New Book by Chenyang Li

From Routledge comes this announcement about a book by one of our blog contributors, Chenyang Li. There is also information about a 20% discount promotion from Routledge in this promotional flier.


The Confucian Philosophy of Harmony Routledge 2013

by Chenyang Li

Harmony is a concept essential to Confucianism and to the way of life of past and present people in East Asia. Integrating methods of textual exegesis, historical investigation, comparative analysis, and philosophical argumentation, this book presents a comprehensive treatment of the Confucian philosophy of harmony.

The book traces the roots of the concept to antiquity, examines its subsequent development, and explicates its theoretical and practical significance for the contemporary world. It argues that, contrary to a common view in the West, Confucian harmony is not mere agreement but has to be achieved and maintained with creative tension. Under the influence of a Weberian reading of Confucianism as “adjustment” to a world with an underlying fixed cosmic order, Confucian harmony has been systematically misinterpreted in the West as presupposing an invariable grand scheme of things that pre-exists in the world to which humanity has to conform. The book shows that Confucian harmony is a dynamic, generative process, which seeks to balance and reconcile differences and conflicts through creativity.

Illuminating one of the most important concepts in Chinese philosophy and intellectual history, this book is of interest to students of Chinese studies, history and philosophy in general and eastern philosophy in particular.



Part 1: Harmony as Philosophical Concept

1. Harmony with Creative Tension

2. Formation of the Ideal of Deep Harmony: He

3. Harmony from the Beautiful: Yue

4. Harmony with Ritual Propriety: Li

5. Harmony through Centrality and Equilibrium: Zhong

Part 2: Harmony in Practice

6. Harmony in the Good Person

7. Home of Harmony: The Family

8. Harmonious Society

9. Harmonizing the World

10. Triadic Harmony in the Cosmos

11. Conclusion: Toward a Harmony Outlook

More information at


“The ideal of liberty is central to the liberal tradition, but the value of liberty was not discussed in any systematic way prior to John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty in the nineteenth century. The ideal of harmony is central to the Confucian tradition, but perhaps even more surprising, not a single book-length manuscript has explored its value in the three thousand year Confucian tradition. Chenyang Li’s book finally fills the gap. Westerners tend to think of harmony as synonymous with conformity and uniformity, but Li shows that this view is fundamentally mistaken. Li’s comparative outlook is particularly helpful for helping the reader grasp what makes harmony a precious and unique value and why Confucians tend to think harmony is central to any decent ethical system. This book is a tour de force, a must read for anybody who wants to learn about the ideals that make Confucian-influenced cultures tick.”

Daniel A. Bell, author of East Meets West: Human Rights and Democracy in East Asia (2000) and Confucianism for the Modern World (2003)

“This is the most comprehensive and intriguing scholarly treatment of the concept of harmony in Confucianism. Li’s arguments are clearly articulated with the support of erudite intellectual history, textual exegesis, and most convincingly, crystal clear conceptual analysis. This book is a must for those students and scholars in philosophy, China Studies, and East Asian Studies, who want to understand the core of Confucianism, both classical and modern.”

Vincent Shen, University of Toronto, Canada

28 replies on “New Book by Chenyang Li”

  1. I haven’t seen the book – it sounds really wonderful, and I’d love to hear more about it—especially since recent events in America recall Thomas Hobbes’ observation in Leviathan XXV :

    A man that doth his businesse by the help of many and prudent Counsellours, with every one consulting apart in his proper element, does it best, as he that useth able Seconds at Tennis play, placed in their proper stations. He does next best, that useth his own Judgement only; as he that has no Second at all. But he that is carried up and down to his businesse in a framed Counsell, which cannot move but by the plurality of consenting opinions, the execution whereof is commonly (out of envy, or interest) retarded by the part dissenting, does it worst of all, and like one that is carried to the ball, though by good Players, yet in a Wheele-barrough, or other frame, heavy of it self, and retarded also by the inconcurrent judgements, and endeavours of them that drive it; and so much the more, as they be more that set their hands to it; and most of all, when there is one, or more amongst them, that desire to have him lose.

