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  • Music, Cosmology, and the Politics of Harmony in Early China by Erica Fox Brindley
  • Pauline C. Lee
Music, Cosmology, and the Politics of Harmony in Early China. By Erica Fox Brindley. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012. Pp. xi + 225. Hardcover $75.00, isbn 978-1-438-44313-3. Paper $24.95. eBook $24.95.

In Music, Cosmology, and the Politics of Harmony in Early China, Erica Fox Brindley further illuminates our scholarly understanding of the spiritual-religious, political, moral, psychological, and medical worlds of early China by carefully tracking the complex and ever-changing relationship between “music” (yue 樂) and conceptions of the cosmos. Her central analytical category is the concept of “harmony” (he 和). She provides evidence that texts (e.g., the Book of Documents, the Zuozhuan, the Analects, and early Mohist writings) preceding the late fourth century b.c.e. on the whole describe harmony as a distinctly human achievement, such as rulers choosing to act virtuously so as to bring harmony to the lives of those they govern or a master chef picking and choosing the right ingredients to create a particularly delicious broth. Harmony is not discovered in the cosmos, but rather is a good created by sages and kings. In contrast, in early Chinese classical writings that can be dated to roughly after 325 b.c.e. (e.g., the Zhuangzi, the Daodejing, the Mengzi, the Lüshi chunqiu, later Mohist writings, the Huainanzi, and the Shiji), a century and a half before the unification of China, Brindley boldly argues that one finds a marked change in descriptions of harmony. Harmony is now described as inherent within the cosmos; countless competing methods are articulated for achieving or discovering harmony, but generally speaking all involve an intimate working with the larger cosmos.

Through the course of six chapters, Brindley carefully shows how changes in the role and status of music parallel transformations in views of the cosmos—a cosmos that is in close dialectical relationship with human beings, who affect and are being affected by this transcendent force. Developing themes that were introduced in her first monograph, Individualism in Early China: Human Agency and the Self in Thought and Politics (University of Hawai’i Press, 2010), Brindley concludes:

The common saying “Heaven and human come together to form one 天人和一” … is often understood in terms of how humans should alter their behavior to conform to Heaven’s natural and inevitable laws. My analysis shows that there is no single narrative or assumption that humans are to “fit in” in such a way. Indeed, in many texts, humans are presented as integral agents who … might add to and change the course of the cosmos itself.”

(p. 158; italics mine) [End Page 326]

The conception of the cosmos that emerged after the fourth century b.c.e. is “creative” and “engendering,” rather than “passive” and “conforming” (p. 158).

Brindley notes that there exists a handful of articles, book chapters, and books in English, Chinese, and Japanese on music in China. Her linking of music with sweeping spiritual-religious transformations in particular makes this book a unique and excellent contribution to our understanding of not only early China but also theories of music in general. Brindley’s work is an example of detailed, careful, erudite, creative, and bold scholarship. Both Sinologically sound and theoretically sophisticated, she examines a breadth of texts—including both well-studied classics and newly excavated works. Her translations are clear and lucid. Throughout she argues for her views through careful scholarship and then tests her conclusions regarding early China against common sense. The subject—changing concepts of music and its role and status in our human lives—is fascinating and of significance and interest across a breadth of fields including religious studies, literature, and philosophy, as well as intellectual and sociocultural history.

At least two other philosophers have studied the role of music and moral cultivation in early China, notably Philip J. Ivanhoe in “Music in and of Our Lives,” a chapter in his Confucian Reflections: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Times (Routledge, 2013), and Kathleen M. Higgins in “Music in Confucian and Neo-Confucian Philosophy,” a 1980 article for the International Philosophical Quarterly...