Chinese history professor talks ancient rituals

Arun Prasath|Staff Harvard professor Michael Puett visited campus to give a lecture about ancient Chinese philosophy.

Harvard lecturer gives lecture on old Confucian philosophy 

Most people would not consider ancient Chinese philosophy to be useful in the modern age but Harvard professor Michael Puett argues that we have much to learn from Confucian rituals in his lecture, “Why Classical Chinese Philosophy Still Matters in the Age of Globalization” which took place on Feb. 26 in the Jonsson Performance Hall.

Puett is a professor of Chinese History and has won multiple awards for teaching and advising.

During his lecture, Puett examined the rituals of ancient China, particularly ceremonies called “shi” which means impersonation of departed people. This ancient ceremony is similar to a role reversal.

In rural areas of China, where families did not have spiritual tablets to worship their ancestors, the youngest son of a family impersonated a passed father or grandfather and served as the object of worship. They ate and drank with the son as if they were eating and drinking with the dead.

“Shi” has long been regarded as futile and archaic by modern China, but Puett argues that people can still learn from this tradition.

“You do the role reversal because it lets you see the active world from a different perspective,” Puett said.

Ming Dong Gu, director of the UTD Confucius Institute, said these rituals have greater purposes than were previously realized.

“It forces the man who is doing the worship to view things from his son’s and departed ancestor’s perspectives,” Gu said.

These rituals are set apart from reality. Once a person steps into the “shi” ceremony room, they are completely separated from everyday life. This allows people to open their minds and perceive ideas in different, unexpected ways.

“It may force us to rethink some ideas,” Puett said. “It may challenge our assumptions about lots of things, but I argue, challenge them in very exciting ways.”

Le Trang, a Ph. D. student in the School of Arts and Humanities believes that Puett’s teachings have real world applications.

“Although people are becoming independent, there is a tendency of isolation in people’s lives,” Trang said. “In the traditional Chinese perspective, kinship is good and there is a bond between generations.”

Trang said it is important for us to return to these natural relationships that were prominent in traditional so cieties.

“There is an ethical relationship from the very nature of human beings,” he said.

Puett argues that if these rituals aren’t performed on a regular basis, bad energies will arise within a person.

These energies, or emotions, can be solved and relinquished if these rituals are done. However, if these energies are left to fester, the consequences could be dire even after death. He attributes famines and other natural disasters to a collection of these negative energies.

“Ritual works because it breaks you out of these patterns,” Puett said. “It forces a rupture.”

Although, these rituals seem odd in theory, the real world implications are endless. If a person continues to perform these rituals, he said they could be more open-minded and sense things in different ways.

Despite the benefits, he explains that some may not like ritual because it forces people to be insincere and to not be true to themselves. However, he said, that’s the point. In order for people to live mentally healthy lives, people must step away from reality.

The habits that humans fall into such as uncontrolled anger or behaving a certain way become social conventions that they are born or socialized into. He said these patterns should not be definitive of a person’s life.

“The goal is to transform us as human beings,” Puett said.

He said the act of role reversal is a common practice for therapists as well. In psychology and psychodrama, children and parents often switch roles in order to better empathize with each other. Often sparking insight between both groups.

He said this practice also aids people from becoming solely profit seeking in a capitalist, globalized society because taking a step back and viewing life from a different perspective can be liberating.

“Chinese philosophy is something that all of us should be studying,” Puett said. “It’s something that can truly change your life.”

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