The ritual and music system


The ritual and music system was a cultural system established during the Zhou Dynasty to maintain the feudal system.

After King Wu of the Zhou Dynasty destroyed the Shang Dynasty, the rulers of the Western Zhou Dynasty established four major systems to consolidate their rule and establish a stable political system: the feudal system (feudal system), the well field system, the patriarchal system, and the ritual and music system to support the Zhou Dynasty.

Origins and Development

Rites, as a symbol of class division, had been formed since the tribal period when there was a gap between the rich and the poor, so we will not talk about it here.

Let’s talk about music alone. As early as the tribal period, ancient Chinese people invented musical instruments such as the bone flute, and also created music rhythms, which made great contributions to the emergence of music. In the Shanhaijing, there is a mythical record of the post Xia Qi getting the music of heaven to change nine moves. In the Shang Dynasty, music appeared on the stage of history as an essential part of the rituals, and music became popular among the nobles. In the Zhou dynasty, the Duke of Zhou set up the great achievements of the previous dynasties in order to consolidate his rule. From rituals to consolidate class division, control people’s thoughts and opinions, fundamentally laying down the class distinction in China. Music, on the other hand, was sublimated into a kind of treatment, with different treatment for different classes, also for better propaganda and consolidation of class rule. It was also at this time that the ritual and music system was formally established.

About rituals: Rituals and laws were already in place as early as the Xia Dynasty. By the theocratic era of the Shang Dynasty, rituals and laws were consolidated in faith, and the Duke of Zhou merely summarized the experience of his predecessors and perfected the system of rituals and laws, making them applicable to the patriarchal system.


The “rites” of the Spring and Autumn Period were developed and modified by the nobles according to the customs and practices of the patriarchal clan system at the end of primitive society, and were used as a means of ruling the people and consolidating relations within the nobles. The purpose was to maintain the patriarchal system and the power of the king, the clan, the husband and the gods, and to maintain the hereditary system and hierarchy of the nobility and to strengthen their rule. Many of the economic and political rules and regulations of the time were often incorporated into the performance of various rites, and relied on the performance of various rites to establish and maintain them.

In the late Spring and Autumn period, there was a situation of “rites and music collapse”. While seizing the power of the ruler, these officials not only usurped the rites of the vassals and lords, but also the rites of the Son of Heaven. According to the ritual, the dance of the Son of Heaven was performed with “eight dancers” (the word “row” means “column”, eight people in each column, eight dancers and sixty-four people), at this time, the Ji Suns also used “eight dancers”. Confucius rebuked them, saying, “What can be tolerated is also unbearable!” According to the ritual, the Son of Heaven sang the poem “Yong” to remove the offerings, but at that time the three families of Lu “withdrew with “Yong””, and Confucius thought that this kind of thing should not be done in the “hall of the three families”. According to the ritual, only the Son of Heaven could “travel” (sacrifice) to Mount Tai, but at this time, Jisun’s family “traveled to Mount Tai”, and Confucius accused him of not knowing the ritual (Analects of Confucius – Eight Dancers). The fact that the minister of the court “usurped the rites” in this way was in essence a manifestation of the seizure of political power.

The system of rites and music was mainly used to maintain the patriarchal system and the power of the king, the clan, the husband and the god. Xunzi – Theory of Rites says: “Rites have three bases: heaven and earth, the basis of birth; ancestors, the basis of class (clan); and the ruler and teacher, the basis of rule.” “To serve heaven from above, to serve the earth from below, to honor the ancestors and to honor the teachers, these are the three bases of rituals.” The “three bases of ritual” are heaven and earth representing divine power, ancestors representing clan power, and junshi representing ruler power. Later rulers used heaven, earth, ruler, kin, and teacher as the main objects of worship, based on this theory.

In the Spring and Autumn Period, the nobles had more rites, including the registration rite, crown rite, great search rite, country drinking rite, country shooting rite, court rite, bride-price rite, sacrificial rite, wedding rite, funeral rite and so on. The rite of registry was used to supervise the commoners to perform unpaid collective labor on the “registry fields” in order to maintain the method called “registry”. The crown ceremony was to grant various privileges to adult nobles in order to maintain the interests of the nobility and strengthen the relationship between the members of the nobility. The Grand Search Ceremony was a military parade and exercise, which served to integrate the army, review the strength of the troops and strengthen the rule. The village drinking ceremony was to maintain the patriarchal system and the ruling order of the nobility within a township. The Xiang shooting ceremony was in the nature of military training and military study by the township. The court ceremony was to respect the power and status of the king. The rite of betrothal was to maintain the hierarchy and order within the nobility. The rituals of worship to heaven and earth and ancestors were to maintain divine authority and respect clan authority. The wedding and funeral rites were to maintain the patriarchal system and clan rights.

In the Warring States period, due to the change of the farming system, the “registry” method was abolished, and the registry rituals were only used by the rulers to show their concern for agricultural production. Due to the change in the composition of the army and the way of fighting, the original Dasou rituals became useless. Due to the change of the local organization, the nature of the countryside drinking ceremony and the countryside shooting ceremony also changed. At this time, due to the establishment of centralized government and the needs of the rulers to rule, importance was attached to the rites of accession, dynastic rites, sacrificial rites and funeral rites. Xunzi’s “Treatise on Rites” focuses on the rites of sacrifice and funeral rites, and speaks in particular detail about funeral rites, creating the theoretical basis for the ritual and music system of the time.


