ritual propriety, ritualized roles and responsibilities
Pictorially combining a sacrificial vessel with an altar, this character originally indicted sacrificial rites. However, its meaning expanded to include proper conduct generally, involving judicious observance of social norms, or fulfilling an ethical role by faithfully discharging the responsibilities associated with that role. It is thus role-based ritualized norms of proper conduct.
Constantly returning to li, Confucius says, is the way to achieve ren (consummate virtue). When asked for specifics, he replied, “Do not look in a way which is not li, do not listen in a way that is not li, do not speak in a way that is not li, do not move in a way that is not li” (Analects 12.1). Confucius is suggesting that one should, in all circumstances, act with the attention and care characteristic of the performance of a sacred rite. This does not mean following a precise code of action (although li does include norms that provide guidance). Nor does it mean that one should always be somber. Rather, in all circumstances, one should be conscientiously attentive to detail, and sensitive to what is most appropriate to the situation. Consider the following passage from the Odes, which Xunzi quotes twice: “Ritual ceremony, completely according to the standard; laughing and talking, completely appropriate.” According to Yang Liang’s commentary, “By quoting this [Xunzi] makes clear that, for the person of li, every movement is fitting and appropriate.” Xunzi also quotes Confucius, who in Analects 17.11 says, “Surely saying ‘ritual this, ritual that’ is more than talk of jade and silk.” Xunzi comments, “If it is not timely and fitting, if it is not respectfully sociable, if it is not cheerfully enjoyed, although it may be beautiful, it is not ritual propriety.”
Compare the following descriptions of li:
A.C. Graham: “The word li ‘ceremony’ embraces all rites, custom, manners, conventions, from the sacrifices to ancestors down to the detail of social etiquette. Li in social intercourse corresponds to a considerable extent with Western conceptions of good manners: the Confucian gentleman moves with an effortless grace within the framework of fixed convention, informing every action with consideration and respect for the other person” (Disputers of the Tao, p. 11).
Roger Ames and Henry Rosemont: “Li are those meaning-invested roles, relationships, and institutions which facilitate communication, and which foster a sense of community. . . . They are a social grammar that provides each member with a defined place and status within the family, community, and polity. Li are life forms transmitted from generation to generation as repositories of meaning, enabling the youth to appropriate persisting values and to make them appropriate to their own situations” (The Analects of Confucius, p. 51).
Randall Peerenboom: “The li—conventionally translated as rites—may be understood more broadly to include the full range of social customs, ethical norms, and political principles embodied in the complex relations, organizations, and institutions of society. They are culture-specific norms, the contingent, ever-changing values of a particular society”