How “harmony” makes interesting sense of Chinese culture and our shared future 

China’s governing principle of the Mandate of Heaven and their standard of Harmony can be used to understand some of their dubiousness about Western democracy.  In this conversation with a native Chinese colleague, I explore these ideas through the lens of co-intelligence, deepening my understanding of how “harmony” – a concept closely related to “wholeness” – can manifest in a whole society… and how it has some lessons for us in how to understand and address the metacrisis by constraining our fragmenting forms of freedom within the bounds of the kinds of wisdom that feature obligations for harmony – especially with Nature.. – Tom

Below is an edited and augmented conversation I’ve been having with Ying Wu after the launch and celebration of my new book on Co-Intelligence.  Ying, a native of the People’s Republic of China now living in Europe, was very gracious and focused in responding to my questions and comments and I am grateful to her for a new level of clarity about many features of Chinese culture that I’d not well understood before. (The main thrust of her message was subsequently supported by a good friend who’s a Chinese herbalist and acupuncturist.)

That said, there is always more to any perspective, understanding, event or story than we know at any given time (highlighted in the “Always More to It” chapter of my new book).  So there’s no need to take this as comprehensive or “true” or reject it as partial or biased.  Just see what you learn – and what comes up for you – as you read….


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Tom:  Hi Ying.  I get from you that some social phenomena in mainland China are rooted in thousands of years of Chinese culture more than in the dynamics of the current sociopolitical regime.

In the Mandate of Heaven framework, for example – which has influenced governance in China for thousands of years – the rulers can successfully rule as long as they are doing what the people need and want.  When the rulers aren’t doing what the people want, the Mandate of Heaven is withdrawn and there’s a revolution or whatever, and they are overthrown.

Does that create a space for citizens deliberation to show up in Chinese political culture in ways that would have influence because they can help the society find out what the people need and want?

Ying:  By committing to being virtuous with the favor of gods, rulers are meant to have people’s best interests at heart.  It is assumed that they are the ones to know best what society aspires to in terms of values, qualities and desires.  They are given the privilege to be an example of that. So to a large extent, the people trust those self-legitimizing rulers, and have relied on stars and planets to reveal Heaven’s judgment on their earthly rule. It is not necessarily up to humans to do anything, which partly explains why people are not protest-minded until it is of last resort – at which point the loss of the Celestial Mandate becomes obvious.

Culturally speaking, Chinese people – including such rulers – are very much aware of and oriented towards a sense of harmony.  That comes from ancient writings, from Lao Tze, Confucius and all those early philosophers and writers.  Their writings have really shaped the culture and provided clarity about how to organize ourselves and our society in a way that harmony can be sustained one way or another.

That involves a way that looks to foreigners like the people are staying very disciplined and getting along.  People know what they’re supposed to do and so on.  It’s kind of a collective effort.  At one point, I thought that empathy is just a consequent way of being, from that type of thinking.  You need to care about the well-being of others if harmony is to be preserved.  People are constantly kind of checking each other out – is everything ok?

So where’s freedom in all this?  There’s a sense from Taoism that duality is an integral part of wholeness.  From that perspective, not only is freedom the opposite of discipline, but they go together, hand in hand.  This sense of integrated duality is also very present in the culture.

From the outside, you may say that people are very disciplined and conformist.  But that’s not as true as you may think, because they all have their independent way of thinking, often manifested as critical mindedness.  People can be very critical of people in power.  They are very clear about all of that. There’s no lack of clarity about what’s going on. When communism arrived, people knew those guys were overpowering the population.  But it’s ok with them, as long as the overall harmony is there and they have their room for individual freedom.  

But basically they aren’t counting on the political regime to make this freedom space like in the West, like “we need democracy”, “we need to be represented”.  Over in China, that’s not viewed as a necessity – as long as people can take care of themselves, they have what they need.  And also family is very important, too. So it’s ok if in the individual sphere those values can be sustained.

They don’t necessarily feel met or supported with this, but at least there’s a kind of contentment out of that.  And harmony is the key concept: It’s in the center.

Tom:  I’m getting that harmony is a nuanced concept.  It is neither total freedom and self-expression nor enforced conformity.  It’s something that is both of those and more than those and somewhat different from those.  And the harmony is where everything is grounded.  And it is hard for those of us in the West to hold onto what that means, lacking the longtime tradition and inquiry that Lao Tse, particularly, brought into or articulated for Chinese consciousness.  It’s something to wrestle with; there’s a nuance there that we can’t readily see through our Western “Enlightenment” lens of the sacredness of the individual and our expressive rights, etc.

