Harmony in the Zhongyong

Here’s another part of my informal discussion on harmony. Harmony appears in the Zhongyong in 3 passages. What’s unique about the Zhongyong is the close relation between harmony (和 he) and zhong (中, some translate as equilibrium). I will attempt to study the concept of harmony and its relation with zhong.

(A) 天命之謂性,率性之謂道,修道之謂教。道也者,不可須臾離也,可離非道也。是故君子戒慎乎其所不睹,恐懼乎其所不聞。莫見乎隱,莫顯乎微。故君子慎其獨 也。喜怒哀樂之未發,謂之中;發而皆中節,謂之和;中也者,天下之大本也;和也者,天下之達道也。致中和,天地位焉,萬物育焉。

What Heaven has conferred is called The Nature; an accordance with this nature is called The Path of duty; the regulation of this path is called Instruction. The path may not be left for an instant. If it could be left, it would not be the path. On this account, the superior man does not wait till he sees things, to be cautious, nor till he hears things, to be apprehensive. There is nothing more visible than what is secret, and nothing more manifest than what is minute. Therefore the superior man is watchful over himself, when he is alone. While there are no stirrings of pleasure, anger, sorrow, or joy, the mind may be said to be in the state of Equilibrium. When those feelings have been stirred, and they act in their due degree, there ensues what may be called the state of Harmony. This Equilibrium is the great root from which grow all the human actings in the world, and this Harmony is the universal path which they all should pursue. Let the states of equilibrium and harmony exist in perfection, and a happy order will prevail throughout heaven and earth, and all things will be nourished and flourish.

(Zhongyong 1)

For this passage, I will go through the important parts line by line:

喜怒哀樂之未發,謂之中

While there are no stirrings of pleasure, anger, sorrow, or joy, the mind may be said to be in the state of Equilibrium.

The Zhongyong tells us that the equilibrium state is that state before any emotion is made manifest within a person.

發而皆中節,謂之和

When those feelings have been stirred, and they act in their due degree, there ensues what may be called the state of Harmony.

There are two ways to interpret this line. First interpretation: State of harmony is defined as that whole process where feelings, once stirred, are acted appropriately in due degree. Harmony then can be said to be the harmony between the feeling, the action, and the situation.

Second interpretation. My translation – “When [these feelings] are made manifest, and in every case hits-the-mark/OR/brings-into-balance-and-moderation: this is said to be harmonising.”

In which case, the act of harmonising involves the act of balancing the degree of the emotion when it is made manifest, and moderated so as not to go into excess.

Also, worth noting is the archery metaphor employed in this line. Harmony (和 he) involves firing the arrow of emotion (發 fa) and to hit the target (中 zhong). We can even read 中節 as hitting the target (or striking a balance) in moderation.

中也者,天下之大本也;和也者,天下之達道也。致中和,天地位焉,萬物育焉。

This Equilibrium is the great root from which grow all the human actings in the world, and this Harmony is the universal path which they all should pursue. Let the states of equilibrium and harmony exist in perfection, and a happy order will prevail throughout heaven and earth, and all things will be nourished and flourish.

All human actions are the branches that stem from the root of this Equilibrium state where individual emotions arise from. To act harmoniously (or in other words to harmonise), is that ideal state, the very way in which people should emulate.

In fact, keeping the emotions in this state of equilibrium is also an important state that one should strive for. For if certain emotions were already in excess (i.e. manifestly fixed), then when emotions were to arise, the degree of the emotions will be excessive (or not enough), and thus, the actions that stem from this will also be just as excessive, or deficient as the person has difficulties adapting by “swinging” to the other end of a pendulum.

It is thus important that the one who desires to act harmoniously pursue the necessary means of keeping his emotions in this equilibrium state.

