Harmony in the Daodejing (道德經)

The Daodejing (道德經) is perhaps the most difficult text in the classical period. It’s written in poetry style, and the ambiguity makes it difficult to interpret what is meant by the text. (It took me a total of five hours trying to translate certain words/phrases and making sense of certain passages). Well, in this informal discussion, I’ll do what I can to make sense of harmony in the text.

The word, 和 he, which is the primary word used to articulate harmony, appears in 7 passages of the Daodejing. No other similar word for harmony is used in the text. Unlike the Analects, harmony doesn’t appear as the subject of the passage. It often appears as a passing remark about something else.

(A) 天下皆知美之為美,斯惡已。皆知善之為善,斯不善已。故有無相生,難易相成,長短相較,高下相傾,音聲相和,前後相隨。是以聖人處無為之事,行不言之教;萬物作焉而不辭,生而不有。為而不恃,功成而弗居。夫唯弗居,是以不去。

When everyone in the world knows the beautiful as beautiful, ugliness comes into being;
when everyone knows the good, then the not-good comes to be.
The mutual production of being and non-being,
The mutual completion of difficult and easy,
The mutual formation of long and short,
The mutual filing of high and low,
The mutual harmony of tone and voice,
The mutual following of front and back –
These are all constants.

Therefore the Sage dwells in nonactive affairs and practices the wordless teaching.
The ten thousand things arise, but he doesn’t begin them;
He acts on their behalf, but he doesn’t make them dependent;
He accomplishes his tasks, but he doesn’t dwell on them;
It is only because he doesn’t dwell on them that they therefore do not leave him.
(Daodejing, 2, trans. Robert G. Henricks)

I will treat the two paragraphs separately. In the first paragraph, the text says that opposites are mutually conceived at the same time. When you conceive of X, you simultaneously conceive of non-X. For example, I’m able to identify a book because I am able to distinguish between book and non-book things. Both book and non-book exist simultaneously in my mind even though I think of “book.” In the same way, to conceive of beauty is to simultaneously conceive of the pair: beauty and not-beauty (i.e. ugly as its direct negation – the total absence of beauty). The same can be said of the other pairs of opposites.

For clarity, I will cite the translation by James Legge:

All in the world know the beauty of the beautiful, and in doing this they have (the idea of) what ugliness is;
they all know the skill of the skilful, and in doing this they have (the idea of) what the want of skill is.
So it is that existence and non-existence give birth the one to (the idea of) the other;
that difficulty and ease produce the one (the idea of) the other;
that length and shortness fashion out the one the figure of the other;
that (the ideas of) height and lowness arise from the contrast of the one with the other;
that the musical notes and tones become harmonious through the relation of one with another;
and that being before and behind give the idea of one following another.
(Daodejing, 2, trans. James Legge)

Perhaps the one pair that doesn’t seem to make much sense is the line about music: “音聲相和”. Here, I will investigate the meaning of that phrase. In the first place, the Shuowen Jiezi (說文解字 – an ancient Chinese dictionary) defines 音 yin as:


It is a sound. As for that (sound) which is born from the heart and made external, it is called 音 yin. The sounds of the five tones (宮商角徵羽 they are the names for: do re mi so la), and those of the eight instruments (絲竹金石匏土革木 – these are names for the various materials used to make different instruments) – they are all 音 yin. (Translation mine)

聲 sheng on the other hand, refers simply to a sound (聲,音也。).

音 yin and 聲 sheng are opposites because one is melodic while the other is just mere sound. In fact, to make clear the opposition between the two words, we can translate 聲 sheng as: “noise.”

So, the line “音聲相和” can be translated as:

Melodious sounds (music) and noise mutually harmonise each other.


Melodious sounds (music) and noise are mutually harmonious.

Unlike Confucius and a few other thinkers who emphasise a distinction between music and noise, the Daodejing is proposing an idea there already is a harmony between music and noise. Just as how opposite pairs (tall/short, difficult/easy, beauty/ugly) are generated just by conceiving one of the two, music and noise (as not-music) are conceived at the same time when one thinks of music. And just as how these opposite pairs do in fact co-exist in one’s mind when one tries to think of one, music and noise are in harmony with each other for the very same reasons.

Since there already exists an inherent harmony between opposites, the way to achieve harmony, therefore, is by means of non-deliberate attempts at harmonising, e.g. “The sage dwells in nonactive affairs and practices the wordless teaching.”

(B) 道沖而用之或不盈。淵兮似萬物之宗。挫其銳,解其紛,和其光,同其塵。湛兮似或存。吾不知誰之子,象帝之先。

The Way is empty;
Yet when you use it, you never need fill it again.
Like an abyss! It seems to be the ancestor of the ten thousand things.

