This bibliography and essay is a work in progress. I will
attempt to confine myself to books that I can speak well of, but I shall not
hesitate to expose those inferior productions which the greed of publishers or
the pretensions of the academy have foisted on a reading public that seeks to be
informed and entertained.
The books are rated with American letter grades
I mean to give pronounceable versions of the names of titles and authors, with the pinyin in parentheses after. Using pinyin alone makes no sense except for people who already know Chinese.
Please email me with any suggestions for books to add to the list..
Textbooks and Grammars ///
Dictionaries ///Characters /// General Reference Works
History /// Poetry /// Literature
Mythology /// Confucius /// I Ching /// Buddhism ///Taoism ///
but first, the
Texts in Chinese. The best resources I have found are , which offers a wide selection of literary classics, (The Analects, the Dao De Jing, Sun Tzu &c.) with multiple translations and each character linked to a dictionary. Another very helpful site is the Chinese Text Project which has a great number of classical texts with, among other useful features, one click access to the radical of all the characters used. This is of inestimable value in using the Mathews dictionary.
Bookstores. The CGC Mall has, in our experience, proved entirely satisfactory for providing adequate translations of hard to get Chinese classics in sturdily bound editions, with facing page Chinese text, for a good price. But a warning is in order! These are almost always printed with the ugly simplified characters.
Word processing programs: I have heard good things about Twinbridge and Union Way, but the one I bought was NJstar, which let me download a trial version to test-drive. This was entirely satisfactory. Not only is it easy to use as a word processor, but you can copy Chinese text from the net and use the program's dictionary function to instantly look up the definition (radical and all) of any given word. This means a beginning reader is no longer confined to texts online that are already linked to the zhongwen dictionary. Huzzah!
Textbooks & Grammars
For Classical Chinese, I am publishing my own grammar book, which even in its present provisional and incomplete form answers many of the most puzzling (and so far unaddressed ) questions facing the student. It may be found here..
(C) DeFrancis, John. Beginning Chinese. Yale U. Pr., 1964.
Despite three volumes, one in Chinese characters, one in Pinyin Romanization, and one
a Chinese character "reader," accompanied by a huge box of cassette
tapes, this cumbersome and uninteresting introduction to
the language is not even adequate for beginning Chinese.
The textbook is done in the sixties modern style, that is, copious examples and very little grammar, which leaves one with a very imprecise idea of how the language works despite an unconscionable time being exposed to it. Particularly in matters like the use of le, which Francis attempts to do without reference to the concepts of definite and indefinite noun objects, the "say no to grammar" approach breaks down, and the grammatical explanations that are offered are, though not strictly speaking, wrong, so partial as to be baffling.Without reference to "Chinese, a Comprehensive Grammar" by Yip Po-Ching and Don Rimmington, (which I shall review later.) or something comparable, one is lost.
Just as damningly, the book is unbearably dull. One learns how to buy a pen, ask directions, order in a restaurant, and so forth. There is nothing here to hold the attention or inspire the thoughtful student. This is inexcusable, since the simplicity of Chinese syntax makes the examination of interesting texts possible right away. The real secret of the tediousness here is, again, the lack of explicit grammar. The dullest sentence has its interest if it illustrates an important point of syntax. But without this information one ends up reading and rereading sentences which are boring, uninstructive, and frustratingly hard to figure out.
Another harmful omission is the folk-etymologies for the characters. Though the historical merits of these are at best uneven, they save the student years of work in memorizing how the characters are drawn. When I finally came across Rick Harbaugh's "Chinese Characters, A Genealogy and Dictionary," my learning was revolutionized — and I had to go back and re-learn all the vocabulary DeFrancis had introduced as cryptic little abstractions.
(C) Naiying Yuan, Haitao Tang, James Geiss, Classical Chinese
Princeton U. Pr. 2004. In three volumes a reader, glossary, and syntax analysis.
My biggest complaint about DeFrancis was that it was entirely preoccupied with mundanities like buying pencils. Well, this intro to Classical Chinese doesn't have that failing: in the first selection we got right down to bribing officials! Now it's great to plunge immediately into unmodified classical texts, and providing pinyin transliteration for both the original and its modern Chinese translation is wonderful. The book assumes some rudimentary knowledge of modern Chinese, but that's a given. You need to get at least half of first-year modern Chinese under your belt before you can test the classical with any textbook.
Where this book fails is in the grammatical explanations, which are done in the usual inane linguistic jargon, which I found at times harder to understand than the classical Chinese, and diagramming sentences!! What were they thinking? The understanding of classical grammar is inadequate, and the translations into modern Chinese are clumsy, repetitive and inaccurate, and so may be ignored with profit. This set of books is strictly as a source of text with transliteration. To learn anything from it you have to go to Pulleyblank.
(?) Yuehua Liu, Tao-Chung Yao, Daozhong Yao, Integrated Chinese, Cheng & Tsui; several volumes, late 1990's, is the standard teaching text in the US and Europe. I mean to get it when I have done with Francis first year set, and then I'll review it.
(A+) Edwin G. Pulleyblank, Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar. UBC Press. This is the standard treatment of the Classical Grammar. There are a number of large shortcomings, but there is nothing better at present.
(A) Claudia Ross and Jin-heng Sheng Ma, Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar, A Practical Guide, Routledge 2006. I am not yet proficient enough in the modern language to give an in-depth critique of this, but it looked to be the among the very best of those I could find on bookstore shelves.Using it to answer particular questions that came up, I found it good, particularly for common idiomatic usages. I also found it worth while to acquired the following
(A-) Yip Po-Ching and Don Rimmington, Chinese, A Comprehensive Grammar, Routledge 2004. This was somewhat marred by affected linguistics jargon, but otherwise seemed good for a prescriptive and analytic grammar book. I'm still not sure what the deal is with the placement of le and when it makes a completed sentence and when it anticipates more information. This book went further towards explaining it than de Francis did, but the description is still unsatisfactory. I am getting the impression that le is the philosopher's stone of modern Chinese.
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The Harvard College Library provides here the most helpful and candid online guide to Chinese dictionaries I have found. Yale also has a useful page on this topic, here.
Online Chinese Dictionaries Zhongwen is particularly good for providing the visual etymologies which are indispensable as and aid to memorization. has the advantage of a wider literary vocabulary, and, more important, a listing of the radicals, which makes it possible to find the words in a had-copy dictionary. See also the Chinese Text Project if you are reading classical texts, for this site goves one-click access to the radical and stroke count! Huzzah! Also useful are these conversion charts, , and . Of more specialized interest is the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism , again by Charles Muller, which is a real life-saver when slogging through the Sanskritisms.
(A) R. H. Mathews, Mathews' Chinese English Dictionary Harvard 1931, 19th printing, 2000. An admirable dictionary, still valuable for its wealth of literary citations. Can only be consulted via the radicals, as it was modified over and over to accommodate three successive systems of transliteration and is now (often) alphabetically unusable. It remains however the only bilingual dictionary suitable for literary, classical Chinese. It is not however really adequate for reading poetry and classical literature, and the only place to go is a Chinese-Chinese Dictionary. I hear the Wang Li gu Hanyu zidian (Zhonghua, 2000) is the best, and am shopping for one now. More on this when I get one.
(A) Lian Shih-Chiu, Far East Chinese-English Dictionary. Far East Book Company 2004. The concensus among the scholars I consulted was that this was far and away the best bilingual dictionary, and I quite agree. This enormous tome is clear, readably printed, and conveniently indexed. It is far better than average even for such oddities as archaic literary and Buddhist vocabulary, though of course it cannot match a good Chinese-Chinese dictionary. For a monolingual, the modern scholarly concensus seems to be that the Han yu da cidian 漢語大詞典 in 12 volumes is the OED of Chinese, both literary and modern. I haven't consulted it, but the definitions are in simplified characters, which I find rather a problem.
