He is not only an important idea in the Confucian philosophy, but also one of the fundamental ideologies of the Chinese. In this essay, I will try to discern the meaning of he by looking at some of the passages in the Analects.
First is I.12, in which Youzi talks about the relationship between li and he. Translations of this passage could be categorized in two groups, while the definition of li is basically the same, they differ on the definition of he: one group tends to translate it into “a natural easy” while the other translates it into “harmony”.
The philosopher Yû said, "In practicing the rules of propriety, a natural ease is to be prized. In the ways prescribed by the ancient kings, this is the excellent quality, and in things small and great we follow them. "Yet it is not to be observed in all cases. If one, knowing how such ease should be prized, manifests it, without regulating it by the rules of propriety, this likewise is not to be done."
-- Legge I. 12.
To Legge, he means a natural ease. Though ritual propriety has a set of very strict rules, but they all come from nature, so the practice of ritual propriety is especially precious if it’s done with natural ease. The great Confucian scholar of Song Dynasty, Zhuxi, expressed similar idea in his commentary of the Analects. He says that jing (respect) is what li (ritual propiety) is build on and he is where yue (music) comes from. Zhuxi also comments that what Youzi said has reached the roots of li (ritual propiety) and yue (music). He then says that strictness brings peacefulness, he brings restriction, that is the nature of reasons and the wholeness of ritual propriety. With a little mistake, or inclination of either of the two, it’s not going to work. Here we can see that Zhuxi has already extended the meaning of he to more than just natural ease, but a sense of properness and appropriateness, a traditional Chinese idea of being mutual, standing in the midway (what we call zhongyong).
This idea also lies in the other interpretation of he, harmony.
Yu Tzu said, 'Of the things brought about by the rites, harmony is the most valuable. Of the ways of the Former Kings, this is the most beautiful, and is followed alike in matters great and small, yet this will not always work: to aim always at harmony without regulating it by the rites simply because one knows only about harmony will not, in fact, work.'
-- Lau I. 12.
By interpreting he as harmony, as it is here, the reader can get a more clear distinction about the two hes appeared in the third sentence. In “知和而和”, the first he is a noun, meaning harmony or a harmonic state, while the second is a verb, meaning realizing or achieving this state. Harmony, however, is a vague word, as there are no clear definition or standards of harmony.
In the Analects, the concept of he, li and yue never appear alone, they always come in pairs. My understanding of their relationship is that he means harmony, which is also the key element of yue, at the same time, yue is the practice of li in a real setting, especially when God, ancestors, emperors, or officials are involved. To show proper respect in the practice of li, there must be appropriate and harmonious music. As the purpose of li was to bring the action-receiver pleasure not torture.
Additionally, I want to draw your attention to the relationship between he and zhong (middle). In Yang Shuda’s commentary of the Analects, he is interpreted as the middle-way of things (“事之中节者”) , meaning appropriate. In terms of supervising a nation, the use of ritual propriety lies in not doing too much and not doing too little, but just doing properly and appropriately. But of course, what Confucius is advocating here is not appropriate for appropriateness’ sake, there is a idea of “limit” here. In the Book of Propriety, the Confucius said ritual propriety is to keep things in a middle kind of way. “子曰：‘礼乎礼，夫礼所以制中也。’”（《礼记·仲尼燕居》）
There are two things we need to keep in mind when we think about the term he and zhong.
First, they contain a meaning of blending the conflicts, but with a limit, and that limit is set by ritual propriety. For example, there’s a metaphor says “hold the two ends, and use the middle to serve the people”. The Confucian philosophy advocates serving the people in a mild way, ruling them by morality. But it doesn’t mean it has little to no regards for law, quite the contrary, the Confucian philosophy has very high regards about rules, laws and ritual proprieties.
Second, he is not a blind mix. The idea of being harmonious while maintaining differences (“和而不同”) is very important in Chinese philosophy. He’s not a melting pot, in which everything loses its original taste and character; it’s not a salad bowl, in which everything was simply put together but has no interaction with each other. It’s putting things/ opinions/ persons of different features and characters together in a way that their demerits could be compensate by others’ merits so that they can reach a perfect balance. It’s very important that these elements coordinate with each other. In fact, he is like the idea of 阴阳, where different things are integrated and unified.
Moreover, he conveys the meaning of openness, being able to accept and include other things/ ideas/ persons, and not to be bias. The Chinese believe there are five elements in the nature: wood, metal, fire, earth and water. Likewise, there are five desirable qualities in people: authoritativeness, propriety, making good on one’s words, appropriateness, and wisdom. Only person who acquires the five qualities can be called perfect. Being he is to be able to not only regulate the outside relationships to a harmonious state but also develop the inner-self, personal characters in full aspects.
In conclusion, he both means the state of being harmonious and the acquiring/realizing of this state. It’s under the rule of ritual propriety. It’s about relatedness and coordination. It’s about internalizing different ideas.