Rituals that don't reach, punishments that don't impugn: Jia Yi on the exclusions from punishment and ritual.

Author:Sanft, Charles

The "Qu li" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] chapter of the Li ji [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Record of rituals) contains what may be the best-known ritual prescription that has come to us from ancient China: "Ritual does not extend down to the common people; punishment does not extend up to grandees" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. (1) The fame of these lines contrasts with the ample historical evidence that no such rules functioned in pre-Qin China. In the "Jie ji" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Levels and grades) chapter of the Xin shu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], the early Han political thinker Jia Yi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (200-168 B.C.) deploys the same ideas--with particular emphasis on exclusion from punishment--as part of a larger argument focused on how the ruler is affected by his treatment of subordinates. These notions become part of Jia Yi's normative discussion of the abstractions and praxes that serve to preserve the ruler's majesty, and form part of his explication of the relationship between ritual practice and political hierarchy. Perhaps most importantly, since historical records indicate that Jia Yi successfully persuaded his sovereign to exempt high-ranking officials from punishment, his use of the lines marks the first time these ideas crossed over from theory to reality.

I will preface my discussion of Jia Yi with a brief outline of some other exegetical approaches to understanding the injunctions, from Han as well as modern scholars. It is not my intention here to disprove other interpretations, but rather to analyze Jia Yi's take on these ideas. These other understandings serve to provide context and contrast to Jia Yi's understanding. The lines in question have been variously interpreted; to accept a given interpretation in one context is not necessarily to reject another interpretation in a different context.

The Li ji is certainly the best-known source for these lines, and a brief consideration of them there offers an entry point for the discussion. The Li ji in its current form dates to late Eastern Han times; some of its constituent sections are older, but establishing a definitive date of creation for them is difficult. (2) Like the Li ji itself, "Qu li" contains a wide variety of materials on all primary aspects of ritual. (3) In this miscellany comes the following passage:

The lord of the state leans on the [chariot-] rail; the grandee descends it. The grandee leans on the [chariot-] rail; the gentleman descends it. Ritual does not extend down to the common people; punishment does not extend up to grandees. People that have been punished are not at the lord's side. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. (4) The relationship between the lines within this passage is not clear, and I have found no explanation that is able to explain what connects all of the rules mentioned here. Like the Li ji itself, this passage probably represents an amalgamation from disparate sources. Thus the early commentators likely have the right idea in not explaining the limitation of ritual and exemption from punishment on the basis of this context. Similar lines are found elsewhere, most notably among the texts recovered at Guodian [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], which date to the late fourth century B.C. (5) However, the context there is quite different from that of "Qu li," and does not resolve the situation.

Even setting aside the questions posed by the Li ji context, the statement that "Ritual does not extend down to the common people; punishment does not extend up to grandees" can seem difficult to interpret because of the existence of ample historical material to show that no such exemptions were observed in early China. (6) One response to this is to treat the Li ji as the product of Warring States or even later times and simply not descriptive of any earlier situation. Another is to accept that the exemptions existed and to try to resolve the apparent conflict through interpretation. Many scholars in ancient and modern times have taken the latter approach. They generally explain the "Qu li" lines by limiting the rituals and punishments to a subset of these or by reading the proscriptions as less thoroughgoing than might be expected.

A number of commentators already in the Han dynasty noticed that the "Qu li" exhortations did not accord with history. They proposed various ways to resolve this discrepancy, mostly by suggesting narrow readings that take the passage as implicitly referring to some subset of ritual or punishment, rather than all forms of these.

