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Nonverbal Signs in the Confucianist Ritual System

Date:2007-12-15 00:00Author:youzhengli
Signification and Performance of Nonverbal Signs in the Confucianist Ritual System * Summary The Confucianist learning of rites and related code systems are full of performing details realized in patterned conducts, programmed processes and

Signification and Performance of Nonverbal Signs in the  Confucianist Ritual System*



   The Confucianist learning of rites and related code systems are full of performing details realized in patterned conducts, programmed processes and multiple-media-emblematic network most of which exhibit themselves as nonverbal signs and rhetoric. Those nonverbal ritual codes and the related regular performance exercise an extremely effective impact on the directed communication and domination of the society. As a result, in the Li-System the nonverbal signs and codes could function more relevantly and effectively than the related verbal part which itself functions also at a quasi-nonverbal level.


   Today semiotics has proved to be a more useful tool for analyzing the intercultural historical manifestations, especially for the non-verbal expressions in socio-cultural history. The Confucianist Li (Ritual) system is a synthetic, multiple-media institutional network effectively working over 2500 years as a hardcore of the despotic social system. From a semiotic point of view, the ways of the interaction between the verbal and nonverbal elements of the Li system are more interesting for our understanding the reality of the performative arts dominated by the Confucianist power.

   In general the conception of Li implies the two categories at the institutional and the ritual levels that can be called the principle of sociopolitical system and the rules of performance of rites of various kinds. Both are connected to the attitude of people in performing them. Compared with other Confucianist classics the Li-Learning is characteristic of its focus on descriptions of the ritual performance and the related attitudinal norms. It is important to note that the so-called the Li-Learning as a synthetic system is more corporeal-physical than verbal-intellectual in its composition and operational manners. In principle, there should be a rich teaching and the related written records about the Li System in Confucianist scholarship and its socio-politics. Confucianism as a term of academic phenomenon has been usually reduced to the “Li Learning” and the Confucianist China had been traditionally called a state governed by the Li System. While in fact, among five or six Confucianist classics the Li Classic is the weakest in its historical genuineness and philosophical implication. First, not much is left about the records of the ritual customs and the Li teaching in written form. Second, we can reasonably doubt that there ever existed a rich literature of Li learning in history. For, differently from other kinds of the Confucianist teaching, the Li, or the ritual rules in its narrow sense, is more connected to the material requirements, body movement, physical gesture and exterior conduct than to any intellectual activity. It concerns more with non-verbal than verbal expressions, while both kinds of expressions function collaboratively in maintaining the socio-politico-cultural order of Confucianism, especially its ideological aspects. In other words, the spiritual-cultural manifestations express and convey a physical-sociopolitical impact in Confucianist social life. The Li system is full of non-verbal media networks embodying  the Confucianist ideological enforcement. Different from the Legalist tradition which appeals directly to the codes of behavioral restraints and punishment, the Li system establishes a prior- or quasi-Legalist order which exercises a multiple control system making the ideological and emblematic channels as the self-controlling mechanism working inside one’s mind. In essence, the so-called Confucianist society is based on a double-control mechanism: the spiritual-ideological and the physical-political. The former could be more basic in maintaining social order, more effective in keeping political stability and more productive in providing conditions for cultural creation. While the Li System existing in between is a social-cultural-academic-historical compound consisting of a great number of social-behavioral and emblematic codes regulating social-hierarchical relations and interpersonal attitudes through a variety of verbal and nonverbal media such as: static-hierarchical systems of architecture, clothes, vehicles, colors, as well as behavioral patterns concerning the performance of rites of various types, body gesture (by walking, greeting, etc), facial expressions, mind-body corresponding codes and the ruled manners of  other daily activities. All of the emblematic media concerning Li learning function as channels regulating mental and physical and social conducts according to the historically established hierarchy of power and ideology. The Li System is a multiple-media mechanism to maintain, both mentally and physically, hierarchical order in society. The main point of this historical topic lies in that the performance of the nonverbal media codes in the Li System effectively leads to the persisting inclination in consciousness of the rooted interpersonal hierarchical order as well as of strict self-discipline. The hierarchical relations in the society are, through emblematical channels, transformed into patterned internal inclinations and habits in the strictly self-ruled mentality.