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(A+) Rick Harbaugh, Chinese Characters, A Genealogy and Dictionary, Zhongwen.com 1998. This is an utterly indispensible tool for learning Chinese Characters. Each one is explained in precise and lucid detail, in a reference work that is admirable in every way. Rather than describe it, I refer you to the online version at www.zhongwen.com. The hard copy is even more convenient than the web version, it is durably produced with sewn signatures. The only criticism, and this is small beer indeed, is that the characters in the index are painfully small for these old eyes. Consider investing in a magnifying glass.
(B) L. Wieger, Chinese Characters Until
Harbaugh's great work was published, this was the only game in town. It is
cumbersome, bizarrely indexed, and frequently so far-fetched in its analyses as
to be useless. Nonetheless, it is a handy thing to have for the few cases where
Harbaugh's choice of the folk etymology is less than helpful. Beyond this, it's
very fun to browse through, particularly when you've already worked with
Harbaugh for a while.
I note here Dover's mean and mischievous policy of using their excellent distribution to foist out-dated and obscure books upon the public. This is a fine book for a certain specialized need, but to shove this at beginners who really want to start learning Chinese is unconscionable.
(B-) Bernhard Karlgren, Analytic Dictionary of Chinese and Sino-Japanese, Not a particularly complete treatment of the subject, still what is there is worth having because Karlgren is the great sage of archaic Chinese language. Nothing one needs, but to go into academic (and probably useless) depth on the subject of the characters, this is probably a must consult. It would be going too far though to suggest this was a must-have..
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General Reference Works
(A-) Endymion Wilkinson, Chinese History, A Manual, Harvard, 2000. This is an excellent example of what can be done when you have intelligence, industry, financial backing, clear goals and no inspiration whatever. A directory of the scholarly resources out there, which is in fact indispensible for finding the state of the scholarship and the essential bibliography for anything Chinese.Do not however trust Wilkinson beyond his mandate: he touts the most respected academic works regardless of whether they are any good, and is unaware of anything outside the Ivory Tower. This is a handy guide to facts and dates, and a game plan for your visit to a research library, but by no means anything to trust as to what is actually good.
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Robert van Gulik,
the "Judge Dee novels" Some twenty novels written between the 40's and the
60's of the last century, following the adventures of the near-legendary Tang
dynasty detective Dee. Van Gulik was a real Sinologist, who spent many years in
East Asia as a diplomat for the Dutch government, so his works are very
authentic adaptations of the large corpus of Dee stories to the literary
conventions of the European detective novel. Fascinating, not quite mindless
fun, they give better than a glimpse of another world, Never discussed by Van
Gulik's admiriers, these books also have an interesting undercurrent of sadism.
There's always a naked woman getting erotically whipped somewhere in the books.
Van Gulik also wrote a book called Sexual Life in Ancient China. A
preliminary survey of Chinese sex and society from ca. 1500 B.C. till 1644 A.D.
(1961) which no one is in any hurry to reprint. Maybe dull. Who knows?
(A+) Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee (Dee Goong An),
Van Gulik's translation of an anonymous eighteenth century Chinese
detective novel, is what started Van Gulik on his famous career. I put off
reading this one till I had run out of the Dutchman's modern retreads, which I
consumed like salt peanuts. But, as it turned out, this was as wonderful as any.
The plotlines here were very clearly separated. Chinese detective novels
typically have the sleuth solving three cases at once. Gulik's own work has all
the cases developing at the same time, and I have to confess I was always a
little lost amid the characters and plot tangles. Further, there is a strong
supernatural element, which is almost completely eliminated from Van Gulik's
work. Here Dee recieves information from ghosts, in prophetic dreams, and
through oracular poetry. Other interesting points of difference are the more
detailed treatment of judicial procedures (which involve a lot of torturing of
suspects). Likewise the formal relationships of Chinese society (parent & child,
boss & employee, governor governed) are given more prominence, giving the tales
a fuller measure of fascinating foreign-ness. Finally, Dee himself is a smaller,
more two-dimensional, and less superhuman character than the hero of the Van
Gulik novels, but he's somehow more likeable. It is fascinating to see the all
of Dee's associates (Hoong Liang, Ma Joon, Tao Gan and Chiao Tai) in their
original form, with their familiar traits which Van Gulik so fascinatingly
This marvellous little book is a model of how a good approachable and non-pedantic translation should be made. Elegant and appealing, it has much interesting material on the Chinese detective genre and Chinese law in the preface and notes.
(A+) Rudyard Kipling, Kim. This is, in descending order, a lot of fun, a boy’s adventure, a spy thriller, and religious quest novel. It’s also one of the most remarkable social-historical portraits of 19th century India: whores, holy men, beggars, traders, thieves, Christians, Hindus and Moslems, Sikhs and Buddhists. E.g.,:
They met a troop of long-haired, strong scented Sansis with buckets of lizards and other unclean food on their backs, their lean dogs sniffing at their heels. These people kept their own side of the road, moving at a quick, furtive jog-trot, and all other castes gave them ample room; for the Sansi is deep pollution. Behind them, walking wide and stiffly across the strong shadows, the memory of his leg-irons still on him, strode one newly released from the jail; his full stomach and shiny skin to prove that the Government fed its prisoners better than most honest men could feed themselves. Kim knew that walk well, and made broad jest of it as they passed. Then an Akali, a wild-eyed, wild-haired Sikh devotee in the blue-checked clothes of his faith, with polished-steel quoits glistening on the cone of his tall blue turban, stalked past, returning from a visit to one of the independent Sikh States, where he had been singing the ancient glories of the Khalsa to College-trained princelings in top-boots and white-cord breeches. Kim was careful not to irritate that man; for the Akali’s temper is short and his arm quick. Here and there they met or were overtaken by the gaily dressed crowds of whole villages turning out to some local fair; the women, with their babes on their hips, walking behind the men, the older boys prancing on a stick of sugar-cane, dragging rude brass models of locomotives such as they sell for a half-penny, or flashing the sun into the eyes of their betters from cheap toy mirrors. One could see at a glance what each had bought; and if there were any doubt it needed only to watch the wives comparing, brown arm against brown arm, the newly purchased dull glass bracelets that come from the North-West. These merry-makers stepped slowly, calling one to the other and stopping to haggle with the sweetmeat-sellers, or to make a prayer before one of the wayside shrines – sometimes Hindu, sometimes Mussalman – which the low-caste of both creeds share with beautiful impartiality. A solid line of blue, rising and falling like the back of a caterpillar in haste, would swing up through the quivering dust and trot past to a chorus of quick cackling. This was a gang of changars – the women who have taken all the embankments of the Northern railways under their charge – a flat-footed, big-bosomed, strong-limbed, blue-petticoated clan of earth-carriers, hurrying north on news of a job, and wasting no time by the road. They belong to the caste whose men do not count, and they walked with squared elbows, swinging hips, and heads on high, as suits women who carry heavy weights. A little later a marriage procession would strike into the Grand Trunk with music and shoutings, and a smell of marigold and jasmine stronger even than the reek of the dust. One could see the bride’s litter, a blur of red and tinsel, staggering through the haze, while the bridegroom’s bewreathed pony turned aside to snatch a mouthful from a passing fodder-cart. Then Kim would join the Kentish-fire of good wishes and bad jokes, wishing the couple a hundred sons and no daughters, as the saying is. Still more interesting and more to be shouted over it was when a strolling juggler with some half-trained monkeys, or a panting, feeble bear, or a woman who tied goats’ horns to her feet, and with these danced on a slack-rope, set the horses to shying and the women to shrill, long-drawn quavers of amazement. (pp.109-110)
The down side is, of course, that there’s no real insight or analysis – but if such had been present, Kipling never would have managed to cram in such a riot of detail and liveliness. Nothing we know of gives so vivid and enthralling a sense of how it felt, looked, smelled, tasted and sounded in India. The Chinese relevance is that this is the world of the Silk Route and the Great Game, China's environment and context.
