Living Li

Living Li

March 1, 2019

Welcome to the Year of the Pig!

Each year, the appearance of the new moon between 21st January and 20th February marks the celebration of Spring Festival and the arrival of the new lunar year. On the 15th day of the new lunar year, which in 2019 fell on the 19th February, we celebrate the Lantern Festival, a traditional event that concludes the formal season of celebrations heralding the commencement of each lunar year. These events are all important social or cultural ‘rites’ in the Chinese world.

Some may question the relevance of such cultural rites in the 21st century. Dr. Gao, in his message to the ISF community before Spring Festival, reminded us of the centrality of 禮 (li), which in English we translate variously as courtesy, manners, etiquette, and rituals, in any civilized society. In fact, we rely on li to regulate human interactions at all levels. It provides a remarkably robust and enduring social framework in which we have built cultural practices that mark our journey through life: birthdays, graduations, marriages, even death, are all recognized through specific social rituals that serve to draw attention to those things in life that are important, those things that demand our full attention.

At a person level, li provides us with a degree of certainty about the ways in which those around us may behave in social situations. It helps us sustain relationships with family members, it helps us make new connections with strangers, and it helps us form partnerships with others to pursue common goals. Li also acts as a kind of invisible social safety net that to a degree protects us from random offences from others. In every sense, li is central to the human experience: it is the invisible fabric of each human community.

Perhaps most importantly, Dr. Gao’s exhortation focused at one point on the fact that li cannot be imposed from without. While each of us sees li in operation largely through the behaviours of others, for it to be truly effective and operative in any community, li must be something that is generated by each citizen from within. In its purest form, li is not something we display for others to see in order to obtain their good opinion of us. The truly cultivated individual sees li as a living and driving force in their lives, shaping thoughts, attitudes, and actions. It is operative when there is no one else present to observe it; it is our constant companion, our guide, our conscience.

Living li guides us from within and supports us from without in every dimension of the human experience. A world without li would leave us rootless and adrift, victims of random vicissitudes. Can li’s relevance in the 21st century really be questioned? 



Dr. Malcolm Pritchard

Head of School

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