Living Aesthetics in China: Confucian Aesthetics as a New Direction

Living Aesthetics in China: Confucian Aesthetics as a New Direction

Liu Yuedi


Living Aesthetics (生活美学, Sheng-huo-mei-xue) is a popular key term in Chinese society and culture today. The aestheticization of living, originally rooted in Chinese soil, is authentic Chinese wisdom and now is being fully revitalized. Confucian aesthetics can be classified as Living Aesthetics, one based on emotion/feeling (qing). The philosophical interpretation of Confucianism from the viewpoint of Living Aesthetics can be better explained in its original context. In Confucius’s time, the unity of rites (li) and music (yue) were the backbone of Confucian aesthetics. But with the gradual decline of music in Chinese history, this unity has been transformed into the combination of rites (li) and emotion/feeling (qing).

Key Words
Confucian aesthetics; emotion/feeling (qing); Living Aesthetics; rites (li) and music (yue).


1. What is Living Aesthetics?

What is so-called living (生活, shenghuo)? In the Chinese context, shenghuo (living) simultaneously has extraordinary and ordinary manifestations. To describe shenghuo, I once used the expression, “performing live,” but then changed it to “performing living,”[1] considering that the shenghuo that the Chinese understand and perform has such a lively connotation and approach.

Why do we live? To live is not only to survive but to exist on the basis of survival. Since ancient times, the Chinese people have been living in the world of the present life, without clinging to the difference between this world and the otherworldly. This is the great wisdom of the one-worldness in which the Chinese live.

How do we live? People’s lives are inseparable from sensibility. Aesthetics originates from sensibility and, as a discipline, is intended as a study of sensibility. However, in China, sensation and realization are combined together in a subtle relationship of being neither too close nor too distant. Therefore, “aesthetics” is not just gan xue(感学)in the sense of aesthetica, but it is also juex xue(觉学), which is closer to the sense of aisthetik in Chinese context.[2]

Living Aesthetics is directed to a happy life. We normally seek a happy life. A happy life (美好生活) in Chinese contexts, in fact, can be classified as a good life (好生活) and a beautiful life (美生活). A good life is the foundation for the formation of a beautiful life, while a beautiful life is the ideal elevation of a good life. Aesthetics concerns the pursuit of happiness and aims at making people live beautifully and well. Since ancient times, Chinese people have been keen on discovering the beauty and enjoying the happiness of life at its various levels. The Chinese wisdom of life lies in turning living life into enjoying life. Chinese aesthetics is rooted in the world of life and originally was a kind of aesthetics of living.

Today, Living Aesthetics is not only a key term but also a popular practice in China. This trend does not come from top-down official decree, but grows naturally in a bottom-up manner. Its basis in the national psyche is found perhaps in the notion that everyone loves beauty. China was once considered a “state of rites” and will be a country of beauty and goodness in the future. Today’s China needs holistic aesthetic planning in accordance with the long Chinese tradition of rites and music complementing one another.

The Chinese Living Aesthetics answers two practical questions: Why do we want to live in beauty? And, how can we live in beauty? The core proposition of the aesthetics of living is to let everyone become an artist of living — to elevate living at the same time as art is being lowered. To be an artist of living is to live an artistic life and not one of art for art’s sake. Only by becoming an artist of living can life become like that of an artist’s; only by becoming an artist of living, can art and aesthetics return to the reality of life. Artists of living are adept at using artists ‘tactics to cope with life, such that they combine an aesthetic view of disinterestedness, aesthetic participation, and aesthetic innovation to improve their experience of living.

Aesthetics about everyday life is currently a common enterprise for Asian and Western aestheticians, which makes a global aesthetics of everyday life possible. I use “living” in naming the Chinese Living Aesthetics because of its liveliness and vitality of life

With regard to everyday life phenomena, I think there are a lot of differences between Asia and the West. The English word “life” had two different origins in ancient Greece: one is zoē, and the other is bios. The former refers to the alive being, including animal, human, and God; this is close to the meaning of Chinese “life.” The latter refers to a befitting existing way or living way of an individual or a group[3] and has the same meaning as the Chinese sense of “living.” However, dictionaries of modern English language do not show any differences between life and living. Living Aesthetics definitely refers to the latter one; obviously it is not life aesthetics.

