Confucian ritual and modern civility

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The Confucian notion of civility has for thousands of years guided all aspects of socio-ethical life in East Asia. Confucians express their central concern for civility in their notion of li, which is commonly translated ritual and refers to the conventions and courtesies through which we submit to the socio-ethical order, as we do, for example, in performing sacrifices, weddings, and funerals, and various daily acts of deference. Since the rise of China and other East Asian countries as economic powers, it has been suggested that we have in East Asia a Confucian ritual-based culture that is opposed to the law-based culture of the West, a culture of rites opposed to a culture of rights, and that this ritual-based culture can be carried into modernity as another way to secure social harmony. I argue that the values central to Confucian ritual-deference, repayment, and harmony-are incompatible with the freedom enacted in modern civility. It is unlikely, therefore, that Confucian ritual can be carried into modernity and, as some suggest, remedy the fragmentation, and indeed lack of civility, characteristic of modern societies. © 2012 Taylor & Francis Group, LLC.

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Journal of Global Ethics