    We had a brief discussion of harmony this summer, considering especially the idea of limited adversarial proceedings (elective government, courtroom trials with opposing attorneys, the free market, academic debate, football, game shows). My thought was that limited adversarial proceedings—a limited area of vigorous struggle framed by cooperative agreement—is an essential sort of institution and hence an essential though challenging sort of, er, emotional pattern for people living in large-scale organized society. I wondered whether the Chinese tradition had developed that idea at all, and in my vast ignorance I couldn’t think of anything other than the Analects on archery and the Mencius on scuffling over the spoils of the hunt, neither of which is clearly instance.

    I wonder whether this sort of idea is discussed in the book at all, and what some better examples might be from the Confucian tradition.

    • Cures wouldn’t be discussed if there were no diseases. Harmony of the Confucian kind is discussed in Chenyang’s book as the traditional Chinese cure for the ailment of human conflict.

      Limited adversarial proceedings are distractions not even amounting to strife which, in the book, is considered as part of harmony.

  2. Thanks to Bill and Chenping for the comments. Tracing the origin and formation of the Confucian idea of harmony to the Chunqiu Warring States period, a central argument in the book is that Confucian harmony is with creative tensions, which I think includes what Bill calls “limited adversarial proceedings.” Confucians hold that ministers/sons must remonstrate with rulers/fathers, etc. Without creative tension, “innocent harmony” has little value. With strife, I go further than most Confucian scholars to explore its role in achieving harmony. While strife per se is not harmony, strife can serve to achieve future harmony or harmony at a high level. In nature, predators kill preys. This itself is not harmony, but their relationship in important to achieving or maintaining harmony in nature as a whole (think of the case of introducing wolves back to Yellowstone). In this view, Confucian harmony is a holistic philosophy. As with any holism, there is a challenge for properly protecting individuals. Tu Weiming’s emphasis on human dignity is relevant here. I trace the idea to the Yijing, the need to balance grand harmony and individuality (ge zheng xing ming). The above is part of the argument in Chapter 1 of the book. I invite your comments and criticisms.

    • I appreciate the privilege to discuss your book with you.

      Yes, your pointing to the presence of strife in harmony “he 和” is remarkable and daring. Of strife, you cited two kinds. The first kind is “tension and cooperative opposition” as evidenced in a busy train station with people rushing in different directions. This brought to my mind the Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo, a truly amazing harmonious pedestrian traffic phenomenon. The second kind, where one destroys another, is difficult to process – as difficult as accepting death as a part of life.

      Predators killing prey is ok in the wild but not when predators and prey take the form of people in societies. My objection is based on the belief that strife of this kind in and among humans is not nature-driven and, therefore, cannot be part of your plea for a Confucian holism. I would use Hans-Georg Moeller argument on moral conflict to support my case.

    • It is one thing to present “Confucian philosophy of harmony” as a historical Chinese curiosity for scholarly study but quite another to advance it as the Holy Grail of political science.

      It seems to me that your book is suggesting that the philosophy of harmony “he 和 ” is actionable and good government can bring about a harmonious society.

      Chinese scholars are excited about the democratising of China and some are particularly proud of Taiwan as the model for political freedom in a “Confucian-inspired society”.

      What political framework do you have in mind for governing society today in accordance with Confucian principles to bring about social harmony? To my mind, Singapore would be more amenable (than China) to political reform. How would you propose to transform this parliamentary republic?

  3. Thank you, Chenyang! I really appreciate your willingness to hear questions, and I know I’m taking advantage by asking questions outside the scope of the book, and asking without having read the book.

    In asking whether the idea of “limited adversarial proceedings” had been developed in the Chinese tradition, I didn’t mean (I think) to be asking about strife. I’m inclined to agree with Chenping that strife is something different. Also—though I don’t know quite what the term “creative tension” means here—I suspect that it may not include the kind of thing I’m calling “limited adversarial proceedings.”

