Harmonious wok

The word for “peace” in Mandarin Chinese is a two-character compound, heping. The second character, ping, is the one most often cited by Westerners as the character for peace, and perhaps it does most closely approximate our notion of peace as a calm, settled condition. As a meaning element in various other compounds, it connotes equality, ordinariness, steadiness, or flatness (as in pingmian, a mathematical plane).

The first character in heping expresses a more active conception of peace. I was struck by the following analysis, which I just discovered in the glossary of Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall’s Daodejing: A Philosophical Translation. This is the book I wrote about last week in Primordial wonton. Apparently, the influence of culinary conceptions on Chinese philosophy is more pervasive than I realized. Since most people won’t have Chinese characters ennabled, I lifted a graphic from a commercial site:

he. He is conventionally translated “harmony,” and we follow that rendering. The etymology of the character is culinary, harmony being the art of combining and blending two or more ingredients so that they enhance one another without losing their distinctive flavors. Throughout the early corpus, the preparation of food is appealed to as a gloss on this sense of elegant harmony. Harmony so considered entails both the “integrity” of the particular ingredient and its “integration” into some larger whole. Signatory of this harmony is the persistence of the individual ingredients, their full self-disclosure in their collaborative relationship with the other ingredients, and the aesthetic nature of the resulting harmony – an elegant order that emerges out of the artful contextualization of intrinsically related details as they maximize the unique contribution of each one.

As Chapter 55 of the Daodejing illustrates, this he may not always be compatible with ping. In Ames and Hall’s translation:

[A newborn baby] screams through the entire day
And yet his voice does not get hoarse:
Such is the height of harmony.

This is in the context of describing an infant as “an image of the fullness of potency: a robustness that makes it immune from environing evils,” as the translators explain in their commentary. “What gives the baby its vigor is its capacity to respond from the center, being supple yet firm, flexible yet potent. The baby, unconsciously and without motivation, is the embodiment of harmony and equilibrium.”

In modern Mandarin, he appears in words such as hejie, reconciliation; hejian, a tie or draw in a contest; heqi, gentle, friendly, good-natured; and hejian, fornication. Actually, I have no idea how widespread that last term might be, but the fact that it exists and is common enough to list in my Chinese-English dictionary (published in Taiwan in 1971) seems significant. After all, what preserves “both the integrity of the particular ingredient and its integration into some larger whole” better than sex?

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