Culinary Harmony and Musical Harmony – Two Different Models of Harmony?

In my earlier posts (See Culinary Harmony and its Historical Context in Ancient China and Musical Harmony and its Historical Context in Ancient China), I discussed what constitutes harmony in the context of culinary and in the context of music.

However, there is disagreement among scholars as to whether or not these two models of harmony have evolved into a single unified model or into two separate and distinct models that share the same name. In this post, I will discuss the views of two prominent scholars in the area of ancient Chinese harmony.

Li Chenyang argues that the two notions of mixing/mingling sounds and flavours developed such that the two notions were used interchangeably, owing to certain properties common between the two. Harmony is not just simply the mixing/mingling of sounds or flavours. What is essential for harmony is a relationship between the elements such that the various elements mutually promote each other by complementing or compensating one another; by “balancing the opposites into an organic whole.” (Li, p.85) When the various sounds or flavours are harmonised, even though the individual elements still remain distinct, the harmony of these elements appear as if it is a whole product, e.g. as a musical piece or a culinary dish.

Alan Chan, however, argues that the two models – culinary and music – developed separately as contested metaphors of harmony. Harmony involves managing diversity. However, the two models are about two completely different methods of managing diversity. The model presented by musical harmony requires a hierachical ordering of the elements. Strife is reduce by ordering the elements in such a way that they either yield or give way to one another. For this to be accomplished, the musical model requires certain elements to submit to other elements (as their superior). Furthermore, the structure of ancient Chinese music is such that once a particular scale is chosen, certain pitches cannot be harmonised with the other musical elements. In this case, such discordant elements have to be done away with for harmony to be preserved. The presence of such discordant elements, though small, will be enough to break the fragile harmony. It is therefore necessary that there be some form of regulation to prevent such discordant elements from arising.

Culinary harmony, on the other hand, is non-hierchical. Harmony is achieved by “understanding the properties of the different elements and how they play their unique roles in creating and sustaining a rich and balanced whole.” (Chan, p.41) Through knowledge of the elements involved, the one who harmonises is about to make full use of each element’s strength to achieve the most optimum outcome. The cook is one who knows how each individual ingredient interacts with the other ingredients. And thus, knows how much of each to add to reduce the excesses in flavours so as to achieve harmony. Even the most discordant ingredients, e.g. durian, can be harmonised with some other ingredients. It is up to the cook to know what to add and how much, and how to prepare these ingredients to achieve this harmony.|

At this point, I will not attempt to resolve the different views put forth by the two. Conceivably, both views can be consistent with one another. However, if Chan is indeed right that the two models developed separately into very distinct notions of harmony, it will not be sufficient for us to simply say that harmony is constituted by a mutually beneficial relationship between the various elements involved. Yet, Li might be right if the various pre-Qin Chinese thinkers starting from Confucius, actually used the two notions interchangeably without making a clear distinction between the two models, as presented by Chan. For now, I shall leave this open and I will not attempt to resolve this disagreement between Li and Chan until I have completed my survey of the various pre-Qin philosophical texts.


Alan K. L. Chan, “Harmony as a Contested Metaphor” in How Should One Live?, eds R.A.H. King and Dennis Schilling (Germany: Walter de Gruyter, 2011), pp.37-62

Li Chenyang, “The Ideal of Harmony in Ancient Chinese and Greek Philosophy,” Dao (2008) 7, pp.81-89