    In the last couple of years a sport called “mixed martial arts” (MMA) has become popular on television. It’s basically boxing with thin gloves, knees, elbows, kicking, wrestling, throwing, and strangling. It’s vigorous and often bloody, so the fights go for only three or five rounds. There are sharp limits on what may and may not be done. No kneeing someone in the head who is down on the mat. No gouging someone’s eye with a finger. The whole thing takes place within a “cage,” and there are limits in time: each round begins and ends with a sharp loud noise, and at the end of each round the referee jumps between the fighters to help them stop together. Thus there are sharp limits of time, of place, and of process or scope. Within those limits, one gives one’s aggressive instincts full play. And yet after almost every fight, if the fighters are both on their feet, and sometimes after ever round, immediately after the bell the fighters hug, or at least pat each other on the back. Sometimes they even gesture during a round, in appreciation of someone else’s smart move. I’m reminded of Confucius’ remark in LY 3.7 about how gentlemen compete in archery (though of course strength matters in MMA).

    The term “creative tension” suggests to me moderation in the degree of opposition, but no particular boundaries, and hence no defined arena (defined in time or space or scope) within which one may give one’s aggressive or competitive impulses free play. That’s why I suspect that it doesn’t capture what I mean by “limited adversarial proceedings.”

    (Of course the effect of MMA for an audience, and what makes it popular, may simply be its brutal aggressiveness. I’m not saying this particular institution is a good one, or that it helps reinforce any good general emotional pattern.)

    Western culture is full of such practices—what might be called limited struggle, enjoyed by participants and spectators. Many of our entertainments take that form, our vision of economics takes that form, and many of our most serious governing institutions take that form. The idea seems to go back at least to the Greeks, with their sporting competitions, Athenian literary competitions (an annual public ritual lasting for days, with complex rules to ensure fair judging), and deliberative assemblies.

    There are two main ideas here: the idea of clearly defined limits, and the idea of freedom to struggle within those limits, being comfortable with the idea that there are winners and losers.

    The idea of vigorous contention within clearly defined limits seems to me very valuable and very basic, and I am very curious to know whether it has been developed at all in the Confucian or Chinese tradition. There must be some examples, and I am eager to know what they are. That’s the main question I would like to ask.

    If remonstrating with one’s superiors is an example of strife or adversarial proceedings, I suppose that is only because it is an expression of disagreement. And then remonstrating with one’s equals or inferiors would be examples in just the same way, yes? If such expressions of disagreement are examples of adversarial proceedings, they seem to me to be extremely minimal examples.

    I think someone who had investigated harmony 和 in the tradition must be most likely to know in what practices or discussions the tradition has best developed the fact or idea of limited adversarial proceedings. But the question isn’t actually a question about harmony 和 at all. I don’t expect that the idea of vigorous contention within sharp limits would relate to harmony 和 in any simple general way (though, as I was surprised to hear from Phil Hand in the other thread, apparently many people in China today do find any sort of contention disharmonious).

    A second question I’d like to ask is more closely related to the project of the book: Have there in the Confucian tradition been any successful efforts, or any efforts, to define the term harmony 和 to make it clear? The term seems to me a vague metaphor (from music or food), so that in trying to define it clearly, the aims of accuracy and clarity cannot both be satisfied: in order to be clear, one must create a concept, not just report one.

    As for predators and prey – there is a balance in nature that largely consists of each sort of life form eating, and being eaten by, others in stably maintainable quantities, roughly the same quantities over time. Is that what you mean by the harmony in nature? I agree that it is different from any particular eating. Interestingly, it is only the instabilities over time that generate evolution, hence higher life forms (would these have more of what Steve calls “coherence” 理?).

  4. Hi Bill,

    Thanks for these interesting questions.

    First, regarding “limited adversarial proceedings,” I think it may depend on how specifically one defines these. If ministers can contend with one another as long as they do not intend to undermine the state/regime (or to put it the other way around, as long as they do so for the good of the state/regime), would that count as “limited adversarial proceedings”? Chinese emperors were known for appointing ministers in opposition to one another so they compete for influence. My use of “creative tension” is kept vague enough to encompass various kinds of tension and adversaries.