In fact, aesthetics needs to be divided between ordinary experience and extraordinary experience, creating tension. I believe that aesthetic activity can be found between everyday life consisting of ordinary experiences and non-daily life consisting of extraordinary experiences: “As a special life, although aesthetic activity belongs to everyday life, it is the closest one to non-daily life; although it is a kind of non-daily life, it is the closest and the most intimate one to everyday life. The aesthetic activity is the very special field between everyday life and non-daily life, or rather, we could say that the aesthetic activity exists between everyday life and non-daily life, and forms a necessary tension between the two.”[4] Although I am clearly aware that when we use such utterances as “everyday life” and “non-daily life,” we are trapped in Western dualism, I use them to elaborate the structure of aesthetic activity. Since I pay attention to integration but not separation, however, it clearly would be misleading to identify Living Aesthetics with the aesthetics of everyday life.

2. Ten basic aspects of Chinese Living Aesthetics

For me, to recover Chinese people’s Living Aesthetics is to establish a beauty for living. How then can Chinese people’s wisdom of the aesthetics of living be demonstrated? I believe that the whole structure can be shown in the following chart:[5]

The chart illustrates how the lower the level reached by the realm of the wisdom of aesthetics, the more it touches the earth; the higher the level it reaches, the closer it gets to heaven. From heaven to humanity and finally returning to heaven through inherent nature, the whole process forms an interlocking circular framework.

Through the ten aspects of heaven (天), humanity (人), earth (地), food (食), objects (物), habitation (居), travel (游), arts (文/艺), virtue (德), and inherent nature (性), we attempt to depict the wisdom of the Chinese Living Aesthetics. All these are, in fact, living traditions. The Chinese cultural tradition never disappeared and continues to be influential today, the quintessential example being Living Aesthetics, which has never been fractured.

In essence, the classical Chinese Living Aesthetics absorbs the three basic dimensions of feeling, nature, and culture, fully covering the various physiological, emotional, and cultural aspects of life. Its basic question concerns exploring how to fulfill an aestheticized life, thereby creating a kind of tradition of living with a harmonious integration of anxiety and happiness.

Essentially, Living Aesthetics not only concerns a learning of living with an aesthetic dimension but also a happy way of seeking a beautiful life. The former is theoretical, while the latter is practical. The two need to be unified.

Aristotle held that there were three basic activities of humans: theoria (thinking), poiesis (making), and praxis (doing), all of which are produced for the betterment of life. In today’s terms, theoria is theory, and praxis is practice or activity. The Western way of thinking is more focused on theory and practice and their interaction, but often neglects poiesis, which is close to poetics in form. Nonetheless, human activity does not only include the two aspects of theory and practice but also poiesis, which originally referred to the production of artifacts and should be more accurately translated as “creation” or “innovation.” The foundation of aesthetics does not lie in praxis as willed practical activity, but in poiesis as productive activity. Although humanity’s existence and reproduction are based on practice, human life is not practice proper, but productive activity.

The aesthetics on the concept of practice (实践美学) created by the Chinese thinker and aesthetician Li Zehou (李泽厚, 1930–2021) is based on praxis, while Living Aesthetics is based on poiesis. On one hand, poiesis concerns the creativity of life and takes the concrete activity of innovation as its basis; on the other hand, it emphasizes the creation of life itself with the unity of truth, virtue, and beauty as the ideal state. The so-called “living” in Living Aesthetics is essentially a reproductive and creative activity of productivity, but it is never equal to production by labor. Therefore, aesthetic creation comes from the human activity of poiesis, while praxis only solves the problems of the materialization and technical basis of poiesis and cannot solve the problem of aesthetic reproduction with meaning and creation proper.

Naturally, living comes out of activity, whether in human conduct or morality. All human feelings derive from living, and not entirely from laboring and production. Giorgio Agamben, an Italian philosopher, believes that our mission of existence is to create experience by discourse, that is, the so-called ereignis of the later Martin Heidegger. Only on the basis of creation’s ereignis can history occur. Thus, history is not only a result of praxis but also a product of poiesis.

Broadly speaking, “doing” includes both praxis and poiesis. The Chinese tradition of practical reason does not lie only in practice but more in creation; the latter is the basis of the doctrine of human activity as the aesthetics of living. For example, what is described in the story of “Chef Ding’s dismembering an ox” (庖丁解牛) in Zhuangzi (writings of fourth-century BCE Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi) is not a process of production as practice, it is experience as creation in everyday life. This experience is gained by poiesis and not by praxis.

