This paper delivers an interdisciplinary approach to historical Chinese epistolary data, by examining the language and style of historical Chinese letters from the perspective of linguistic pragmatics, historical politeness research and relational ritual theory. It argues that various discursive characteristics of Chinese epistles, which previous Sinological research has identified, may be systematically modelled if one approaches historical Chinese letter writing as a ritual practice. Language use in historical Chinese letters tends to have a strongly ritual character, due to two reasons. First, Chinese epistles represent interpersonal interaction in a sociocultural context that triggered intensive ritual politeness. Second, many literati regarded letter writing as an activity of fine art by means of which one could ritually display one’s epistolary skill. Owing to this, the language of historical Chinese epistles features a duality of (1) other-oriented ritual politeness and (2) self-oriented ritual display. The present paper examines this duality by setting up an analytic model, and by investigating a renowned corpus of Qing Dynasty letters, Xuehongxuan chidu 雪鴻軒尺牘 (Letters from Snow Swan Retreat).