    Second, I agree with you that we need to define (or conceptualize) harmony rather than just reporting one. I do not believe it feasible to define harmony with one sentence in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. Instead, I present key characteristics of harmony in Confucian philosophy (see chapter 1).

    Third, in my understanding, though it is true that loss of harmony may lead to new forms of harmony (through evolution, etc.), but we also need to be cautious not to destroy harmonies lightly as new harmonies may not be readily available (as what we do to the environment).

    Thanks again for your interesting questions.


    • C> If ministers can contend with one another as long as they do not intend to undermine the state/regime (or to put it the other way around, as long as they do so for the good of the state/regime), would that count as “limited adversarial proceedings”? Chinese emperors were known for appointing ministers in opposition to one another so they compete for influence.

      Hmm! Interesting.

      Well … at one extreme we might imagine regular meetings in which people are encouraged to express their different views, understanding that the rule was (as Kant once put it) “Argue all you like, but obey!” We might imagine that this was a known practice, or even discussed and valued in some philosophical text, and perhaps expected from reign to reign.

      At the other extreme we might imagine that on occasion this or that monarch casually encouraged infighting, as a personal trick to make sure that no one minister gained too much power. In this case I think there is nothing that one should call a “practice” except the ruler’s manipulative practice; and nothing that is particularly free or clearly limited.

      I think that in either case the participants would have been a vanishingly small fraction of the population, so that unless the matter was publicly known and valued, it is not of any cultural significance as a model for, or reflection of, anything else. Yes?

      Was the practice of contending among ministers (whatever form it took) discussed in Confucian theory at all?

      If you have in mind a particular kind of conversation among ministers that was valued, the point might be relevant to a project I’ve described here, which I hope someone would like to undertake.

  5. Excellent topic and opportunity for discussion. Thanks for opening it up.

    What if the state/regime is inhumane? If it creates “harmony” for some at the expense of others? The American South before the civil war, for example. It would seem that, to achieve a more genuine “harmony,” something more than “limited adversarial proceedings” would be required. Or Qin, which I view as inhumane: might a legitimate Confucian position be that to remove the humanity-crushing state structure, and reach an authentic “harmony,” a more pointed and assertive political opposition is necessary?

    • Glad you brought this up. I have been sitting with Chenyang’s loaded phrase “unnecessary harm” hoping that I don’t have to sharpshoot it. Only Mother Nature gets a pass on “unnecessary harm” no matter how many people she wipes out in the process of “harmonization”; everybody else would get royally pummelled by Hans-Georg Moeller.

  6. I think it is true that “limited adversarial proceedings” (LAP) in ancient China, if ever existed, were quite limited. On the other hand, I am not sure they are necessary for achieving harmony. Harmony in a family, for instance, may not require “LAP.”

    For an inhumane state to achieve harmony, you need to define harmony in specific ways, but not in the way I understand Confucian harmony, which can be found in the book. I notice that Sam’s placed ‘harmony” in quotation marks. Perhaps you do not mean that is real harmony. If so, I certainly agree with you.

  7. There do seem to have been archery contests in Confucius’ time, and board games. Surely at least board games survived continuously? These are not great grand LAPs, but at least they’re something. Large numbers of people (eventually) could participate in board games, and on a regular basis. I wonder if they did.

    I wonder how early there was physical combat as a sport?

    And I suppose civil service examinations were an arena for competition, with definite winners and losers (I suppose the fact that there were losers didn’t bother people too much as a general fact?), though of course the exams didn’t involve direct competition between any two people or teams.

    Another thing to look at would be the forms of market economics, or competitive entrepreneurship: the regulatory structure and how it was conceived.

    Since the Mencius mentions scuffling over the proceeds of a hunt, which I take to have been some kind of ritual with limited risk, I wonder whether there were other kinds of ritual faux-combat or contest.


    C> “I am not sure [LAPs] are necessary for achieving harmony. Harmony in a family, for instance …”

    I’m inclined to think they are necessary for any group larger than a small family; but of course it depends on what you mean by “harmony.” 