(A+) H. Y. Lowe,The Adventures of Wu, (1940-41) Princeton 1983. Subtitled "the life cycle of a Peking man," this follows a model family from 19th century Peking through all the events of life, from birth to marriage, the amusements, holidays and social customs. It is always fascinating, like an endless well written article from the old New Yorker magazine. Endlessly entertaining. Not really a valuable book, since it is as poor in insight as it is rich in detail. An encyclopaedic and entirely unexamined panaroma of life. One reads it with sustained interest and remembers of it not a thing.
(C+) Edward H. Schafer, The Vermilion Bird, U. Cal. 1967. This catalogue of Tang literary cliches about the south of China was a monumental disappointment, because for years now people have been tellling me Schafer is the golden immortal of Chinese history writing. His books are available for outrageous prices ($50 for this one in paperback) in the best academic tradition of keeping information out of the hands of non-members. Well, the high ticket info here was a heap of details, neatly catalogued, elegantly presented, and without any particular insight or analysis. What he did manage to do was show that he had mastered a fabulous amount of arcane information and could present it in a way that challenged nothing. Thus Schafer's academic apotheosis and our gift to him of a "gentleman's C."
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The ZhongwenWebsite, which has the 300 Tang Poems anthology, has pride of place among internet resources for Chinese poetry, but the Chinese Poems website is also warmly recommended for its combination of Chinese text, pinyin transcription, literal and literary translation, along with some useful reviews of the available translation anthologies.
(A+) Jerome Seaton The
Shambala Anthology of Chinese Poetry. This, the summation of a lifetime
translating and teaching Chinese poetry, calls for a rather more extended
The academy has little tolerance for poets. A poet had rather guess than ask, and is prouder of his inventions than of his discoveries. He is a creature of imagination, with all the strengths and weaknesses that that implies.
But it is a diligent lack of imagination that the academy esteems. The thesis and the oral exams are designed to instill in the new doctor a lifelong paranoia: the (quite justified) sense that he will be attacked for any assertions, and so had best keep his musings modest and armor them thickly with documentation.
Now Jerome Seaton is the rarest of rare birds. An academic and a poet. Back in the sixties they hired a certain number of such beautiful souls — because the demand for teachers forced them too. Had he been born five years later, Seaton would never have set foot on the tenure track.
But there he was, poet that he is, with a proper academic post and a reasonable allegiance to the institution that was doing well by him. He found a fine resolution to the conflict built into his situation by turning to translation (the scholarly no man's land) and eschewing pure research (where his insights would have won him few friends).
Seaton achieved the impossible. He made translations that are at the same time poetic and scholarly. By scholarly, I mean that they follow the original text with careful accuracy, avoiding free interpretive flights. He never prefers (as I do) a good but incongruous equivalent to the difficult original image. When you read Seaton, you read what's there. You could quote him in a scholarly article to make a philologic point just as confidently as you would recite his renderings to cap an argument at an elegant dinner party. I imagine with delight the impotent fury of his brother academics: he's left them no opening for an attack. Seaton's translations are beautiful without every being inaccurate. He creates without inventing. There's probably even an element of rebellion in the accuracy: the hypocritical over-compliance which can be a style of dissent under a totalitarian regime.
The secret of Seaton's success lies in the the fact that he actually is a poet. He brings such true verbal powers to the task that the shackles of the academic style become simple formal constraints of art, like writing in rhyme and meter. His book marks a new epoch in Chinese translation. So far, we have had (almost) one real poet, Pound, in the field. I say almost, since Pound only almost learned Chinese. Thus his work is revelatory, finally, only of himself, and amounts, at last, only to chinoiserie. Rexroth is a fair but not quite middling poet, who only seems good compared to plodders like the canonized Burton. Owen, well, some of translations must be good: the odds are with him by now, if the muse isn't.
Of the academic translators, some, like Waley, were remarkably competent, but none were really to be read. Rather, one read through them, groping for what the original must have felt like. But Seaton, with his dual credentials, is a literary pleasure to read, and is readable again and again for his material's authenticity — the priceless otherness of a foreign literature which he has preserved with scholarly scrupulousness. One really learns China via Seaton. By rights, he should have produced a trot. Instead we have a canter, a gallop, even a jump.
The only real shortcoming is that on rare occasions one has no idea of what he's talking about, particularly in the case of complex literary and historical allusions, where his loyalty to the concision of the original snaps the thread of meaning in English. But in the vast preponderance of cases the writing is so intoxicatingly good that one is carried along untroubled by the vagueness of a reference to a culture hero or king. (Incidentally, Seaton has made a respectable choice, not to to remedy this by footnotes. They really shatter any possibility or a decent reading experience.)
I mentioned Pound, and Seaton follows him, very successfully, in giving the poems from the archaic Book of Odes a slightly Elizabethan feel. And Seaton's renderings are every bit as good as Pound's, except they're better: they actually render the Chinese.
felling trees upon the hillside
as I strain my good strong beer.
Dishes on the groaning board arranged,
and all my kin are here!
Many a great family has fallen awry
for a thing so small as a piece of the pie!
So while there I be, I shall serve it myself,
and when there be none I'll go buy!
It's I myself shall be a-bangin' the drum,
and I myself shall be dancing . . .
and if I am ever to leave this work be . .
Let it be only to toast each of thee!
Seaton introduces each section of his agreeably personal
selection from 3,000 years of Chinese poetry with a brief and pointed outline of
the period, its trends and intellectual stars. The characterizations of the
dynasties are obviously insider knowledge: biased and trenchantly true.
Each period calls forth a different poetic style. more modern as we go into the modern era. The text would disappear under the commentary if I were to discuss and admire each section as it deserves, but I cannot refrain from expressing my particular admiration for Seaton's version of the Chu masterpiece "Encountering Sorrow." This hoary old marvel is China's closest approach to an epic poem. Seaton renders it with terse kennings that align it with the English epic voice. Anglo-Saxon understatement becomes an ideal equivalent for Chinese concision. Seaton's rhythmic alliteration and well-weighed brevities that recall The Wanderer and the Seafarer are the perfect match for the manliness and melancholia of this greatest of all Chinese poems.
Yi was a
wastrel wanderer, the arrows of the hunt his only thought;
how he loved to bend his bow against the wily fox!
But random rushing rushes toward foul ends,
and his own house man Han Cho stole his lady.
Cho's son Chiao, dessed in stout armor,
went where lust led him, all unrestrained,
his days lost to pleasures, until he was lost . . .
What the cultivated reader is will be most curious
about is the poets of the Tang dynasty. Everyone has read some of these, and
wondered why Chinese poetry is so dull. Well, having read some of it myself in
Chinese now, I can tell you that it is a little dull. A good parallel is
the poetry of 19th century Europe, which was all about juggling the watered down neoplatonism and the stock of literary allusions which had been accumulating
since the Renaissance. Poetry from the point in a cultural cycle is derivative,
hyper-refined and decadent. The best exponents of it will infuse a little life
and color by adding real material from their lived experience. But even so, the
formal demands of a "perfected" genre dominate. There are only so many
acceptably poetic subjects, and a conventional language for talking about them.
