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Harmonic power or soft power? Philosophical reflections on culture and future globalization in view of classical wisdom from China and other ancient civilizations


In this article, the foundations of a new principle of international relations are discussed. They are traced back to the idea of the human being as a culturally living being (homo culturalis). The new principle of harmonic power is conceptualized in the first segment by way of contrasting it with the original meaning of the concept of ‘soft power’ by Joseph S. Nye Jr. In the next part, a portion of the intension of a new concept of culture is established. It serves as a conceptual background and context for the idea of harmonic power. This foundation for a new and more comprehensive concept of culture is inspired by ancient Chinese elements of thought but also by comparable elements of Indian and Graeco-Roman philosophy. In the following step, a conceptual extension of culture in four major areas, respectively, mutually permeable “focus fields” is outlined. The accompanying discussion in view of ancient Chinese philosophy and elements of other traditions then leads to a completion of the intension of the concept of culture. This is achieved in view of the aspect of morality in relation to the Golden Rule. In a final step, further reflections are provided regarding the interrelation of the advanced concepts of harmonic power and culture discussed in the this article. Harmonic power means the essential prerequisite for the shift away from the conflict-ridden desire for monopolar world hegemony ‒ a yearning that has revealed itself as an impasse over and over again ‒ towards a peace-bearing, transformative future of multipolar world participation. Harmonic power is the foundation of the cultivation of a mutually beneficial socio-cultural co-evolution on a global scale.

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  1. The latter aspect will be clarified in the discussion of the concept of culture further below).

  2. This term is inspired by the Confucian concept of ren 仁.

  3. The word ‘to grow’ meant ‘to become green’ originally, and it is directly related to plant growth.

  4. Source text: “修道理之數, 因天地之自然, 則六合不足均也。是故禹之決瀆也, 因水以為師; 神農之播穀也, 因苗以為教。[…] 各生所急, 以備燥濕; 各因所處, 以御寒暑; 並得其宜, 物便其所。由此觀之, 萬物固以自然, 聖人又何事焉?” (Needham’s translation is partly paraphrasing the content.).

  5. Source text: “子曰: 「苗而不秀者有矣夫!秀而不實者有矣夫!」”.

  6. Source text: “『既彫既琢, 復歸於朴。』侗乎其無識, 儻乎其怠疑; 萃乎芒乎, 其送往而迎來; […]。”.

  7. Source text: “[…] καὶ ἔστιν ἡ νόησις νοήσεως νόησις.”.

  8. Source passages: “Sapientia igitur est quae quaeritur, quia pascit intellectum. Immortalis est enim cibus; immortaliter igitur pascit.” “Est enim sapientia cibus saporosissimus, qui satiando desiderium sumendi non diminuit, ut in aeterna cibatione numquam cesset delectari.”.

  9. Source text: “兩木相摩而然, 金火相守而流, 員者常轉, 窾者主浮, 自然之勢也。”.

  10. Source text: “天文也; 文明以止, 人文也。觀乎天文, 以察時變; 觀乎人文, 以化成天下。”.

  11. The word ‘文化’ is a rather new term. It has been introduced at the end of the nineteenth century, namely to translate the European terms ‘culture’, ‘la culture’, ‘die Kultur’, etc. The history of this context has been investigated very thoroughly.

  12. Source text: “禮得其報則樂, 樂得其反則安; 禮之報, 樂之反, 其義一也。”

  13. Source text: “保氏: 掌諫王惡, 而養國子以道。乃教之六藝: 一曰五禮, 二曰六樂, 三曰五射, 四曰五馭, 五曰六書, 六曰九數。乃教之六儀: 一曰祭祀之容, 二曰賓客之容, 三曰朝廷之容, 四曰喪紀之容, 五曰軍旅之容, 六曰車馬之容。凡祭祀、賓客、會同、喪紀、軍旅, 王舉則從; 聽治亦如之。使其屬守王闈。” Calligraphy and arithmetic were also called the Smaller Arts (Xiaoyi 小藝) in later contexts (Dadai Liji, n.d., Baofu, §15). For more on the topic see also Bartosch (2017).

  14. Source text: “ἐκ τούτων οὖν φανερὸν ὅτι τῶν φύσει ἡ πόλις ἐστι, καὶ ὅτι ὁ ἄνθρωπος φύσει πολιτικὸν ζῷον, […].”.

  15. Some species of birds in Australia (Milvus migrans, Haliastur sphenurus, and Falco berigora) deliberately spread wild fires (Greshko 2018). However, in this exceptional case we have to keep in mind that they cannot actually make fire by themselves! Only humans can.

  16. The German polymath Samuel von Pufendorf (1632–1694), who had (re)introduced the term ‘cultura’ in the discussions of the Early Enlightenment as a new and single term, has defined it as being in opposition to nature.

  17. Source text: “己所不欲, 勿施於人 (Lunyu, n.d. Yan Yuan, §2)。”

  18. Besides the foundations of discussions in many other civilizations and ages also the discussions during the European Age of Enlightenment might provide further inspirations in this regard (Eichhorn et al. 2021).

  19. Of course, there are also exceptions!

  20. See also ibid. (279, tr. DB): “In the eyes of Horkheimer and Adorno, the products of the culture industry offered as entertainment and harmless amusement are in fact nothing more than powerful instruments of social control.”.

  21. For more thoughts and strategies in this field of cultural diplomacy see also 大卫·巴拓识. 2019.《论蕴含中国传统特色的文化外交》. 国际传播 Global Communication 16.2, pp. 24–32. In the focus field of vital culture, for example, the Olympic Games provide a fitting example. (Remember that sport is part of the conceptual scope of the present concept of culture, namely in the field of vital culture).

  22. Source text: “朱本思問.人有虛靈.方有良知.若草木瓦石之類.亦有良知否.先生曰.人的良知.就是草木瓦石的良知.若草木瓦石無人的良知.不可以為草木瓦石矣.豈惟草木瓦石為然.天地無人的良知.亦不可為天地矣.蓋天地萬物.與人原是一體.”.


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Bartosch, D. Harmonic power or soft power? Philosophical reflections on culture and future globalization in view of classical wisdom from China and other ancient civilizations. Int. Commun. Chin. Cult 9, 69–83 (2022).

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  • Harmonic power
  • Soft power
  • Culture
  • Chinese philosophy
  • Global