In the Spring Palace, there were music officials such as the Grand Secretary of Music, musicians and masters, and more than 1400 musicians, who were responsible for music education, teaching music, performance and other music affairs. Most of them were highly trained musicians with a clear division of labor, each in his own way. The Rites of Zhou. Chun Gong” clearly recorded the job requirements of the highest music palace: “The great musician is in charge of the law of Chengjun, in order to rule the school administration of the state, and the children of the state Jin”. There are four main subjects of teaching: music and virtue, music and language, music and dance (big dance) and small dance. Because of the combination of rituals, the contents all contain ethical and moral concepts. In the spring palace there were also small teachers, chime teachers, bell teachers, shang teachers and hao teachers to teach instrumental music skills. Such emphasis on music education in the Zhou Dynasty would undoubtedly have contributed to the development of music culture, and the various related measures also promoted and ensured the development of music, thus making the Zhou court music reach a high level.

However, on the other hand, due to the over-emphasis on the role of rituals, the music was not able to give full play to its artistic characteristics, so that in the late Spring and Autumn Period, with the rise of new ideas and the development of folk music, this ceremonial music became increasingly decadent.

Inheritance and Development

The ritual music system was born in the Western Zhou Dynasty and lasted for thousands of years until the end of Qing Dynasty, the specific contents of each period were not the same, but theoretically they were all exemplified by the Western Zhou Dynasty and the ultimate purpose was the same.

“If the Duke of Zhou was the main maker of ‘rites and music’, Confucius was the firm defender of ‘rites and music’. [Confucius’ Confucianism is about benevolence, ethics, self-cultivation, morality, rationality, harmony, learning, and education, all of which are closely related to ritual. Confucius attached great importance to rituals, and believed that people should strictly observe the rituals, and that if the ruler was “good at rituals, no one would dare to disrespect them”, and if the ruled “did not learn rituals, they would not be able to stand”. He viewed music with an ethical attitude of benevolence, and evaluated the music and dance of the Sixth Dynasty as “as beautiful as it can be, but not as good as it can be”, and rejected the violent content in it. Only the best music can bring out the best beauty, and the best goodness has to be cultivated by rituals. Confucius’ “emphasis on education” taught his ideas of ritual and music to people and then preserved them.

The rituals divided the hierarchy and classes in the society, so that ancient Chinese music was divided into “court music” and “folk music”. The materials of court music basically came from the folk, and were modified and compiled by the court’s imperial literati and musicians. One of the functions of the “Music House” established during the Western Han Dynasty was to collect folk music, so that the ruler could see from folk songs how his own performance was, and thus know his enemy to achieve a better ruling effect, while also collecting music scattered among the people and passing them on to future generations to a certain extent. I personally think that this “folk” system is similar to the Gregorian chant in Western music history, the ultimate purpose of the ruler to collect folk songs is to consolidate the rule.

The Tang Dynasty was the heyday of ancient Chinese culture, economy and diplomacy, and the music of the Tang Dynasty absorbed foreign elements and was rich in variety as never before. At this time, the elegant music belonging to the rulers was dwarfed by the colorful aura of Yan music. Besides, the elegant music was the “elegant music” to glorify the emperor, which focused on the form but not on the melodic beauty, and even the ruler himself thought that “elegant music is not beautiful”. Even though the emperors of the Tang Dynasty loved and respected Yan music, they did not take the “ritual music” lightly. Li Longji, the Tang emperor, was six years old when he performed the musical dance “Long Life Girl” in front of his grandmother Wu Zetian, which shows that the system of teaching music to noblemen’s children to make them understand the importance of rituals and music in ruling the country, which was inherited from the Western Zhou Dynasty, was still continued. It had a strict management and examination system to select the best musicians to serve the court not only because the Tang emperors attached great importance to music, but also to show the wealth and strength of the Tang Dynasty through superb performances.

The “Great Feast”, which appeared in the Song Dynasty, was a ritual and music system for the emperor’s sacrifice, feast and enrolment in important festivals, and continued until the Qing Dynasty. Daguan three years, the Bureau of Rites on the Spring and Autumn feast on the Hall: its day, pre-feast civil and military bureaucrats at the Palace of the Court, East and West stand. The emperor out of the imperial need to cloud the temple, the cabinet door, chamberlain, tube army, etc. get up …… set Ying Hall drinking blessing great feast instrument. At the beginning, after the great ceremony, the emperor drank the blessing one by one, the remaining wine sealed into the interior. Feast day descends out, wine both three lines, the pan-gift pre-sitting ministers to drink blessing wine each one, the group of ministers drink finished …… [yuan – off and so on by the “Song history – Zhi 66 – ritual sixteen”]”

For historical and cultural reasons, the Jin and Yuan rulers failed to gain strong control over the ritual and music system, resulting in a certain laxity in the ideological confinement of feudal society. This allowed opera, as a popular form of literature and art, to flourish and thrive in the folklore.

Later, the Ming and Qing dynasties were similar to the Song dynasty’s “Great Banquet Ritual”. In the Ming system, “there are big feast, middle feast, regular feast and small feast. [Qing – Zhang Tingyu, etc., “Ming history – Zhi 29 – ritual seven”]” “Grand feast instrument on the honorary number of the emblem of the instrument of honorary title Taifei Tai concubine instrument with the registration of the establishment of the middle court instrument of the book of concubine instrument with the main book of the royal book of the royal prince instrument of the prince of the thousand autumn festival with the book of the king instrument of the book of the princess with knowledge. [Ke Shao Man et al. by the Qing dynasty history manuscript – Zhi sixty-three – ritual seven]”

From the Song and Ming dynasties, court music declined repeatedly, while folk music flourished like a spring. After all, the feudal ruling system was backward and unpopular, and the ritual and music system, which was in the hands of the rulers, was destined to perish. However, it cannot be denied that the ritual music system influenced the whole feudal society and music pattern in ancient China, and it was indeed a very effective means to control China for nearly two thousand years under certain historical conditions as the ruling class used music to sway politics.

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