文學, the other position is represented more charitably than they tend to be represented in early Chinese texts. I thought I came across a partial translation of it, but I can’t seem to find it now.

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