It files down sharp edges;
Unties the tangles;
Softens the glare; (my translation: it harmonises the light)
And settles the dust. (my translation: it makes same/uniform the soil/earth/dust)

Submerged! It seems perhaps to exist.
We don’t know whose child it is;
It seems to have even preceded the Lord.
(Daodejing, 4)

To be honest, I don’t know what to make of the phrase: “和其光,同其塵” (harmonise/mix the light(s) and make same/uniform the dust). Here’s my speculation: The emptiness of the Way (道 Dao) is what allows for the myriad things to be mixed or made same. This seems similar to the cooking model, e.g. if you are making soup – water is a necessary component. The emptiness of water (the fact that water has no taste) is what enables water to blend the flavours together – in some ways, all the ingredients will have a common taste due to the interaction of the water on the ingredients, and in some ways, the diverse flavours will be mixed yet discernible in the water after its interaction with the ingredients.

I’m avoiding the use of saying that 光 guang (light) has positive/good connotations while 塵 chen (dust) has negative connotations because that would be anachronistic – that comes from Manichean influences that only entered China much later (Manicheanism was a sect that heavily influenced many cultures and religions, esp. Christianity) with ideas associating goodness with light and evil with darkness. These ideas were strongly manifested in the Ming (明 bright/light/illuminated) Dynasty because the founding emperor was himself influenced by Manicheanism.

(C) 大道廢,有仁義;智慧出,有大偽;六親不和,有孝慈;國家昏亂,有忠臣。

Therefore, when the Great Way is rejected, it is then that we have the virtues of humanity and righteousness;
When knowledge and wisdom appear, it is then that there is great hypocrisy;
When the six relations are not in harmony, it is then that we have filial piety and compassion;
And when the country is in chaos and confusion, it is then that there are virtuous officials.
(Daodejing, 18)

It may seem strange to say that it is only in chaos that virtues and virtuous people arise. Such virtues and virtuous people would already have existed prior to such a period of chaos (This text was written during the Warring States period of the Zhou Dynasty – where there was a lot of bloodshed). However, such ideas of the goodness and importance of these virtues would not have been an issue during times of peace. Prior to such times of disharmony, there would have been what we would refer to as “filial piety” and “compassion.” However, owing to the lack of it during times of disharmony, the terms, “filial piety” and “compassion” become a huge issue. The distinctions, therefore, between filial and unfilial, and compassion and uncompassionate arise from such disharmony. When harmony is restored, these distinctions will fade away as they cease to be issues of significance.

A good example to illustrate this would be the case of Singapore and the government’s policies in bringing in foreigners. The distinctions between local and foreigner were initially non-issues. They existed, but they were the big terms of public discourse. However, owing to increasing problems (i.e. disharmony) within Singapore society, the distinction between local and foreigner now becomes a huge issue – these terms arise and have gained greater meaning and value than before. Once harmony is restored, these distinctions will be non-issues and will fade away in public discourse.

(D) 道生一,一生二,二生三,三生萬物。萬物負陰而抱陽,沖氣以為和。人之所惡,唯孤、寡、不穀,而王公以為稱。故物或損之而益,或益之而損。人之所教,我亦教之。強梁者不得其死,吾將以為教父。

The Way gave birth to the One;
The One gave birth to the Two;
The Two gave birth to the Three;
And the Three gave birth to the ten thousand things.
The ten thousand things carry Yin on their backs and wrap their arms around Yang.
Through the blending of qi they arrive at a state of harmony.

The things that are hated by the whole world
Are to be orphaned, widowed, and have no grain.
Yet kings and dukes take these as their names.
Thus with all things – some are increased by taking away;
While some are diminished by adding on.

Therefore, what other men teach,
I will also consider and then teach to others.
Thus, “The strong and violent do not come to a natural end.”
I will take this as the father of my studies.
(Daodejing, 42)

“萬物負陰而抱陽,沖氣以為和。” (The ten thousand things carry Yin on their backs and wrap their arms around Yang. Through the blending of qi they arrive at a state of harmony.) This line sounds a lot like a Taoist self-cultivation instruction. In fact, having done some tai-chi before, it sounds a lot like one of the qi replenishing/cultivating moves.

Perhaps one way to interpret this line is: that all the myriad things have both their Yin and their Yang aspects, each moving into each other. While this may sound rather anachronistic as well (it’s primarily the stuff of Qin and Han Dynasty philosophy), the ideas of Yin and Yang and harmony are already present in ancient Chinese musical theory. In ancient Chinese music, there must be both a mix of Yin and Yang notes (up and down, high and low notes) for music to be considered in harmony. Each instrument moves from Yin notes to Yang notes and back again. A constant cycle of change (which is basically what Yin and Yang are about). Harmony then, is that constant balance of Yin and Yang as it continues to change from one to the other. Harmony is when that cycle can continue to perpetuate and sustain itself. Disharmony results in an end of that cycle and results in excess of either Yin or Yang.

Perhaps another way to frame the issue is: could harmony here just be the mere co-existence of Yin and Yang? If so, then perhaps this might be closer to the cooking model of harmony – where differing elements can co-exist like different elements in a soup. Perhaps the act of harmonising, like cooking, is trying to blend the Yin qi and Yang qi in such a way that can co-exist simultaneously (without the cycles of change).