Ying:  Harmony is a concept resulting from all that is centered in this philosophy that has evolved over centuries (Lao Tse and Confucius’ writings are most well-known outside of China). A main difference with the West is the consciousness of and relationship to Nature and the Cosmos that has shaped much of the values themselves, such as humility and gratitude. We’re concerned with how to develop a way of being with Nature that is sustainable over time. We know it involves co-existence with Nature, but we also know that Nature is far more powerful than us mere humans. There is also a strong spiritual dimension that makes this connection solid and tangible. The Mandate of Heaven is an illustration of that.  After all, we humans are all spiritual beings. And so much of our sacredness is in contributing to living in harmony and prosperity.

Tom:  I’m fascinated by the different ways cultures have to relate positively with Nature.  In the West we see some environmentalists promoting the rights of nature.  But I once saw an Indigenous articulation against the rights of nature – because, the whole idea of rights is an alienated thing.  You need rights because you need to be independent from the whole and the whole has no right to oppress you.  So that separation and alienation is intrinsic to the concept of rights.  Rights are a way to protect the individual from the alienation of the group from its individual members.  And so, for some Indigenous people, the idea that rivers have rights is like “How much do you want to miss the point? It’s not about rights.  We have OBLIGATIONS to the river; we have a relationship to the river; the river is family.  It’s not a matter of ‘rights’ at all!”

Ying:  In the concept of ‘rights’, there is also a possibility to justify acts of domination and control of nature, such as this river belongs to some entities (who have rights to it) more than to other ones (who don’t). 

Tom:  Right.  So the Western view of rights may be very useful, but it’s been pushed to such an extreme that it is now undermining the sense that we are part of a larger living whole, that we’re embedded in something that is so much bigger than us, to which we owe allegiance – and what does that look like in a culture?

I often think in terms of a synergy between part and whole: It’s one of the patterns in the Wise Democracy Pattern Language.  It’s not as if the whole is primary or the parts are primary. Ideally, the whole is assisting and generating the well-being of its parts and the parts are assisting and generating the well-being of the whole.  But, in the end, as they say, Nature bats last… the Whole bats last.  As you say, Nature is way more powerful and fundamental than we are.  So if someone’s suppression or death or suffering is needed for the well-being of the whole – such as predation in nature – then they’re going to be put down in order for the whole to be able to function.

Ying:  It is a matter of perception, resulting from collective beliefs and experiences: how we make sense of what we get in touch with – which can be different from person to person and culture to culture. Since not everything is equal, the whole might take precedence over the parts because if the whole is no more there, existence of the parts would be put into question or at least the ecosystem needs to be rebalanced in order to form a new whole as the parts are mostly not able to exist by themselves despite contrary beliefs. (It is worth investigating the relationships that govern such dynamics, both ways.) 

‘Suffering’ is a subjective perception of what is needed to sustain balance. If it is commonly accepted that a particular challenge or struggle is actually a necessary condition for harmony, it is then part of a legitimate effort on the part of the whole.  And in that case, we find ourselves back in the question of where do we stand – in love and togetherness or in fear and separation. 

An alternative way of looking at it is through the concept of oneness, in the sense that whatever we do individually or collectively equally contributes to our own well-being, in that what we inflict on others is what we inflict on ourselves since it is likely to impact the whole that is shared by all the parts, including us.  

Tom:  So as I sense into the idea that we must subject ourselves to the will of the whole – to the laws especially of Nature – I can feel how that’s grounded in the Tao as “The Way of Nature”.  The Tao has that element in it, yet we in the West go “wait a minute!! – that’s a threat to our individuality!”  But I think we actually need to stop that response and shift to: “Yes, our Western cultural concerns are valid, AND they’re necessarily subsidiary to this larger need of the whole… and we need to revise our sense of our own special validity and superiority and whatever…”

So we collectively face a developmental challenge:  How do we hold both Chinese culture and the Western Enlightenment in the midst of mostly-Western civilization’s destruction of the planet? 

Ying:  I’d love to ask you, Tom: How do you think we should preach wholeness and unity consciousness in a way that is receptive to Westerners, given that they mostly identify themselves with the concept of individualism? Greco-Roman individualism relies on the view that life/destiny of the individual doesn’t need to be necessarily understood in terms of how it impacts his/her society, making individual rights predominantly important. 

