Why can’t we all agree on how to translate “xin”?

Translation of Chinese philosophical terminology is often one of the more vexed problems that we face. This is both because the interpretation and understanding of some of these terms is complicated (and controversial), and because it is rarely easy to choose a single word, or a short phrase, that readily expresses the meaning of a given term. Many potential translations carry inapt baggage with them; others can be misleading in other ways. Often we are urged to give up and leave a term romanized. I would agree that, depending on one’s specific goals, this can sometimes be the best choice, but of course to resort to it too often is to abandon the project of interpretation and translation.

Some terms have quite settled translations upon which most of us agree, like “way” for “dao 道” (notwithstanding Brook Ziporyn’s use of “course”) or “nature” for “xing 性” (notwithstanding the concerns expressed by Roger Ames and others). Other terms, like “ren 仁” and “li 理” have generated many translations and much, and on-going, debate.

I’d like to propose here that for one term, “xin 心,” we all should be able to agree on a single translation. There is little substantive disagreement about the meaning or interpretation of this term. Yet some use “mind,” others “heart,” others “heart-mind,” and still others “mind-heart.” Since choosing “mind” or “heart” is manifestly unsatisfactory—providing a partial and misleading sense of what the term means—and because the hyphenated compounds are awkward, we should all agree to use: (drumroll, please…) “heartmind.”

“Heartmind” is not (very) awkward, and it is easy to see that it is not the same as the Western concepts with which it should not be confused. I first encountered this translation in an essay by Tao Jiang; Jane Geaney’s On the Epistemology of the Senses in Early Chinese Thought uses it, as does Brian Bruya (at least some of the time). Probably others as well.

Why don’t we all use it, making things easy for readers and writers throughout the Anglophone world? One small step forward….

Hannah Pang detail

40 thoughts on “Why can’t we all agree on how to translate “xin”?

  1. I think addressing the problem would be a lot easier if people would understand that the Chinese were not referring to the Greek Nous or any other western conception of mind as a consciousness somehow independent of its objects. It’s more like mind in the phrase “do you mind?” It’s more about affect than idea.

  2. I rather like the idea because I use mind-heart all the time and heartmind would work just as well. Now if we could get everyone to agree we could have made progress.
    John B.

    • I’m terrified by the view that getting everyone to agree qualifies as progress.

    • One problem with holding a convention and all pledging our lives, fortune and sacred honor to abide by this promise to use only ‘heartmind’, besides not settling anything, is that the proposal is a recipe for ending a still fruitful debate. I suspect there are more things worth saying about the issue–in addition to agreeing with Amod that ‘heartmind’ is not an English word (Hint! It’s got a way red line under it! ;-), ergo not a translation. It’s a neologism that purports to mean 心. Or, for another, that it is less than clear to me that the Chinese concept “combines” the Indo-European faculties–an alternative would be to explain why ancient thinkers might not have been motivated to postulate (or assume) such a separation. That leaves us with the far more interesting problem of coming up with progressively more powerful explanatory theories of just what inferential role the concept does play in Chinese thought. A positive byproduct of looking at the issue in explanatory terms is that we might notice that the heart-mind faculty distinction of functions is becoming harder to defend for scientific naturalists.

  3. Hi Steve,

    I think in most cases “xin” can be translated as heart mind (as a philosophical concept), without a hyphen. In some usages we probably can treat xin as non-philosophical notion, such as 心腹之病 (heart), or 他人有心,予忖度之(《诗·小雅·巧言》 thoughts or ideas), or 中心(center)or 心量 (aspirations). But the line between the philosophical and non-philosophical is not always clear (including the above examples). Even in some clearly philosophical contexts, it is better to be rendered either as heart or mind. Mencius’s 心之官则思 seems to point primarily to the mind;the Wuxing’s 以其外心與人交,遠也 seems more about the heart (?). One may argue that even in Mencius’s case above, he was talking about the heartmind. But that interpretation seems to leave out the heart part of the xin and would give Mencius the view that the primary function of the heartmind is thinking/deliberation.


