An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Zhouli 周禮

Jul 24, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

Zhouli 周禮 "Rites of the Zhou" is a decription of the putative organisation of the government during the Western Zhou period 西周 (11th cent.-770 BCE). It is one of the three classics on rites (sanli 三禮) and one of the Thirteen Confucian Classics. It was compiled during the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE) and was known under the names Zhouguan 周官 "The offices of the Zhou" or Zhouguanjing 周官經 "Classic of the offices of the Zhou". Only during the Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE) did the bibliographer Liu Xin 劉歆 (d. 23 CE) give the text the name Zhouli.

The Three Ritual Classics (Sanli 三禮)
周禮 Zhouli The "Rites of the Zhou"
儀禮 Yili "Etiquette and Rites"
禮記 Liji "Record of Rites"
三禮圖 Sanlitu (Han) 鄭玄 Zheng Xuan
三禮圖集注 Sanlitu jizhu (Five Dynasties) 聶崇義 Nie Chongyi
Related to the "Rites of the Zhou"
考工記 Kaogongji "Records on the Examination of Craftsmanship"

The book consists of six parts corresponding to the six ministries (liubu 六部) which, according to ancient cosmology, were correlated to Heaven, Earth, and the four seasons. There are 376 state officials in total, with subaltern secretaries numbering many thousands. The Ministries, their cosmology and structure are:

Table 1. The Six Ministries decribed in the Zhouli
天官 tianguan Celestial Offices
冢宰 zhongzai Chief Minister 治官 zhiguan "regulating offices"
63 officials looked after the royal palace and its administration, as well as the core of the central government
地官 diguan Terrestrial Offices
司徒 situ Overseer of Public Affairs (Minister of Education) 教官 jiaoguan "educational offices"
78 officials looked after the local administration, especially the royal domain around the capital, and its inhabitants
春官 chunguan Spring Offices
宗伯 zongbo Overseer of Ritual Affairs (Minister of Rites) 禮官 liguanguan "ritual offices"
70 officials looked after religious matters and the education of state officials
夏官 xiaguan Summer Offices
司馬 sima Overseer of Military Affairs (Minister of War) 政官 zhengguan "governing offices"
69 officials were responsible for warfare and communication
秋官 qiuguan Autumn Offices
司冠 sikou Overseer of Penal Affairs (Minister of Justice) 刑官 xing guan "penal offices"
66 officials were responsible for jurisdiction
冬官 dongguan Winter Offices
司空 sikong Overseer of Public Works (Minister of Works) 事官 shiguan "affairs offices"
30 officials looked after dykes, canals, irrigation and all other public works

Each chapter begins with a list of the whole staff of one ministry, linke for instance, in the case of the first Ministry:

Quotation 1. The Chief Staff of the Celestial Offices
大宰,卿一人; Grand Steward: one minister;
小宰,中大夫二人; Junior Steward*: two 2nd-class grand masters (dafu 大夫);
宰夫,下大夫四人, Assistant Ministers of State: four 3rd-class grand masters,
上士八人,中士十有六人,旅下士三十有二人,府六人,史十有二人,胥十有二人,徒百有二十人。 [furthermore a staff of] eight 1st-class servicemen (shi 士), sixteen 2nd-class servicemen, 36 4th-class administrative officials, six storekeepers, twelve scribes, twelve assistants, and 120 attendants.
Translation following Biot 1851, titles according to Hucker 1985 (barring *).

When the full listing is ended, the text continues with a description of the particular officer's duties, for instance:

Quotation 2. The Duties of the Grand Steward
大宰之職,掌建邦之六典,以佐王治邦國: The Grand Steward is entrusted with the duty to found the six constitutions for the states, in order to support the sovereign in the administration of the kingdom.
一曰治典,以經邦國,以治官府,以紀萬民; The first is the constitution of administration. By means of it the canvas for the states are formed, the officials are directed, and the peoples are divided.
二曰教典,以安邦國,以教官府,以擾萬民; The second is the constitution of (moral and political) education. By means of it the states are consolidated, the officials instructed, and the peoples civilized.
三曰禮典,以和邦國,以統百官,以諧萬民; The third is the constitution of rites. By means of it the states are harmonized, the officials brought into accord, and the peoples united in concord.
四曰政典,以平邦國,以正百官,以均萬民; The fourth is the constitution of commandment. By means of it the states pacified, the officials are rectified (as to their ranks), and the peoples egalized (as to their services).
;五曰刑典,以詰邦國,以刑百官,以糾萬民; The fifth is the constitution of penalties. By means of it the states are corrected, the officials punished, and the peoples restricted.
六曰事典,以富邦國,以任百官,以生萬民。 The sixth is the constitution of works. By means of it the states are supplied, the officials activated, and the peoples nourished.
Following Biot 1851

The most frequently commented part of the Zhouli is the chapter Kaogongji 考工記 that reports on the offices and work of the employees under the Overseer of Public Works. It is a substitute for the last chapter, the description of the Winter Offices which was lost.