One example of trying to integrate the two, based on the Chinese approach, might be to consider Lao Tse’s philosophy for personal power – which he sees as a form of individual expression leading to one’s potentiality and freedom as a way to partner with Nature to live a better life – in combination with Confucianism for harmonious living in society; 

I’m also thinking about how to help people in the West better appreciate ‘feminine’-centered values such as empathy, inclusiveness and connection – of course, in gender-free ways, since both men or women all inherently have both masculine and feminine qualities within them.  I wonder if only as we develop that dual aspect of our being will it make sense for us to value and practice concepts like wholeness and oneness. 

All of this requires a deep understanding of what those value principles mean alongside what people are familiar with. So how do they connect to those principles at a heart level as it relates to their lives? It is clear that the intrinsic feminine aspect of ourselves and life can only leverage what we already are and have, so it is up to us to find ways to integrate it into our existing personal understandings and cultural identity. 

Also I want to note that central to the Celestial Mandate is the power of Nature.  Chinese people and leaders are very conscious of that dimension and all the Tao concepts that gravitate around the power of Nature.  That’s also where the idea of obedience comes from.  It’s just not wise to go against Nature and Nature’s order.  So the Chinese view of individual rights is so different than the one you have in the West.  The individual’s freedom and rights are subject to the collective well-being.  It’s like we have rights only to the extent the collective is viable.

And that constraint is not something that would make Chinese people in general feel uneasy because they know how far they can go, basically.  This limit-consciousness can also be called ‘equilibrium-consciousness’ as an end goal in the sense that being respectful of acceptable limits is vital to keep things in harmony. 

So there’s the idea that freedom exists inside the collective reality.  If it goes too far, at some point you hit a limit. And so as long as the government – with all its flexibility and overwhelming power – is not behaving too excessively, then it can still be tolerated by the people.

One example is the cultural revolution – how damaging it was for the society.  It had a huge impact on intellectual people, but it went too far and so it got reined in quite strongly by both the people and emerging leaders who were supported by the people. It’s part of the resilience of Chinese culture, even though it might look like the opposite of it, to Westerners. The center of gravity is not individual ego. It’s really the collective coherence, how to be together, how to sustain the harmony.  And there’s a price to pay in doing that.  The sense of self-giving and compromise are part of that, part of the effort to bring in better value for all including oneself in the long run.  And all of those notions, it’s very familiar to Chinese people.  It’s OK to pay forward, in the sense that in the end, people can live harmoniously.

Tom:  When you said “knowing the limits of what you can do”, I thought of the people in China having various orientations, while part of the culture is knowing the limits of what you can and should do with who and how you are. And there’s some who feel their job is to enforce the limits and others who feel it is to test the limits.  But in any case, you have this moderating meta-awareness that in natural systems there is a sense of operating within limits.  You can interpret limits in various ways, but knowing limits is a common shared perspective in China. And if all the people are sensitive to that, if the government is sensitive to that, and if part of knowing limits is knowing that the ultimate determiner of limits is Nature – and everybody is kind of conscious of that, there’s a whole game being played of testing limits and enforcing limits within a shared sense of the importance of limits.  

Ying:  It is kind of common sense … people in the West would also agree with that overall framing.  But applying that to their way of enjoying personal freedom could easily make them feel uneasy. 

Tom:  This freedom/limits duality feels to me a bit like the duality in chaos theory – order and chaos are dancing together in the space where aliveness is.  That’s what aliveness is about, this dance between order and chaos:  Too much order and you can’t adapt and you die.  To much chaos, you dissolve into your environment and you die.  There’s a way in which aliveness is dependent on both order and chaos dancing together and there’s 10,000 ways to do that.  And that the Mandate of Heaven has to do with that dance.  And if you go too far in any direction in that dance, the mandate is removed.  Heaven is the harmony that results from that dance.  If you push too far from Buddhism’s Middle Way, then the mandate is removed and the universe tells you – reality tells you – you have gone too far, and now it’s time to change.  

And we’re in a time of everybody going too far, and the sense of chaos, collapse and destruction and horror going on, it’s from the lack of that sense of bounded harmony. No matter how far we want to go in any direction, we really should pay attention to limits and what they mean for the whole that we’re part of.

Ying:  It seems there is no common/easy language to state that things have gone too far or are about to … a form of censorship in the media (even though freedom of speech is highly cherished in the West) as no critical mass of people/journalists is asking real questions or no one is taking it seriously enough to engage in a candid self-examination.  It somehow reflects the complexity of an ‘overwhelmed’ system trying to self-regulate.

