Youzi said: “When practicing the rites, harmony is the key. This is what made the Way of the ancient kings so beautiful and inspired their every action, no matter how great or small. But they also knew where to draw the line, recognizing that if harmony is not governed by ritual everything will fall out of balance.”
There is no perfect translation for the term lǐ (禮), a central tenet of Confucius’s teachings. I’ve chosen to settle with “ritual”; though it could be alternatively rendered as “rites”, “rules”, “rules of proprietary”, “rules of behavior”, “courtesy”, “manners”, or perhaps even “etiquette” or “ethics”.
In its narrowest sense, lǐ refers to the formal rituals that were common in Ancient China, including the extremely elaborate ceremonies that were prescribed for interactions between the ruler and his subjects and ministers. More broadly, however, the term covers the unwritten rules of behavior that govern smooth interactions between people and ensure a stable society.
In this chapter, Youzi is saying that rituals has to be carried out in the right spirit if they are to have to any meaning. There is no point in going through the motions of taking part in a long and complicated ceremony just for form’s sake; you also have to be able to engage with it personally on an emotional, intellectual, and ethical level.
By the same token, you shouldn’t let your feelings take over completely either. Like the ancient kings Youzi refers to, you need to strike a harmonious balance between your personal interests and your obligations as a member of society.