  4. This is starting to seem like a performative answer to your rhetorical question, Steve. I’m not sure I agree with Chenyang’s last statement about Mencius. Thinking or deliberating is one function of the xin for Mencius, but I wouldn’t say it was the primary one. “Feeling” what is right or wrong about a situation, or what is proper/improper about an action, seems like just as important a function for him.

    As for translation, I often use “heart-mind” but personally would be happier with just “heart” since in one of its broad uses in English, the heart thinks as well as feels, judges, motivates, and guides. “Mind,” as Bradford notes, tends to carry more philosophical baggage than we often want with translations of ancient Chinese terms.

  5. I like this suggestion. As for Manyul’s concern, we might have to stipulate for a time that the meaning of “mind” here is in a folk-psychological sense, which is, essentially, identical with its colloquial use, even if it has theoretical implications. I think “just ‘heart'” is burdened with primarily emotional connotations in English, and “mind” supplies the requisite cognitive dimension (for which the brain is a necessary yet not sufficient condition).

  6. I agree with Manyul that if you try out “heart,” you’ll find that it works in a surprising number of contexts. Not all (especially not with Xunzi, for example), but more than you might initially suspect.

    The two objections to “heart-mind” that I’ve heard most often are: (1) uneasiness about using the word “mind” in conjunction with Chinese philosophy (some people are even unwilling to admit that Chinese philosophers had any concept of mind whatsoever), and (2) the term is assailed as ugly. I don’t find either one of those very persuasive.

    • Yes, my own practice is to use “heart”. That’s what they meant after all, as is clear from the picture. True, their notion of the its functions differ from that of modern biologists. But I can’t help but feel that of all currently existing English words, the ordinary language use of “heart” is still the closest.

      I did find this whole debate really interesting, though, and maybe don’t feel it necessary for everyone to agree.

  7. For me, the attraction of heartmind as a single term is precisely its ambiguity, much like xin in different texts and contexts. It runs the gamut of the emotive, cognitive, evaluative, calculative and whatever other functions xin performs, with different texts lean toward different aspects. In other words, the fact that Chinese thinkers allow xin to perform such a wide range of roles (without feeling the need to clarify which one) suggests the underlying assumption of the singularity of heartmind. Using heartmind as a single term to translate xin can allow us (especially those who are not yet familiar with Chinese philosophy or the contemporary discourse on Chinese philosophy) to be more cognizant of this interesting feature in the tradition.

  8. I like heart-mind or heartmind, although I believe some instances require a narrower gloss (e.g. heart or mind or even motive). I don’t think we should always use one semantically wide-ranging term. That too would be “to abandon the project of interpretation and translation.”
    (My SPP paper on De 德 demonstrates why we should not attempt to use a single English term to translate an important Chinese word.)

  9. Here are some ways in which xin 心 is closer to ‘heart’ than to ‘heartmind’:

    • The complexity of the word ‘heartmind’ can suggest that it reflects a theory—say, a theory that thought and feeling are one, or instead a theory that we have various kinds of mind, heartmind being one. (For example, it could seem to mean “the mind of one’s heart,” the suggestion being that each part has a mind of its own.) In any case, to my ear the complexity suggests that the meaning of the word is definite and fairly narrow (not widely ambiguous as Tao Jiang says). It could suggest that the term refers back to some classic source.

    • One of the salient meanings of xin, and its core/original meaning, is (1) “heart”—that thing in the chest. (Yes?) Hence two of its broader uses are to mean (2) “center” and thus (3) “essential core.” (Yes?) In these three ways xin is like ‘heart’ and unlike ‘heartmind’. The word ‘heart’ has not only these direct uses, but also these three resonances when the direct reference is the heartmind. How common were these three direct uses of xin, when?

