Li (ritual propriety)

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  • Chinese/Japanese: 禮 or 礼 (lǐ / rei)

(J: rei), often translated as "rites" or "ritual," is a concept referring broadly to etiquette, proper observance of customs, and ritual behavior. Though referring broadly to a principle or virtue of decorum or propriety, its meaning is at the same time inextricable from references to ritual behavior of a more ceremonial nature, including sacrifices and offerings to gods and ancestors.

is one of the chief virtues in traditional Chinese culture, alongside humaneness (仁, C: rén, J: jin), justice or righteousness (義, C: , J: gi), and filial piety (孝, C: xiào, J: ), and is one of the most discussed subjects in traditional texts, along with filial piety and "culture" or "civilization" (文, C: wén, J: bun).

In its meaning of "customs" or "etiquette," incorporates myriad symbolic and ethical actions and behaviors of ceremonial or mundane etiquette. These range from the proper way to present offerings to the gods, to the proper way to welcome and host a guest and the proper way to bow according to the circumstance. This also includes a myriad of proper ways to behave according to hierarchy, e.g. in terms of obedience to superiors, as well as ritual obligations and conduct in mourning customs and in performing rites for the ancestors. also refers, however, more broadly and conceptually to the virtue or principle of "ritual" or "etiquette" in general.

Of the two hundred chapters (C: juàn, J: kan/maki) in the Tang Dynasty encyclopedia Tongdian, roughly half are devoted to matters of . The classic text Zuozhuan devotes considerable attention to as well, as does, of course, the Book of Rites (Lǐjì).


  • Christian Meyer, "Negotiating Rites in Imperial China: The Case of the Northern Song Court Ritual Debates from 1034 to 1093," in Ute Husken and Frank Neubert (eds.), Negotiating Rites, Oxford University Press (2011), 99-115.