Duke Ai asked Confucius, saying, 'What do you say about the great rites? How is it that superior men, in speaking about them, ascribe so much honour to them?' Confucius said, 'I, Qiu, am a small man, and unequal to a knowledge of the rites.' 'By no means,' said the ruler. 'Tell me what you think, my Master.' Then Confucius replied, 'According to what I have heard, of all things by which the people live the rites are the greatest. Without them they would have no means of regulating the services paid to the spirits of heaven and earth; without them they would have no means of distinguishing the positions proper to father and son, to high and low, to old and young; without them they would have no means of maintaining the separate character of the intimate relations between male and female, father and son, elder brother and younger, and conducting the intercourse between the contracting families in a marriage, and the frequency or infrequency (of the reciprocities between friends). These are the grounds on which superior men have honoured and reverenced (the rites) as they did. Thereafter, (having this view of the rites), they taught them to the people, on the ground of their ability (to practise them), not disregarding their general principles or the limitations (that circumstances impose in particular cases). When their object had been accomplished (so far), they proceeded to give rules for the engraving (of the ceremonial vessels), and the embroidering in various colours (of the robes), in order to secure the transmission (of the rites). Having obtained the concurrence (of the people in these things), they proceeded to tell them the different periods of mourning; to provide the full amount of tripods and stands; to lay down the (offerings of) pork and dried meats; to maintain in good order their ancestral temples; and then at the different seasons of the year reverently to present their sacrifices; and to arrange thereat, in order, the different branches and members of their kindred. Meanwhile (they themselves) were content to live economically, to have nothing fine about their dress; to have their houses low and poor; to eschew much carving about their carriages; to use their vessels without carving or graving; and to have the plainest diet, in order to share all their advantages in common with the people. In this manner did the superior men of antiquity practise the rites.'
The duke said, 'How is it that the superior men of the present day do not practise them (in this way).' Confucius said, 'The superior men of the present day are never satisfied in their fondness for wealth, and never wearied in the extravagance of their conduct. They are wild, idle, arrogant, and insolent. They determinedly exhaust the (resources of the) people, put themselves in opposition to the multitude, and seek to overthrow those who are pursuing the right way. They seek to get whatever they desire, without reference to right or reason. The former using of the people was according to the ancient rules; the using of them now-a-days is according to later rules. The superior men of the present day do not practise the rites (as they ought to be practised).'
Confucius was sitting beside duke Ai, when the latter said, 'I venture to ask, according to the nature of men, which is the greatest thing (to be attended to in dealing with them).' Confucius looked startled, changed countenance, and replied, 'That your lordship should put this question is a good thing for the people. How should your servant dare but express his opinion on it?' Accordingly he proceeded, and said, 'According to the nature of men, government is the greatest thing for them.'
The duke said, 'I venture to ask what is meant by the practice of government.' Confucius replied, 'Government is rectification. When the ruler is correct himself, all the people will follow his government. What the ruler does is what the people follow. How should they follow what he does not do?'
The duke said, 'I venture to ask how this practice of government is to be effected?' Confucius replied, 'Husband and wife have their separate functions; between father and son there should be affection; between ruler and minister there should be a strict adherence to their several parts. If these three relations be correctly discharged, all other things will follow.'
The duke said, 'Although I cannot, in my unworthiness, count myself as having attained, I should like to hear how these three things which you have mentioned can be rightly secured. May I hear it from you?' Confucius replied, 'With the ancients in their practice of government the love of men was the great point; in their regulation of this love of men, the rules of ceremony was the great point; in their regulation of those rules, reverence was the great point. For of the extreme manifestation of reverence we find the greatest illustration in the great (rite of) marriage. Yes, in the great (rite of) marriage there is the extreme manifestation of respect; and when one took place, the bridegroom in his square-topped cap went in person to meet the bride;--thus showing his affection for her. It was his doing this himself that was the demonstration of his affection. Thus it is that the superior man commences with respect as the basis of love. To neglect respect is to leave affection unprovided for. Without loving there can be no (real) union; and without respect the love will not be correct. Yes, love and respect lie at the foundation of government.'
The duke said, 'I wish that I could say I agree with you, but for the bridegroom in his square-topped cap to go in person to meet the bride - is it not making too much (of the ceremony)?' Confucius looked startled, changed countenance, and said, '(Such a marriage) is the union of (the representatives of) two different surnames in friendship and love, in order to continue the posterity of the former sages, and to furnish those who shall preside at the sacrifices to heaven and earth, at those in the ancestral temple, and at those at the altars to the spirits of the land and grain - how can your lordship say that the ceremony is made too great?'
