Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

100 Ways…

Just for fun, there is this site that lists 100+ translations of the Daodejing (Tao Te Ching)’s famous chapter 1.

I’m not sure what to make of the “Bureau of Public Secrets” business (you’ll see, when you follow the link). We should all be grateful to the mysterious author of the page, however, for this public service.

Comments, quips, exclamations, discussion of any translations that strike you as strange–all are welcome!

February 2nd, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Daoism, Taoism | 16 comments

16 Responses to 100 Ways…

  1. Dave says:

    Good find! I guess I’ll always be fondest of my first Daodejing, which I read at the age of 16: D.C. Lau’s Penguin edition from 1963. So many of the others over-interpret.

  2. Manyul Im says:

    Missed it the first time: who knew Ursula Le Guin was a translator of Chinese texts?

  3. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:


    Funny you should mention Le Guin. In the Goldin volume I mentioned in the post below there’s a chapter titled “Those Who Don’t Know Speak: Translations of Laozi by People Who Do Not Know Chinese.” Le Guin’s translation is examined alongside several others (e.g. Stephen Mitchell) as representative of translations of the Daodejing by writers who avowedly lack command of Chinese. Goldin understandably laments the products of these “psuedotranslators,” the “standard modus operandi” of which “is to imbibe a broad selection of scholarly translations, digest their import, and expectorate a new rendition of their own. This is an objectionable procedure: rummaging through the corpus of received translations merely circumscribes oneself within the range of interpretations that they offer and can result only in the repackaging of the same old ideas in a novel and usually gimcrack integument” [Goldin himself has a fine if not inimitable command of the English language!].

    Within the above company of pseudotranslators, Le Guin acquits herself fairly well according to Goldin, especially when she sticks close to Waley’s translation: “As long as she stays close to Waley, Le Guin is on firm ground, once she leaves him and sets out on her own, she stumbles.”

    Goldin ends his essay with a discussion of why publishers publish such books and why they remain popular with the hoi polloi (of which I’m a member). I think his conclusion deserves our undivided attention : “The Daode jing is old; it is alien; it is Chinese; and it is difficult. These are the recalcitrant facts that too many readers seem disinclined to accept. Instead, they seek out the most facile translations and consume insipid approximations of the original. This phenomenon must be attributed in part to intellectual laziness. The public is not obliged to restrict itself to academic monographs, but readers still have a responsibility to investigate the merit of a translation before adopting it. Not much research is necessary to discover there is more to Daoism than ‘letting events take their course’ and that the scary political overtones [???] cannot be disregarded as the detrius of imaginary interpolators. Like any profound work of philosophy, the Daode jing is dangerous. We do it no justice by pretending that it is easy to swallow. Chinese philosophy made simple is no longer Chinese philosophy.” Or, as the text itself says,

    My words are very easy to understand,
    very easy to practice.
    No one in the world can understand,
    No one can practice them.

    70: LaFargue tr.

  4. Manyul Im says:

    Patrick, thanks for the great Goldin quotes. I like Paul very much but there’s no crank like a learned crank–I’m often one myself.

    I’ve struggled on and off with the idea of “dangerous” philosophy, especially when reading or teaching Daoism or Nietzsche. In some moods, I think there is such a thing–power of ideas, etc. In other moods, I think there aren’t any dangerous ideas, just dangerous people. Stupidity is as dangerous as laziness, but only in the right contexts–say, when someone stupid or lazy is in the White House (did I just say that?); and in the hands of such people, just about any philosophy is dangerous. That’s a bit like saying that guns don’t kill people, people do–but there’s some truth in that thought, despite its NRA(?) origins.

    So, I’m not as opposed to the consumer culture of the Daodejing, whether it ferries aloft a good, bad, or even a “non” translation on its profitable currents. In a way it is a way of “emptying their minds”–nothing empties the mind as well as something you don’t understand–while “filling the belly’s” … of the translators, anyway.

    Now *that* was cranky!

  5. Chris says:

    I’m not acquainted with the translations of the Tao, but I have admittedly been surprised at just how different translations of the Analects can be. I’ve only dealt with four (Lau, Rosemont/Ames, Swingerhand, Legge), but that’s enough to show me just how different things can get. When I teach the Analects (every semester) I always insist that they only get R/A, but inevitably some student buys Lau (cheaper) and is then totally lost for the three weeks, having little idea what we’re talking about in class.

  6. Chris says:

    I meant Slingerhand. Oh, and I forgot Waley. I’ve used that one too.

    Speaking of Nietzsche (also taught every semester), it’s similar with translations there too, though it’s not nearly as bad.

  7. Manyul Im says:

    Chris, you actually meant Slingerland, though Slingerhand sounds more picturesque, conjuring thoughts of someone slinging mud for a profession–something, by the way, Slingerland has never done of course. “Swingerhand” has other even more picturesque associations, though I’d rather not say here.

    Some of the comments down below on the post “Lighter Fare: Favorite Analects translations” are relevant here as well…

    Re: Nietzsche, what do you think about Kaufmann, which seems to be the hegemonic translation?

  8. Chris says:


    I actually laughed when I reread the “Swingerhand” thing too, though I wasn’t thinking of the less picturesque associations that I think you’re thinking of. 🙂

    I thought immediately of Johnny Depp in “Pirates.” We need more of that in philosophy — instructors and translators “swinging” into classes on ropes and whatnot.

    I only use Kaufmann, though I think Hollingdale is perfectly fine too (some translations are the two of them together). Some of the other translations are far too clunky for me. One pet peeve: translating “ubermensche” as “superman.” It unavoidably leads to students thinking of capes. “Overman” drives them nuts because they don’t know what it means, which, in my opinion, is a good thing, since it’s their job as readers to try to figure that sort of thing out (as I mentioned in the other thread on the Analects, this is part of my problem with “Swinger”hand’s notations underneath the specific aphorisms in the Analects — too much explanation where it’s not needed for students who should be trying to figure it out on their own).

