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Chenyang Li, The Confucian Philosophy of Harmony.

Chenyang Li, The Confucian Philosophy of Harmony. London & New York: Routledge, 2014. xvi + 197 pages.

Chenyang Li's The Confucian Philosophy of Harmony introduces Confucian harmony (he), a philosophical and political concept at the center of Asian thought, and challenges stereotypical conceptions. Analyzing early Confucian canons in detail, Li contends that Confucian harmony is a dynamic equilibrium "founded on diversity and formulated with creative tensions" (9). Li does not consider harmony a matter of unreasonable compromise, aggressive enforced sameness, or pre-set order. In his view, harmony can be achieved only by the continuous effort of individuals, families, communities, and countries to negotiate differences, tensions, and conflicts.

Li's book is divided into two parts. Part I, consisting of five chapters, is philosophical. In the first chapter, Li distinguishes Confucian harmony from the English definition of "harmony" as "accord and agreement" (8). He compares the Chinese idea with what Martha Nussbaum calls the "innocent harmony" of Plato's Forms and underscores that Confucian harmony embraces differences without attempting to reconcile them. In subsequent chapters, Li illustrates four Confucian expressions or modes of harmony: he (harmony), yue (music), li is (ritual propriety), and zhong (centrality and equilibrium). While he represents the general Confucian conception of harmony, yue, in Li's words, "is the prototype of harmony," li is "the vehicle through which harmony is achieved in the individual, society, and beyond," and zhong is "the guiding philosophical principle and foundation through which harmony is to be defined and realized" (71). Each of the four chapters starts with etymological and philological investigations of the topic character. Li brilliantly relates each character's implicit conception of harmony to its pictorial denotation (xiang xing) indicated by oracle bones and bronze script (mingwen).

Part II, which likewise contains five chapters, examines harmony in practice. Chapters 6-9 progress from inner harmony to familial, social, and global harmony, following the program for the application of Confucian harmony delineated in the anonymous Confucian classic Great Learning (Daxue). Li impressively connects the four aspects of harmony to contemporary issues, but Part II's most creative chapter is Chapter 10, which investigates harmony between humanity and the natural world. Li stresses a Confucian non-anthropocentric environmental philosophy of harmony, encompassing humanity, earth, and heaven. In this triadic relationship, humanity "bears at least a third of the weight" and contributes towards "the harmony of the cosmos" (161).

Li examines harmony from an impressively broad perspective, but he does not delineate the chronological evolution of the concept within Confucian thought. In Chapter 1, Li establishes "harmony as a central idea in Confucianism by surveying its role in Confucian canons" (7). Generalizing that the great Confucian figures all stressed the fundamental importance of harmony, Li understates the differences in their conceptions. Confucius did not in fact regard harmony as paramount. As Li himself points out, "in the Analects, Confucius does not discuss harmony as much as he does 'ren' and 'li'" (10). Mencius elaborated the conception of harmony more thoroughly than Confucius, but did not clearly define the concept, as he did human excellence (ren), righteousness (yi), ritual propriety (li) and wisdom (zhi), the four virtues that he most emphatically extolled. Xunzi (ca. 313-238 BCE), a major figure in later Confucianism, privileged the concept, but exclusively valued ritual propriety. As Li notes, it was Dong Zhongshu (179-104 BCE) who instantiated harmony as "the way of Heaven" and promoted the concept (16). Li emphasizes the anonymous Great Learning and Centrality (Zhongyong) as important conduits of the Confucian conception of harmony, but understates the fact that both works were extracted by Zhu Xi (1130-1200 CE) from the even earlier Book of Rites (Liji), and that it was Zhu who elevated them as core texts of Confucianism. These chapters, together with Zhu's commentaries, reflect and culminate the evolution of the concept of harmony during the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279 CE), but they do not necessarily reflect values intrinsic to earlier Confucian thought. Between Confucius' time (551-479 BCE) and the Southern Song dynasty, harmony evolved as a central Confucian concept; it has not always been, as Li simplifies, the supreme Confucian idea.

The author's interpretation of the Book of Changes (Yijing) is also debatable. Li argues that harmony is the book's central theme, but the book's name and the overall content of its sixty-four hexagrams suggest that its primary focus is change; harmony is a comparatively subsidiary theme. Even Li's assumption that the harmony is the central idea of the Book of Changes is debatable. Citing the contemporary Chinese philosopher Pang Pu's observation, Li agrees that the ordering of the hexagrams is "a process from the unbalanced to the balanced, from extremes to centrality, with various changes in between" (75). The statement over-simplifies the structure in the Book of Changes, focusing only on the first and last two hexagrams. It is even doubtful that the "Heaven" (Qian) and "Earth" (Kun) hexagrams represent imbalance. "Balance" implies two opposite forces while Qian and Kun respectively incorporate yang or yin trigrams, suggesting that they represent interconnecting opposites rather than imbalanced opposites. Li further argues that the last hexagrams--"Harmonized" (Jiji) and "Not Yet Harmonized" (Weiji)--likewise represent harmonious opposites. However, the last two hexagrams, unlike Qian and Kun, do not indicate harmony, but antithesis. Weiji and Jiji do not exist in implicit relation or potential relation; they are bound by mutual negation. Li's notion that the hexagrams can be reconciled is generally convincing, but readers should be aware that the theory cannot be applied to all trigrams and hexagrams.

Li believes that the restoration of Confucian harmony as a guiding principle can benefit society, but the concept should not be idealized. According to Li, Confucian harmony is the basis for ordering the family, community, country, world, and even cosmos. However, implementation requires the continuous effort of virtuous people who must negotiate, reconcile, and compromise when necessary. The concept, in short, is easier preached than practiced. In contemporary China, more than a decade since the government began promoting he xie (the modern term for "harmony") as a political strategy, the word has acquired two paradoxical meanings. On the one hand, "harmony" means to build a society that brings the citizenry within a unifying order--a meaning that retains much of the original Confucian resonance and intention. On the other hand, "harmony," as deliberately ironized by modern Chinese youth, denotes the government's control of speech and publication. To "harmonize" the news means to expurgate and ban in keeping with the regime's political agenda. The Chinese government fails to understand or enact the deep meaning of Confucian harmony and reminds of the huge gap between theory and application.

The Confucian Philosophy of Harmony provides an inspiring investigation of Confucian harmony. Reference to authoritative primary resources solidify the discussion for readers who are familiar with Confucian philosophy, while comparisons between Confucian and Western philosophies help Western readers understand the Confucian concept. Even so, the concept of Confucian harmony requires further and even more detailed analysis, while the development of the concept into a healthy political system must for the moment remain a fond wish.


University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
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Author:Sheng, Yihui
Publication:Southeast Review of Asian Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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