The duke said, 'I am stupid. But if I were not stupid, how should I have heard what you have just said? I wish to question you, but cannot find the proper words (to do so); I beg you to go on a little further.' Confucius said, 'If there were not the united action of heaven and earth, the world of things would not grow. By means of the grand rite of marriage, the generations of men are continued through myriads of ages. How can your lordship say that the ceremony in question is too great?'
He immediately added, 'In their own peculiar sphere, (this marriage) serves for the regulation of the ceremonies of the ancestral temple, and is sufficient to supply the correlates to the spiritual Intelligences of heaven and earth; in the (wider) sphere abroad, it serves for the regulation of the ceremonies of the court, and is sufficient to establish the respect of those below him to him who is above them all. If there be ground for shame on account of (a deficiency of) resources, this is sufficient to stimulate and secure them; if there be ground for shame on account of the condition of the states, this is sufficient to revive and renew them. Ceremonies are the first thing to be attended to in the practice of government. Yes, (this) ceremony (of marriage) lies at the foundation of government!'
Confucius continued, 'Anciently, under the government of the intelligent kings of the three dynasties, it was required of a man to show respect to his wife and son. When the path (of right government) was pursued, the wife was the hostess of the (deceased) parents - could any husband dare not to show her respect? And the son was the descendant of those parents - could any father dare not to show him respect? The superior man's respect is universal. Wherein it appears the greatest is in his respect for himself. He is in his person a branch from his parents - can any son but have this self-respect? If he is not able to respect his own person, he is wounding his parents. If he wound his parents, he is wounding his own root; and when the root is wounded, the branches will follow it in its dying. These three things are an image of what is true with the whole people (in the body politic). One's own person reaches to the persons of others; one's own son to the sons of others; one's own wife to the wives of others. If a ruler do these things, the spirit of his conduct will reach to all under the sky. If the course of the great king be thus, all the states and families will be docilely obedient.'
The duke said, 'I venture to ask what is meant by "respecting one's self."' Confucius replied, 'When a man who is over others transgresses in his words, the people will fashion their speech accordingly; when he transgresses in his actions, the people will make him their model. If in his words he do not go beyond what should be said, nor in his actions what should be a model, then the people, without being commanded, will reverence and honour him. When this obtains, he can be said to have respected his person. Having succeeded in respecting his person, he will (at the same time) be able to do all that can be done for his parents.'
The duke said, 'I venture to ask what is meant by doing all that can be done for one's parents?' Confucius replied, 'Jun-zi is the completest name for a man; when the people apply the name to him, they say (in effect) that he is the son of a Jun-zi; and thus he makes his parents (?father) to be a Jun-zi. This is what I intend by saying that he does all that can be done for his parents.'
Confucius forthwith added, 'In the practice of government in antiquity, the love of men was the great point. If (a ruler) be not able to love men he cannot possess his own person; unable to possess his own person, he cannot enjoy in quiet his land; unable to enjoy in quiet his land, he cannot rejoice in Heaven; unable to rejoice in Heaven, he cannot do all that can be done for his person.'
The duke said, 'I venture to ask what is meant by "doing all that could be done for one's person."' Confucius replied, 'It is keeping from all transgression of what is due in all the sphere beyond one's self.'
The duke said, 'I venture to ask what it is that the superior man values in the way of Heaven.' Confucius replied, 'He values its unceasingness. There is, for instance, the succession and sequence of the sun and moon from the east and west - that is the way of Heaven. There is the long continuance of its progress without interruption - that is the way of Heaven. There is its making (all) things complete without doing anything - that is the way of Heaven. There is their brilliancy when they have been completed - that is the way of Heaven.'
The duke said, 'I am very stupid, unintelligent also, and occupied with many things; do you, Sir, help me that I may keep this lesson in my mind.' Confucius looked grave, moved a little from his mat, and replied, 'A man of all-comprehensive virtue does not transgress what is due from him in all the sphere beyond himself, and it is the same with a filial son. Therefore a son of all-comprehensive virtue serves his parents as he serves Heaven, and serves Heaven as he serves his parents.' Hence a filial son does all that can be done for his person.'
The duke said, 'I have heard your (excellent) words;--how is it that I shall hereafter not be able to keep from the guilt (of transgressing)?' Confucius answered, 'That your lordship gives expression to such words is a happiness to me.'
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