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  • Tension and Harmony: A Comment on Chenyang Li’s The Confucian Philosophy of Harmony
  • Wai Wai Chiu (bio)

Reconstruction of Harmony

Chenyang Li’s new book, The Confucian Philosophy of Harmony, challenges current interpretations of Confucianism by focusing on a long neglected idea — harmony. It also challenges an ideology, found in both the East and the West, that harmony is either static conformity or well-disguised conflict. As Li explains, the book is a reclamation of ‘harmony’ for its proper use in designating the kind of harmony advocated in traditional Chinese thought and, mainly, Confucianism (p. 10).1 Li does this by carefully examining the status of harmony in the Confucian classics, arguing that it is the most comprehensive and penetrating idea. Other Confucian values such as ren 仁, li 禮, zhong 中, and dao 道 are either intertwined with, or derived from, harmony. For Li, Confucian harmony is a continuous process that always produces and transcends creative tensions. It may be argued that Confucians view the world not as a static entity, but as an unending harmonization.

Li’s reconstruction of the idea of harmony is largely solid and convincing, and while I generally agree with his view on its conceptual status, my attempts to situate his interpretation in a larger context have generated questions. I address two issues in this comment. The first is the internal tensions between the idea of harmony and other Confucian claims about humanity and the world. The second is the relationship between Confucianism and other strands of traditional Chinese thought, particularly Daoism.

Inconsistent Quartet

Li describes Confucian harmony as a state of balance (pp. 9, 21, 75) and equity (p. 122) — it is the path of the world (p. 78) and the ultimate basis of all activities. Thus, the ultimate goal of personal and social actions is realizing harmony. In fact, realizing harmony is the sacred mission of humans in this world (p. 166). However, this take on harmony makes some claims that are difficult to support. I focus on four such claims, or an ‘inconsistent quartet’ for the sake of convenience. The content of this quartet is elaborated below.

  1. 1. Harmony can exist naturally. By ‘naturally’ I refer to a way of realizing or preserving harmony without deliberation, calculation, or strong will, typically (though not necessarily) found in nature. This seems to fit Li’s conception of ‘nature’ as [End Page 237] shown in his ‘wolves eating sheep’ scenario (pp. 13, 21), in which the two animals’ populations are in harmony because the wolves keep the sheep population in check but cannot overeat without suffering from starvation in the long run. Moreover, according to the Daoyuan article of the Mawangdui Silk Texts quoted by Li (pp. 28–29), everything in the world is generated by the Dao through harmonization. The Dao, unlike God in the Abrahamic religions, has no divine will or plan. Thus, it follows that, on the largest scale, harmony functions naturally. This is further confirmed by Li’s discussion of the Confucian metaphysical tradition (pp. 43–50), in which the operation of Heaven and Earth is always value-laden and reveals a deep ethical and aesthetic structure (i.e., harmony).

  2. 2. Harmony must be generated from norm-governing activities. By ‘norm- governing’ I refer to activities that have a direction, instead of ‘anything goes.’ From a spectator’s point of view, the mechanism of a norm-governing activity must contain certain constraints such that some results are deemed acceptable while others are not. Reasons for ascribing this view to Li include his saying that people cannot become harmonized in just any way; instead, they must follow the path of centrality (p. 84), and harmony should be realized through li 禮, an important aspect of which is a set of norms. While having a norm does not imply that the norm must be rigid or absolute, it does imply that there is a distinction between right and wrong. In addition, the use of ‘activity’ rather than ‘process’ is significant here, as not all processes are activities. Some processes just happen without an inherent, active component. Li specifically states that harmony requires action (p. 14); it is something to be brought forth rather than given. When...


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