The term wuli 五禮 "five (types of) rites" referred to a pentade of rituals and ceremonies applied in distinct social encounters, namely:
|凶禮 (兇禮)||xiongli||inauspicious rites|
The term wuli appears for the first time in the chapter on the Vice Minister of Rites (Xiao zongbo 小宗伯) in the ritual Classic Zhouli 周禮, where it is said the the Vice Minister was in charge of observance of the five types of rites (zhang wuli zhi jinling 掌五禮之禁令). The enumeration of these five is presented in the authoritative commentary by Zheng Xuan 鄭玄 (127-200) from the Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE). The treatise on rituals and ceremonies (6-12 Liyi zhi 禮儀志) in the official dynastic history Suishu 隋書 explains that the auspicous rites served to express veneration to the spirits (jing guishen 敬鬼神), the inauspicious rites to mourn with the rulers of the state or the regional rulers (ai bangguo 哀邦國), the congratulatory rites to unite those who belong together (he yinhao 合姻好), the hosting rites to bring closer host and guest (qin binke 親賓客), and the military rites to punish the disrespectful (zhu buqian 誅不虔). Another meaning of the expression wuli referred to the various ceremonies carried out during court audiences (chaopin 朝聘) of the nobles of the five ranks (namely gong 公 "dukes", hou 侯 "marquesses", bo 伯 "earls", zi 子 "viscounts", and nan 男 "barons").
The chapter on the Grand Minister of Education (Da situ 大司徒) in the Zhouli explains that the five rites served to impede the people from doing wrong and to instruct them. The chapter on the Palace Protector (Baoshi 保氏) in the same book says that in some respect, the Five Rites served in a similar way as the Six Arts (liuyi 六藝, namely rituals, music, archery, charioteering, writing, and arithmetics). According to the Confucian Classic Shangshu 尚書 "Book of Documents", the invention of laws, standards, and the Five Rites went back to the mythological Emperor Shun 舜. In the same text (ch. Gao Yao mo 皋陶謨) it is said that Heaven had decreed the social hierarchies with their respective rites, and that the ruler was charged with their enforcement (tian zhi you li, zi wo wu li, you yong 天秩有禮，自我五禮，有庸).
The state rituals were taken over by various agencies of the Ministry of Rites (libu 禮部), others by the Ministry of War (bingbu 兵部).
The most complete overview of the traditional rites and ceremonies, Wuli tongkao 五禮通考, was written by the Qing-period 清 (1644-1911) scholar Qin Huitian 秦蕙田 (1702-1764).
Private rites, also called "family rites" (jiali), as they are described the book Zhuzi jiali 朱子家禮, did of course not include court ceremonials.
Most of the auspicious and inauspicious rites were accompanied by sacrifices and offerings to souls, spirits and deities.
The auspicious rites were mainly offerings to Heaven, the Earth, and various spirits. Because the offerings to Heaven and Earth were matters of the state and not of private persons, they were called "great affairs of the state" (guo zhi da shi 國之大事, see also suburban offerings jiaosi 郊祀). The auspicious ceremonies related to Heaven were the yinli 禋禮 sacrifices to Heaven (Haotian Shangdi 昊天上帝, Tianshen 天神), the shichai 實柴 offerings to the sun, the moon and the planets and stars, and the youliao 槱燎 offerings to the spirits of the stars "controller of the centre" (sizhong 司中) and "controller of life" (siming 司命), the "master of the winds" (fengshi 風師), and the "master of the rain" (yushi 雨師). For all sacrifices, fires were lit to burn sacrificial animals, jades, and silks.
The three sacrifices to the terrestrial spirits (qi 祇, diqi 地祇) were: First, the blood offering (xueji 血祭) to the spirits of soil and grain, sheji 社稷, the "Five Human Spirits" or "Five Officers" (wu renshen 五人神, wu guan 五官: Gou Mang 句芒, the rectifier of wood, Zhu Rong 祝融, the rectifier of fire, Ru Shou 蓐收, the rectifier of metal, Xuan Ming 玄冥, the rectifier of water, and Hou Tu 后土, the rectifier of soil), and the Five Sacred Mountains (wuyue 五嶽); second, the pit or drowning offerings (maoji 貍祭 or maiji 埋祭, and chenji 沈祭) to the mountains, forests, rivers, and swamps, for which sacrificial objects were buried in a pit or drowned in a river or lake; and third, the "split" offerings (piguji 疈辜祭) to the "hundred lesser spirits of the four quarters" (sifang baiwu xiaoshen 四方百物小神), for which sacrificial animals were chopped into pieces and distributed (on the ground or in a pit?).
Sacrifices to human spirits were six, namely the xia 祫 offerings which took place at the ancestral altar (taizumiao 太祖廟 or zongmiao 宗廟) when the three-year mourning phase was over, the di 禘 offerings, in the spring of the year after, at the ancestral altar and that of the four grandparents (qinmiao 親廟), and the seasonal ci 祠 offerings (spring), yue 禴 (礿, summer), chang 嘗 (autumn), and cheng 蒸 (winter) offerings. Offerings at the ancestral altar consisted of offering cooked meat (jian shu 薦熟), raw or "bloody" meat (jian xuexing 薦血腥), pouring out wine from a nephrite cup (luo chang 裸鬯), and presenting cooked millet (kui shi 饋食). During the xia offerings, no wine was used, and in the four seasons offerings, only millet was presented.