   As a matter of fact, the task of the Li System has a double aspect: the internal ethical-intellectual and external moral-customary ones. The former becomes a necessary tool for the ethical agent to effectively carry out his self-chosen moral goals. The latter is the physically organized laws to force people to obey the hierarchical imperatives. The internal intellectual reasoning of the former and the external behavioral enforcement of the latter co-exist and interact to collaboratively decide and secure the general direction of the Confucianist society. The one is caused by individual’s ethical subjectivity and the other by individual’s subjugation to the power-holders.  The Li System in connection to physical media indicates the stereotyped and patterned signifying channels that are characterised by its constant and effective semantics, both expressive and performing  in nature. The meaning and effects of the nonverbal ritual media are less changeable. Or in other words, it forms a symbolic language with respect to the expressive and performing aspects, presenting a historically fixed mechanism of behavior to secure the restrictions on conducts of social members. If the legal system belongs to the hard part of the Confucianist power, the Li system belongs to its soft one; the latter is characteristic of its effective performing force in maintaining the Confucianist order. This maintenance is firstly realized in mentality and consciousness through the forced performance of nonverbal emblematic gestures of various types.

   It is interesting to note that comparatively speaking the scholarship of the Li Learning has been less developed in Chinese history firstly because there had been less written texts concerned appearing in the Han. Regarding its constitutional feature the Li Learning involved more practice than theory. Later there appeared two “fabricated” pre-Ch’in classics the Li Records and the Li of Zhou in later Han. Apparently  the Li category in the Confucianist Classics was enriched and substantialized accordingly while in fact the fabricated phenomenon brought about more problems than clarification. The fact is that Confucianist Li teaching should be in its constitution more related to practical than theoretical aspects. On one hand, the added classics about Li were not really necessary for performance of the Confucianist Canon, and on the other hand it was not in consistence with the constitutional identity of the Li System as social customs and behavioral practice. For the thought about the Li Learning were expressed in all other Confucianist classics already. It is generally accepted that the only “genuine” classic in this section is the Codes of Rites (Yi Li), the broken records of ritual practice in several pre-Ch’in states. It contains only some unsystematic descriptions of the local ritual practice of various kinds that were generally taken as true historical documents. Obviously the existing written form of the pre-Ch’in ritual practice, regardless of how much genuine it could be, was only selectively recorded and edited as well.

   It is interesting to note that in the Li System even the verbal media tend to be semantically stereotyped, accordingly losing their original intellectual function. Words and their expressive/ communicative roles become quasi-corporeal gestures: the verbal signifiers function as nonverbal symbolic stimulants. In social and cultural communications based on the ritual system we see sets of stereotyped expressions conveying fixed ideas and effects in social life. The fact can also explain why the Li Learning contains much less intellectual contents than other sections of Confucianist classics: or, the classic contains more behavioral codes for practice than intellectual intelligibility for theory. As a result, the verbal media in the Li Learning is more symbolically performing than literally communicative; they function as coded index for ruled conducts rather than as means for intelligent discourse.

   In a less strict sense, the Confucianist ritual system functioned also as a quasi-legal system which we may call today as the historical source of the Confucianist ideological mechanism. First there developed behavioral patterns of rites functioning as supplementary systems to the politico-legal ones; and then it was developed further to the more sophisticated cultural phenomena that functioned both quasi-legally and cultural-ideologically. The latter became the source of rhetoric gestures of Confucianist cultural artifacts. In its archetypical modes the Li System, both its verbal and nonverbal parts, was in essence the system of behavioral rules and codes which are more related to the requirements of conductive enforcements than to spiritual intelligibility. The verbal signifieds in the Li System become the instructions for conducts and prohibitions per se. In the final analysis, the value of the Li system is not less effective than the legal system in maintaining social control. But both work in two different dimensions: the external and internal ones. At its higher level of performance the Li System is interiorized  into mental mechanism and exteriorized into corporal patterns so as to exercise a more profoundly influential effects on patterned inclinations and conducts. The fact also explains why the Confucianist society had been able to exist for so long a time without a structural change despite its constant  political vicissitude.