Also, in Chinese culture, something has to make sense in the long run, from the longterm perspectives.  If you come up with a proposal, very naturally the Chinese would need to envision it in that dynamic of long-term harmony, if it’s viable and sustainable or not.  That’s the frame that makes them resilient, in the sense that they can undergo a lot until… but it has to make sense.

And so the Western democracy can seem kind of questionable for them because – especially now – we’re facing all the turbulences from social media saying all kinds of things and if people are not critical enough to not buy into those things, that’s a danger to the harmony.  The price to pay for harmony is to relativize personal freedom, even freedom of expression.  Otherwise you reach a point where there’s no more control. Those with bad intentions can do much harm to the whole.  And because of that, individual freedom would consequently be limited.  So people in China are not seeking the kind of freedom that people in the West feel entitled to.  Seeing how things are going in the West, it just doesn’t make much sense to the Chinese as a way for the order and harmony to be maintained.

Furthermore, what if limitless personal freedom is an illusion? What if what we call “personal freedom” and “personal enjoyment” is subject to the viability of environments capable of supporting it?  This challenge almost asks us to reverse our sense of the causal process – i.e., we should perhaps start with the collective/container, rather than emphasizing what’s happening at an individual level.  So often it is out of powerlessness or discomfort that people get to feel a need for more power or freedom. The individual’s internal landscape should perhaps be addressed personally and through social changes, since the whole society has an impact on everyone’s overall well-being. 

Tom:  I’m sensing that co-intelligence could provide realistic ways to navigate the challenges of maintaining harmony.  The process involves lots of trade-offs, lots of balancing polarities. The harmony you speak of is alluded to in wise democracy principles like “What are power, participation and wisdom of, by and for the whole?” and wise democracy patterns like All Concerns Addressed… Collective Wise Oversight of Governance… Constraints on Concentrated Power… Context Awareness… Deliberation… Equity…  Fair Sharing of Costs and Benefits… Generating Shared Orientation… Healthy Competition/ Cooperation Dynamics… Healthy Polarity Dynamics (hello, Lao Tse!)…  Holistic Leadership and Governance Dynamics…  Integral Political Will… Life-Enhancing Enoughness… Metabolizing Polarization… Multiple Perspective View… Nature First… Nurturing Social Capital… Out of Many, One… Partnership Culture… Power of Listening… Prudent Progress… Range of Tolerance… Restorative Justice… Safety First, Then Challenge… Synergy between Part and Whole… Whole Healing… and Wholesome Life Learning.  And our definition of wisdom as taking into account what’s needed for long-term broad benefit really fits with the Mandate of Heaven.

And in light of the metacrisis analysis offered in my recent book on Co-Intelligence, alienated forms of freedom and short-term narrow intelligence that are not constrained by wisdom and natural order are fundamental factors in the degradation of the nature world and the prospect of civilizational collapse. If we don’t make democracy wise, it stands a good chance of ending up destroying the world as effectively as other systems – possibly even more than the Chinese system – although Chinese industrialism, profiteering and consumerism can be just as damaging.

Ying:  Do keep in mind that Chinese resilience capacity partly consists in its long-standing value references – Lao Tse, Confucius, etc. – that are still very alive today. Consumerism is a game that Chinese government needs people to participate in due to the worldwide capitalistic approach to economy. But it is only a superficial layer that stimulates people’s temporary needs. What counts for a society is its foundational values and cultural identity. And I find Chinese society being adaptable, thanks to them being deeply rooted in a core of those centuries-old holistic philosophical and cultural values;

Tom:  I see the co-intelligence principles of wholeness, interconnectedness and co-creativity to be close kin to the Chinese principle of harmony, especially in light of Taoism’s insightful integration of opposites, which is shared by the co-intelligence approach.  I like to think that the principle of “Using Diversity and Disturbance Creatively” could help both us Westerners and the Chinese use instances of non-harmony as actual resources for enabling harmony to evolve into new, even more harmonious and resilient forms.

Ying: I could tie that more closely to Chinese culture by seeing diversity and disturbance as potential evolutionary boosters for re-balancing processes that heal disharmony or generate new forms of harmony.  As some in the West like to point out, the words ‘crisis’ and ‘opportunity’ share common roots in Chinese. And from our perspective, it’s all cyclical.  Our evolutionary perspective would be that evolution is a perpetual restart in the continuity of harmony…

Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440

Appreciating, evoking and engaging the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole on behalf of the whole

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