chapter  2
Filial piety with a vengeance: the tension between rites and law in the Han
ByANNE CHENG
Pages 15

In an article entitled “Ritualisme et juridisme,” Léon Vandermeersch describes the rites of ancient China as “mechanisms which rule social relationships a priori.”1 He then quotes the Da Dai Liji – “Rites condemn beforehand, penal law condemns afterwards” – and comes to the conclusion that “in China penal law has always been, with reason, treated as being essentially heterogeneous with the rites.”2 One is also reminded of the famous sentence in the Liji: “Rites do not reach down to commoners; punishments do not reach up to high officials.”3 The whole Chinese, especially Confucian, vision is dominated by the centrality of the principle of harmonization (he ), of which the rites (li ) are expressions par excellence, while penal law (xing ), which strives to dissuade through its harshness and, at worst, inflicts correction a posteriori, appears as a simple makeshift. In view of the complex relationships that exist in Chinese tradition between particularistic rites and universalistic laws, the case of ritual murder carried out by vengeance is problematic and has, in fact, never ceased to give food for thought to experts both on classical sources and on legal texts.