    I think it is generally agreed that harmony 和 is some kind of unity-with-difference, something like the peaceful synergy of differences; and we might also define it in such a way that serious oppression is largely excluded (as I think you suggest). And among the salient kinds of difference giving rise to a concern for harmony are, not just qualitative differences such as differences in talent, but what we might call conflicts of interest (actual or potential), which do not require qualitative differences.

    Now, there are certain benefits to be gained from letting such conflicts play out to some extent; that’s why harmony is good. The most obvious and straightforward way to combine peace with those benefits (i.e. with some “creative tension”) is, it seems to me, to set limits, allowing competition or opposition within the limits and not beyond.

    Two very general advantages of clear agreed limits come to mind. One is security: one doesn’t have to worry about indefinite escalation of small conflicts, if the boundaries are publicly understood and agreed. Security allows for trust, and then for vigor in the creative tension. The other is simplicity: one doesn’t have to think and worry about how far to go, if there are clear rules about the scope of conflict. This is, I think, an enormous benefit.

    What would be the alternative methods of combining peace with creative tension?

    Aside from those two very general benefits to the LAP structure, there are the specific benefits to any society of the particular kinds of LAP that have been worked out in some detail, such as democracy, regulated market economics, freedom of debate, fair trials, and the like. These LAPs support prosperity, justice and understanding, perhaps vastly better than any alternative approaches. And prosperity, justice and understanding may be necessary conditions for stable peace-with-tension-without-oppression.

    I’m inclined to think that competitive games and sports, in which contention is safe and loss is no disaster, help train people to the emotional forms necessary for combining peace with tension.

    War is sometimes celebrated for the discipline and comradeship it imparts. Team sports have also been celebrated for the same reason, and capitalism has sometimes been defended on the grounds of the personal discipline it gives to people in general; and these functions of sports and business depend essentially on the vigor of the contention involved, hence on the LAP structure I think. And football and business are (mostly) safer than war!

  8. HI Bill,

    Interesting discussion. I think now I have a better idea of what you mean by LAP. You are right that LAPs can help foster a culture for harmony which carries dynamic energy. If we understand LAP as including regulated competition, which assume exists in all cultures in various forms (would “adversarial” be too strong/negative a word? Would you use it to cover friendly competitions?). In the Confucian culture, the “limiting” force comes from ritual. In the context of the Confucian philosophy of harmony, I think it is important that ritual not only regulates how the competition is played out, but also how far a competition can go. A duel can be performed with strict regulations, but it leads to deadly consequences. Confucian ritual should rule that kind of LAP out. I think your idea of avoiding “disasters” may cover that.

    If my understanding of your concept LAP is correct, Confucian harmony includes such an element, as I define Confucian harmony with a broad capacity for accommodating “tension.”

    Thanks for your thought-provoking discussion.

    • Confucius did not preach rebellion. In that sense, he was all for LAP no matter how rotten the status quo. Filial piety is the inviolable doctrine. The people can replace the ruler only with the consent of Heaven “tian 天“. And for two thousand years or more, the people of China have suffered this philosophy of harmony. For them, there was no other alternative; and none even today under the ruling elite in communist guise.

      In pushing for harmony, are you saying that there is no way out but to continue practising the southerners’ strength of patience “ ren 忍 ?

    • I’ve been using ‘LAP’ as a countable noun: a tennis match is an LAP composed of smaller LAPs; (liberal democratic) party politics is an LAP among parties. Part of the idea is sharp limits; part of the idea is freedom within those limits. Competitive games are invaluable training for broader LAPs and LCPs—as Tocqueville held voluntary associations to be invaluable training for broader democracy; and as Youzi held filiality and fraternity (narrowly construed) to be invaluable training for broader political responsibility (LY 1.2), held a community’s ritual to be invaluable training for its fuller harmony (1.12), held trustworthiness to be invaluable triaining for justice and held generally deferential bearing to be invaluable training for ritual propriety (1.13).

  9. Hi Chenyang,

    I’m just starting to work out this idea myself. Your latest comment is very helpful.

