The Pre-Beginnings of the Philosophical Concept of Harmony (和 he)

The concept of harmony is primarily articulated through the Chinese word, 和 he. (Other words for harmony include mu 睦, xie 協, and xie 諧.) According to scholars, the word he is derived from two different sources: culinary and music.

In the culinary context, 和 he was derived from the word, 盉 he, that referred to a wine mixing utensil used to adjust the thickness/concentration of wine by mixing it with water, whereas in a musical context, 和 he was derived from the word, 龢 he, which referred to a musical instrument that functioned as an accompaniment to the main melody, i.e. mixing sounds. While the etymology of the character, 龢 he, refers primarily to a bamboo pipe instrument, the word is used in general to refer to any instrument that fulfils the function of blending sounds (e.g. 龢鍾 hezhong: the bell (zhong) that mixes sounds).

These words were originally used as names of instruments, but they were eventually used as verbs to indicate the action of mixing. This is quite similarly to the way we use the names of things to indicate action. E.g. Skype is the name of the application which we use to make internet calls, and yet we use it as a verb (e.g. I skyped him yesterday) to indicate action involving Skype. Similarly, Facebook is the name of a social networking service, and yet we use the word, “facebook” like a verb to refer to an action involving Facebook (e.g. Don’t facebook, face your book instead!). In fact, the feature of the classical Chinese language is that there is no clear distinction between verbs and nouns – they’re all referred to as names (名 ming). Sure, some words are often used as a verb or a noun, but you can still use the same word to indicate either an object or an action. As such, to 盉 he is to mix flavours, while to 龢 he is to mix sounds. Over time, 龢 he was simplified to become 和 he (a reduction from three 口 mouth characters to one). And eventually, the words 盉 he, 龢 he, and 和 he came to be used interchangeably.

It is important to note that both cooking and music in ancient China are worlds apart from the cooking and music that we are familiar today. Both cooking and music had a moral dimension. It was believed that well-balanced (i.e. well-harmonised) food and music could bring about a harmonious heart-mind (心 xin) within the consumer of such food and music. This is all the more important for the ruler, as a harmonious heart-mind is necessary for him to rule his kingdom in a harmonious manner. This might seem a little crazy or far-fetched. But if you think about it, certain foods and songs do have an effect on your moods. For example, desserts (CHOCOLATE!), or just a satisfying meal can bring delight to the one eating it, and similarly, a horribly cooked dish can spoil your mood. In the same way, happy songs can bring joy to a person, while sad songs can induce sadness to the listener. And no matter how rational we may be, our emotions have the potential to drive us into making irrational decisions, or to act in a manner which we may later regret.

Seeing how food and music have the power to sway our moods and therefore, the decisions we make, the ancient Chinese placed a huge moral burden on cooks and musicians to ensure that foods are properly cooked (i.e. that flavours are well harmonised), and that harmonious music is performed. In this way, cooks and musicians play a vital role in building up the morality of the society that they serve. More importantly, cooks and musicians possess great power and influence over the ruler, and have the power to keep him harmonised so that there will be harmonious rule in the kingdom. And on the flip-side, they too have the power to morally corrupt their ruler, and thus bring about disharmony within society. It is for this reason, that the penalty for failing to harmonise flavours and sounds was death!

Due to this close connection between food/music, morality, and the overall state of society, the action of mixing flavours and sounds came to have this added dimension of bringing about harmony in a social setting. Shi Bo 史伯, the ancient scholar minister during the Western Zhou period, praised the early sage-kings for harmonising the five flavours and for harmonising the six sounds, and in so doing, they achieved the highest level of harmony in society (he zhi zhi ye 和之至也).

In my next post, I will explore the historical context for ancient Chinese cooking and music, so that we can develop a proper understanding of what’s going on when I begin surveying the various Chinese philosophical texts.