The auspicious sacrifices were very complex, and therefore, many designations existed, namely "great offerings" (daji 大祀) for Heaven, Earth, the Lord of Millet, and the ancestors, the "middle offerings" (zhongji 中祀) to spirits of agriculture and sericulture and topographical spirits, and the "lesser offerings" (xiaoji 小祀) to the stars, wind, and rain, and other, less important spirits. The number of sacrificial animals during the great offerings was a "great stable" (tailao 太牢), that for ancestors only a "small stable" (xiaolao 少牢).
The Tang-period 唐 (618-907) encyclopaedia Chuxueji 初學記 speaks of twelve auspicious rites, but the Song-period 宋 (960-1279) scholar Zheng Qiao 鄭樵 (1104-1162), author of the encyclopaedia Tongzhi 通志, divides them into 30 different rites. The sacrifices carried out by the state also included such at the tomb temples (lingqin 陵寢) of the rulers of past dynasties, and those to Confucius and his disciples (xiansheng xianxian 先聖先賢) and eminent state officials, occasionally also for loyalists of the predecessing dynasty (zhonglie mingchen 忠烈名臣). More private auspicous rituals included hunting sacrifices (lieji 臘祭), the spring-and-autumn offerings (xiji 禊祭) and the sundown offerings (fuji 伏祭).
The word jili was also used for wedding rites (which are usually part of the congratulatory rites).
Inauspicious ceremonies were carried out when sad things occurred. They mainly included the entirety of mournings during funerals (sangli 喪禮), but also those when disastrous events had befallen a family, society or state, namely crop failures by draught, flooding or pests (huangli 荒禮), natural disasters or pestilence (diaoli 吊禮), military defeat (guili 禬禮), and bandits or rebellions (xuli 恤禮).
There were many different terms for funeral ceremonies, like interment of a ruler (bengzang 崩葬), interment of a regional ruler (zhuhou 諸侯) or a high official (hongzang 薨葬), the guiding of a coffin to the burying place (bin 殯斂), the functional participation in a funeral (zhifu 執紼), the presentation of condolences (diaoyan 吊唁) or of obituaries during a memorial ceremony (jidian 祭奠), or the wearing of mourning clothes (fu sang 服喪 "wearing mourning [clothes]", sangfu 喪服 "mourning clothes").
The crop failure ceremonies included condolences (and material support) by neighbouring regional states, austerity at the court (simple clothing, simple meals, sparing sacrifices, no musical entertainment), as well as prayers to the spirits (qidao 祈禱) and the opening of granaries to feed the people. The chapter Da situ 大司徒 in the Zhouli explains that there were twelve types of conduct to be adhered to after natural disasters, namely "distributing profits" (sanli 散利, i.e. money or credit), reducing taxes (bozheng 薄征), being lenient towards thieves (huanxing 緩刑), set aside recruitment for public works (chili 弛力), opening forbidden areas for hunting or collecting firewood (shejin 舍禁), granting exemption from tolls (quji 去幾), austerity in court rituals (shengli 省禮) and in funeral rites (sha'ai 剎哀), no performance of music (fanyue 蕃樂), promoting weddings to increase the population (duohun 多婚), restricting [the anger] of spirits (suo guishen 索鬼神), and suppressing banditry (chu daozei 除盜賊).
Diaoli were met by the expression of compassion by allied regional rulers. In the case of guili ceremonies, the regional rulers also provided material and monetary support to their affected allies. used to grant their allies mental and material support. Xuli were likewise a kind of diplomatic contact between the regional states or the king of Zhou and the regional states to express compassion. The commentator Jia Gongyan 賈公彦 (mid-7th cent.) explains that in this case, no material or financial support was involved. Yet there were several cases that regional states sent military support to their allies.
The congratulatory rites mainly included six types of festivities, namely private banquets of families and relatives of a cognatic line (yinshi 飲食) – to bring together relatives (qin zongzu xiongdi 親宗族兄弟), weddings (hun 昏, today written 婚) – to bring together grown-up men and women (qin cheng nannü 親成男女), capping rites (guan 冠) when young males became adults and were given a courtesy name, archery contests (binshe 賓射) to "bring together old friends" (qin gujiu pengyou 親故舊朋友), banquets to host friends (xiangyan 饗燕), banquets and offerings during alliances between regional rulers of the same lineage (shenfan 脤膰) – to bring together guests from all places (qin sifang zhi binke 親四方之賓客), and banquets and offerings during alliances between regional rulers of a different lineage (heqing 賀慶) – to bring together states of different families (qin yixing zhi guo 親異姓之國).
Yet the word jiali often just referred to a marriage.