Such poetry can be beautiful if we get the references, and can read it in the
original language. Otherwise, the artistry (which is more important than
content) is lost. But even if we are learned enough to read such verse, it can
never be fully alive and never modern.
But, if we accept the conventions and are prepared to enjoy a fairly artificial art form, later Chinese verse is beautiful poetry. As beautiful as Byron or Pope, or any of the post-renaissance pre-modern masters. Now with Seaton one can see for the first time where this beauty lies: the poetry is actually good, and for the first time the poets emerge as distinct personalities. The solidly bourgeois Tu Fu, with his love of family life and hatred of war:
First month of
winter, ten countries' gentle youths'
blood serves for water in the Ch'en-tao swamps.
Broad wilds, clear skies: no sounds of battle now.
Forty thousand volunteers, in one day, dead.
Then the Tartars returned, arrows bathed in blood,
still baying their barbarous songs as they drank in the markets.
The people turned away, standing weeping, facing north,
day and night, their single prayer: our army may return.
Li Po emerges as a subtle and complex character, not the wine-sodden hippy of the anthologies, but a contemplative mind and a close observer of reality, as in this poem Seeing Off a Friend
draw a line beyond the Northern Rampart.
White Water curls around the Eastern Wall.
This place? Good as any for a parting . . .
Ahead just the lonely briars where you'll march ten thousand li.
Floating clouds: the traveler's ambition.
Falling sun: your old friend's feelings.
We touch hands, and now you go.
Muffled sighs, and the post horses, neighing.
A translator who engages the material on this level — the Anglophone world now for the first time hears.. Seaton has become the standard of comparison, and the god to try to defy, for all future translators.
But wait, there's more!
(A+) Jerome P. Seaton, The Wine of Endless Life, White Pine Press 1985. The finest book of translations from the Chinese I have so far seen in English. This captures the elliptical quality of the Chinese language without sacrificing clarity, and without ever suggesting pidgin English. A marvel and a model! No individual quoted poem will do justice to this slender and elegant volume. with its its brief but sufficient preface. Fifty pages of exquisite poems that give the reader a poetic jolt as warm and startling as a shot of whisky.
done with the world
nothing to hold me
the old guy here
within the grove
before blue cliffs the
mad and singing
drunk and dancing
smashed, polluted with the wine
of endless life
(A+) Bernhard Karlgren, The Book of Songs, Both Legge's, Waley's and Pound's translations are all inadequate for different reasons, which I note in the preface to my own translation. Karlgren's translation (out of print at the moment) and commentary are the only ones that can be called useful or accurate. Not very agreeable as entertainment though, it must be confessed. The commentary may be ordered from the Ostasiatiska Museet . Their backlist page contains all pertinent information about the various editions one may hunt for second-had. I am in the process of making my own translation of this book, which may be found in its present form here.
The Poetry of Chu
From the 4th century BC southern Chinese state, this poetry that is characterized by wildly aesthetic flower
symbolism and ecstatic religious flights. Imagine if Shakespeare's mad Ophelia
had founded a series of Bhakti cults. This far-fetched analogy is
entirely apt -- right down to the self-drowning. The poetry of Chu is one of the
champagne moments in world poetry, and I am learning Chinese with the especial
goal of translating it.
(A) David Hawkes, The Songs of the South,
Oxford University Press 1959. A new edition, expanded by about 100 pages,
was brought out by Penguin in 1985. This is now out of print and sells
secondhand for $30 and up.
This is the the best translation of the work into English I have seen so far. Though not really poetry, it is at least poetic in a formal academic sort of way, and one feels that one is getting to the meaning of the material. I found it spellbinding.
(A) Arthur Waley, The Nine Songs. 1955 Allen & Unwin
Ltd. Out of Print. Waley taught himself Chinese and Japanese in his early
twenties after getting a job as Assistant Keeper of Oriental Prints and
Manuscripts at the
British Museum. His background was in Classics. Because he was an amateur, not a
career academic, and he had that long exposure to fine Graeco-Roman lit., he
translated like an elegant gentleman, not like an academic pettifogger. In
recent decades his work has come under fire from academics who take issue with
his sometimes freeish rendering of materials.
Admittedly, poetry is not Waley's strongest suit, but at least his renderings are always clear and eminently readable.
Anthony C. Yu (Trans.), The Journey to the West,
Chicago 1977-1984, (4 vols.)
The Journey to the West is loosely based on the pilgrimage of Tripitaka
(i.e., Hsuan-tsang, 596-664) from China to India, to find the original texts of
Buddhist scriptures then known in inadequate Chinese translation. His story
became the kernel of a veritable epic cycle which developed, with various
authors and intents, for 1,000 years, until the 16th century, when it
was anonymously synthesized and printed in a book which has remained wildly
popular ever since.
The text has long been known in Waley’s impeccable and literary version (Monkey) which gives, unfortunately, less than 1/3 of the material, omitting entirely the approximately 750 poems scattered throughout, ornamenting and varying the text like exquisite illustrations, e.g.:
The broken shades of wisteria;
The sweet, pure scent of orchids.
A flowing stream, gurgling jade, cuts through old bamboos;
Cunning rocks are enhanced by fallen blooms.
Mist enshrouds distant hills;
The sun and moon shine through cloud-screens.
Dragons chant and tigers roar;
Cranes cry and orioles sing.
A loveable spot of pure serenity
Where jade flowers and grass are ever bright –
No less divine than a T’ien-t’ai cave,
It surpasses e’en P’eng-Ying of the seas. (vol. 3: pp. 154-55)
rendering at least conveys what's word-for-word there, and one can glimpse
"between the lines" the charm of the original.
Volume one traces Monkey (the Trickster-hero)’s miraculous birth from a stone egg on a mountain-top, his acquisition of magic powers from a Taoist sage, his extortion of a weapon from the dragon of the western ocean, his theft of the Peaches of Immortality from the celestial garden of the jade Emperor, and similar chaotic, Spiel-Hansel-like episodes, which are halted only by the intervention of the Buddha – who imprisons him till the time when he’ll guide the Scripture-Pilgrim.
Under the patronage of Kuan-yin herself, Tripitaka acquires four companion-disciples for his quest: Monkey; a dragon turned horse; a demonic pig; and a warrior spirit.
Volume two is a
series of travel-adventures. The perils are for the most part tusked, ugly
demons, much given to kidnapping princesses, and eager to acquire longevity by
eating the merit-imbued flesh of the Scripture-Pilgrim – preferably steamed.
Typically, after a forty-round battle, Monkey beats these fiends into “meat
In this excerpt evil spirits, impersonating Taoist sages, have brought about a persecution of Buddhists: Monkey and friends deflate the Taoists’ pretensions by impersonating the “Three Pure Ones” of the Taoist pantheon:
Our heads to the
We pray earnestly.
Your subjects submit
To the Pure Ones Three.
Since we came here,
The Way was set free.
The king is pleased
To seek longevity.
This Heavenly Mass
Chants scriptures nightly.
We thank the Honorable Divines
For revealing their presence holy.
O hear our prayers!
We seek your glory!
Do leave some holy water behind,
That your disciples may long life find!
Monk (the warrior spirit) gave Pilgrim (i.e., Monkey) a pinch and whispered
fiercely, "Elder Brother! They are at it again Just listen to the prayer!” “All
right,” said Pilgrim, “let’s give them something.” Where could we find it?”
muttered Pa-chieh (the demonic pig). “Just watch me,” said Pilgrim, “and when
you see that I have it, you’ll have it too!” After those Taoists had finished
their music and their prayers, Pilgrim again spoke out loud: “ You immortals of
a younger generation, there’s no need for your bowing and praying any longer. I
am rather reluctant to leave you some holy water, but I fear then that our
posterity will die out. If I gave you some, however, it would seem to be too
easy a boon.” When those Taoists heard these words, they all prostrated
themselves and kowtowed. “We beseech the honorable Divines to have regard for
the reverence of your disciples,” they cried, “and we beg you to leave us some.