   If we conclude the Li System is the main secret of the continuous stability of the Confucianist society, the statement implies three different meanings. First, as a pre-legal or quasi-legal system it works together with the legal system to maintain sociopolitical order. In this aspect it could be more basic and more effective than the latter in producing the habit of people’s obeying the legal order; it shapes the inner self-control mechanism. Secondly, the consciousness shaped through the Li learning leads to a deep belief in justice of the Confucianist world that becomes the very soil of Confucianist cultural life. Thirdly, within the two mental orders an ethical-directed interpersonal attitude has been shaped. The behavioral inclination towards other people is normally regulated within the social stratification and it further forms a psychological state of ethical character in individuals: the respectful mental state with respect to other people in a graded modification and towards the social-political hierarchy itself. This psychological state concerning morality, regardless of its related ethical meaning, becomes the strong origin of Chinese cultural creation.

   The above three types of  historical results of the Li System have been realized mainly by the nonverbal Li media in which even the verbal media function as quasi-nonverbal ones. Both verbal and nonverbal media in the Li system function in the symbolically performing way, bringing about the regulated attitudinal and behavioral norms in mental and behavioral inclination. Genetically speaking, this Li attitudinal mentality had been shaped more through the exercise of the nonverbal and quasi-nonverbal media at the physical and behavioral level than the effect at the intellectual level. Its basic source was the unconscious historical process as such rather than as any theoretical invention. Because the nonverbal media are more easily and more effectively implemented as instructions for conductive patterns. In the signifying and communicative channels the signified nonverbal forms also tend to be stereotyped and fixed, accordingly weakening or losing their original semantic role. A Chinese character has a number of possible senses in dictionary, and its actual meaning in texts is contextually determined. But now in the Li System the verbal elements function more as behavioral instructions than expressions of ideas and conception. In result, the verbal and nonverbal elements function at the same practical level.

   The so-called Li-state (the state governed by means of education and performance of the ritual system) was characterized by its extremely rich and complicated network of rites and norms in daily and political life. The Li system strictly standardizes people’s conduct in a graded normative system and interiorizes those norms and habits in inclination shaping a persisting state of mutual-respectful psychology. The Li System and its practice are effective in shaping and maintaining the mental state with its intellectual, emotional and inclinational factors which becomes the rooted basis for  people at different levels to response to the Confucianist instructions in willingness and activity. For this purpose the non-verbal media of the Li System could function more effectively just because of these non intelligent underpinnings; they became the mere sign-systems for forming patterned habits and customs which are performed naturally in history. The point lies in practical efficiency in securing the graded social order whose intellectual implication is only added later for the extra ideological indoctrination. That’s why the verbal part of the Li System functions mainly at a behavioral, rather than a intelligent, level : words work as the immediate stimulants for ruled attitude and action, or internal and external behaviors as such. Conduct and inclination for conduct are multiply programmed in terms of Confucianist codes during the historical process. 

   Verbal-involved rites and nonverbal-involved rites work together to shape the consciousness, habits, customs with respect to the directed patterns of potential, inclination, attitude and conduct of the individual and collective. Ideological-sociologically speaking, the Li System becomes the cornerstone of the historically subsisting Confucianist  society whose comprehensive dictatorship lies more in the shaping of the psychological formants caused by  habitually realized ritual-behavioral patterns, which function as the programmed material stimulants, than in the external coercion carried out by the law system. The so-called “li zhi”(to govern mainly by the Li System) in contrast to “fa zhi” (to govern mainly by criminal law) in Confucianist doctrine indicates a more utilitarian than moralist origin in its historical performance. In general, there had existed a trio-layer control system: the attitudinal (psychological), the ritual (emblematic, rhetoric,   ), performing (behavioral, habitual, repetitive), and the violent-coercive (institutional, legal and subjugating). They work respectively at individual and social levels as different enforcing channels among which the middle one plays the key role in performing the Li System.

   The Li System can be taken in different chosen scopes possibly connecting with the (internal) conceptual and the (external) legal poles, selectively functioning in different contexts. When saying the middle section of the Li System is the key part in its functioning, we emphasize the central role of the nonverbal ritual performance consisting of the institutional, emblematic and behavioral dimensions. The emblematic parts consist of different sensual media each of which perform its special effects on strengthening the rooted inclination of the Confucianist agent for effectively following the rules of the Confucianist order.   

* This paper was read in the International Semiotic Symposium, Kassel, 2002.