Zhouli 周礼 Rites of the Zhou


The Zhouli 周礼 “Rites of the Zhou” is a decription of the putative organisation of the government during the Western Zhou period 西周 (11th cent.-770 BCE). It is one of the three classics on rites (sanli 三礼) and one of the thirteen Confucian Classics. It was compiled during the Warring States period 战国 (5th cent.-221 BCE) and was known under the names of Zhouguan 周官 “The Offices of the Zhou” or Zhouguanjing 周官经 “Classic of the offices of the Zhou”. Only during the Former Han period 前汉 (206 BCE-8 CE) it was given the name Zhouli by Liu Xin 刘歆. The book consists of six parts corresponding to the six ministries (liubu 六部) which, according to ancient cosmology, are correlated to Heaven, Earth, and the four seasons. There are 376 state officials in total, with subalters secretaries numbering many thousands. The Ministries, their cosmology and structure are:

• Celestial offices (tianguan 天官), headed by the Prime Minister (zhongzai 冢宰), called the “regulating offices” (zhiguan 治官). The 63 officials care for the royal palace and its administration, as well as the core of the central government.
• Terrestrial offices (diguan 地官), headed by the the Overseer of Public Affairs (situ 司徒), called the “educational offices” (jiaoguan 教官). The 78 officials care for the local administration, especially the royal domain around the capital, and the inhabitants.
• Spring officices (chunguan 春官), headed by the Overseer of ritual affairs (zongbo 宗伯), called “ritual offices” (liguan 礼官). The 70 officials care for religious matters and the education of state officials.
• Summer offices (xiaguan 夏官), headed by the Overseer of military affaris (sima 司马), called “governing offices” (zhengguan 政官). The 69 officials are responsible for warfare and communication.
• Autumn offices (qiuguan 秋官), headed by the Overseer of penal affaris (sikou 司冠), called “penal offices”(xingguan 刑官). The 66 officials are responsible for jurisdiction.
• Winter offices (dongguan 冬官), headed by the Overseer of public works (sikong 司空), called “affairs offices” (shiguan 事官). The 30 officials care for dykes, canals, irrigation and all other public work.

The Zhouli became part of the Classics thought at the state academy only during the reign of Wang Mang 王莽 (r. 8-22 CE). The usurper used this book to reestablish the universal and state orders that were thought to have existed under the early Zhou kings. With the downfall of Wang Mang and the restoration of the Han dynasty the Zhouli was expelled from the state academy. Liu Xin’s disciple Du Zichun 杜子春 wrote a commentary to the Zhouli which was known by the Confucian scolars Zheng Xing 郑兴, Zheng Zhong 郑众, and Jia Kui 贾逵. Zheng Xing wrote the commentary Zhouguan jiegu 周官解沽. Ma Rong 马融 wrote the commentary <=”” i=””> 周官传, and Zheng Xuan 郑玄 wrote the commentary Zhouguanli zhu 周官礼注. During the last decades of the Later Han period 后汉 (25-220 CE) the three books Yili 仪礼, Liji 礼记 and Zhouli became canonized as the three ritual books. Zheng Xuan believed in the authenticity of the Zhouli as a book compiled on order of the Duke of Zhou 周公 (11th cent. BCE), regent during the early Zhou period, while many others thought it being a forgery or a text concocted at a much later date. During the Song period 宋 (960-1279) the reformer Wang Anshi 王安石 used is as a model and was criticised for this by many of his opponents. The Neo-Confucian philosopher Zhu Xi 朱熹 called it a forgery made by Liu Xin on Wang Mang’s order. During the Qing period 清 (1644-1911) Wan Sitong 万斯同 (Zhouguan bian fei 周官辨非), Yao Jiheng 姚际恒 (Gujin weishu kao 古今伪书考), Mao Qiling 毛奇龄 (Jingwen 经问), and Fang Bao 方苞 (Zhouguan bian wei 周官辨伪) called it a forgery. Kang Youwei 康有为 was probably the most vehement critic of the Zhouli and thought it was composed according to some statements in the book Guanzi 管子. But Mao Qiling, Wang Zhong (Zhouguan zhengwen 周官征文) and Wang Guowei 王国维 also found evidence that at least parts of the Zhouli were compiled during the Warring States period, for instance, the parts on music. There are also many hints in contemporary sources that the offices described in the Zhouli really existed. Famous statements about the administrative system of the Zhou, like Mengzi’s 孟子 description of the “well-field” system (jingtian 井田), or Xunzi’s 荀子 description of the “royal system” (wangzhi 王制) are differing from the Zhouli. It might therefore be that the Confucians Mengzi and Xunzi had other imaginations of the royal administration than the compilers of the Zhouli. The Confucians had in mind a system in existance during the Western Zhou period while the offices and administrative processes described in the Zhouli date from the Eastern Zhou period, as can be seen by comparison with other sources. Only a few parts have been compiled during the Han period.

The high quality of Zheng Xuan’s commentary saved it from being expelled from the Classics, and it obtained its fixed place within the Canon.

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