We shall proclaim far and near the Way and the Power. We shall memorialize to
the king, to give added honors to the Gate of Mystery.” “In that case,” said
Pilgrim, “bring some vessels.” The Taoists all touched their heads to the ground
to give thanks. Being the greediest, Tiger-Strength Immortal hauled in a huge
cistern and placed it in the hall. The Deer-strength Immortal fetched an
earthware garden vase and put it on top of the offering table. The Goat-Strength
Immortal pulled the flowers from a flowerpot and placed it in the middle of the
other two vessels. Then Pilgrim said to them, “Now leave the hall and close the
shutters so that the heavenly mysteries will not be seen by profane eyes. We
shall leave you some holy water.” The Taoists retreated from the hall and closed
the doors, after which they all prostrated themselves before the vermilion
Pilgrim stood up at once and, lifting up his tiger-skin skirt, filled the flowerpot with his stinking urine. Delighted by what he saw, Chu Pa-chieh said, “Elder Brother, you and I have been brothers these few years but we have never had fun like this before. Since I gorged myself just now, I have been feeling the urge to do this.” Lifting up his clothes, our Idiot let loose such a torrent that it sounded as if the Lu-liang Cascade had crashed onto some wooden boards! He pissed till he filled the whole garden vase. Sha Monk, too, left behind half a cistern. They then straightened their clothes and resumed their seats solemnly before they called out: “Little ones, receive your holy water.”
Pushing open the shutters, those Taoists kowtowed repeatedly to give thanks. They carried the cistern out first, and then they poured the contents of the vase and the pot into the bigger vessel, mixing the liquids together. “Disciples,” said Tiger-Strength Immortal, “bring me a cup so that I can have a taste.” A young Taoist immediately fetched a tea cup and handed it to the old Taoist. After bailing out a cup of it and gulping down a huge mouthful, the old Taoist kept wiping his mouth and puckering his lips. “Elder Brother,” said the Deer-Strength Immortal, “is it good?” “Not very good,” said the old Taoist, his lips still pouted, “the flavor is quite potent.!” (vol 2: pp. 319-21)
Volume Three is given over to tales of sexual temptation – the Scripture Pilgrim’s chastity-nurtured Yang energy makes him an irresistible marriage prospect for various demonic beings. Particularly interesting here are: the descriptions of “the Kingdom Of Western Women”, i.e., Amazons (chs. 53-54); an amorous plant-spirit disguised as a lissome Taoist Immortal (ch. 64); and the spider women episode (ch. 72), which is too good not to quote from:
elder tried to struggle out of the door, but the girls barred the way, refusing,
of course, to let him go. “ A business right at our door,” they cried, “and you
expect us not to do it? ‘You want to cover up a fart with your hand?’ Where do
you think you are going?” All of them, you see, knew a little martial art, and
they were also quite dexterous with their hands and feet. Grabbing the elder,
they yanked him forward like a sheep and flung him to the ground. He was pinned
down by all of them, trussed up with ropes, and pulled over a cross-beam to be
hung high up. The way in which he was hung, in fact, had a name to it: it was
called “Immortal Pointing the Way.” One of his arms, you see, was stretched
forward and suspended by a rope; the other arm was tied up alongside the body,
and the rope was then used to hang up the midsection. His two legs were bound
together and hung up by a third rope. The elder thus dangled face down from the
crossbeam, held by three ropes. Racked by pain, his eyes brimming with tears, the
elder thought morosely to himself: “How bitter is the fate of this priest! I
thought that I could beg a meal from a good family, but I landed in a fiery pit
instead! O disciples, come quickly to save me, and we’ll be able still to see
each other again. Two more hours and my life will be finished!”
Though the elder was sorely distressed, he nonetheless was also observing the girls carefully. After they had tied and hung him up properly, they began to take off their clothes. Greatly alarmed, the elder thought to himself: they are disrobing because they want to beat me, or they may want to devour me.” But the girls were only taking off their upper garments. After they had their bellies exposed, they began to exercise their magic power. Out from their navels poured coils of thread, with the thickness of a duck egg; like bursting jade and flying silver, the threads had the entire village gate covered up in a moment. (vol. 3 pp. 363-64).
Four brings us to the conclusion of the quest with the slightly disappointing
arrival at Spirit Mountain to meet the Buddha – his realm is rather less
impressive than “…those places of illusion manufactured by monsters and
deviates…” (vol. 4 p. 385) through which the pilgrims have already passed.
Still, chapter 98 has a few details which are of surpassing interest: the
passing of the river in which Tripitaka sees his own corpse floating by, and the
original bestowal of blank scrolls which are replaced by inferior written
The epic is clearly written as a deliberate Buddhist “Pilgrim’s Progress”, with Monkey unambiguously identified with Mind, and Pig with the physical appetities, but the allegory is largely unrealised. Tripitaka is, from beginning to end, bossy, whining, and tyrranic, while the warrior and the dragon-horse remain peripheral figures throughout. The relation between the pilgrims scarcely develops – Pig remains unfailingly piggish, while the only real alteration is that of Monkey, who gradually becomes more pious and less interesting.Nor is there much of explicit Buddhist doctrine here – what there is is confined, for the most part, to the chapter headings and allusions in the verse sections. Which bring us to the translation.
Yu provides notes which more or less suffice for literary and historical allusions, but which prove inadequate for references to Buddhist doctrine and Taoist alchemy – not a devastating loss, as these seem to be merely ornamental. Further, the translation has no feel for the humor in the characters’ banter – which must often be inferred – and there are frequent lapses into pidgin-English. Still, it’s readable and complete, and the very crudeness is somewhat re-assuring: one feels some confidence that one is reading what’s actually there. Since it’s extremely unlikely that another translation of Journey will be made in our lifetime, and no complete competitor exists, this is clearly the one to have.
The best reason for reading it is that the four thick volumes offer a general tour of Chinese mythology – from the world of the dead (wonderfully surveyed in chapter 10) to the heavens inhabited by Lao Tzu, the jade Emperor, Kuan-yin and Buddha, not omitting the dragon-inhabited oceans and demon-haunted wilds. It is a world where animals and even plants may gain magical powers and become fiends, and celestial beings freely re-incarnate in grotesque and fascinating forms. It is an unsurpassed panorama of Popular Taoism and Animist Folklore: both as a handbook of mythology and for its entertainment value, this book is entirely comparable to Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
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There is no shortage of vague and disorganized digests on this subject,
purporting to introduce one to the great deities and their legends. Why are they
all so bad?
Well, the Chinese myths, along with three millenia of literary elaboration, were uncritically synthesized to produce these ill-digested tomes. It was as though someone were to write a book on "Jewish Mythology" by uncritically combining Biblical narrative, Talmudic legend, and Kabbalistic fantasy.
In the early 20th century Bernhard Karlgren did the groundbreaking work of demonstrating that the earliest strata of Chinese myth are quite different from the treatments they recieved from Han and later scholiasts. It is as though someone were to show, for the first time, that Enoch, Lamech and Melchizedek from Genesis are different in that book from the forms they take in Apocryphal legend.