    How important these considerations are depends on the kind of translating we’re talking about, of course: what kind of text and what kind of audience and use. Or maybe instead of making a translation of any text, we’re discussing a Mencius passage in a scholarly article aimed partly at people who don’t know any Chinese.

  10. The question of what counts as progress in (professional) philosophy is an intriguing question and I doubt achievement of consensus on this score could qualify as same. Why? Well, I assume such consensus as might be deemed desirable should be the outcome of rational persuasion (i.e., coming to such an agreement for all the right reasons). Apart from doubting our collective capacity to reach the normative heights necessary for believing we have precisely identified the correct number and nature of such reasons that might warrant our being convinced of the merits of the proposal at hand, there will always be the possibility that such consensus is not the outcome of sound persuasion but merely the result, in some measure at least, of causes that are considerably-less-than rational, non-rational, or simply irrational, say, peer pressure, intellectual sloth, mere deference to a group convention, what have you. In short, I agree that consensus (were it attained) in this instance, and however otherwise desirable, should not be viewed as a token of progress.

  11. We could leave Chinese philosophical terms officially untranslated, then hint at their meanings with a handful of proximal English translations. ‘Dasein’ comes to mind as a term for which people have opted to do this.

  12. In general, in fixing terms, there’s a big advantage to agreement, independent of the merits of what’s agreed on. I think that’s what John Berthrong was talking about. But I suppose it doesn’t apply in a case like this, where each answer has serious flaws no matter how hard we agree.

  13. The complexity and ambiguity of xin can also be seen in that xin is often used to translated the Buddhist term citta during the early medieval and medieval periods. There the cognitive, rather than the emotive, aspect is much stronger. Again, xin is put to such use, due to its ambiguity and complexity in the senses mentioned earlier. Only in this case, the cognitive aspect is emphasized, or rather assumed, over the emotive.

    • A function of the complexity of the term ‘third dog from the left’ is to narrow the range of things the term can mean (compared to the broader range of the simpler term ‘dog’). In general, we tend to suppose that adding an increment of complexity to a term narrows and limits its meaning. We tend to suppose that complex or arcane terms have very narrow, very definite meanings.

      ‘Xin’ is a simple symbol, widely ambiguous; ‘heartmind’ is a more complex symbol and thus (apparently and in fact) is not so wide and ambiguous. That’s what I was trying to say earlier. I think this is the point that people are feeling when they feel that ‘heartmind’ is awkward. The complexity of the symbol ‘heartmind’ makes ‘heartmind’ look more technical, less primal, than ‘xin’ looks, and makes it less flexible in fact.

      Offhand it seems to me that the term ‘heartmind’ suggests either that it is assuming some essential unity of feeling and thought, or that it is referring specifically to the nexus of thought that involves feeling as distinct from any thought that does not – so that ‘heartmind’ strongly resists being used to refer to something that doesn’t much involve or include our feelings. Tao Jiang’s report suggests to me that maybe ‘xin’ is in fact unlike ‘heartmind’ in that respect – is broader or more ambiguous than ‘heartmind’ in that respect, less philosophically limiting. Is that how it is?

      That’s not to say we have a better English term than ‘heartmind’ to use if we have to choose a single term to translate ‘xin’ everywhere.

    • Bill’s question has to do with what kind of compound “heartmind” is or should be. What I had in mind when using it to translate xin is that it is copulative (i.e., the sum of heart and mind) whereas Bill seems to interpret it as endocentric (i.e., heart as the qualifier of mind, hence heartmind is a narrower set of mind). Since there is no a priori determination of what kind of compound heartmind is (it is not an established English word with no established meaning or connotations), we can define it in ways that serve our purpose. “Heartmind” has the advantage of being both familiar and strange, again not unlike xin in all its complexity and ambiguity.

