Confucius said, 'When you enter any state you can know what subjects (its people) have been taught. If they show themselves men who are mild and gentle, sincere and good, they have been taught from the Book of Poetry. If they have a wide comprehension (of things), and know what is remote and old, they have been taught from the Book of History. If they be large-hearted and generous, bland and honest, they have been taught from the Book of Music. If they be pure and still, refined and subtile, they have been taught from the Yi. If they be courteous and modest, grave and respectful, they have been taught from the Book of Rites and Ceremonies. If they suitably adapt their language to the things of which they speak, they have been taught from the Chun Qiu. Hence the failing that may arise in connexion with the study of the Poems is a stupid simplicity; that in connexion. with the History is duplicity; that in connexion with Music is extravagance; that in connexion with the Yi is the violation (of reason); that in connexion with the practice of Rites and Ceremonies is fussiness; and that in connexion with the Chun Qiu is insubordination.
'If they show themselves men who are mild and gentle, sincere and good, and yet free from that simple stupidity, their comprehension of the Book of Poetry is deep. If they have a wide comprehension (of things), and know what is remote and old, and yet are free from duplicity, their understanding of the Book of History is deep. If they are large-hearted and generous, bland and honest, and yet have no tendency to extravagance, their knowledge of Music is deep. If they are pure and still, refined and subtle, and yet do not violate (reason), they have made great attainments in the Yi. If they are courteous and modest, grave and reverent, and yet not fussy, their acquaintance with the Book of Rites and Ceremonies is deep. If they suitably adapt their language to the things of which they speak, and yet have no disposition to be insubordinate, their knowledge of the Chun Qiu is deep.'
The son of Heaven forms a ternion with heaven and earth. Hence, in power of his goodness he is their correlate, and his benefits extend at once to all things. His brilliancy is equal to that of the sun and moon, and enlightens all within the four seas, not excepting anything, however minute and small. In the audiences at his court everything is done according to the orderly procedure of benevolence, wisdom, propriety, and righteousness. At his entertainments he listens to the singing of the Odes of the Kingdom and the Odes of the Temple and Altar. When he walks, there are the notes from his girdle pendant. When he rides in his chariot, there are the harmonious sounds of the bells attached to his horses. When he is in private at ease, there is the observance of the rules of propriety. When he advances or retires, he does so according to rule and measure. All the officers fulfil their duties rightly, and all affairs are carried on with order. It is as described in the Book of Poetry (I, xiv, 3), 'That virtuous man, the princely one, Has nothing wrong in his deportment; He has nothing wrong in his deportment, And thus he rectifies the four quarters of the state.'
When (a ruler) issues his notices and gives forth his orders, and the people are pleased, we have what may be called the condition of harmony. When superiors and inferiors love one another, we have the condition of benevolence. When the people get what they desire without seeking for it, we have the condition of confidence. When all things in the operations of heaven and earth that might be injurious are taken out of the way, we have the condition of rightness. Rightness and confidence, harmony and benevolence are the instruments of the presiding chieftain and the king. If anyone wishes to govern the people, and does not employ these instruments, he will not be successful.
In the right government of a state, the Rules of Propriety serve the same purpose as the steelyard in determining what is light and what is heavy; or as the carpenter's line in determining what is crooked and what is straight; or as the circle and square in determining what is square and what is round. Hence, if the weights of the steel-yard be true, there can be no imposition in the matter of weight; if the line be truly applied, there can be no imposition in the evenness of a surface; if the square and compass be truly employed, there can be no imposition in the shape of a figure. When a superior man (conducts, the government of his state) with a discriminating attention to these rules, he cannot be imposed on by traitors and impostors.
Hence he who has an exalted idea of the rules, and guides his conduct by them, is called by us a mannerly gentleman, and be who has no such exalted idea and does not guide his conduct by the rules, is called by us one of the unmannerly people. These rules (set forth) the way of reverence and courtesy; and therefore when the services in the ancestral temple are performed according to them, there is reverence; when they are observed in the court, the noble and the mean have their proper positions; when the family is regulated by them, there is affection between father and son, and harmony among brothers; and when they are honoured in the country districts and villages, there is the proper order between old and young. There is the verification of what was said by Confucius, 'For giving security to superiors and good government Of the people, there is nothing more excellent than the Rules of Propriety.'
The ceremonies at the court audiences of the different seasons were intended to illustrate the righteous relations between ruler and subject; those of friendly messages and inquiries, to secure mutual honour and respect between the feudal princes; those of mourning and sacrifice, to illustrate the kindly feelings of ministers and sons; those of social meetings in the country districts, to show the order that should prevail between young and old; and those of marriage, to exhibit the separation that should be maintained between males and females. Those ceremonies prevent the rise of disorder and confusion, and are like the embankments which prevent the overflow of water. He who thinks the old embankments useless and destroys them is sure to suffer from the desolation caused by overflowing water; and he who should consider the old rules of propriety useless and abolish them would be sure to suffer from the calamities of disorder.
Thus if the ceremonies of marriage were discontinued, the path of husband and wife would be embittered, and there would be many offences of licentiousness and depravity. If the drinking ceremonies at country feasts were discontinued, the order between old and young would be neglected, and quarrelsome litigations would be numerous. If the ceremonies of mourning and sacrifice were discontinued, the kindly feeling of officers and sons would become small; there would be numerous cases in which there was a revolt from the observances due to the dead, and an oblivion of (those due) to the living. If the ceremonies of friendly messages and court attendances were discontinued, the positions of ruler and subject would fall into disuse, the conduct of the feudal princes would be evil, and the ruin wrought by rebellion, encroachment, and oppression would ensue.
Therefore the instructive and transforming power of ceremonies is subtile; they stop depravity before it has taken form, causing men daily to move towards what is good, and keep themselves farther apart from guilt, without being themselves conscious of it. It was on this account that the ancient kings set so high a value upon them. This sentiment is found in the words of the Yi, 'The superior man is careful at the commencement; a mistake, then, of a hair's breadth, will lead to an error of a thousand 1i.'
Source: Chinese Text Project http://ctext.org/liji. English translation "Sacred Books of the East, volume 28, part 4: The Li Ki", James Legge, 1885