Unfortunately, these earliest legends are preserved in forms as cryptic and fragmentary as the the tales of the above-mentioned Genesis characters. To date, no one has (to my knowlege) written a synthesis or survey of Chinese myth that takes Karlgren's work into account. (Karlgren's book, by the by, 150 odd page Legends and Cults in Ancient China is a laborious scholarly proof, not a something that can be read to learn the lore.)
It seems that the best course for someone interested in the mythology is to simply read the key classics of Chinese literature: Journey to the West, Creation of the Gods, and so on.
(C) Anne Birrel, Chinese Mythology, an Introduction. Johns Hopkins U. Pr., 1993. Hardly an introduction.. This is actually a valuable reference tool for the earliest strata of Chinese legend. But because the material in question is sparse and fragmentary, it is quite unreadable as a narrative or collection. This is purely a book for the specialist who already knows the material.
(C) Anne Birrell, The Classic of Mountains and Seas. Penguin 1999. The book is well enough done for a plodding accurate translation. The text itself is nothing but an extended catalogue, without stories or plot. It's a list. The descriptions are so unbelievably weird that it's much fun to read for a page or two, but it's all so much the same, that after two paragraphs you've read it all.
(D) Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Oriental Mythology. Viking 1962. Reasonable-sounding and quite insane.
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Waley, The Analects of Confucius,
(Macmillan 1938) reprinted by Vintage 1989. A
cosmic book of etiquette, the perfecter of every gentlemanly trait, the most
powerful case for the study of culture and the ancients ever made, a work that
makes decency appear glamorous and dramatic, the delight of the intelligent and
for friends the rare gift -- this is not saying too much of the writings of
Confucius. In the present global age no one with pretensions to education can
afford be ignorant of its contents, and with Waley's admirable translation and
commentary, no one in the Anglophone world need be.
Confucius himself flourished somewhere between 550 - 450 BC, a contemporary of the pre-Socratic philosophers and early Sophists, whom he somewhat resembled in a life spent trying to teach and propagate his moral philosophy. This he based on the ways of the ancients, especially the kings of the early Western Chou dynasty (1,000 -- 770 BC) and the divine sages who were rulers of China in the earlier mythological past. Confucius transmitted and made new the traditions of behaviour, deportment and ritual, restoring (and re-inventing) with the passion of an archaeologist and a moral reformer at once.
Waley's version is the only one that clearly distinguishes the strata of the text (the oldest one, which alone may be reliably taken back to Confucius, being books 3-9 of the traditional 20). He provides a continuous, detailed, but not overpowering commentary on all relevant cultural, historical and literary referents, without which the work would be delphic to the point of utter opacity. He gives, in addition, a glossary of key terms (Jen - "Goodness"; Tao - "The Way", sc. of the ancients; Chun-Tzu - "Gentleman"; T'ien - "Heaven" - &c.) with full histories of each word and how they came to have the particular sense they enjoy here. Additionally, he surveys the worlds of Ritual, Dress, Cult of the Dead, Music, &c. as relevant to the text. The following are excerpts for the Ur-text, and give a fair idea of the book and the politely understated style of the author, which Waley's English delivers accurately and entertainingly:
The Master said, Gentleman never compete. You will say that in archery they do so. But even then they bow and make way for one another when they are going up to the archery-ground and when they are coming down and at the subsequent drinking-bout. Thus even when competing, they still remain gentlemen. (3:7)
The Master said, A gentleman takes as much trouble to discover what is right as lesser men take to discover what will pay. (4:16)
The Master said, Yen P'ing Chung is a good example of what one's intercourse with one's fellow-men should be. However long he has known anyone he always maintains the same scrupulous courtesy. (5:16)
The Master said, In serving his father and mother a man may gently remonstrate with them. But if he sees that he has failed to change their opinion, he should resume an attitude of deference and not thwart them; may feel discouraged, but not resentful. (4:18)
The Master said, Respect the young. How do you know that they will not one day be all that you are now? But if a man has reached forty or fifty and nothing has been heard of him, than I grant there is no need to respect him. (9:22)
Of the adage "Only a Good Man knows how to like people, knows how to dislike them," the Master said, He whose heart is in the smallest degree set upon Goodness will dislike no one. (4:3,4)
The Master said, Every man's faults belong to a set. (Waley's note: i.e., a set of qualities which includes virtues.) If one looks out for faults it is only as a means of recognizing Goodness. (4:7)
The Master said, Those who err on the side of strictness are few indeed! (4:23)
Chi Wen Tzu used to think thrice before acting. The Master hearing of it said, Twice is quite enough. (Waley's note: Cheng Hao (A.D. 1032-1085) says that if one thinks more than twice, self interest begins to come into play.) (5:19)
The Master said, I have never yet seen anyone whose desire to build up his moral power was as strong as sexual desire. (9:17)
The Master said, Chou could survey the two preceding dynasties. How great a wealth of culture! And we follow upon Chou. (Waley's note: i.e., we in Lu have all three dynasties, Hsia, Yin and Chou to look back upon and imitate.) (3:14)
The Master said, In a hamlet of ten houses you may be sure of finding someone quite as loyal and true to his word as I. But I doubt if you would find anyone with such a love of learning. (Waley's note: i.e., self-improvement in the most general sense. Not book-learning.) (5:27)
The Master said, Only one who bursts with eagerness do I instruct; only one who bubbles with excitement, do I enlighten. If I hold up one corner and a man cannot come back to me with the other three, I do not continue the lesson. (7:8)
The Master said, Who expects to be able to go out of a house except by the door? How is it then that no one follows this Way of ours? (Waley's note: Though it is the obvious and only legitimate way our of all our difficulties.) (6:15)
The Master said, Be of unwavering good faith, love learning, if attacked be ready to die for the good Way. Do not enter a State that pursues dangerous courses, nor stay in one where people have rebelled. When the Way prevails under Heaven, then show yourself; when it does not prevail, then hide. When the Way prevails in your own land, count it a disgrace to be needy and obscure; when the Way does not prevail in your land, then count it a disgrace to be rich and honored. (8:13)
In his leisure hours the Master's manner was very free-and-easy, and his expression alert and cheerful. (7:4)
The Master's manner was affable yet firm, commanding but not harsh, polite and easy. (7:37)
The Master said, Give me a few more years, so that I may have spent a whole fifty in study, and I believe that after all I should be fairly free from error. (7:16)
The other widely circulated translations, Legges and Lau's, are given on the Wengu website (seek links, above). Waley's is obviously far superior. The only criticism that might be offered is that Walery did his work before certain aspects of classical Chinese grammar were perfectly understood, and so he misses some of the tone of polite exasperation that permeates the book and gives it charm and humor. Also, the Vintage edition is a careless reprint, omitting the Chinese language notes,
(B+) Arthur Waley, Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China, London 1939. This chrestomathy of texts from Chuang Tzu, Mencius and the Realists is a fine inturoduction to the context of the social breakdown at the end of the Chou. Not the greatest thing Waley ever did though.
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The I Ching (Yee Jing)
Well this was a disaster area. Wilhelm's sturdy and
reliable translation, done into elegant English by Baynes, remains the best
there is in English. Not that it's 100 % by any means, but still it's well
presented, poetic and quite usable for divination.
Now the basic eight trigrams, from which the hexagrams were constructed, are attributed (by a 6th to 5th century commentary on the Yee Jing) to the mythical 3rd millennium BC emperor Foo Shee (Fu Xi) (who also invented marriage, cooking, writing, and so on.) The traditional prehistory of China is as fabulous as that given in the book of Genesis. What the Foo Shee story actually means is that systems of divination (though probably not this particular one) are of immemorial antiquity in China, and always had a central place in Chinese religion.