  14. I am glad that this idea has struck a chord; it is great to hear from so many people! A few further thoughts prompted by the discussion so far:

    To Chenyang and others: I certainly agree that there are contexts in which xin has a different or more specific meaning, and should be translated accordingly (whether “heart” in contexts foregrounding the physical organ; “feeling,” “thought,” “motive,” or however one thinks it should be rendered in a context like Mengzi’s ceyin zhi xin; etc.). I think this is perfectly consistent with the idea that in its core and most common range of uses, we consistently choose “heartmind” instead of the alternatives.

    To Manyul, Paul, and others: yes, “heart” may work pretty well, if we stretch a bit, in a fair number of places; and if one just finds heartmind too inelegant, maybe one should use heart. But let’s be clear on the costs: (1) we still have to find a translation for xin in the places where heart doesn’t work, which presumably will not be “heart”; (2) we will lose track, in our translations, of the consistent term being used across these different contexts; and (3) we risk readers not taking “heart” in the precise sense that Manyul and Paul have in mind, and thus missing a crucial dimension of the idea.

    To Bill: I think you make good points—no translation is going to be perfect, I readily acknowledge—but at least heartmind is less suggestive of a theory than “heart-mind” or other hyphenated compounds, I think. It’s less connected to center/core ideas, but not unconnected, I think. (And cf. also my response to Chenyang above.)

    To Joshua: Yes, it can be true that Chinese (and other) words may enter English—not always with their semantics intact, to be sure!—but that hasn’t happened yet in this case, at least.

    To Paul and Patrick (on consensus and progress): Really? I’m not sure how serious Paul is or what your reasons are, thus I cannot decide whether to move toward consensus with your assertion. ☺ But Patrick, I think you set up an impossible standard that would render all inquiry impossible. I am sure that continued debate and maintaining different perspectives on many things is often valuable, but surely there have been many things that that scholarly community have come to consensus on, and maintain this consensus about, because we feel the reasons are still good enough.

    To Chan: Many thanks for sharing your article, which is extremely relevant! I have not yet had a chance to read it, and am feeling increasingly guilty for not getting started on the grading that I must get done today, so please allow me to respond to you a bit later in the day.

    • Consensus in the exact sciences is usually a concomitant of progress (though I think the one supervenes on the other); in the humanities, the correlation is less impressive. But the main point is that consensus for the sake of consensus is not progress at all.

  15. Why not all use it? Because “heartmind” isn’t an English word, so, IMO, it’s not much of a translation. It’s a bit like that awful word “sublation” for Hegel’s Aufhebung: it was not an English word until somebody invented a new English word for it. In which case why even bother to translate at all? If you think either “mind” or “heart” is good enough to translate xin (and personally I think both of them are), then use it. If you’re not happy with either of them on their own, then you’re basically saying you have to teach your readers a new concept, so you might as well just say xin in transliteration so that your readers actually learn that concept rather than learning a made-up translation.

    • “Sublation” is attested as early as the sixteenth century–amply so, in fact–so it most certainly was a word before it was used to translate Aufhebung. But I agree that it is a horrendous translation of Aufhebung.

  16. Steve,

    Perhaps I was not clear or misunderstood: I’m not denying philosophers can’t or often don’t come to agreement on any number of things and that there might not be sufficient reasons for reaching such CONSENSUAL agreement. But whether such consensus can be viewed unambiguously and necessarily as philosophical progress remains subject to question: what counts for consensus in one generation or for some period of time may one day erode or break down, if only on the margins or among outliers (I think we can find such cases in the history of philosophy). Again, I’m not saying such consensus cannot be achieved, I simply don’t believe we’re _necessarily_ justified in speaking of this in terms of philosophical progress as such (perhaps it’s progress of another kind) inasmuch at that is thought to occur among the entire community or relevant subset of professional philosophers (and one who dissents from the consensus is thereby mistaken or simply wrong). I prefer to see an argument as to why, specifically, a particular instance of consensus is to be christened with the appellation “progress,” philosophically speaking. This strikes me as the profession’s indulgence in a Whiggish reading of its own endeavors. Perhaps I’m constitutionally adverse to claims of progress along these lines, being on occasion in vigorous disagreement with majority views on certain topics (for example) in philosophy of mind that are aiming for (and sometimes claiming) consensus, viewing the achievement of same as clear evidence of philosophical progress analogous to (if not identical with) “progress” in the history of science.

