The Soup Allegory of Harmony

Whether a person eats to live or vice versa, everyone needs food. History bears witness to humankind’s concept of food as a prerequisite for survival, the fulfilment of which also brings enormous sensual pleasure. Speaking as a Chinese person, enjoyment of food in all of its colours, styles and tastes, even the symbolic names given to dishes based on the cooking expertise and the materials used, is part of my psyche. My experience and observations have given rise to the theory that Chinese wisdom has practical associations with Chinese dining etiquette.

When dining out in China at restaurants frequented by locals, it becomes immediately clear that the dishes placed on the table are not specifically for those who have ordered them, but are to be shared. On a fresh dish being served, the host or hostess picks out the choicest morsels for their guests, who reciprocate. A dinner generally begins with a warm-up period when there is an exchange of small talk, courtesies and toasts. Things then liven up. Table conversation becomes animated, with much joking and laughing. The whole scene takes on a more familial ambience until a moment of supreme harmony is reached when discord born of class difference, personal prejudice or the generation gap momentarily dissolves; a feeling of shared warmth prevails. Everyone present feels cheered and secure within the ethos of harmony – he (和).

The concept of harmony is the cornerstone of the Chinese philosophy of life. It is sought and nurtured in all occupations and pursuits, most particularly in human relations. Harmony is advocated in Confucianism as a strategy through which to address social problems and maintain an even social keel: it stabilizes human relations and facilitates formation of social groups. Among all analyses of the concept of harmony, Yan Ying’s (晏婴) soup allegory and its illustrative dialectical exposition is most impressive. The commentary of Zuo Qiuming (左丘明) on *The Spring and Autumn Annals+ (春秋) states:

Seeking harmony is like making soup. Water, fire, vinegar, soy sauce and prunes all go together to stew fish or meat. The chef makes a harmonious melange of these ingredients produce deliciously savoury soup. In the process, he adds a little of this and a soupcon of that to bring its flavour and texture to perfection. The diner enjoys a good soup because it brings him enjoyment, hence peace. The interrelationship between ruler and courtier should correspond to this process. On observing that what the ruler believes to be right is flawed, the courtier points out wrong aspects, while endorsing those that are correct. On observing that what the ruler believes to be wrong nevertheless has a valid aspect, the courtier points out that which is correct and rules out the wrong. In so doing governance retains its peace and harmony without violating the overall structure that keepst the masses free from competitiveness and contentiousness.

Zuo Qiuming goes on to say:

Ancient sage-rulers adjusted the five flavors (sweet, sour, bitter, spicy and salty) when making soup and harmonized the five sounds (gong宫, shang商, jue角, zhi徵, yu羽) – equivalent to the five-note scale in music, and in metaphorical sense adhered to this process so as to ensure calmness of mind when handling state affairs. But a problem arises when the ruler only pays heed to courtier Ju’s (榉) view of what is right or wrong. This is like making soup without seasonings, when it is so tasteless no one wants it. It is also like repeatedly playing the same note on the qin-se (琴瑟). This has no interest or enjoyment, so no one would want to listen to it.

As this allegory concludes, delicious soup cannot be made with a single ingredient, and fine music cannot be played on a single note. Soup made from a variety of ingredients has taste because it is an organic mixture of the five flavours, each distinct, but which blend to give an altogether richer and more appetizing piquancy. The same is true of music and the integrated melody of the five sounds. It is, therefore, advantageous to bring in more ingredients as they produce better results when functioning under the principle of harmony.

Harmony, then, is an essential concept: firstly, it embodies a complementary relationship within which all the components are interactive and mutually beneficial. This is not only applicable to making soup and music; it also works when handling state affairs, as in the cooperation between ruler and courtier. In governance, it serves to eliminate the wrong and emphasise that which is right. In China, therefore, harmony is regarded as a crucial facet of political philosophy or leadership.

Second, harmony as a strategy connotes a dynamic process of creative transformation during which all the elements involved undergo a transformational synthesis, changing and collaborating but maintaining individual identity. Something entirely new is thus created.

Last but not least, harmony suggests a dialectic state in which opposites are united. Further growth is made possible and all the other positive aspects manifest themselves. Yet, it must be pointed out that Yan Ying’s description of harmony as a principle focuses only on the positive aspects of unity in opposites. His knowledge of dialectic relations revealed by means of harmony is limited and therefore simplistic as he fails to detect the intrinsic conflict between opposites. In other words, his soup is one of harmonious proportions. Similarly, his understanding of unity does not advance beyond the level of reconciliation. His philosophy is obviously aimed at providing a theoretical foundation for his political reformism.

By Wang Keping (王柯平)

Leave a comment