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  • The Confucian Philosophy of Harmony by Chenyang Li
  • Sor-hoon Tan
The Confucian Philosophy of Harmony. By Chenyang Li. London and New York: Routledge, 2014. Pp. x + 197. Hardcover £85.00, isbn 978-0-415-84474-1.

This book makes an important contribution to the current scholarship with its thorough textual research on the role of harmony in the Confucian classics, its reconstructive arguments for its significance in Confucianism at different levels, and its extension of the concept for application to contemporary problems. It serves to expose the most common misunderstandings and sometimes deliberate perversions of the concept of harmony in contemporary intellectual and political discourses regarding the continuing relevance of Confucian philosophy.

The book has two parts, “Harmony as a philosophical concept” and “Harmony in practice.” The first part includes detailed textual studies of materials from the Thirteen Classics and Twenty-Two Masters, supplemented by resources from the recently excavated Mawangdui Silk Texts and Guodian Chu Bamboo Texts. These chapters reconstruct the Confucian philosophy of harmony that encompasses metaphysics or cosmology, religion, aesthetics, ethics, and political philosophy. It argues that the Confucian concept of harmony has often been misunderstood as rigid and oppressive, because the shadow of a different concept of harmony as pure accord or conformity presupposing a transcendent static order—a legacy of ancient Greek philosophy and culture—has blinded many to the characteristics of heterogeneity, tension, coordination and cooperation, transformation and growth, and renewal present in harmony as conceived by Confucians, a harmony that not only eschews sameness for creative tension in differences, but also acknowledges the instrumental value of conflict insofar as a specific conflict can contribute to harmony at some other level or time. After elucidating the varied roles that such a dynamic and inclusive ideal of harmony has played in Confucian philosophy from ancient times, the second part demonstrates how the concept applies to the Confucian quest of personal cultivation, flourishing family, social interaction and good government, relations between polities, and the relation between humans and the cosmos, in ways [End Page 620] that could be relevant to contemporary life. These extensive applications of the concept of harmony in practice yield a comprehensive picture of the harmony outlook that this book advocates.

The studies of music as the archetype of harmony and ritual propriety as the vehicle for realizing harmony are indisputable choices given the common use of “collapse of ritual propriety and damage to music (禮崩樂壞)” to encapsulate the troubles confronting Confucius and his followers around the sixth to third centuries b.c.e. The conceptual and philosophical ties between music and harmony highlight processes of bringing varied elements to form a whole by integrating and coordinating them; these processes are present both descriptively and prescriptively in the workings of the cosmos, in the relation between heaven and humanity, and in society and people’s lived experience. By examining the reasons Confucians valued music as highly as they did—because it “embodies the grand ideal of harmony, and it exemplifies the ultimate unity of truth, good, and beauty in society” (p. 56)—and analyzing their debates with Daoists and Mohists, chapter 3 argues convincingly that harmony has a central position in Confucian philosophy. Chapter 4 reinforces this with its characterization of the relationship between ritual propriety and harmony as “intrinsic” (p. 64), in the way ritual propriety brings about harmony in every aspect of Chinese society, from religious activities and government affairs, guidelines for economic distribution and activities, and parameters for judicial punishment, to various aspects of everyday life such as receiving guests, weddings, banquets, funerals, hunting, and ethical relationships. The analysis of what Confucians call differentiation (別) and precedence (序), with helpful examples from contemporary life, illuminates how ritual propriety preempts potential conflicts and enables spontaneous coordination.

Chapter 5 elaborates the metaphysical dimension of harmony through the study of zhong 中, “centrality” or “equilibrium,” as the guiding philosophical principle and foundation that prevents harmony from becoming “a series of unprincipled compromises” (p. 71). From its ancient meaning of a center from which power is exerted, zhong acquired the derivative meanings of “balanced,” “unbiased,” “upright” and hence “correct,” and “morally right.” Centrality and harmony are key concepts in the Book of Change, which promotes...


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