    I can’t fathom how my view would render “all inquiry impossible.” It simply asks that we make more modest appraisals of what topic or question the relevant subset of the profession may come to a consensual or virtually unanimous agreement upon.

  17. Hi all; I’m new here. Figured I’d give a first post.

    I like heart-mind, but whatever conveys that it’s the main cognitive organ, depending on context, I think will do the job without much loss. Two things to me anyway seem most generally to differentiate xin from nous or rationality in the Greek/Western tradition: first is that it isn’t put in opposition to emotions or passion. The organ that tells you the right thing to do is the same thing that has feelings and emotions. “Heart” in “heart-mind” seems to capture that. Also, I think “heart” captures that it was conceived as an organ with a physical location, and not a spiritual/mental entity.

    In spite of its clumsiness, I like the hyphen “heart-mind” to “heartmind” since it implies that xin was at the same time playing roles that we might more readily treat of individually, and “heart-mind” might lead a reader to synthesize rather than equivocate, if that makes any sense.

    Also, I think philosophers at least during the WS period puzzled over its exact role, so the extent to which it reminds us more of a “mind” or of a “heart” might be based on the context (Paul mentioned this with respect to Xunzi and I can’t agree more). Perhaps we can attribute some degree of translational indeterminacy to the very uses of the word by the philosophers we study. That said, I still think of heart-mind as a clumsy but reliable catch-all.

  18. I think ‘heartmind’ is at least borderline English, Microsoft notwithstanding. A language isn’t just a conventional set of strings; it’s facilities for inventing new ones. Whatever the approved rules about hyphens, often you can invent a string like ‘juiceglass’ and ‘teacupmaker’ or ‘codballs’ or ‘spoonfork’ and
    use it without having to explain yourself.

    A problem, as Tao Jiang points out, is that (aside from Chad’s good point that ‘heartmind’ suggests that the users of the term have a distinction between heart and mind) it’s unclear how we should parse the compound ‘heartmind’. I tried to distinguish two possibilities above: (a) that the term imports a rejection of the distinction, and (b) that ‘heart’ is modifying or limiting ‘mind’: your heartmind is your heart kind of mind, the mind of your heart.

    I suppose (b) is like what we find in ‘juiceglass’ and ‘teacupmaker’ and ‘codballs’ and even ‘spoonfork’. So maybe as between (a) and (b), (b) has the better claim to being English.

    Another possibility Tao points to, which indeed hadn’t occurred to me, is reading ‘heartmind’ as (c) the sum of heart and mind, like reading ‘handwrist’ or ‘handglove’ as referring to the larger object comprising both hand and wrist, or hand and glove. This reading of ‘heartmind’ would seem to conflict with its use as a translation for ‘xin’ when the latter is used to refer to a nexus of cognitive functions largely not including feelings whose existence in humans is nevertheless not denied.

    ‘Mindheart’ may differ from ‘heartmind’ (aside from the former’s possible use as an honorific for David Hume) in that the former may invite a reading as (d1) the cognitive or mental kind of heart — as opposed to any other kinds of heart or feeling there might be. (腳腕 and Handschuh mean ankle and glove; not hand and foot.)

    Insofar as ‘mindheart’ puts ‘heart’ into the noun position, it could also be read as meaning (d2) ‘the heart of your mind’ in the sense of the core of your mind. Only, I think in English it’s unnatural to connect that image with the idea of (d1) the cognitive kind of feeling.