Here is the psychological state of dismembering the ox in “Essentials for Keeping a Good Health” [养生主] from Zhuangzi: “Now I work on it by intuition and do not look at it with my eyes. My visual organs stop functioning while my intuition goes its own way.”[6] Here is the affinity between butcher and object: “In accordance with the natural grain, I cleave along the main seams and thrust the knife into the big cavities. Following the natural structure of the bullock. . . . There are crevices between the joints, but the edge of my knife is very thin. When I insert the thin edge of my knife into these crevices, there is plenty of room for it to pass through. ”[7]

Consequently, Zhuangzi celebrates the process of dismembering the ox as it fits the rhythm of the dance, “Mulberry Forest” [桑林], from the Shang dynasty, and the tune of the music, “First Classic” [经首], from the legend of Yao. The whole process of dismembering the ox is filled with aesthetic appeal, which is in fact the producing and growing process of the aesthetics of living. This also explains that poiesis alone contains a sense of beauty: When one’s living reaches the state of “craft approaching Tao” (技近乎道), it is a time of perfect experience that reaches the realm of freedom, ease, and self-realization.

In human activities, such as “Chef Ding’s dismembering an ox,” there are aesthetic elements. The realm of heaven and earth pursued by humanity is both the realm of beauty and also one of sensibility. Aesthetics is both the origin and the ultimate ideal of Chinese philosophy. As a result, aesthetics is the “first philosophy” for Chinese people. In addition, the reflections on living induced by history create new realms in the metaphysics of aesthetics. Metaphysics of aesthetics was proposed by Li Zehou. He believed that aesthetics is placed in the highest position of metaphysics in Chinese philosophy: as the first philosophy, philosophy starts from aesthetics and ends among aesthetics.[8]

Contemporary Chinese people need both a global aesthetics of living and an aesthetic of Chinese lifestyle. Historically, no one religion became an absolute guide in China; rather, an aesthetic view of life served as a model in Chinese people’s lives. Early in the twentieth century, Chinese educator and aesthetician Cai Yuanpei’s (蔡元培, 1868–1940) proposal to “substitute religion with aesthetic education” (美育代宗教) was based on this tradition. Today, we are faced with a new era of aesthetic living, which is truly paving the social and historical way for substituting religion with aesthetics. When Living Aesthetics responds to what kind of beautiful life is worth pursuing, aesthetics definitely acquires a metaphysical value. This is the true significance of why we are seeking a metaphysics of aesthetics. According to mainstream ideas in comparative philosophy, the West has stressed a logical or rational order, while China has focused on an aesthetic order. These are the respective advantages of Asia and West.

This cultural diversity of global aesthetics provides the foundation for cooperation in aesthetics between Asia and the West. The current global aesthetics emerges from the tradition of so-called post-analytic-aesthetics by transitioning from the previous art-oriented analytic aesthetics; a new development of aesthetics of everyday life is occurring. Correspondingly, returning aesthetics to life has also created interest in China, which I directly call Living Aesthetics to distinguish it from the current Western form of aesthetics.

The tradition of Chinese aesthetics is the living of life, and its tradition of life is aesthetic. Thus, the construction of our contemporary Living Aesthetics cannot be separated from tradition, but should form a fusion of horizons between the ancient and the modern. Living Aesthetics contains traditional Chinese consciousness and concepts of life, in addition to the birth, evolution, and continuation of the pursuit of life. On one hand, it demonstrates the beauty of the presence of classical life; on the other hand, it points to the origin, future, and possibility of its transformation. This requires current Chinese aestheticians to actively participate in the latest exchanges in the international field of aesthetics, while also returning to their native culture to explore resources in the classical Chinese Living Aesthetics.

This tradition of the aesthetics of living, when combined with Cai Yuanpei’s substitution of religion with aesthetic education, can achieve a true and original function of aesthetics in the present society. This aesthetics no longer refers to a small-scale aesthetics of arts, but a big-scale aesthetics integrated into life in a broad sense. What we strive for is nothing other than a big-scale aesthetics, a Living Aesthetics that returns to the earth and grows naturally.