    To your questions whether “adversarial” is too negative a word, and whether I’d use it to cover friendly competitions:

    Your comment helps me see the value of a basic distinction between “competitive” and “adversarial” proceedings, the latter focused on proceedings in which two (or just a few) parties oppose only each other. Civil service exams are competitive but not adversarial in that narrow sense, and market competition is perhaps mostly not adversarial in that narrow sense (depending on conditions). Tournament competitions are hybrid cases: each event is a contest between two, but e.g. the baseball season is a contest among many. Democratic elections are adversarial in the sense that only a few people are serious contenders in any given election, though the field is open to many at first; party politics is an adversary proceeding between teams. (Maybe we should use ‘competitive’ as the more generic term, encompassing adversarial and the other proceedings.)

    In that sense I would now not use “adversarial” for all competitions, and therefore wouldn’t use it for all friendly competitions. Market competition where there are many players, where the parties do not see themselves as competing against one or two rivals for a limited pie, are not adversarial in that sense. But then LCP and LAP both seem to be basic for any good society, and elementary concepts for any understanding of harmony.


    But I don’t see “adversarial” as a negative word—maybe that’s a basic cultural difference—so I would apply it without hesitation to friendly games, court trials fought between friendly lawyers, political conflict between friends such as Reagan and O’Niell, etc. I think even MMA or “cage fighting” can be friendly competition, even as each party tries to cause the other to bleed into his eyes. This is the value of clearly defined limits and freedom within.


    Another interesting distinction is between (a) LAPs or LCPs that are discrete events, such as games of chess, elections, or the annual gaokao, and (b) LAPs or LCPs that are permanent or ongoing conditions, such as market competition. Here too of course there are intermediate or hybrid cases. Party politics is an ongoing condition that is regularly crystallized in particular elections. Competitions in professional sports are primarily the particular games, but e.g. major league baseball is an ongoing condition.

    I think you are right to point to an important distinction between kinds of limit: limits on the process and limits on the impact. The limits on the process of MMA are, I suppose, valued partly for their role in limiting the impact of the contest on the participants. Limits on the impact of economic competition might include a legally guaranteed basic safety net.

    One might also want distinguish between limits that draw a sharp line and say “You can do anything up to this line, nothing further” and limits that say simply “don’t go too far” (in this direction or that). But by “limits” I mean the former only. “Not too much” isn’t a limit. Thus, if we rely on, say, kinship feelings to keep people from going too far against one another, but we do not draw sharp lines, that’s not an example of what I would call a “limited” competitive proceeding.


    When you say, “In the Confucian culture, the ‘limiting’ force comes from ritual,” do you mean that (in that culture) what limits any adversarial or competitive proceeding (business, punitive expeditions 征, martial arts competition, chess) is ritual rather than law, agreements, referees, or something else? And are you talking about the source of motivation to adhere to the limits, or are you talking about the source of the definition of the limits? (By “the Confucian culture” do you mean an ideal that has never been realized, or do you mean e.g. actual China in some periods?)

    • Is Confucian culture an idea or actuality? This is a fascinating question.

      Has Christian culture ever been realized?

  10. Hi Bill,

    Thanks for your further clarification. That is helpful.

    I guest the choice of words may to some extent reflect one’s philosophy. Using “adversarial” may indicate more willingness to tolerate open conflict. I am reluctant to use it and prefer “competition” (in different degrees).

    My understanding of Confucian ritual is a broad one, as explicated in Chapter 4. There is law. But for the vast part of social life, ritual regulates virtually everything. I understand Confucian ritual both as sources of motivations (as Confucian ritual can be internalized as virtue) and as sources of definition of appropriate regulation (again, see Ch. 4).

    My interpretation of the Confucian philosophy of harmony is primarily based on Confucian classical texts, whether it has been realized fully in society or not. In a rich tradition as Confucianism, there are always varied statements and interpretations of texts. My approach is to re-construct a coherent and reasonable account on the basis of textual evidence.

    There has without any doubt been Confucian culture in China, just as there has been Daoist culture in China. Then, how do we tell what is or is not Confucian culture? My understanding is that practice in Confucian culture should find textual support in Confucian classical texts. My understanding of Confucian philosophy is much broader than the Analects by Confucius. So “Confucian” really means “rujia.”



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