A billboard advertises China’s one-child family planning policy. Since the time of Confucius, social order has been based on individuals knowing their positions and understanding their obligations to those above them—especially in the family. The demands of China’s rapidly expanding population often challenge such ancient structures.

Harmony as a philosophical objective has been part of Chinese thought for more than 2,000 years. It has remained important in Chinese culture, whether applied to human relationships, religion, nature, or politics, both ancient and contemporary.

The concept of harmony has been an integral part of Chinese philosophical thinking for two and a half millennia. Expressed sometimes in the language of social relationships and at other times in the grander ideal of order in nature, it has been at the heart of various forms of Confucianism that have appeared, disappeared, and then reappeared since the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE). In classical Confucianism, harmony was seen as most fully expressed in Confucius’s (551–479 BCE) concept of the five principle relationships: ruler and subject, father and son, older and younger brother, friends, and husband and wife. Social order was based on individuals clearly knowing their positions, and understanding their obligations to those above, and below them. This concept has been criticized not only for placing women in subservient positions, but also as the justification for highly conservative political and social policies, and as rationale for centralized forms of power. Since 2000, Confucius’s thinking has become fashionable in mainland China, and his statement (or the statement imputed to him)—that there should be “harmony without uniformity” guided by the moral principles of a righteous and clear-thinking person reasserted and reintroduced with approval by the government—among influential mainland intellectuals.

There are more esoteric forms of thought promoting harmony in classical Chinese philosophy. Mencius (372–289 BCE), the great near-contemporary of Confucius, spoke at length on the Mandate of Heaven (Tianming) and the responsibilities of rulers to those ruled, and vice versa. Daoism, dating back over two millennia, is one of the most famous, more esoteric expressions of the need for harmony. This has served as a more spiritual form in contrast to the highly practical moral philosophy contained in Confucianism. Daoism exercised influence over some of the rulers of China during the long dynastic period until the end of the Qing in 1912. Even so, its otherworldly nature meant it has not been associated with good governance. Promotion of harmonious relations has also been encapsulated in the need to seek balance—between the feminine and the masculine, light and cold, dark and light—that was most famously articulated in the West by the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung (1875–1961) when he adopted the yin–yang theory in his philosophical and psychological theories. In his work, both Western and Chinese forms of seeking harmony were used by individuals as they sought to come to terms with the archetypes in the collective unconscious. Jung prescribed the use of philosophies of contemplative practice for patients seeking to overcome mental or psychic problems. His thinking would have a big impact on later practitioners of psychotherapy.

Harmony has therefore managed to encompass the abstract religious practices of some belief systems, like Daoism, but it has also been important in practical governance. Fear of the dissolution of stable political entities in Chinese history has left a deep historic stain. Dislike of chaos (luan), taken as the opposite of stability and harmony, was the excuse used by the Chinese leadership in 1989 when they ended the student demonstrations that year. It was also the worst criticism made of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), which, after 1978, was judged to be a willful encouragement of turbulence and disruption. Since that time, there has been an increasing emphasis placed on stability, the need for a well ordered society, and peacefulness.

This objective lies behind the concept of a “harmonious society” promoted (since 2003) by the Chinese government under President Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao. Prior to this (1989–2002), President Jiang Zemin promoted a system in which inequality ran rife; there were increasing disparities between the coastal regions of China and the massive inward regions, and corruption had come back stronger than ever, after being slapped down in 1989 because it was viewed as responsible for the Tiananmen Square uprising on 4 June that year. The liberalization of the economy had released many of the controls that had been in place until then, meaning that many of the restraints on greed, personal gain, and exploitation were, in effect, lifted. In 1984, according to the Gini coefficient, an internationally recognized measure of social inequality recognized by the United Nations, China was one of the world’s most equal societies. By 2004 it had become one of the most unequal.

Wen and Hu wished to show that the ruling Communist Party understood this problem and wanted to continue to look after the interests of the weak and the underprivileged. They improved educational provision in the rural areas, lifted many of the taxes placed on farmers that had been a major cause of contention, and undertook high-profile sackings of party officials who were viewed as corrupt. The most prominent of these was the Party Secretary of Shanghai, Chen Liangyu, whose involvement in the embezzlement of social security money for use in property investment lead to his arrest in 2006, and subsequent conviction and eighteen-year prison sentence.

Talking of a harmonious society was more an aspiration than an actuality. One of the greatest challenges facing China after decades of Communist rule was the very inharmonious relationship between humans and nature. Mao had personified this in his almost aggressive attitude to the natural world, as something that needed to be tamed. Modern China’s abuse of its own natural environment and its flora and fauna has been exhaustively catalogued. Of all the challenges facing modern China, the battle to clean up its own environment has become the most urgent—meaning that in many places sustainability has become a more resonant keyword in political discourse than harmony.

Harmony is also found in China’s international presentation of its own aspirations. In 1954 Premier Zhou Enlai proclaimed that the foundations of the newly established People’s Republic of China’s international policy were based on “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence”; one of these principles included respect for the integrity of other sovereign nations and noninterference in their domestic affairs. More recently, China has talked of being a country that, despite its burgeoning economic power, should not be seen as a threat to the rest of the world. Party ideologue Zheng Bijian expressed this in his concept of “the peaceful rise of China” (Zhongguo heping jueqi). Even so, China’s protestations of pure intent and desire for harmonious international relations were viewed with some skepticism by other countries, many of which (the United States in particular) pointed to the double-digit increases in Chinese military expenditure over the last decade.

For the Communist Party inside China, talk of harmony stands in stark contrast to the imprecations of one of its key founders, Mao Zedong, who during his most radical p
eriod at the height of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s, demanded that there be “great disharmony under heaven” and ordered that young activists create disharmony. His embrace of dialectics in Marxism was seen as fundamentally contrary to the general desire in traditional Chinese philosophy to seek balance. More recent attempts to use so-called practices cultivating inner harmony by sects like Falun Gong (where controlled breathing is used to create calmness and self-awareness) have been quickly outlawed because of the perceived social disruption they cause.

China has a traumatic history of disharmony: The Muslim, Nien, and Taiping rebellions in the nineteenth century caused more than 50 million deaths, and there were the devastating Second Sino-Japanese War (called by Chinese the War of Resistance against Japan) and civil war in the twentieth century. It is no wonder that the current Chinese government, and many Chinese intellectuals, promote the need for balance, and for internal and external harmony. Perhaps it is awareness by Chinese leaders of the extraordinary complexity of forces within their country, and the need to keep these under control. As such, harmony might have had at times exoteric routes, but in contemporary China it is a good expression of the county’s pragmatic nature, and its desire for self control.

Further Reading

Chan, Wing-Tsit. (1969). A source book in Chinese philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Confucius. (2008). The analects. Raymond Dawson (Ed.) (Trans.). Oxford, U.K.: Oxford World’s Classics.

Hu Jintao. (2005, February 21). Building a harmonious society important task for Communist Party of China. People’s Daily Online. Retrieved January 14, 2009, from 20050220_174036.html

Schram, S. (2008). The thought of Mao Tse-Tung. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Source: Brown, Kerry. (2009). Social Harmony. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2008–2011. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Economic boom and the growth of cities has affected Chinese harmony. In 1984 China was the world’s most equal society, but by 2004 it had become one of the most unequal. PHOTO BY TOM CHRISTENSEN.

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