Confucius never defines exactly what he means by the rites in Book 3 of the Analects. Instead, he spends most of his energy on criticizing others, most notably members of the Three Families, for their violations of the unwritten rules governing important ritual ceremonies that had presumably existed since at least the beginnings of the Zhou dynasty in the early 11th century and probably even before that.
Confucius’s indignation was heightened because he was well aware that members of the Three Families were deliberately flouting these conventions in order to demonstrate the extent of their influence and power in Lu. It was no accident that the head of the Ji Family employed eight rows of dancers to take part in ritual ceremonies at his ancestral temple rather than the four he was entitled to as a feudal lord. Since eight was by tradition only allowed for the emperor, he was telling the world that he was on the same level.
The same was true of the performance of a forbidden ode from the Book of Songs in their ancestral sacrifices by the Three Families referred to in Chapter II and the carrying out of a ritual sacrifice on the sacred Mount Tai featured in Chapter VI. These were not just serious violations of age-old traditions that unified the country around an enduring set of cultural values; they were ostentatious displays of raw, brute power that, to Confucius at least, presaged the impending collapse of society. If the most powerful and influential people in the land showed such blatant disrespect to the ancient traditions and values, how could the common people be expected to adhere to them?
Ritual ceremonies originated from sacrifices to the dead that were carried out from the dawn of antiquity. Over the centuries, they acquired such a daunting array of rules and conventions that a class of experts known as rujia (儒家) emerged to conduct them and advise people how to carry them out. Having studied the Zhou rituals extensively while a young man, Confucius was one of these specialists (indeed the term rujia went on to mean Confucianism after his death), and was therefore no doubt both professionally and personally offended whenever he saw these rules and conventions being violated.
However, he did also believe that the spirit in which a ceremony was conducted was more important than making sure that every little rule was followed to the letter. In Chapter XII, he advises that sacrifice “requires presence: you should sacrifice to the spirits as if they are there.”
In a similar vein he advises his disciple Lin Fang in Chapter IV that “genuine grief is better than excessive formality” for funerals, and in a pointed barb at the ostentatious displays of wealth put on by the Three Families, advises that “simplicity is better than extravagance” when it comes to festive ceremonies.
There’s no doubt that Confucius was genuinely passionate about preserving the integrity of the rites. However, it’s also hard to escape the conclusion that even though the venomous criticisms he unleashed against his contemporaries for violating it were quite entertaining, they did nothing to persuade them to mend their ways.
Perhaps Confucius would have been far more effective if he adopted a much more subtle and conciliatory approach towards them. Or perhaps he had come to the conclusion that they were already beyond redemption and he thus had nothing to lose by lashing out at them.