3. Confucian Living Aesthetics returns to its original view and opens up a new direction

In China, Confucianism can be defined as a typical living aesthetics that centers on the concept of “qing” (emotion/feeling). At the same time, it is noteworthy that Taoism, the other foundational element of Chinese traditional aesthetics, is also a Chinese Living Aesthetic. In terms of their ideological sources, both Confucianism and Taoism result from the “awareness of the sufferings of life.” However, they differ in their motivations because Confucianism strives to correct the illness of the society, while Taoism advocates non-action to achieve spiritual freedom. In other words, out of dissatisfaction with the social reality, the rituals have collapsed and the music has gone corrupt. Confucianism was ethical in character, being concerned with the value of human life in the society, while Taoism was cosmological, being more concerned with the place of the human in the universe. However, the movement of Heaven inevitably points to the Way of the human. Just like Confucianism, Taoism is also a philosophy of living—it comes from life and never severs itself from life. As a peculiarly Chinese Living Aesthetics, Confucianism and Taoism complement and complete each other, leading to a dialectic of sorrows and joys.

For normal philosophical interpretation of Confucian aesthetics, often influenced by European philosophy, “benevolence” (the Theory of Jen) has always been regarded as the philosophical basis of Confucian aesthetics, but it may be more appropriate to read Jen as a Living Aesthetics to better understand the essence of Confucianism. The unity of the rite (li) and music (yue) seems to be more representative of Confucian aesthetics. Therefore, I advocate rethinking the basic orientation of Confucian aesthetics from the perspective of Living Aesthetics or the Chinese meaning of aesthetic metaphysics.

Confucian aesthetics can be defined as a Living Aesthetics, with emotion/feeling (qing) as its original ingredient in the Chinese context, as inspired by the bamboo slips in the Chu State Tomb at Guodian, newly discovered in 1993.[9] According to the model of the universe on the Chu bamboo slips: “Human Nature comes from life, life comes from the sky, the Tao originates in Qing, Qing is born in Human Nature”[10]

Although emotion/feeling (qing) always comes out in a specific situation, sometimes it can become abstract, which means that it can be transformed from “natural” to “ontological emotion/feeling” and thus into the ideal emotional realm of “the Tao originates in Emotion.” In this sense, the purpose of Confucian Living Aesthetics, with emotion/feeling (qing) as its original ingredient, could be summarized in the following sentence: When the emotion/feeling (qing) deepens, culture becomes civilized.

In the age of Confucius, originally Confucius upheld the ideal of rite (li) and music (yue) as complementary. But with the decline of music (yue), the unity of rite (li) and music (yue) gave way to the unity of rite (li) and emotion/feeling (qing). The latter became the new Confucian ideal. Here, emotion/feeling (qing) refers to “the affections that arise from the nature of man encountering things external to it.”[11] Moreover, the inherent determination of music (yue) is: “Human nature perceives the things and then they have Emotion.”[12] For Confucian aesthetics, perceptualism, or real life emotion, is more fundamental than rite (li) in the practice of life.

It is feasible to redefine Confucianism in light of emotion/feeling (qing), because the personal sphere of Confucianism covers primarily the self-cultivation of each individual, out of which one attains inner harmony. Then, by virtue of sympathy so as to feel others in oneself, the private experience of self-cultivation is indeed put in a larger perspective of intersubjectivity for mutual empathy. From the individual located at the center to strangers at different levels of relations, the inner driving force is to extend emotions, though admittedly the quantity of emotions in the process varies accordingly. By contrast, the concept of “common sense” is closer to the assertion that humans are endowed with the same heart and the heart with the same principle, an idealistic orientation obviously different from the aestheticism in the Chinese celebration of emotion.

Art, or the aesthetic education of emotion, is also responsible for the practice of Confucian philosophy. What Confucius demonstrated through the “distraction in the arts” and “perfection by Music” was intended to bring out the unity of aesthetic refinement, with moral exaltation in its equal emphasis of the two. Either in poetry, which strengthens the fraternity of any social population, or in music, which enables personal equanimity and promotes social peace, emotion is invariably registered to have played a role in the process of one’s character-building. This insight of music as a powerful political instrument is quite rare in other world cultures, except some similarity is found in the city-state civilizations of ancient Greece.