    But I suppose the worries about parsing ‘heartmind’ are of limited importance, because I agree that before someone explains the term ‘heartmind’, along with looking like it kind of means (b) the heart kind of mind, it also kind of looks like one doesn’t yet understand the term—that it maybe isn’t even natural English. That doesn’t mean it looks as though it is ambiguous (cf. e.g. ‘moroxydine’). On the contrary: it looks like a signal of special clarity and/or narrowness, because the unfamiliarity suggests that it is an artificial term. And I think the ambiguity of ‘xin’ for native users doesn’t amount to its looking at all strange to them.

    But I agree that the strangeness of ‘heartmind’, plus the absence of explanation, should lead a reader to attend to the context to try to figure out the meaning, and that might be a virtue.

  19. I’m an outsider to this debate (I do Chinese Philosophy only very tangentially, though I suppose I have co-authored something on `xin’…). I’m really enjoying this discussion though. So take this as a comment from someone who’s potentially an interested, educated lay-audience for your translations.

    Given what I understand of it, I’d rather see `xin’ translated as `heart’ or else left untranslated. If it *sometimes* unambiguously refers to the thing we call the heart, why not assume your reader will understand that Chinese philosophers had a different theory about hearts, and that part of the job of the text is to make that implicit theory clear? Compare: I’m sure most medieval texts use `spleen’ to discuss functions that we don’t think actually reside in the spleen. Maybe most uses of the word refer to those functions rather than the physical organ. We don’t have trouble understanding it, though. Nor do we have trouble understanding Aristotle when he talks about anger being a boiling of blood around the heart, or the heart being the central organ for sensations—we think that he was talking about the heart, and that he had a different (false) theory about what hearts do.

    Conversely, if it’s doing *more* than this, then I’d rather it be treated like Dasein; leaving it untranslated marks that you’ve got a technical term that ought take its meaning solely by its place in the theoretical web. (I take it that you can only do that with so many words, but still…)

    As for “heartmind” and similar neologisms—since they’re not english words, and since the semantics of compounds is (as people have noted) relatively complex—I’d spend a lot of time trying to figure out what I think such a compound means, and it’s probably not going to be what you want it to mean, because I’m going to bring to that all of the bad connotations about `heart’ and `mind’ that neologisms are going to avoid. Other readers are going to do the same, but get different results (I teach philosophy of mind, and always poll my students at the beginning about what `mind’ refers to. There’s an extraordinary diversity of responses.) I’d probably end up giving up and mentally substituting `xin’, though that’s because I live with someone who knows Chinese and can tell me what it’s translating. If I didn’t, I think I’d be in worse shape.

  20. Lots of great stuff — in fact, as far as I’m concerned, this conversation itself (and some pulling back of the curtain, revealing the range of folks keeping an eye on the blog) is more valuable than any conclusion at which it might arrive. Even if, should we find a sufficient consensus based on good reasons, many of us were to agree on one translation or another.

    I’d like to briefly reference Chan Lee’s essay (he posted a link above). Chan’s goals are to argue that what Zhu Xi is up to in his discussions of xin are greatly different from the central projects of Western philosophy of mind, though Chan is still content to talk of “Neo-Confucian ideas of mind.” I find much to agree with in his characterization of Zhu Xi on the xin. I’m less persuaded, though, that “it is difficult to translate the term of xin into ‘heart-mind’ unless we fully agree with Cartesian dualism.” I guess that *could* be one thing that one was trying to signal with “heart-mind”; some folks here have pointed out various things that “heartmind” or “heart-mind” might suggest. But it’s not at all obvious to me that something like “heartmind” has to be taken in a mind-body dualism sort of way; I think that most of us typically take it to point toward the close tie (or whatever) between cognitive and connative instead.

    Certainly one lesson in all this is that “heartmind” is not self-interpreting! The kinds of interpretive theories that Chad and others emphasize remain as important as they ever were. I continue to think that in the messy business of trying best to communicate with non-specialist readers, “heartmind” combines familiarity and strangeness in the right proportion, nudges readers in something close enough to the right direction, and is a heck of a lot easier for non-Chinese readers to handle than the romanized “xin.” That it is only marginally (at best) an English word, and thus a “translation,” doesn’t both me, but that’s just me.