The influential scholiast Zheng Xuan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (127-200) and his follower Zhang Yi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (ca. 3rd c.) read the exclusion of the ordinary people from ritual as referring only to records of rituals requiring certain objects, explaining that it would be difficult for commoners to provide them. In this conception, if the people need particular rituals, they are to borrow from those of the shi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] class. Along similar lines, Zheng Xuan and Zhang Yi understand the exclusion from punishment only in reference to the legal code governing the populace. These laws would not apply to grandees, who are judged by an alternate set of rules. (7)

Best known as a lexicographer, Xu Shen [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (ca. 55-ca. 149) was also a commentator who considered the "Qu li" proscriptions. He reads the exclusion from ritual as referring specifically to ritual gifts given when paying a visit (zhi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), despite the fact that the ritual canons do specify such gifts to be given by the people. He takes a different approach to the exemption from punishment, refuting it on the basis of other canonical sources. (8) Zheng Xuan rebuts this interpretation with a different argument than that mentioned above, insisting that grandees were to be punished, only out of the public eye. (9)

In the Bohu tong [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Ban Gu (32-92) records two interpretations of the "Qu li" lines, both of which were presumably discussed at the meetings in the Bohuguan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] in 79. (10) The preferred reading in Bohu tong takes the two exclusions together to form a single structure that governs the commonality--who are assumed to be without knowledge--by means of ritual. The Bohu tong also records an alternate understanding, a narrow reading that takes punishment to refer only to physical chastisement and ritual to denote only the ceremonial toasts at banquets.

Many modern readers who have noted the conflict between the "Qu li" injunctions and historical records try to resolve the problem in a manner similar to the Han exegetes, and suggest narrow readings. So understand, the "Qu li" rules are taken to mean, e.g., only that commoners did not rate courtesy according to the rituals observed by people riding in chariots. (11) Scholars employ a similar interpretive tactic regarding punishments, asserting that those of grandee rank and higher were spared a particular type of punishment. One such reading would exempt them from corporal punishments but leave them subject to execution, which is similar to Jia Yi's understanding (as will be shown below). (12) Another would take the exclusion as referring only to the punishment of castration. (13)

A number of modern scholars whose arguments I cite refer to the Jia Yi passage. However, since they refer in only a limited fashion to this single line of Jia Yi's out of context, they do not fully address his interpretation. They do not take into account that Jia Yi's explication is unique in centering it--or at least the argument for it--on the ruler, as I will show. This challenges the idea that there exists continuity in the exclusion of ordinary people form ritual that existed into latter days just as it did in earlier times. (14)


In the following discussion, I will put the phrase into the context of a larger argument made by Jia Yi. This analysis concerns only Jia Yi's use of the proscriptions, though its conclusions may tentatively be applied more broadly. It is probably best not to seek a single explanation for all instances of the ideas that rituals are not extended to commoners or punishments to grandees. Jia Yi, in particular, may use the phrase in an idiosyncratic fashion.

My analysis will demonstrate that Jia Yi employs the phrase in a normative manner: he states how things should be, not how they actually are. Thus, the historical situation does not invalidate his meaning. An understanding of the events around the time Jia Yi writes offers some insight into what he has in mind.

Jia Yi quotes these lines in the "Jie ji" chapter of the Xinshu. (15) The phraseology of the lines is slightly different in Jia Yi's enunciation than elsewhere, but there is no doubt that they convey the same notions. Jia Yi says, "In antiquity, ritual did not extend to ordinary people, and corporal punishments did not reach to lordlings. This was a means by which to encourage favored ministers' moderation" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. (16)

A general examination of the "Jie ji" is necessary for understanding Jia Yi's interpretation of the principles behind these exclusions. (17) "Jie ji" as a whole is an extended discussion of the role of hierarchy and ritual in securing the place of the monarch. Jia Yi begins the chapter by proposing the stairs beneath a hall as analogous to the dignity of the lord. Just as a hall is raised up above the ground by its stairs, so should the lord (analogous to the hall) be lifted above the common people (the ground) by his ministers (the stairs). It is only through this elevation that the status and position of the ruler can be made secure. Jia Yi states explicitly that the elevation and protection of the lord's position is the primary function of the whole structure:

The lofty are hard to climb and the lowly...

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