From the Song period on, the range of congratulatory rites was considerably enlarged and also encompassed certain rites at the imperial court. The Tang dynasty added the proclamation of edicts related to the season in the Mingtang Hall 明堂, or the ceremonial instruction by the emperor in the Three Virtues [of local administrators, i.e. honesty, severity and benignity] and the Five Improvements [of Comportment in appearance, words, vision, hearing, and thoughts] (sanlao wugeng 三老五更) in the National University (taixue 太學). The Song dynasty added to these the bestowal of a posthumous title (shang zunhao 上尊號), the announcement of withdrawal from office (neichan 內禪), the emperor's birthday (shengjie 聖節), and the submission of an informal letter (jinshu 進書). The Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644) enriched the canon of congratulatory rites at the court by readings to the emperor (jingyan 經筵), daily lectures (rijiang 日講), instructions to the princes to learn (zhuwang dushu 諸王讀書), or the reception of the princely deputies in the Eastern Palace (Donggong jianguo 東宮監國). The Qing 清 (1644-1911) finally enriched these ceremonies by also including the beginning of the regency by an empress dowager (chuilian 垂簾), the ensuing personal takeover by a young ruler (qinzheng 親政), large court assemblies in the open (yumen tingzheng 御門聽政), certain court banquets (yanyi 宴儀), festivities on holidays or festive days (jieqing 節慶), enthronement (dengji 登極), large court audiences (dachao 大朝), regular court audiences (changchao 常朝), the proclamation of edicts (banzhao 頒詔), the supervision of learning (shixue 視學), congratulations e.g. to the empress dowager's birthday (zhushou 祝壽), or ennoblements (cefeng 冊封).
Hosting rites included court audiences (chao 朝, pin 聘, chaopin 朝聘), with summer audiences (zong 宗), autumn audiences (jin 覲), winter audiences (yu 遇), occasional audiences (hui 會 or shijian 時見), full audiences (tong 同 or yinjian 殷見), occasional visits (wen 問 or shipin 時聘), full visits (shi 視 or yinfu 殷頫), instructions to regional rulers in combination with presents (ximing 錫命), and the conclusion of alliances (huimeng 會盟). Huili 會禮 audiences were during the Zhou period 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE) mainly occasions during which the court decided over military campaigns. Tongli 同禮 or full audiences were held when the king or emperor had for twelve years not visited the courts of the regional rulers during a hunting tour. The regional rulers in this case convened at the royal court. Wenli 問禮 were carried out by the regional rulers who sent a low-rank envoy (xia dafu 下大夫, see qing shi dafu) to the royal court, asking for the king's health. Shili 視禮 were carried out every three years. The regional rulers sent a high-ranking minister (qing 卿, see qing shi dafu) to the royal court to pay a short visit.
During the Tang period, the role of the regional rulers was taken over by the military commissioners (jiedushi 節度使). The Song dynasty knew the following hosting ceremonies: grand court ceremonies (dachaohui yi 大朝會儀), regular court ceremonies (changchao yi 常朝儀), ceremonies for the appointment of high officials (ruge yi 入閣儀), the proclamation of amnesties (sishe yi 肆赦儀), the beginning of the regency of an empress dowager (huang taihou chuilian yi 皇太后垂簾儀), full audiences of all court officials (baiguan xiangjian yi 百官相見儀), audiences receiving foreign envoys (waiguo junzhang laichao 外國君長來朝), submission of tributes by foreign countries (zhuguo chaogong 諸國朝貢), or the arrangement of central government officials according to their institutions and ranks (chaosheng jiyi banwei 朝省集儀班位).
In late imperial times, usual hosting ceremonies were the presentation of tributes (chaogong 朝貢), ennoblements (chifeng 敕封), imperial banquets (yanyan 筵宴) or the presentation of irregular memorials by high officials to the throne (jinbiao 進表).
The military rites were used to "unify the regional states" (tong bangguo 同邦國). They consisted of ceremonies for military review (jiaoyue 校閱, dayue 大閱), hunts (soushou 蒐狩), imperial shooting contests (dashe 大射), "declarations" of war (zhishi 致師), the dispatch of armies (chushi 出師), the set-off by military campaigns commanded by the emperor in (qinzheng 親征), orders to the generals (mingjiang 命將), the presentation of booty and captives (xianfu 獻俘), the report of victory (xianjie 獻捷), triumphant returns (kaixuan 凱旋), ceremonies during which an oppressed prince asked for military support (qishi 乞師), or the reception of submissals (shouxiang 受降). Eclipses of the sun and moon (rishi 日食, yueshi 月食) were also an occasion during which military ceremonies were held.
The Zhouli lists the great military ceremonies as da shi zhi li 大師之禮 "great rites of the army" (the announcement of military campaigns to ancestral altars, public orders to generals to take over command, presentation of war captives to the emperor and the ancestral altars), da yue zhi li 大均之禮 (public assessment of taxes), da tian zhi li 大田之禮 (hunting as training for war), da yi zhi li 大役之禮 (initiation of public works, like building city walls, places, dykes, dams, etc.), da feng zhi li 大封之禮 (fixation of boundaries of regional states).
In imperial times, the military rites did only refer to military matters, while ceremonies for hunting etc. or taxation fell into the jurisdiction of other institutions.