(E) 含德之厚,比於赤子。蜂蠆虺蛇不螫,猛獸不據,攫鳥不搏。骨弱筋柔而握固。未知牝牡之合而全作,精之至也。終日號而不嗄,和之至也。知和曰常,知常曰明,益生曰祥。心使氣曰強。物壯則老,謂之不道,不道早已。

One who embraces the fullness of Virtue,
Can be compared to a newborn babe.
Wasps and scorpions, snakes and vipers do not sting him;
Birds of prey and fierce beasts do not seize him;
His bones and muscles are weak and pliant, yet his grasp is firm;
He does not yet know the meeting of male and female, yet his organ is aroused –
This is because his essence is at its height.
He can scream all day, yet he won’t become hoarse –
This is because his harmony is at its height.

To know harmony is called “the constant”;
To know the constant is called “being wise”;
To add on to life is called a “bad omen”;
For the mind to control the breath – that’s called “forcing things.”

When things reach their prime, they get old;
This is called “not the Way.”
What is not the Way will come to an early end.
(Daodejing, 55)

This seems to be a rather odd passage. How is it that when harmony is at its height, the infant is able to scream all day without becoming hoarse? In the first place, the Daodejing praises the infant for it has no artificial learning (it hasn’t learnt how to make distinctions about the world) – “does not yet know the meeting of male and female” – and thus, the infant has no artificial desires but only natural ones – “yet his organ is aroused.” In this infant stage, whatever opposites we can think of can simultaneously co-exist from the infant’s world view because he has not learnt how to make distinctions, and thus separate X from not-X. He has not learnt how to tell the difference between tall/short, heavy/light, good/evil, beautiful/ugly, etc. And so, these pairs of opposites can co-exist in his world. In fact, as the Daodejing has said (earlier in this post), that opposites do co-exist in our minds. We are able to distinguish X because we are also able to distinguish not-X at the same time.

Opposites do co-exist. However, it is the result of our human learning (artificial knowledge) that has forced us to separate opposites as if they were mutually exclusive. To achieve harmony then, one needs to unlearn such artificial knowledge, and return to this infant stage – unbound by the distinctions between opposites that we make with words/knowledge. This is the non-deliberate sense of harmonising – harmony is already there, but one has to work to unlearn in order to align one’s self back with this pre-existing harmony of opposites. You cannot actively work towards harmony.

“知和曰常,知常曰明” (To know harmony is called “the constant”; To know the constant is called “being wise”) – The Way (道 Dao) is associated with The Constant (常 chang), since it is the Mother that gave birth to all the myriad things. It is tempting to associate The Way with harmony (as the co-existence of all opposites prior to the distinctions that made them as opposites). But I’m not sure if this is a valid move to make.

(F) 知者不言,言者不知。塞其兑,閉其門,挫其銳,解其分,和其光,同其塵,是謂玄同。故不可得而親,不可得而踈;不可得而利,不可得而害;不可得而貴,不可得而賤。故為天下貴。

Those who know don’t talk about it; those who talk don’t know it.

He blocks up his holes,
Closes his doors,
Softens the glare,
Settles the dust,
Files down the sharp edges,
And unties the tangles.
This is called Profound Union.

Therefore, there is no way to get intimate with him,
But there is also no way to shun him.
There is no way to benefit him,
But there is also no way to harm him.
There is no way to ennoble him,
But there is also no way to debase him.
For this very reason he’s the noblest thing in the world.
(Daodejing, 56)

Here, the line “和其光,同其塵” appears once more, but there is added the additional phrase, “是謂玄同” (“it is called the Profound Union”), which seems to back up my point that The Way, where all opposites are united because distinctions are removed. It is a profound union since everything is harmonised back into the original Dao (that single oneness), as if all the different ingredients are harmonised into one single thing that we can call – soup.

(G) 和大怨,必有餘怨;安可以為善?是以聖人執左契,而不責於人。有德司契,無德司徹。天道無親,常與善人。

To make peace where there has been great resentment, there is bound to be resentment left over.
How could this be regarded as good?
Therefore the Sage holds the right tally yet makes no demands of others.
For this reason, those who have virtue are in charge of the tally;
Those without virtue are in charge of the taxes.
The Way of Heaven has no favourites,
It’s always with the good man.
(Daodejing, 79)

Here’s my translation of “和大怨,必有餘怨;安可以為善?”:

To harmonise the great complaints/enmity, necessarily, there will still be complaints/enmity leftover;
can we regard such peace as excellent?

This seems like a critique of deliberate action in trying to achieve harmony (unlike the non-deliberate solution proposed by the Daodejing). If one were to actively try to harmonise opposites (perhaps, using the harmony proposed by the Analects), there will always be opposition/conflict arising because such a method necessarily involves making new distinctions (or just sticking with pre-existing sets of distinctions) about things. The only way in which harmony can be achieved has to be by means of learning to stop making such fixed distinctions about things. In this way, opposites can co-exist harmoniously as a single oneness.

Well, that’s all for this discussion. Next, I’ll be discussing harmony in the Zhuangzi (莊子).