In view of ancient shamanism, emotion — the passionate engagement — is never separable from rite, the rationalized shaman performance. Since emotion is expressed mostly through music, the age-old conception of the “mutual benefit between rite and music” or “the oneness of emotion and rite” began as early as in the times of the Duke of Zhou (about 1100 BCE).

Confucius (551-479 BCE) believed that he was witnessing an increasingly deteriorating role of music and the collapse of rite. The tradition that “rite and music do good to each other” was broken up. Music, being astray from the institution and laws of rite, was reduced to merely sensual forms to cater to kings in their pursuit of extravagance. Rite, unable to play its role in ritual performances and moral transformation, rose to abstract ideas. Confronted with this historical predicament, Confucius suggested a return to the traditional harmony of rite and music and proposed the idea of “perfect beauty” and “perfect goodness” as the unity of goodness and beauty.[13] Rite and music, redefined in terms of the unity of beauty and goodness, are expected to play a double role as the “guide of joy” and “guide of morality.” “Music is joy; it is a feeling man cannot get away from.”[14] This feeling is an aesthetic pleasure out of human emotions; therefore, beauty and goodness are located in panaesthetic relationships, with the communication and coordination of emotions working throughout. Thus, rite and music become intertwined in Confucian philosophy, as it is said that to examine music is to learn the politics, and the knowledge of music is approximate to that of the rite.[15] In music is the access to emotions; the sensibility for things precedes the stirred emotions. “Things come up and hold sway over man”; “the ancient Kings set down rite and created Music… to teach the commoners good from bad and to restore the humanity.”[16] Only through the cultivation and refinement of emotions do “the kin love each other and live by Jen.” In sum, “in Music is the access to ethics.”[17]

For Confucius himself, emotions were acted upon more often than not in poetry and music: “Let a man be first incited by the Songs, then given a firm footing by the study of ritual, and finally perfected by Music.”[18] Evidently, the incitement by poetry was placed as an antecedent of the sequence, while rite or Jen was supposed to be performed or perfected through music. “Music and rite were held equally important, but Music was placed above the rite, because only Music was considered the embodiment of his attainment of personality. This is the cornerstone where Confucius builds up his educational system.”[19] Realizing the “self-awareness of the art of the highest order,” Confucius said, “Set your heart upon the Way, support yourself by its power, lean upon Goodness, seek distraction in the Arts.”[20] Here, in contrast to the heteronomy of the Way, virtue and Jen, as the expressions “set upon” or “support by” or “lean upon” suggest, only “seek distraction in the art” as a way to reflect the autonomy in aesthetic freedom. Thus, for the Confucians, the highest artistic ideal is the disinterested and boundary-free transcendence rather than simply the goodness-anchored beauty. Seen from Confucius’ perspective, it is more than “rite comes from emotions,”[21]emphasizing that the performance of rite is completed in the aesthetic emotion or feeling.

In the end, the transcendence that the empirical form of Confucian philosophy hopes to attain points to a quasi-religious morality, that is, a private sphere morality for inward transcendence, rather than a social morality that governs the public sphere. And the tridimensional process of inner surpassing, as illustrated in the legend of “Confucius and Yan Hui’s delight” (孔颜乐处)[22] as a moral happiness realm of the unity of beauty and goodness, points to the unity of the religious, the moral, and the aesthetic, which the Chinese philosopher Feng Youlan (冯友兰, 1895–1990) described as the “Heaven- Earth State” and Li Zehou as the “Aesthetic State.”

Taking Confucius and Yan Hui’s delight as examples of peak experiences of human beings, I propose to categorize it as an experience of integral harmony in the mind that crosses into quasi-religion, supra-moral sensibility, and panaesthetics.

As spiritual joys, the joys of Confucius and Yan Hui have, in themselves, a property of aesthetic activity that I call panaesthetic. Their joys are at the same time also a moral virtue, a high-order excellence that integrates the beautiful and the good. It is a virtue of aesthetic value, for joy can be an expression of moral freedom, too, which is a lofty moral awareness described by Confucius as “following what my heart desired, without transgressing what was right.”[23] As a peak experience, the joys of Confucius and Yan Hui share some similarities with mysterious sensations in psychological descriptions, the spiritual experience of religious faith, the intellectual experience of philosophic meditation, love psychology, and aesthetic appreciation.