  21. A recent paper by Edward Slingerland (“Body and Mind in Early China”) suggests that the reason translators can’t all agree on “xin” is because the concept evolved over time. He bases this conclusion on a large-scale analysis of pre-Qin passages. An excerpt from the paper that seems relevant here:

    “. . . this study suggests that, by the end of the Warring States (221 BCE), there is a clear trend whereby the xin is less and less associated with emotions and becomes increasingly portrayed as the unique locus of “higher” cognitive abilities: planning, goal maintenance, rational thought, categorization and language use, decision- making, and voluntary willing. This neatly maps onto a parallel trend in the translation of early Chinese texts: in pre-Warring States texts, xin is almost exclusively translated as “heart,” whereas translations begin to switch to “heart–mind” (or simply vary among themselves between “heart” or “mind”) by the early Warring States and then render xin almost exclusively as “mind” by the time we reach such late Warring States texts as the Zhuangzi or Xunzi. This trend, when noticed at all, has often been attributed to linguistic sloppiness on the part of the translators, but our study suggests that in fact the situation is quite the opposite, in that xin seems to gradually shed its associations with emotions—especially strong, “irrational” emotions—and comes to be seen as a faculty whose abilities map on fairly closely to the folk notion conveyed by the English mind.”

  22. Little bit late to this, but I thought I’d chime in, in support of ‘mind’, at least in some places. I tend to translate xin differently depending on context. I think heartmind works fine in some places. I’ve been working on Zhuangzi chapter 4 recently, and there I actually prefer ‘mind’. I haven’t heard a lot of support for this as a general translation of xin in this discussion (and I agree it would be problematic as a translation in many texts), but of any text I’m aware of, Zhuangzi 4 seems to come closest to something most of us might be comfortable referring to as ‘mind’ when discussing xin. In particular, in the xin zhai discussion (which I render “fasting of the mind”), it looks like what we’re supposed to be ridding ourselves of is not (primarily at least) affective states suggested by ‘heart’– after all, what is problematic about the xin is not (fundamentally at least) these (Zhuangzi banging on drums after his wife’s death comes to mind), but the kind of evaluative conceptualization (in terms of shi-fei) that easily fits with a conception of ‘mind’ that readers will recognize. I guess I don’t mind (pardon the image!) inconsistent translation in different texts or sections of a text, as long as we’re being clear that these inconsistencies are due to a considered choice based on a particular understanding of xin rooted in the text, rather than just obfuscation intended to privilege one’s own reading of a text.

    I kind of like Ted Slingerland’s view, which Tim mentions, but I don’t completely agree with the idea that xin becomes “mind” exclusively in the late Warring States. In parts of Zhuangzi definitely, but Xunzi often talks about xin in affective terms. He often means something that might translate better as ‘mind’ as well, but I don’t think his use is exclusively this way, as the quote suggests.

    • So I guess this is to say that given that if translation is in the service of aiding understanding of particular passages, chapters, or texts, it may be justified to translate it based on the local context, multiple ways within a single text. Maybe then instead of ‘heartmind’ as a single complex, one could just translate it as either heart or mind as the context calls for. This is pretty much how I do it- though I generally follow the translation with ‘xin’ in parentheses. I agree with Steve that ‘heart’ or ‘mind’ alone may not be sufficient for a translation of the concept considered broadly, but I’m interested to hear more about why either one might be unjustified for a particular use.

  23. You fancy scholars need to read your Bible more : )

    While “heart” may not be commonly used to refer to the seat of thought in contemporary English, it has not been very long since it was commonly used that way. Merriam-Webster.com lists “intellect” as definition 3b, though it is listed as “obsolete.”