The Zhouli became part of the Classics thought at the National University (taixue 太學) only during the reign of Wang Mang 王莽 (r. 8-22 CE). The usurper used this book to re-establish the universal and state orders that were believed to have existed under the early Zhou kings. With the downfall of Wang Mang and the restoration of the Han dynasty the Zhouli was banished from the curriculum of the National University.

Liu Xin's disciple Du Zichun 杜子春 (c. 30 BCE-c. 58 CE) wrote a commentary on the Zhouli that was known by the Confucian scholars Zheng Xing 鄭興, Zheng Zhong 鄭眾, and Jia Kui 賈逵 (30-101). Zheng Xing wrote the commentary Zhouguan jiegu 周官解沽, Ma Rong 馬融 (79–176) the commentary Zhouguan zhuan 周官傳, and Zheng Xuan 鄭玄 (127–200) the Zhouguanli zhu 周官禮注. During the last decades of the Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE) the three books Yili 儀禮, Liji 禮記 and Zhouli were admitted to the canon as the three ritual books.

Zheng Xuan believed in the authenticity of the Zhouli as a book compiled on the order of the Duke of Zhou 周公 (11th cent. BCE), regent during the early Zhou period, while many others considered it to be a forgery or a text concocted at a much later date. During the Song period 宋 (960-1279) the reformer Wang Anshi 王安石 (1021-1086) used is as a model, and was criticised for this by many of his opponents who argued that the text was a fake and that the administrative structure in this text had nothing to do with the contemporary situation. The Neo-Confucian philosopher Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130-1200) was of the opinion that the text had been created by the bibliographer Liu Xin on Wang Mang's order. From then on, the text was largely neglected.

During the Qing period 清 (1644-1911), Wan Sitong 萬斯同 (1638-1702, author of Zhouguan bian fei 周官辨非), Yao Jiheng 姚際恒 (1647-1715, Gujin weishu kao 古今偽書考), Mao Qiling 毛奇齡 (1623-1716, Jingwen 經問), and Fang Bao 方苞 (1668-1749, Zhouguan bian wei 周官辨偽) likewise maintained that the text was not produced earlier than the Han. Kang Youwei 康有為 (1858-1927) was probably the most vehement critic of the Zhouli and thought it had been composed according to some statements in the book Guanzi 管子, yet Mao Qiling, Wang Zhong 汪中 (1745-1794, author of Zhouguan zhengwen 周官徵文) and Wang Guowei 王國維 (1877-1927) also found evidence that at least parts of the text had been created during the Warring States period, for instance, those on ritual music.

There are also many hints in contemporary sources that the offices described in the Zhouli really existed. Famous statements about the administrative system of the Zhou, like Mengzi's 孟子 description of the "well-field" system (jingtian 井田), or Xunzi's 荀子 description of the "royal regulations" (Wangzhi 王制) differ from that presented in the Zhouli. Thus it is conceivable that the Confucians Mengzi and Xunzi had different ideas about the royal administration from the compilers of the Zhouli. The Confucians had in mind a system that had existed during the Western Zhou period, while the offices and administrative processes described in the Zhouli correspond to those existing during the Eastern Zhou period, as can be seen by comparison with other sources. After all it must be concluded that only a few parts of the text were compiled during the Han, and not, as many scholar had argued, the whole book.

The high quality of Zheng Xuan's commentary saved it from being excluded from the Classics, and it obtained its fixed place within the Canon. During the Tang period 唐 (618-907) Jia Gongyan 賈公彥 wrote the commentary Zhouli yishu 周禮義疏 with a length of 42 juan. Both important commentaries (Zheng Xuan and Jia Gongyan) were printed in a joint edition during the Song period, called Zhouli zhushu 周禮注疏. The third standard commentary is Sun Yirang's 孫詒讓 (1848-1908) Zhouli zhengyi 周禮正義.

The Zhouli was translated completely (including commentaries) by Édouard Biot, Le Tcheou-Li ou Rites des Tcheou (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1851). An English translation has not yet been made.

Boltz, William G. (1993). "Chou li", in Michael Loewe, ed. Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide (Berkeley: Society for the Study of Early China/Institute of East Asian Studies), 24-32.
Liu Qiyu 劉起釪 (1992). "Zhouli 周禮", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 3, 1603.

Further reading:
Nylan, Michael (2001). The Five "Confucian" Classics (New Haven: Yale University Press).