However, the experience of joy comes from neither religious nor intellectual experiences, but is more akin to those of the mystical and aesthetic. The joys of Confucius and Yan Hui seem to be more of a universal experience than that of religious faith; therefore, it might be more appropriate to call them quasi-religious experience. Confucius and Yan Hui could experience the mysterious realm of the human united with Heaven. That realm of experience should be ranked midway between ethics and religion.

Moral virtue that conforms to a Chinese tradition of practical reason puts a priority on action. The American philosopher, Arthur C. Danto (1924–2013), in his exegesis of Laozi’s Taoism, affirms that Chinese Taoism was inclined toward “doing something” rather than “believing something.”[24] So was Confucianism. The joys of Confucius and Yan Hui were not founded on faith and still less on belief in any personified deities, and the joys are not even the same as sincere belief.

Where did this quasi-religious union of Heaven and the human come from, then? It came from a traditional Chinese religious sect of shamanism. It was Li Zehou who advanced and wrote much on this subject.[25] His view was largely accepted by Chinese historian Yu Ying-shih (余英时, 1930-2021), though with some reservations: “Earlier ritual and music had been mutually dependent on shaman practices; ritual and music served as shaman presentations while shamanism is the inner driving force of ritual and music.”[26] Their views diverge in that Yu argued that breakthroughs of ritual and music made in the Chinese Axial Age(770-475 BC)had been initiated to challenge the whole shamanist culture that lay behind ritual and music.

Li Zehou, on the contrary, believed that the tradition of shamanism continued and led to a series of doctrines on Heaven–human communication since the time of Confucius. According to Yu, the old concept of Heaven–human unity established by the shaman league was still an extroverted transcendence, while the Chinese thinkers of the Axial Age took an inner approach to transcendence. Its characteristic feature is to introduce the heavenly Way into the human heart-mind, where the Way of nature and the mind of humanity come into union.[27] However, within the spectrum of Confucian thought, his argument is more inclined to the Mencian version of Confucianism, whereas Confucius himself largely took over the doctrine of benevolence under shamanistic influence. In spite of this caveat, and even if scholars of pro-shaman traditions take a stance more inclined to the view that post-Axial Age Confucians abandoned shamanism altogether, I would insist rather that the tradition of shamanism did not actually die out then. For, without this presumption, there is no likelihood of giving a historical account of the long-lasting practices for Heaven–human communication, an endeavor that had been going on since Confucius and Yan Hui’s own time through the Neo-Confucians of Song dynasty, who sought after their spiritual joys.

Chinese thinker Liang Shuming’s (梁漱溟, 1893-1988) exposition on intuition is quite close to the joyful experiences of Confucius and Yan Hui:

The being of the universe is not in a static state, but is in change and flow. The so-called ‘change’ simply means [a process] from harmony to disharmony or from disharmony to harmony; The life of mankind is a flowing and changeable integrity. Only the appearance of the universe is manifested to man like a still image owing to his cognition by the senses and the intellect. Senses and intellect are incapable of knowing the substance, which needs the intuition of life. To intuit is to live life, for the two are fused into one unity, without differentiation of the subject and object, but an absolute oneness.[28]

More importantly, intuition can be divided further into two activities: “One that attaches to the senses and one that attaches to the intellect. For example, hearing a sound and getting its melodious taste intuited by the senses. Reading poetry and getting its literary taste, . . . which involves understanding the intended meaning, must be obtained by an intuition that attaches to the intellect.”[29] Intuition, as conceptualized by Liang Shuming, is not the intuition of sensibility, but is more like an intellectual intuition. Therefore, he tended to define such intellectual intuition from the perspective of a union of feeling and reason.

His usage of the term intuition could be compared to the views of the Chinese philosopher Mou Zongsan (牟宗三, 1909–1995), who used intellectual intuition in a mystic manner, as a counterpart to Kant’s “sensible intuition” and as a fundamental character of Chinese philosophy. Intuition is regarded as a certain kind of mysterious sensibility, while intuitive knowledge is knowledge that touches some depth of human reason rather than being some kind of limited knowledge derived from memory.[30]

Different from the general tendency of Contemporary New Confucianism, Li Zehou maintains that Chinese cosmology is a rational mysticism. When he first proposed the view of “coexistence of the human and the universe and free intuition,” Li Zehou underscored the “priority of the aesthetic over reason.”[31] When he established his philosophy of “emotion as substance,” he put forward a clearer notion of “rational mysticism,” a metaphysical “thing-in-itself” that he posited as “a collaborative material co-existence of the human and the universe.”[32]

Why does the universe exist in a state of regularity? This is a question that Li Zehou takes as both mystical and inexplicable, for it surpasses the scope of human understanding and can only be held in awe. Reason is inexplicable, which constitutes its mystery. Such mysticism is premised on the acknowledgment of the material existence of the universe, and so it is not the same mystery as the joys of Confucius and Yan Hui.