According to Chinese tradition, the age of gods and culture heroes was followed by the only slightly less fabulous Shya dynasty (21st to 16th centuries BC). Then came the Shang dynasty (16th to 11th centuries BC) which made a shy near-emergence into the light of history via a vast number of inscribed bones. The bones were used in divination, and afterwards inscribed with the results of the enquiry. These are on the level of votive inscriptions for the grammatical, lexical and cultural information they preserve. Which is to say, they are not nearly so helpful as one would wish!
Real Chinese history tentatively begins with the Zhou (pronounced Jo) dynasty (1045-256 BC). The Jo's founder, King Wen (1171-1122), is supposed to have been a loyal vassal unjustly imprisoned by the final corrupt Shang monarch. In the meditative leisure of his cell, Wen hit upon the idea of combining Foo Shee's trigrams to form the hexagrams. He gave the hexagrams their names, and wrote the the part of the Yee Jing listed in Wilhelm's translation as "the judgement." Later, when Wen became King Wen, his son the Duke of Jo (?-1094) wrote the rest of what one finds in Wilhelm, listed as "the image" and "the lines." The rest of the commentaries which constitute the traditional Yee Jing are attributed to Confucius (551-479 BC.)
The above statements about the origin of the Yee Jing are a historical romance. The historical truth is this: The hexagrams, their names, and the part Wilhelm lists as "the judgement," all date back to the 9th century BC (the start of the Jo dynasty). The poetic and interesting core of the Yee Jing, "the image" and "the lines" associated with each hexagram, were composed in the sixth to fifth centuries BC, This is the the time of the final breakdown of the last part of the Jo kingdom, and the beginning of the Warring States period. At this time the Chinese (men like Confucius) looked back to the dawn of the Jo dynasty (the time of King Wen and the Duke of Jo) for inspiration to renew their disintegrating society. Then during the Han Dynasty (202BC to 220 AD) all of the above mentioned parts of the Yee Jing , and some additional ones composed as late as the third century BC, were collected into a book known to sinologists as the Ten Wings (i.e. chapters).
Working back from fact to myth, we can see how the Han compilers of the Yee Jing, as part of their establishment of the Confucian orthodoxy, attributed all the late commentaries to Confucius (even though some of them were written three hundred years after Confucius' time. The beautiful sixth to fifth century core of the Yee Jing, a book of hard-nose statecraft in the form of oracles, which looked back with idealizing nostalgia to the time of King Wen, was attributed to Wen and his son. Finally, the old parts of the book, which really did date back to Wen's time, were attributed to the mythic ancestor Foo Shee, giving the book superhuman origin and supernatural prestige.
Unraveling the prehistory of the Yee Jing was the easy fun part. The dreary duty was digging through the modern scholarship. Modern scholars have used lexical and historical information from the Shang oracle bones to arrive at (what they consider to be) the original and authentic meaning of the oldest strata of the Yee Jing texts. The results have been a shambles. Standard Chinese words, whose meaning is clearly attested by their use in the oldest documents (the Yee Jing, the History Classic, the Book of Songs) are unintelligibly rendered with "authentic" meanings that are conjectural and fit no context. Worse, these mischievous books are presented as good general introductions to the text! I single out a few for particular censure, not because they are worse than their fellows, but because they are routinely foisted upon the neophyte in the lock-step bibliographies of the scholars. Gottschalk's Divination, Order and the Zhouyi is makes of the Yee a work of agricultural sacrificial fantasy. Rutt gives a Yee translated into the correct gibberish; Shaughnessy does the same, with the added shame of presenting his as even more authentic because it's based on a text as late as the latest commentaries. Ritsema and Karcher's Eranos I Ching is a failed thesaurus presented (for laughs?) as a translation. Finally Richard Lynn gives a gibberish translation made madder by the inclusion of a pettifogging late commentary written by a a twenty-something numerologist.
If you actually want to read and understand the Yee Jing, my best recommendations are the translations by Wilhelm and Blofeld, accompanied by the Jack M. Balkin's The Laws of Change: I Ching and the Philosophy of Life, which makes up for a middling translation by an excellently clear history of the Yee Jing and a useful descriptive bibliography.
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Online. Now here's something scary! 85 of them in English. This explains why we have all vowed not to translate this book.
(A+) Arthur Waley, The Way and Its Power, Grove Press 1958. This is the definitive translation of Lao Tzu into English, there is no reason to look for another. In fact, the other translators didn't. Almost none of them actually know Chinese, so, with the impudence of a legion of Stephen Mitchells, fiddle with Waley's and pass on the fudged results as their own. Of course it isn't quite as good as reading it in Chinese, since that abounds in a playfulness that so far no one, not even Waley, has captured. But till someone does net that butterfly, this is the best.
(A-) John Blofeld, Taoism, the Road to Immortality, Shambala
This is a
delectable, discursive and poetic survey of Taoism, far too general and
superficial for scholarly purposes, but entirely admirable as an introduction to
this immense and difficult subject, giving the feel and conveying the charm, the
Chapter one introduces the central concepts, the Tao itself, which is not a supreme being but a supreme state of being; the principles Yin & Yang; the five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, water -- not substances but symbols of kinds of activity); "and Dragon Veins" -- conduits of psychic energy between heaven and earth:
This concept is clearly reflected in Chinese landscape painting, in which the veins are delineated as great sweeping curves marked at their source by the contours of the clouds, then by the undulations of mountains and hills, and finally the meanderings of rivers or some other landscape features. Gazing at these paintings or at actual views in the more scenic parts of the globe, one can almost feel the power streaming downwards and impregnating the surroundings with vibrant energy. (p.7)
learn of Wu-wei (no action out of harmony with nature), stillness ("...the
recluse's heart is a placid lake unruffled by the winds of circumstance..."),
and Immortality, the goal of Taoism, variously understood as eternal life, and
as mortal existence lived with a superhuman perspective.
Chapter two is a rambling history of Taoism's founders and leaders, from the legendary Yellow Emperor 5,000 years ago to the 19th century masters. One takes from this lightly sketched outline of developing rival schools a single repeating story of recluse sages, elderly but with the clear unwrinkled faces of young girls, wooed by emperors for the secret of immortality, and leaving this "world of dust" in broad daylight on the backs of dragons, bound for Peng Lai Shan, the island of the immortals, off the coast of Shantung province:
From towering peaks, says Chou Shao-hsien, himself a native of that region, one gazes upon an island-dotted sea of tremendous depth and often so rough that gigantic waves rear up like mountains before hurling themselves furiously upon the rocky coast. At sunrise the sky blazes red and gold and at sunset one sees pink and coral clouds fantastically shaped. In a strong wind when the waves crash upon the cliffs, their spray resembles a profusion of silvery pearls being scattered upon the rocks by heavenly nymphs. At other times, mists sweeping in from the sea take the form of demons. So rapid are the transformations wrought by sun and cloud that it is easy to believe the place enchanted. There are moments when the sunlit peaks of mountainous islands are seen rising from a sea of silver mist that veils from sight the ocean; and it used to be said that, in summer when the weather is propitious, a mortal worthy of stupendous gifts from fortune can see in the far distance the peaks of P'eng Lai Shan, Island of Immortals! Despite the great distance, he is permitted a fleeting glimpse of its forests and mountains dotted with the enchanting pavilions wherein the immortals dwell. Even their many-splendoured city may be seen upon occasion with noblemen galloping in and out of its fantastic gateways. Then suddenly the scene is blotted out and all is as before -- a vista of limitless ocean stretching to the horizon. (p. 26)
Chapter three is a little summary of the quietist philosophy of Lao-Tzu and Chang-Tzu; four is all Taoist poetry:
The sacred elixir
Is his for ever!