(B) 子路問強。子曰:「南方之強與?北方之強與?抑而強與?寬柔以教,不報無道,南方之強也,君子居之。衽金革,死而不厭,北方之強也,而強者居之。故君子和而不流,強哉矯!中立而不倚,強哉矯!國有道,不變塞焉,強哉矯!國無道,至死不變,強哉矯!」

Zi-lu asked about energy. The Master said, “Do you mean the energy of the South, the energy of the North, or the energy which you should cultivate yourself? To show forbearance and gentleness in teaching others; and not to revenge unreasonable conduct – this is the energy of southern regions, and the good man makes it his study. To lie under arms; and meet death without regret – this is the energy of northern regions, and the forceful make it their study. Therefore, the superior man cultivates a friendly harmony, without being weak. How firm is he in his energy! He stands erect in the middle, without inclining to either side. How firm is he in his energy! When good principles prevail in the government of his country, he does not change from what he was in retirement. How firm is he in his energy! When bad principles prevail in the country, he maintains his course to death without changing. How firm is he in his energy!”

(Zhongyong 10)

The “energy” of the South and of the North both seem to contradict each other, but they each have their own merits. The Zhongyong tells us that the superior man/gentleman “君子和而不流”. My translation: The gentleman harmonises/mixes [both] and does not divide/stray-into-one-side-only.

He remains in the middle and so is able to turn to both when the situation demands either one of these responses.

Here, to harmonise involves being able to hold firm (and stay in the middle) of these two seemingly contradictory positions. Yet, it is from this harmony of the two that enables one to have the necessarily flexibility to act appropriately as the situation demands.

“How firm is his energy!” In this way, the gentleman is capable to staying strong at all times. Unlike those in the North and in the South. Their methods are good only for some circumstances, but not good for other circumstances. So they are only strong when the situation favours their methods.

(C) 子曰:「射有似乎君子,失諸正鵠,反求諸其身。君子之道,辟如行遠必自邇,辟如登高必自卑。《詩》曰:『妻子好合,如鼓瑟琴;兄弟既翕,和樂且耽。宜爾室家,樂爾妻帑。』」子曰:「父母其順矣乎!」

The Master said, “In archery we have something like the way of the superior man. When the archer misses the center of the target, he turns round and seeks for the cause of his failure in himself. The way of the superior man may be compared to what takes place in traveling, when to go to a distance we must first traverse the space that is near, and in ascending a height, when we must begin from the lower ground. It is said in the Book of Poetry, “Happy union with wife and children is like the music of lutes and harps. When there is concord among brethren, the harmony is delightful and enduring. Thus may you regulate your family, and enjoy the pleasure of your wife and children.” The Master said, “In such a state of things, parents have entire complacence!”

(Zhongyong 15)

Here again, we have the archery metaphor. Just as how an archer fails to miss the target, when a person fails to act morally/well/virtuously, he has to examine himself. Just as the failure to shoot an arrow resides in bad posture or technique, the person who fails to act in a harmonious way has to examine the source of his own failure. Was it because of excesses of desires/emotions within him that made him act excessively? Or was it simply bad technique? In which case, he then has to keep practicing (in a Confucian context, he’ll therefore have to be further schooled in the ways of Ritual propriety to learn how to best to act in various circumstances).

The Zhongyong likens this training to become harmonious/to harmonise like travelling. You have to start simple, with the nearest steps. Two interpretations are possible: (1) That one has to practice harmonising with family in order to learn how to harmonise with the rest of society (i.e. the family is the first school of harmony); (2) In order to acquire this ability to harmonise, one has to slowly practice and make small improvements with each and every attempt. The ideal states/processes of zhong and he are something to strive for and to work towards: one cannot simply acquire them or perfect these processes in a single act. It is like travelling from point A to B.

Of course, both interpretations are not mutually exclusive. However, given the context of archery and the necessity of examining one’s self in the face of failure, the second interpretation seems more likely as a kind of encouragement to keep trying.

The poem cited about the happy family seems to be the description of the ideal state that one can achieve upon perfecting the skills of harmonising. What joy it will be for parents and children to come together in peace and joy, interacting without conflict.