East Asian philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G218-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 15, 2024, from

4. Radial harmony

A major theme in Confucianism, foundational throughout East Asia, is captured in the phrase from Analects 13.23, ‘the exemplary person pursues harmony (ho), not sameness’ (see Confucian philosophy, Chinese; Confucian philosophy, Japanese; Confucian philosophy, Korean; Neo-Confucian philosophy). This conception of ‘harmony’ is explained in the classical commentaries by appeal to the culinary arts. In the classical period, a common food staple throughout northern Asia was keng, a kind of a millet gruel in which various locally available and seasonal ingredients were brought into relationship with one another. The goal was for each ingredient – the cabbage, the radish, the bit of pork – to retain its own colour, texture and flavor, but at the same time to be enhanced by its relationship with the other ingredients. The key to this sense of harmony is that it begins from the unique conditions of a specific geographical location and the full contribution of those particular ingredients readily at hand – this piece of cabbage, this fresh, young radish, this tender bit of pork and so on – and relies upon artistry rather than recipe for its success.

The Confucian distinction between an inclusive harmony and an exclusive sameness has an obvious social and political application, underscoring the fertility of the kind of harmony that maximizes difference. This ‘harmony’ is not a given in some preassigned cosmic design, but is the quality of the combination at any one moment created by effectively correlating and contextualizing the available ingredients, whether they be foodstuffs, farmers or infantry. It is not a quest of discovery, grasping an unchanging reality behind the shadows of appearance, but a profoundly creative journey where the quality of the journey is itself the end. It is the attempt to make the most of any situation.

In summary, at the core of the classical East Asian world view is the cultivation of radial harmony, a specifically ‘centre-seeking’ or ‘centripetal’ harmony which is productive of consensus and orthodoxy. This harmony begins from what is most concrete and immediate – that is, from the perspective of any particular human being – and draws through patterns of deference from the outside in toward its centre. Hence there is the almost pervasive emphasis on personal cultivation and refinement as the starting point for familial, social, political and cosmic order (see Self-cultivation in Chinese philosophy). A preoccupation in classical East Asian philosophy, then, is the cultivation of this centripetal harmony as it begins with oneself, and radiates outward.

The East Asian world view is thus dominated by this ‘bottom-up’ and emergent sense of order which begins from the coordination of concrete detail. It can be described fairly as an ‘aestheticism’, exhibiting concern for the artful way in which particular things can be correlated efficaciously to thereby constitute the ethos or character of concrete historical events and cultural achievements. Order, like a work of art, begins with always unique details, from ‘this bit’ and ‘that’, and emerges out of the way in which these details are juxtaposed and harmonized. As such, the order is embedded and concrete – the colouration that differentiates the various layers of earth, the symphony of the morning garden, the wind piping through the orifices of the earth, the rituals and roles that constitute a communal grammar to give community meaning. Such an achieved harmony is always particular and specific, and is resistant to notions of formula and replication.

Citing this article:
Ames, Roger T.. Radial harmony. East Asian philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G218-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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