As I discussed last time, Xunzi clearly saw ritual as important, but important in very different way from his predecessors. Yes, a gentleman should perform rituals as if he was actually serving the dead, but he should not think he was actually interacting with ‘real’ beings. That type of talk was for commoners. Of course it was also for the Shang kings, who’s power came explicitly from their ability to use ritual to interact with and get favors from the ancestors and the powers. So for Xunzi ritual still matters, but not in the all-encompassing magical way it did before.
To find the real magic in Rites and Music in Xunzi you need to look at Music, which is Chapter 20. Here we do find a transcendent magical thing that can change the world. You can see this in at least two ways. One is that music is dangerous if you get it wrong. Bad music is connected to a bad age and seems to help make it bad.
The influence of music and sound on man is very profound, and the transformations they produce in him can be very rapid. Thus, the Ancient Kings were assiduous in creating proper forms. …. If music spoils and seduces toward wickedness, then the people will become dissipated and indolent and will be mean-spirited and base. Where they are dissipated and indolent, there is disorder; where they are mean-spirited and base, there is conflict. Where there is disorder and conflict, the army is weak and the city walls are broken through, so that enemy states can threaten the existence of the state. When this situation prevails, the Hundred Clans feel insecure even in their own homes, are
discontent with their native villages, and are dissatisfied with their superiors. Thus, casting aside ritual and music and allowing evil songs to develop is the root of danger and territorial encroachment for the country and of insult and dishonor for the ruler. Thus, the Ancient Kings esteemed ritual and music and despised evil songs.
If people are exposed to bad music the effects are….bad
Men wear brightly colored clothing; their demeanor is softly feminine; their manners are lascivious; their minds are bent on profit; their conduct lacks consistency; their music is wicked; and their patterns and decorations are gravely in error and gaudy.1 They nurture the needs of the living without measure, but they send off their dead in a niggardly manner and with blackly impure principles. They despise ritual and moral principles, and prize instead valor and feats of strength. When they are poor, they become robbers; when they are rich, they become predators. An orderly age is the opposite of this.
The stuff about those kids today and their music goes back farther than you might have thought. The big difference from rites is that music is actually dangerous. Mis-perform a rite and nothing happens.2 Play bad music and the world is disordered. You can sort of see this in the status of people who do these things. In Xunzi (and Lu Buwei, who I am also reading right now) music masters seem to be people of considerable stature, while the guy who checks to see if you have the right kind of vessels out for a ritual is some sort of underling.
Next Lu Buwei on music and the other way it is magical. (Bet you can’t wait)