Rituals and Changes

Just under a week ago, I arrived back in China for a short visit, to attend the Second Wuxi Yijing World Summit Forum (第二届世界易经高峰论坛) in Wuxi city, a large annual gathering for enthusiasts of the Book of Changes or Yijing (I Ching).

After a few months away from China, it is good to be back. And it has been an extremely stimulating few days spent in the company of an eclectic mix of scholars, devotees, diviners, financial speculators, geomancers, Buddhists, Daoists, Confucians and others. There was a sizeable international contingent as well, and perhaps unsurprisingly many of us were coming from the standpoint of being practitioners of various kinds of artforms. So amongst us there were also flamenco singers and folk dancers and writers and sculptors and ceramicists. And a couple of fellow philosophers as well, for good measure. I’m intrigued by the way the Yijing has been so very productive in the West in the field of the arts — perhaps much more so than in philosophy or in any other area.

One of the things I like best about this kind of conference is that it is a way of bringing together people who, although ostensibly interested in the same thing, actually have widely divergent purposes, aims and world-views. So when the presentations in Chinese were too technical for me to follow easily (or were in accents that were just too baffling), I just sat back and let the anthropologist in me loose, wondering what everybody was up to, what complex hidden structures were at work behind the scenes, and what mechanisms were tying those disparate worlds together.

If there is one thing on which anthropologists and Confucians agree, it is the importance of li or ritual: not only as a way of holding the world together, but of creating new worlds. It is possible to undervalue or overlook ritual. But even for those who claim to devalue or disavow it, ritual is inescapable. It might be tempting to say that we can do without ritual, that we would be better off with informality; but this is to forget that informality is a kind of ritual too. All academic conferences—even the most low-budget, shabby, ad-hoc British ones—are steeped in ritual. Ritual is an inescapable part our how we build our lives together.

Our own rituals can often feel like just the way things are done (“but of course there is a coffee break…”), to the extent that they don’t even appear to be rituals at all. On the other hand, other people’s rituals can seem both exotic and strange. Part of the business of finding our feet in new worlds is learning the proper forms of ritual until they become so smooth that they are once again a part of our own sense of just the way things are done. And part of the business of welcoming others is smoothing the way for them to learn these rituals, by invitation rather than by coercion, whilst also allowing our own rituals to be flexible enough to be changed, even if ever-so-slightly, by the arrival of our guests (our rituals are never as inflexible as we might think or pretend).

So this conference — my first largely Chinese conference — has, in part, been an education in ritual: the extended welcome speeches from assorted dignitaries — bureaucrats, propaganda chiefs, scholars, company heads, honoured overseas guests, heads of this or that association; the conference coach trip (to the home of Rong Yiren — the ‘Red Capitalist’, and one of the engineers of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms); the particular formalities of Chinese academic discourse and style (very different to that in the West); the ritualised bestowing of gifts, prizes, awards, certificates, and equally ritualised photographic recording of this gift-giving; and of course the baijiu toasts with the party of Mongolian Yijing enthusiasts with whom I shared a table on the final night’s banquet (how have I managed to escape drinking baijiu until now? And, more importantly, how can I manage to continue to escape drinking baijiu in the future?). And, perhaps most profoundly unsettling of all, no coffee breaks. I know. A conference without coffee breaks. You’re shocked, right? Everybody knows that academics in the humanities are machines for turning coffee into nonsense.

Coffee breaks on one side, what ritual does above all else (as the anthropologists and Confucians know) is it forges relationships. It clears paths to the future. So it is incredibly important to get it right. And the hosts of the Wuxi conference did indeed get it right, navigating the business of integrating tricksy foreigners into the life of the conference with considerable grace, elegance and care.

I am both impressed and grateful for their hard work and thoughtfulness. It is because of their considerable ritual skill that I am coming away from Wuxi not only with a head full of new ideas and thoughts, and a whole bunch of new friendships and relationships. I hope to be back next year.

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