His tranquil mind
Gleams like a hidden mirror
Dispersing the phantom shapes
Of the world of dust.
His body, freed from bondage,
Idles like a floating cloud.
Blofeld's commentary is genuinely useful: of the above he says:
Taoists are fond, too, of comparing men of high spiritual attainment to floating clouds, beautiful phenomena which are but make no effort to be. The filmy lightness of an idling summer cloud is suggestive of the sensation of weightlessness that characterizes immortals, a sensation born of absolute freedom from care and anxiety. (p.60)
another example is:
I came to this solitary vale
Seeking otherworldly feelings.
From afar the stone-hewn gateway
Points to where some white clouds gather.
Through the forest now and then
A woodsman's axe resounds.
This monk at the mouth of the valley
Is a friend whose name eludes me.
In the pool a young moon sails
Across an inverted sky.
Aloft a cloud-formed stairway
Rises to heaven's smoothness.
Who but a Taoist would dwell
So high above the wild grasses?
From the moonlit peak there sounds
A stone bell's sweet-toned chime. (p.67)
Chapter five pleasingly retails legends of those who attained immortality, enlivened by magical and folkloric elements such as:
Sure now that his visitor was a joker, Shen willingly complied and, following a
further instruction, fastened the drawing to the wall. Instantly the Taoist blew
out the candle whereat the room, instead of being plunged into darkness, grew
bright; for the "moon" pasted to a wall-beam now glowed like the real sky orb
with a milky white radiance and began growing bigger and bigger.
"Be so good as to walk this way," remarked the Taoist and, a trifle bemused by the turn things had taken, the young scholar followed his new friend into a gleaming white landscape where the ground was so soft and springy that he felt as though his shoes were winged. Passing through a "rockery" of ice pinnacles skillfully arranged to resemble a chain of mountains, they came to a moated palace with battlemented walls, turrets and multi-tiered roofs all constructed of glittering ice. (pp.83-84)
Six has more
legends, these of the Taoist pantheon, the "Jade Emperor's Court", and is
particularly handy for its detailed descriptions which enable one to understand
some of the the porcelain figures on sale in Chinese shops, e.g., the fellow
with the huge bald head carrying a peach - Shou, god of longevity.
Chapters seven to nine are, alas, a bit disappointing. Here Blofeld covers Taoist alchemy, pursued by sexual and chemical means; the curriculum of the Taoist yogin, from the husbanding of Ching (formal essence, often identified with sexual fluid) to ascent in spirit form to merge with the Void; finally he summarises the Taoist concept of enlightenment. These profound and abstruse subjects lend themselves ill to the generalizing, evocative approach. But this minor failure is more than made up for by the final chapter, where he describes his visits to Taoist hermitages in China in the 30's. It reads like one continuous perfect prose poem, and describes in detail the rites, buildings, furnishings and personality of Taoist recluse communities. This will give an idea:
In the gardens and courtyards of hermitages situated in places devoid of picturesque rocks, the deficiency has generally been lovingly repaired. Rocks carried from afar will have been arranged in miniature landscapes, either beautiful or amusingly grotesque. On many a recluse's or Chinese scholar's writing desk one would see, ranged among writing implements of porcelain, bronze, ivory or jade, a lump of ordinary dark rock mounted like a precious curio on a chaste blackwood base. Ordinary in the sense of being of no greater intrinsic value than a large pebble picked up from a stream, it might prove to be the owner's greatest treasure -- a word of praise for its shape and texture, its tiny cavities and involutions or contorted ridges would win his heart and more than redeem one from appearing a barbarian in his eyes. (pp.168-169)
Based on personal experience and reading in Chinese primary sources, especially Chou Shao-hsien's compilation (Tao-Chia Yu Shen-Hsien, Taoist Philosophers and Immortals) this is a genuine contribution to the still sparse scholarship in English, and though cloudlike in its beauty and lightness, is substantial in content.
(B) Isabelle Robinet, Taoism, Growth of a Religion, Stanford 1992. Apparently the standard survey of Taoist history, and admirable for its able treatment of so far uncharted material. But useful as it is, it's boring, insightless and I never managed to read it all the way through. The dry catalogue approach so esteemed by academics.
(B) Livia Kohn, The Taoist Experience SUNY 1993. Wide ranging anthology of texts in poetry and prose, a few choice illos thrown in, and useful summaries of the scholarship and translations so far. Completely without any feel for the poetry clunkily translated, and without any footnotes to explain the dense and delphic texts. Barely readable.
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Online. The Zen Buddhist Order of Hsu Yun offers the Chinese text of the Diamond Sutra with character-linkage, and the Conze translation. You might want to refer to which (as a trot) is superior to any other I have seen in English. The A.F. Price translation is helpful for comparison, while the Hsu Yun
Bikkhu Bodhi, In The Buddha's Words,
Wisdom Publications, Boston 2005. The scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism, with
their philosophical comnplexities, are very difficult to understand — because
good clear translations, with annotations to explain the subtle points, are
simply not available in English. I remember reading in a preface to something or
other by Conze the statement that "anyone who can't be bothered to learn Chinese
and Sanskrit doesn't deserve to be a Buddhist." Perhaps even more unhelpful are
the purveyors of Zen, who stand at the refined end of the Mahayana tradition,
and present their paradoxes, the outcome of long philosophical pondering, as
matters to be grasped intuitively. The truth of the matter is that the Zen
masters of medieval Asia were fully steeped in the study of sutras and Buddhist
philosophy — and would have been horrified at the know-nothing chop-wood
carry-water platitudes offered by way of instruction today.
For those genuinely interested in Buddhism, even in Mahayana Buddhism, the place to start is the Pali Canon, the oldest stratum we have of Buddhist teaching. This is particularly important for those who are interested in Chinese Buddhism, for there all theBuddhist scriptures were accepted and given equal weight. (They reconciled the contradictions by supposing they reflected different stages in the Buddha's teaching.
Bikkhu Bodhi has edited a series of books that presents nearly the entire Pali canon in good, clear and well-introduced and annotated translations. This volume is a selection from the entire set, and will suffice as a reader for most students of Buddhism, and provides an ideal introduction.
(C) Kenneth K. S. Chen Buddhism in China, A Historical Survey, Princeton, 1964. Dull, compendious, and well organized, this would do as a reference book. The information is excellent as far as it goes, but this is only so far as a historical outline of the movements, books, history and sociology, without ever having an insight into anything. Surely there are better books out there.
(D) Heinrich Dumoulin, Zen Buddhism: A History 2 vols., 1988. This highly respected work was absolutely baffling until I realized that anything the author says he says five or six times in different words without development of ideas. One can pretty much read the first sentence of each paragraph and skip the rest. This is one of the standard horrors of the German academic style. And one could put up with it. But what is unconscionable is that there is no insight whatever in the book, and one leaves it no wiser as to what Emptiness really is, or what a Koan is supposed to mean. The only positive thing I can say is that it provides a historical outline of the topic, which is undoubtedly accurate so far as it goes.
(A+) Peter Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhism, Cambridge 1990. By far the best book on Buddhism I have ever seen. A lucid, fastmoving survey of the history and culture, enriched by the best summary descriptions I have ever seen of Buddhist philosophy, particularly in its complex Mahayana development. Utterly indispensible.
Thanissaro Bikkhu has made admirable translations from the poetic books of the Pali Canon (for which see the entry under Bikkhu Bodhi above.) Despite the occasional regrettable word choice ("effluent" and "fermentation" for asava), his translations of the Dahammapada and the poetic books of the Pali canon are the clearest and most readable I have seen (and may be read without charge at Access to Insight.)
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