Harmony in the Analects

The word, 和 he, which is the primary word used to articulate harmony appears in the Analects five times. No other similar word for harmony is used in the text.

The five passages are:

(A) 有子曰:「禮之用,和為貴。先王之道斯為美,小大由之。有所不行,知和而和,不以禮節 之,亦不可行也。」

Yu Tzu said, “Of the things brought about by the rites, harmony is the most valuable. Of the ways of the Former Kings, this is the most beautiful, and is followed alike in matters great and small, yet this will not always work: to aim always at harmony without regulating it by the rites simply because one knows only about harmony will not, in fact, work.” (Analects 1.12, trans. D.C. Lau)

Here, the Analects says that rituals (religious, state, and social etiquette rituals) are necessary in achieving harmony. Knowledge of harmony is not sufficient for harmony to be achieved. Unlike other schools of thought (namely, the Taoists) who believe that there is harmony within the natural order, in the Analects, harmony can only be acquired by a deliberate effort to socialise and order society with ritual rules for taking turns and giving way, so that strife can be reduced/eliminated.

(B) 子與人歌而善,必使反之,而後和之。

While singing in the company of others, when the Master found a song attractive, he always asked to hear it again before joining in. (Analects 7.32, trans. D.C. Lau)

This line seems rather cryptic. The English translation doesn’t fully capture the essence of the word 和 he that’s used in the sentence. What Confucius is doing is more than simply joining in the singing, as if he were joining in a sing-along session. Instead, to 和 he in this context means to harmonise with the song. Bearing in mind the historical context of musical harmony, what this line is saying is that when Confucius hears a beautiful song, he asks to hear it again (probably a few times), so that he can learn the song – the pentatonic scale used, the variations within the song (fast and slow, soft and loud, etc). Once Confucius has understood the way in which the music works, he would know what notes to sing (that would harmonise with the song), when to sing, when to sing loudly or softly, when to sing quickly or slowly, in ways that would (to borrow a phrase I used in an earlier post) “mix the sounds” – to complement and complete the main melody by providing an accompanying voice to the song. In a modern contemporary setting, you can think of it as Confucius playing the role of a back-up singer, or as one of the choir members in an SATB (soprano-alto-tenor-bass) arrangement – in both cases, he sings to accompany the main melody sung by others.

However, there is some degree of impromptu going on here. Confucius does indeed make it a point to learn the song by asking the singers to repeat. But at the same time, his accompaniment is done ad hoc – achieved only after understanding the structure of the song. While the passage does not say if he had to spend long hours planning out how to accompany, other passages within the Analects tell us that Confucius does have quite a decent musical background that allows him to perform on the 琴 qin (a 7-stringed zither) and on the chimes. His musical skill would have enabled him to sing a harmonising accompaniment ad hoc, in a way similar to how jazz musicians are able to jam together in an ad hoc fashion without prior rehearsal.

This passage gives us an examplary model on how harmony is to be achieved. Before Confucius could contribute harmoniously, he had to listen and learn the structure of the song. But it is not just any song, but songs that are 善 shan, i.e. excellent, which in Confucius’ time would have referred to songs that were considered well mixed, and did not promote excesses in desires, which they believed would effect harmony in people’s heart-minds (心 xin) and thus harmony in society. Moreover, it is essential for one to possess the necessary skills that would allow him to provide an accompanying melody that would harmonise with the song. One who is unskilled in music would not be able to successfully sing (or perform) a harmonising accompaniment even if he knows what harmony is (or the notes that would harmonise with that song – he wouldn’t be able to perform it). This goes back to the first passage (A), where the Analects tells us that knowing harmony is not sufficient in achieving harmony.

More importantly, this reference to music is tightly integrated to the rites. Just as how musical skill is necessary for one to harmonise with a song, ritual skills are necessary for one to harmonise with the rest of society. Rituals in ancient China also include social rituals (i.e. etiquette) for interaction. People with a good heart still learn and be skilled with the rules of ritual propriety so that they are able to express their good intentions properly, or to help people in a way that would not go misunderstood. Moreover, rituals provide social codes that regulate who goes first, or who gives way to who (similar to traffic rules). Confucius specifically promotes rituals (state, religious, and even social rituals) that are beneficial to the common good of society, while cutting off the ones that promote excesses in desires or disharmony. These rituals are like good songs. For societal harmony to be achieved, for strife to be reduced or eliminated, it is necessary, therefore, for one to observe and learn the rules of ritual propriety (the good ones) and become skilled in them just as how one can be skilled in music. So that one can observe what goes on in society, and be able to contribute harmoniously and even almost-spontaneously in a way similar to how Confucius was able to perform an ad hoc accompaniment.

