Harmony in the Mencius (孟子)

As a continuation of my informal discussion on harmony in the various pre-Qin thinkers, I will touch on the Mencius today.

The Mencius stands out as an anomaly amongst all the other pre-Qin texts because harmony, 和 he, appears only twice! Unfortunately, the first passage (Mencius 2B1) doesn’t tell us very much. So we’re only left with one passage that’s useful:





孟 子曰:「伯夷,聖之清者也;伊尹,聖之任者也;柳下惠,聖之和者也;孔子,聖之時者也。孔子之謂集大成。集大成也者,金聲而玉振之也。金聲也者,始條理 也;玉振之也者,終條理也。始條理者,智之事也;終條理者,聖之事也。智,譬則巧也;聖,譬則力也。由射於百步之外也,其至,爾力也;其中,非爾力也。」

Mencius said, ‘Po Yi would neither look at improper sights with his eyes nor listen to improper sounds with his ears. he would only serve the right prince and rule over the right people. he would take office when order prevailed and relinquish it when there was disorder. He could not bear to remain in a place where the government took outrageous measures and unruly people were to be found. To be in company with a fellow-villager was, for him, just like sitting in mud or pitch while wearing a court cap and gown. He happened to live during the time of Tchou, and he settled on the edge of the North Sea to wait for the murky waters of the Empire to return to limpidity. Hence, hearing of the way of Po Yi, a covetous man will be purged of his covetousness and a weak man will become resolute.

‘Yi Yin said, “I serve any prince; I rule over any people. I take office whether order prevails or not.” Again, he said, “Heaven, in producing the people, has given to those who first attain understanding the duty of awakening those who are slow to understand; and to those who are the first to awaken the duty of awakening those who are slow to awaken. I am amongst the first of Heaven’s people to awaken. I shall awaken this people by means of this Way.” When he saw a common man or woman who did not enjoy the benefit of the rule of Yao and Shun, Yi Yin felt as if he has pushed him or her into the gutter. This is the extent to which he considered the Empire his responsibility.

‘Liu Hsia Hui was not ashamed of a prince with a tarnished reputation, neither was he disdainful of a modest post. When in office, he did not conceal his own talent, and always acted in accordance with the Way. When he was passed over he harboured no grudge nor was he distressed even in straitened circumstances. When he was with a fellow-villager he simply could not tear himself away. “You are you and I am I. Even if you were to be stark naked by my side, how could you defile me?” Hence hearing of the way of Liu Hsia Hui, a narrow-minded man will become tolerant and a mean man generous.

‘When he left Ch’i, Confucius started after emptying the rice from the steamer, but when he left Lu he said, “I proceed as slowly as possible.” This is the way to leave the state of one’s father and mother. He was the sort of man who would hasten his departure or delay it, would remain in a state or would take office, all according to circumstances.’

Mencius added, ‘Po Yi was the sage who was unsullied; Yi Yin was the sage who accepted responsibility; Liu Hsia Hui was the sage who was easy-going; Confucius was the sage whose actions were timely. Confucius was the one who gather together all that was good. To do this is to open with bells and conclude with jade tubes. To open with bells is to begin in an orderly fashion; to conclude with jade tubes is to end in an orderly fashion. To begin in an orderly fashion pertains to wisdom while to end in an orderly fashion pertains to sageness. Wisdom is like skill, shall I say, while sageness is like strength. It is like shooting from beyond a hundred paces. It is due to your strength that the arrow reaches the target, but it is not due to your strength that it hits the mark.
(Mencius 5B1, trans. D.C. Lau)

In the passage above, Liu Hsia Hui (柳下惠) is described as “聖之和者也” – my translation: the sage who harmonises, OR the sagely harmoniser.

The qualities of a harmonising sage are: (1) not be affected by the reputations of others, nor be affected by the position of one’s appointment; in such a way that (2) one continues to do one’s best in that position regardless of the situation; and (3) to be unaffected by external circumstances.

This bears a lot of resemblances with the Daodejing, and it also seems to be operating along the culinary model. (See Culinary Harmony and its Historical Context in Ancient China) Regardless of whether the ruler is a good one or not, and regardless of whether one is in a high position of influence or not, the sage – like the chef who has to deal with non-optimal ingredients – still has the ability to mix his talents (analogous to the ingredients) into the mix and bring out the strengths and other positive qualities from the situation to make for the most harmonious situation (like a good, well-harmonised soup). In some ways, this model of harmony seems to represent the view of harmony in the Daodejing.

What’s worth noting in the passage here is that the musical references made are attributed to the quality of sagely timeliness, and not to harmony. (For more information about the significance of such musical refernces, see Musical Harmony and its Historical Context in Ancient China) The purpose of the bells and chimes are meant to mark the start and end of a musical piece and its sections. The bells play an additional role of setting the pentatonic scale used for that entire piece or section, thereby setting what notes are permitted and what notes are not. Once notes in a scale are regulated, the permitted notes – when performed – will produce harmonious music.

Even though Mencius did not explicitly say anything about the relation of timeliness with harmony, the explicit dichotomy set out here in this passage seems more like contrast between the seemingly “Daoist” notion of harmony with the examplary qualities of Confucius, the sage who gathered “together all that was good.”

It seems then, for Mencius, that real sagely harmony as exemplified by Confucius, involves both the kind of harmony that involves mixing the various “ingredients” of a situation to bring out the best qualities possible, as well as the qualities of timeliness – of regulating notes, startings and endings of situations. The best kind of harmony therefore, requires the right action done at the right time – it is simply not enough to just try to mix things together like boiling a soup. That may work in the kitchen, but it may probably not work as well in political life.

Of course, Mencius does not mean to say that the model of harmony as demonstrated by the sage Liu Hsia Hui was entirely bad or wrong. Mencius did, after all, recognise him to be a sage. For timeliness of action while important in harmonising is not the sole condition. Timeliness is a necessary but insufficient condition. What’s also required is the type of skill that Liu Hsia Hui had – the ability not to be ashamed or upset by rulers of ill reputation or low positions, the ability to make things work despite the most unfavourable circumstances. In culinary terms, Liu Hsia Hui had his own special secret sauce – the one ingredient that’s able to make even the most difficult of ingredients taste great. Apart from timeliness, harmony, for Mencius, requires that “special secret sauce” – that ability to handle such circumstances and yet be unaffected by them no matter how difficult it may be, so as to bring out the best in even the seemingly worse ingredients. That was how Liu Hsia Hui was able to make “a narrow-minded man will become tolerant and a mean man generous”: he was able to harmonise them and transform them.