The Limitations of Ritual Propriety

“The Limitations of Ritual Propriety: Ritual and Language in Xunzi and Zhuangzi” is my contribution to a special issue of Sophia devoted to ritual in Chinese philosophy. The article appears in Sophia: International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Metaphysical Theology and Ethics 51:2 (2012), 257–282.

An abstract follows. A preprint is here.

Of related interest may be this chapter on Xunzi and language, written at the same time as “The Limitations of Ritual Propriety”: “Language and Logic in the Xunzi.” Both works explore the content and significance of the early Chinese doctrine of “rectifying names” or “right names” (zheng ming 正名).


This essay examines the theory of ritual propriety presented in the Xunzi and criticisms of Xunzi-like views found in the classical Daoist anthology Zhuangzi. To highlight the respects in which the Zhuangzi can be read as posing a critical response to a Xunzian view of ritual propriety, the essay juxtaposes the two texts’ view of language, since Xunzi’s theory of ritual propriety is intertwined with his theory of language. I argue that a Zhuangist critique of the presuppositions of Xunzi’s stance on language also undermines his stance on ritual propriety. Xunzi contends that state promulgation of an elaborate code of ritual propriety is a key to good social order (zhi) and that state regulation of language is a key to smooth communication and thus also good order. The Zhuangzi provides grounds for doubting both contentions. Claiming that ritual propriety causally produces social order is analogous to claiming that grammar causally produces smooth linguistic communication, when in fact it is more likely our ability to communicate that allows us to develop shared rules of grammar. Humans have fundamental social and communicative capacities that undergird our abilities to speak a language or engage in shared ritual performances. It is these more fundamental capacities, not their manifestation in a particular system of grammar or ritual norms, that provides the root explanation of our ability to communicate or to live together harmoniously. The XunziZhuangzi dialectic suggests that ritual is indispensable, but normatively justified rituals will be less rigid, less comprehensive, less fastidious, and more spontaneous than a Xunzian theorist would allow.