The Beautiful Concept of Harmony in Ancient Chinese Culture

How harmony engenders strength, friendship, and peace

The character ? (hé) portrays the traditional Chinese ideal of harmony between nature and humankind. (theepochtimes.com)

In traditional Chinese culture, the meaning of “harmony” is very rich and profound. Harmony is essential in relationships between individuals and between nations. It’s also imperative in humanity’s relationship with nature.

Harmony encompasses the concepts peace and coordination. To many people, harmony means open-mindedness and a balance of firmness and gentleness. For a community, it means that people get along with each other peacefully and amicably.

Many ancient Chinese texts referred extensively to the concept of harmony, making it clear that the ancient Chinese paid great attention to the effects of and the need for harmony.

Here, we’ll look at some wise and thought-provoking adages on this virtue:

Strength in Harmony


It is said in the Confucian classic Zhou Yi that “If two people are of the same mind, their strength can break iron.” 


In his classic Spring and Autumn Annals of the Sixteen Kingdoms, the historian Cui Hong also said, “A single one is easy to break, but if all unite together, they are hard to break.”

“If you brothers aren’t harmonious, you’re just like the individual arrows, and you’ll be very easily defeated by your enemies, but if you are united, then you’re like the bunch of arrows, and no one can defeat you. This is the strength of harmony,” said Xiongnu King. (Internet Photo)

The sons of the Xiongnu King were never harmonious. So the king called them together, and gave each son an arrow. He told the princes to break the arrows, which they did quite easily.

Then the king gave each son a bunch of arrows in turn, and told them to break it. Nobody could do it. The Xiongnu King told them, “If you brothers aren’t harmonious, you’re just like the individual arrows, and you’ll be very easily defeated by your enemies, but if you are united, then you’re like the bunch of arrows, and no one can defeat you. This is the strength of harmony.”

Confucius: Being Harmonious Without Being Conformist

While Confucius was a strong proponent of harmony, he also believed that harmony cannot be achieved without moral principles as its foundation.

He said, “Gentlemen are harmonious but aren’t the same as each other. Lesser men are all the same, yet they are not harmonious,” emphasising the difference between a gentleman’s and a lesser person’s principles when they interact with others.

The gentleman has his own opinion and can still treat people generously. The lesser man, on the other hand, is easily influenced by others; he repeats their ideas and flatters them, but when there’s a conflict of interest he can’t get along with them.


Confucius also said, “Gentlemen are harmonious but they do not echo others.” (The Doctrine of the Mean)


The ancient people called a man with high moral standards a gentleman. People had great respect for gentlemen, but they also expected more from them. A gentleman is very kind and gentle, but his heart is characterised by its fortitude. They are harmonious, yet they have their own beliefs and don’t drift with the tide.

Harmony in Friendship


The ancients wrote extensively on how to achieve harmony in social relationships. From the ancients’ point of view, the friendship of gentlemen didn’t depend on the fulfilment of personal interests; their relationships were light and transparent as water, but lasting.


Confucius said, “The gentleman supports and praises others’ achievements and good things. He does not laugh at others’ misfortunes.” (Analects of Confucius)

A good example is the friendship of Guan Zhong and Bao Shuya, who lived during the Spring and Autumn Period. The two were good friends and business partners. Although Guan always benefited more than Bao in their dealings, Bao never took issue with this as he knew Guan’s family was poor.

Guan even became a military deserter during the war, but Bao never belittled him, as he knew that Guan had done so to support his elderly mother.

Guan was very grateful to Bao for his generosity. He always said, “My parents gave me life, but Bao Shuya knows me best.” The story of Guan and Bao’s friendship has since become a well-known anecdote of true friendship in Chinese history.

Harmony in Governance

The ancient classic Shang Shu (The Book of Documents), describes how the Emperor Yao “used his wisdom and morality to harmonise his relationships” at all levels. His family was harmonious, as were the different levels of officials and the thousands of feudal lords’ states, bringing peace and stability to the kingdom.

The ancient classic Shang Shu (The Book of Documents), describes how the Emperor Yao “used his wisdom and morality to harmonise his relationships” at all levels. (theepochtimes.com)

Yao exemplified the ancient saying, “Use wisdom and morality to harmonise the people.” When wisdom and morality are used to inspire the people to be moral and peaceful, they will follow common social etiquette and morality out of their own volition.


Mencius, a proponent of harmony, also spoke of the principle “being happy with the people”.


He said, “If the king is happy about what his people are happy about, his people will be happy about what the king is happy about. If the king worries about what his people worry about, his people will worry about what he worries about.” (The King of Liang Part II, by Mencius)


The wise king always shares in the joys and sorrows of his people. His heart and his thoughts are ever with his people; only in this way is he able to win their support.

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