Michael David Kaulana Ing, “The Dysfunction of Ritual in Early Confucianism”
Summary: How did the authors of the one of the most important Confucian ritual texts in early China recognize, explain, and cope with mistakes and dysfunction in ritual? The Dysfunction of Ritual in Early Confucianism (Oxford University Press, 2012) brings readers into the intricacies of the text of the Liji. Michael Ing respects the diversity of perspectives in the text while paying close attention to the ways that its authors shared a central concern with failures in ritual practice. Fluent ritual agents in the Liji were able to open and transform the script of a ritual to suit the changing contexts of a changing world. Rituals, however, could still fail, as a result of either preventable mistakes by these ritual agents or unavoidable failures inherent in the ritual script itself. The authors of the Liji attempted to help readers cope with a deep anxiety over this dissonance in ritual practice: though rituals were meant to construct an ordered world, they could fail to bring about such a world, and the reasons for that failure were not always clear. Ing proposes a tragic theory of early Confucian ritual practice in which the Liji authors embraced ambiguity in their depictions of whether ritual failures were or were not preventable. He suggests the creative and therapeutic opportunities that emerge from these anxieties, and ultimately situates this tragic theory of ritual in the Liji within the broader field of ritual studies.