For my part, I think the joys of Confucius and Yan Hui can neither be identified as the mystery of reason nor the mystery of sensibility, and certainly not as an “intellectual intuition,” but as the “emotional-rational mystery” that both conforms to (moral) reason and possesses traits of (aesthetic) feelings. The duality of mystery in reality and the realization of mystery agree with Yan Hui’s personal traits of earnest practicality and reticence. An emotional-rational mystery, which combines elements of intellectual wisdom, moral virtue, aesthetic beauty, and a sage-likeness without divinity, represents their mystical unity. Such can be assumed to be the realm of cultivation in truth, beauty, and good, all in one, to be attained by Confucians.

In short, the joys of Confucius and Yan Hui are not only the unity of the sensibility and reason — that is, joy in music together with enjoyment of the Way — but also the undivided states of aroused and unaroused human feelings. It is indeed an example of “the mysteries of the whole world” in reality.[33] Since Living Aesthetics acknowledges the presence of the aesthetic throughout human experiences, “[f]or that matter, aesthetic traditions as such in many cultures have been passed on, without discontinuity, since ancient times, and today these traditions have undergone a creative transformation with heightened attention to living aesthetics in everyday life experiences.”[34]

4. Conclusion: Living Aesthetics and its approach to globalization

Living Aesthetics is not particular to Chinese aesthetics or any other single philosophical tradition; rather, it involves world aesthetics. According to Tordis Berstrand’s new understanding of my thought, “Living aesthetics is for Liu an attempt at reaching back to retrieve traditions at risk of disappearing because these might help reorient contemporary aesthetics towards a new agenda shared by Asia and West. Living aesthetics thereby involves a wider critique of Western modernity as a disruptive “other” suppressing the aesthetic potential of everyday life. If the art of living begins at home, then living aesthetics potentially resonates beyond the domestic setting and engages with the larger environment.”[35] Consequently, “living aesthetics might extend to an aesthetics itself alive and open towards non-human life and things of all kinds as agents in a potentially unlimited collective setting.”[36]

With the boundary between art and everyday life being dismissed, and the natural environment turning to the human environment, contemporary philosophy of art and environmental aesthetics have been fused into the aesthetics of living. The main reason for this historical development is simply that the aesthetic must be the “profound standard” for the quality of human life and the development of the world.


Liu Yuedi

Liu Yuedi is Professor in the Institute of Philosophy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, an honorary member of presidents commission of Chinese Culture Promotion Society (CCPS), Delegate-at-large of the International Association for Aesthetics (2008-2011), Assistant Secretary-General of the Chinese Society for Aesthetics (2004-2015), and Executive Main-Editor of The Journal of Aesthetics. His present research interests are the aesthetics of everyday life, Chinese living aesthetics, and Confucian philosophy.

Published on November 29, 2022.

Cite this article: Liu Yuedi, “Living Aesthetics in China: Confucian Aesthetics as a New Direction,” Contemporary Aesthetics, Special Volume 10 (2022), Twenty Years of Contemporary Aesthetics, accessed date.



[1] Liu Yuedi, Living Aesthetics: Critique of Modernity and Re-construction of Aesthetic Spirit (Hefei: Anhui Education Press, 2005).

[2] Liu Yuedi, “From ‘Practice’ to ‘Living’: Main Trends of Chinese Aesthetics in the Past 40 Years,” in Frontiers of Philosophy in China, 13 (2018), 139-149.

[3] Giorgio Agamben, Homer Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), p. 1.

[4] Liu Yuedi, Living Aesthetics: Critique of Modernity and Re-construction of Aesthetic Spirit (Hefei: Anhui Education Press, 2005), 326-328.

[5] Cf. Liu Yuedi, Chinese People’s Aesthetics of Living (Guilin: Guangxi Normal University Press, 2021), chs. 1-10.