(C) 子曰:「君子和而不同,小人同而不和。」

The Master said, “The gentleman harmonises and does not create uniformity. The small man works for uniformity but does not harmonise.” (Analects 13.23, translation mine.)

In this passage, Confucius draws a clear distinction on what harmony is and is not. 同 tong specifically refers to uniformity or sameness. Harmony presupposes diversity – it is about the management of diversity. To make all things uniform would be to remove all diversity. Such a method can easily be mistaken for harmony as it can indeed strife. If everyone is of the same mind, there would be no opposition.

However, this is not to say that there is absolute difference and no sameness at all in harmony. Harmony does presuppose some degree of sameness. For there to be a harmony of flavours or a harmony of sounds, the various elements must share common traits before they can be even included in the mix. In the case of cooking, all the elements share the same property of being edible.

(D) 君子疾夫舍曰欲之,而必為之辭。丘也聞有國有家者,不患寡而患不均,不患貧而患不安。蓋均無貧, 和無寡,安無傾。夫如是,故遠人不服,則修文德以來之。既來之,則安之。

The gentleman detests those who, rather than saying outright that they want something, can be counted on to offer a plausible pretext instead. What I heard is that the head of a state or a noble family worries not about underpopulation but about uneven distribution, not about poverty but about instability. [Translator’s note: The line should probably read as: worries not about poverty but about uneven distribution, not about underpopulation but about disharmony, not about overtruning but about instability] For where there is even distribution there is no such thing as poverty, where there is harmony there is no such thing as underpopulation and where there is stability there is no such thing as overturning. It is for this reason that when distant subjects are unsubmissive one cultivates one’s moral quality in order to attract them, and once they have come one makes them content. (Analects 16.1, trans. D.C. Lau)

In this passage, harmony is linked with population growth as its positive effect. I’m not sure why, but I’ll need to find out more.

(E) 子貢曰:「君子一言以為知,一言以為 不知,言不可不慎也。夫子之不可及也,猶天之不可階而升也。夫子之得邦家者,所謂立之斯立,道之斯行,綏之斯來,動之斯和。其生也榮,其死也哀,如之何其可及也。」

Tzu-kung said, “The gentleman is judged wise by a single word he utters; equally, he is judged foolish by a single word he utters. That is why one really must be careful of what one says. The Master cannot be equalled just as the sky cannot be scaled. Were the Master to become the head of a state or a noble family, he would be like the man described in the saying: he only has to help them stand and they will stand, to guide and they will walk, to bring peace to them and they will turn to him, to set them tasks and they will work in harmony. In life he is honoured and in death he will be mourned. How can he be equalled?” (Analects 19.25)

This passage bears resemblance to Analects 15.5:


If there was a ruler who achieved order without taking any action, it was, perhaps, Shun [legendary sage emperor]. What was there to do but to hold himself in a respectful posture and to face due south?”

South is the direction which the emperor faces, in accordance with ritual rules, when he exercises his rulership. It seems odd that an emperor can achieve order by doing nothing but simply facing South. What this passage is saying is that when a ruler fulfils his duties and acts in accordance with ritual propriety, others will know what to do as they take their cue from him. To use the analogy of dance, every individual has a specific role to perform. But they take their cue from a lead dancer. The quality of their performance depends heavily on the lead dancer. If the lead dancer does a fantastic job in performing his/her role, the dance performance will go very smoothly, since everything is going according to plan. However, should the lead dancer fail in his/her role, there would be confusion among the other dancers. This will then result in disorder. A similar idea is going on here. Everyone has a role to play. In fact, a single individual has at least one social role (and rules of propriety for each role). In the Analects, the five golden relationships are: ruler-subject, parent-child, husband-wife, elder sibling-younger-sibling, friend-friend. Ultimately, every individual takes their cue from the ruler (as they take their cue from other individuals above them in the hierarchy). So the good ruler is one who fulfils his duties, and there will be order in the land.

Passage (E) is similar. The head of a state or a family has only to fulfil his duties to achieve harmony: “He only has to help them stand and they will stand, to guide and they will walk, to bring peace to them and they will turn to him, to set them tasks (i.e. to move them) and they will work in harmony.”

It is only by fulfilling one’s role according to ritual (state, religious, but more importantly, social), that harmony can be achieved. But the burden lies on the leader.