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  • Is Confucian Harmony Foundationless? A Critical Question for Chenyang Li
  • Ruiping Fan (bio)

How Would Li’s Account Overcome the Conflict of Incest Harmoniously?

Professor Chenyang Li’s insightful volume, The Confucian Philosophy of Harmony (2014), is the first book-length, content-rich, and serious exploration of the Confucian ideal of he 和, harmony. The book convincingly shows that Confucianism cherishes harmonious relations and emphasizes the utmost goal of world harmony (p. 145).1 To take harmony as a supreme value, Li wants us to “maintain a high level of harmony consciousness” and “give harmony a prominent place in exercising judgments in daily life” (p. 169). In a nutshell, Confucian harmony has five key characteristics in his account: (1) heterogeneity, (2) tension, (3) coordination and cooperation, (4) transformation and growth, and (5) renewal (p. 9). Since tension can result in conflict, and conflict can set back the ideal of harmony and impede the process of harmonization, and since Li states that “Confucians see harmonization as a process of overcoming conflict” (p. 13), I am particularly interested in what guidelines Li’s account has provided to overcome or resolve conflict in society harmoniously.

Indeed, certain guidelines have been implicit in characteristics (3) and (4). Under “coordination and cooperation,” Li indicates that “while tension may result in conflict, it also places constraints on parties in interaction and generates energy to advance coordination. In coordination, involved parties make allowances for one another and preserve their soundness” (p. 9). Under “transformation and growth,” Li states that “through coordination, tension is transformed and conflict is reconciled into a favorable environment for each party to flourish. In this process, involved parties undergo mutual transformation and form harmonious relationships” (p. 9). These statements from his account, such as “making allowance for one another” and “undergoing mutual transformation,” seem to be both descriptive and prescriptive. However, when we take them as the overall configuration of “Confucian” principles or guidelines for harmony, they appear to be largely overgeneralized and even recast in ways that may not be typically or authentically Confucian. My concern is not about whether such guidelines constitute effective guidance for any ideal of harmony. Rather, my worry is that they may not have veraciously supplied the fine grains of Confucian harmony.

Let me begin with an example of conflict to illustrate my worry. As it happened, when I was reading Li’s book last year, I came across a report of a British case of father-daughter incest. At that moment I couldn’t help but wonder what Li would say about this case in light of his comprehension of the Confucian ideal of harmony. [End Page 246] Here is the case. According to journalist reports, a girl was raised up by her step-father, but at the age of fourteen she decided to leave the stepfather and find her real father. She was able to find him, a man from Huddersfield in England, and transferred to his home. The two then lived together and formed an incestuous relationship. They had a first child in 2002. Although the father received a warning from a judge that required him to break off the relationship immediately, the two continued the relationship. They had a second child just a year later, and in 2010 a third child. In May 2014 the father was jailed for three years and ten months after admitting a string of offences, including incest, at Leeds Crown Court. On July 25, 2014, three of the country’s top judges at the Court of Appeal increased the term to eight years. The three judges emphasized that the man’s daughter had been vulnerable at the time, he had started to have sex with her when she was only fourteen, he did not use contraception and continued despite the caution, and had the incestuous relationship with his daughter continuously for sixteen years.2

Any philosophical account of Confucian harmony aside, I trust that Confucians would certainly support the legal punishment of such incest. For Confucians, a harmonious father-daughter relationship definitely ought to exclude their sexual interaction with each other. Such interaction is taken to be absolutely immoral and must be prohibited by law. Even if the incestuous...


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pp. 246-256
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