[6] Zhuangzi, Zhuangzi, trans. Wang Rongpei (Changsha: Hunan People’s Publishing House and Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 1999), 43.

[7] Ibid., 45.s

[8] Li Zehou, The History Ontology of Anthropology (Tianjin: Tianjin Academy of Social Sciences Press), 252.

[9] But the inner meanings of emotion in Confucian contexts were neglected before the discovery of “Guodian Chu Slips.” See Chad Hansen, “Qing (Emotions) in the Pre-Buddhist Chinese Thoughts,” in Emotions in Asian Thought, eds. Joel Marks and Roger T. Ames (Albany: State University of New York Press 1994), 181-212.

[10] “Human Nature Derives from Mandate” in “Guo Dian Chu Slips.”

[11] “Records of Music” in “Book of Rites.” James Legge, The Li Ki: The Book of Rites (Beijing: China Commercial Publishing House, 2013).

[12] Ibid.

[13] The Analects of Confucius, 3.25. Trans. Arthur Waley (New York: Vintage Books, 1989).

[14] “Records of Music” in “Book of Rites.”

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Analects, 8.8.

[19] Fuguan Xu, The Spirit of Chinese Art (Shenyang: Chunfeng Wenyi Press, 1987), 4.

[20] Analects, 7.6.

[21] “Yu Cong” in “Guo Dian Chu Slips.”

[22] Yan Hui 颜回 (521–481 BCE) had been Confucius’s most devoted disciple and was not only emotionally dependent on his master, but undoubtedly was more akin to Confucius in terms of mentality and praxis. The phraseology “Confucius and Yan Hui’s delight” was used to sum up what Confucius said of Yan Hui in praise of him, to refer to the fact that Confucius and Yan Hui had similar pleasurable things to do, their likings were the same, and they had shared aspirations or ideals in their intellectual pursuits. Direct reference to Yan Hui’s joy in the Analects can only be found in a passage of Confucius’s praise of him: “The Master said, Incomparable indeed was Hui! A handful of rice to eat, a gourdful of water to drink, living in a mean street—others would have found it unendurably depressing, but to Hui’s cheerfulness it made no difference at all. Incomparable indeed was Hui!” (Analects, 6.9.) Confucius’s own joy is expressed in this remark, “The Master said, He who seeks only coarse food to eat, water to drink and a bent arm for pillow, will without looking for it find happiness to boot. Any thought of accepting wealth and rank by means that I know to be wrong is as remote from me as the clouds that float above.” (Analects, 7.15.) The two passages are often quoted together. In the former, Yan Hui’s joys with aesthetic characteristics not being affected; in the latter, Confucius having joy in the midst of these things that he did with aesthetic attributes.

[23] Analects, 2.4.

[24] Arthur C. Danto, Mysticism and Morality: Oriental Thought and Moral Philosophy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), 103.

[25] Li Zehou, On the Shamanistic Tradition (Shanghai: Shanghai Translation Publishing House, 2012).

[26] Yu Ying-shih, Between the Heaven and Human: Probing into the Origins of Ancient Chinese Thoughts (Beijing: Zhonghua Book Company, 2014), 26.

[27]Ibid., 56-57.

[28] Liang Shuming, Complete Works of Liang Shuming, vol. 1(Jinan: Shandong People’s Publishing House, 2005), 406.

[29]Ibid., 401.

[30] William A. Haines, “Confucianism and Moral Intuition,” in Ethics in Early China: An Anthology, eds. Chris Fraser, Dan Robins, and Timothy O’Leary (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2011), p17–218.

[31] Li Zehou, Pragmatic Reason and a Culture of Optimism (Beijing: SDX Joint Publishing, 2005), 46–47.

[32] Ibid., 53.

[33] Xu Fancheng, A Comparative Study of Mystics (Wuhan: Chongwen Book Company, 2017), 164.

[34] Liu Yuedi and Curtis L. Cater eds., The Aesthetics of Everyday Life: East and West (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014), ix.

[35] Tordis Berstrand, “The Art of Living in a Double House. Everyday Aesthetics in the Space between (East and West),” in Everydayness: Contemporary Aesthetic Approaches, eds. Lisa Giombini and Adrián Kvokačka (Roma Tre Press and Prešov University Press, 2021), 198.

[36] Ibid., 198.