    The King James Bible uses “heart” routinely to refer to the seat of the will, thought, intention, knowledge, imagination and emotion. For instance, Exodus 36:2 says, “Moses called Bezaleel and Aholiab, and every wise hearted man, in whose heart the Lord had put wisdom.” 1 Kings 10:24 refers to Solomon’s heart as the location of his wisdom. So, using “heart” as the translation of xin is just asking readers to have either a little more imagination as to what functions one might assign to the heart in a pre-modern conception, or a slightly longer linguistic memory than average.

    Since the King James translation is still a very popular translation (the most popular in the U.S., according to Wikipedia), you might be surprised at how many readers easily think of the heart as including the functions of the mind, if you get beyond a bunch of unchurched academics!

    • Ha!

      But a real scholar of fancy does attend to the Bible.

      Manyul mentioned that ‘heart’ can include intellect. But Slingerland (quoted by Tim above) writes that “xin seems to gradually shed its associations with emotions—especially strong, ‘irrational’ emotions.” (Tao Jiang said something similar.) Is that ever true of ‘heart’?

      When we use ‘heart’ in English, how can we signal that we mean it to include the whole intellect? To supply the necessary signals, might we have to be false to a Chinese original? How would you use ‘heart’ to say “Smith had thought of X” without any suggestion about the degree of importance Smith accorded to X?

  24. Despite his rather shy reference to it, I highly recommend Chen Lee’s article in the Journal of East Asian Studies, which is lucid, even brilliant. This, despite the fact that perhaps few of us were thinking of the ‘heart’ in ‘heart-mind’ to be referring to a physical organ (rather than to emotional dispositions) which he fears may make ‘heart-mind’ appear to be a resolution to Descartes’ mind-body diremption. link to sjeas.skku.edu

  25. I trained GongFu in China (SongShan) for a long time. Much of the philosophy involved was about 心 and 意 as separate parts of the internal experience (mind?) that could not understand each other and were at odds. The GongFu (achievement) would be to unite the two.

    Xin was considered somewhat like the subconscious mind. But more than that even, a vital impulse of nature, a collective unconscious if you will. A mind that was your essence, that sent you information like instinct, but whose communication was one way only and could not be really controlled nor fully interpreted.

    I think the closest translation would be ‘Soul’ in the way that word is used by Plato in the dialogues. Never the less I think I would leave it as ‘Xin’ or as ‘Heart’ and have an explanatory section at the beginning.

  26. Hi all,
    Given that the meaning of xin clearly shifts somewhat over time (xin in the Odes is rather different than, say, in the Zhuangzi, and even weirder things happen once Buddhism comes in), and that it’s got a much broader range of meanings that any word like “heart” or “heartmind” in English (as people have pointed out, in phrases like burenzhixin it means “feeling” or “movement of the heart”), it’s not clear to me why we’d try to nail down some standard, timeless translation, as if Chinese culture or the Chinese language never changed over 2500 years. A good translation will render xin somewhat differently depending on the era of the text, philosophical assumptions of the author, context, etc. This is one of those cases where it seems to me that consensus vis-a-vis a standard translation is something not only unattainable, but undesirable.

  27. I think there’s more than no reason to want a single term for translation of ‘xin’. In brief: (a) the fact that Chinese uses the same character over time is important for understanding the texts, partly because intertextuality is so deep in the Chinese tradition; and (b) the point that the meaning shifts over time may be an oversimplification and isn’t dispositive, because the way the meaning of a word works is that it has core and fringe, image and abstraction, and flexibility. I say all this in almost perfect ignorance of the later texts in question.

    An easy folksy neologism like ‘heartmind’ (especially if suitably introduced and if used by many translators) allows a reader to have an Analects or Mencius in English that can comprehend both an early meaning as “feelings” and a later meaning as “mind.” As Tao Jiang points out, it has a certain flexibility and strangeness, opening a reader to learn it as a word on its own, perhaps thus best absorbing the Chinese term (in new clothes).

Leave a Reply to Colin Klein Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.