The rites can be best understood as a behavioral language that provides the grammar, syntax, and standard usage patterns that enable people to act in an appropriate way in any given situation – whether at a wedding or a funeral or at a formal dinner or a casual lunch.
To give a very simple example, in most cultures when you meet a person for the first time, you don’t even have to be told the “right” way to greet them. Without even having to think about it, you shake their hand because this is the standard ritual or script for such an occasion.
Over time, of course, this behavioral language evolves, but even if the forms in which it is used may change, the underlying structure and core principles that govern it stay the same. Thus, in Chapter 23 of Book 2, Confucius is able to predict what the future will be like “even a hundred generations from now” because he is confident that any successors to the Zhou dynasty that may emerge will follow the same basic values and ritual patterns that had existed since the beginning of China’s history.
Confucius saw the rites as the key to building and maintaining a balanced and harmonious society. Rather than trying to control his people with strict laws and harsh punishments, he advises in Chapter 3 that a ruler should “lead through virtue” and harness the rites to ensure that they stay true to traditional values. This way, people will “develop a sense a shame and unite behind you of their own accord,” he argues, whereas if you try to command and control them, “they will avoid them [laws and regulations] but won’t develop a sense of shame.”
In Chapter 5, Confucius points out that the rites provide the foundation upon which filial devotion is based, telling his follower Fan Chi: “When your parents are alive, serve them according to the rites. When they die, bury them according to the rites and make sacrifices to them according to the rites.” Indeed, it is probable that ancient funeral and sacrificial ceremonies were the starting point for the development of the much broader definition of the rites that Confucius espoused.
Even though he recognized that the rites evolved over time, Confucius was a lot more passionate (some might say fanatical) about preserving them than most (if not all) of his contemporaries and was quick to criticize others for violating them.
This is exactly what he is doing in the final chapter of Book 2 when he thunders: “Sacrificing to spirits that don’t belong to your ancestors is presumptuous.” The unnamed target for his vitriol was the head of the Ji Family, who carried out a ritual ceremony to the spirit of Mount Tai that Confucius considered to be totally inappropriate.
For more about that and other flagrant ritual violations, you will need to turn to Book 3 of The Analects.