    Sorry for hijacking the thread, by the way. Back to the Tao!

  9. Manyul Im says:

    The Tao has many turns and twists. What about “higher man” for ubermensch? I find “gentleman” distracting for junzi as well. I can only think of someone wearing a suit from the nineteenth century; maybe that *is* the right association?

  10. Chris says:

    I think “higher man” would run up against the bunch of actual folks in Zarathustra (the folks in part four) who are “higher men” but not “ubermenchen.” I’m actually partial to “overman”, simply because, in a sense, that’s really what it is — the ability to transcend man’s present state. But it is a bit odd as a term, I think.

    “Gentleman” is problematic, I think, for exactly the reason you say. I think it gives off too much of the impression — one that Confucius himself sees — of thinking that the “gentleman” is a cultured person. Not that they aren’t, but you shouldn’t associated a person of ‘high culture’ with the term, and that’s clearly the impression the translation gives off. Very 19th century, as you note.

    Not to mention the fact that it’s gender biased, and my women students don’t care much for that (well, me either) and I can’t blame them. Should a translation seek to wash out patriarchical elements that are, clearly, present in the historical and cultural context of the work? It’s a tough question. In part, a “yes” answer might be helped along by the work of those trying to show that Confucianism is not anti-woman as a philosophy (Chenyang Li’s work and others some to mind).

    I guess the same concern could be raised for Aristotle too.

  11. Dan Robins says:

    I just want to say that that’s a pretty cool way to stumble across the Bureau of Public Secrets.

    Well, that and, does anybody know of a translation of “junzi” that gets the social status about right, doesn’t imply culturedness, and that neither directly implies nor makes ridiculous the Confucian moralisation of that term? “Gentlemen” maybe fails on all three counts, but I haven’t been able to come up with anything better.

  12. Manyul Im says:

    Let’s see; I think actually–and I meant to imply that above–that in some of the Analects passages, the association with culturedness and meticulous manners *is* the right association to have. I’m of two minds here; I think that’s because the concept is itself trading on two emphases. I agree with the part of Robert Eno’s assessment in *The Confucian Creation of Heaven*, that there must have been something slightly ridiculous about the ritual mavens who embodied significant aspects of what Confucius probably thought of as junzi-qualities (think of Analects Book 10). On the other hand, the concept seems ripe throughout the Analects for transcending that to something like “the morally noble.” That translation might capture the ambiguity just right, but it sounds clumsy, not to mention the problematic insertion of “moral” into the picture. Maybe just “a noble person,” or a “noble man” if we want to preserve the highly likely sexism of the period?

    Back to the Ubermensch for a second: I have seen some people use “the superior person” or “the superior man” for junzi. But that sounds more like the Ubermensch to me.

  13. Boram Lee says:

    On the junzi,

    On the three counts Dan mentions, and to avoid the worry of sexism that Chris raises, I second Manyul’s “noble person”. Irene Bloom, for instance, prefers to use it for junzi.

    A very minor flaw is that “noble person” does not flow as trippingly off the tongue as “gentleman” (but then I’m not a native speaker of English, so I can’t be sure on this point). I don’t think the “gentleman” rendition is all that bad either. It has certain associations that junzi doesn’t convey, but when I immerse myself in the text I find that the English rendition picks up the Confucian associations, and blocks out the Western ones.

  14. Dan Robins says:

    “Noble” might work on its own, I suppose.

    Remember: it’s not just the Confucian usage we want to capture, the Mohists also talked about junzi, and they mostly didn’t like them. (One possible disadvantage of “gentlemen” is that it might make the Mohists’ references to the junzi of the world sound ironic, when they probably weren’t; “noble” may be better on this point.)

    Manyul, wouldn’t culturedness and meticulous manners be specifically Confucian associations of the term? Then we want a translation that allows for that as a reinterpretation, without suggesting the associations too directly, I think.

  15. Chris says:

    I completely certainly agree that culture-mindedness is an important part of the Confucian ideal. I meant that you don’t want a term that gives off the impression that one could capture the “ideal” while being cultured without “native substance” as Confucius says. “Gentleman” to me fails in that sense.

    My issue with “noble” is what it implies in English. For me, it gives off an impression of economic strata, just as much as “gentleman” might (though in the latter case not as strongly). I understand that the etymology of “jen” traces it back to “noble” in the sense that Nietzsche implies “good” meant “noble” in ancient times (where it at least requires being part of a certain social class or strata). As far as I understand it, Confucius “hijacked” the term to give it more of a moral/ethical feel, making it more dependent upon character, and in doing extended the term to anyone, not just people of a certain class.

    Why not just “exemplary person” as A/R translate it? “Exemplary” to me can capture what “noble” is trying to get at in the sense of culture without sounding strata-specific, and it can also grab onto the moral/ethical elements (also avoids the sexism).

  16. Manyul Im says:

    Dan and Chris,

    I think we want something that straddles that line between the older meaning of junzi, which is probably more strata-specific (“a lordly one” or “one of noble stock”), and the emerging meaning (“one of noble character”), which is more like a strata-independent category. “Noble person” strikes me as having just that quality of ambiguity, though I suppose the further we move away from the late Middle Ages the less strata-specific it will seem.

    And it’s not just Confucius (i.e. he of the parts of the Analects that are oldest) who clings to the older meaning, I think. A few generations down the line, when Mencius is portrayed saying that the junzi stays away from the kitchen, in 1A7, there still seems to be at least a hint of apologetics on behalf of class: only the lower sort would be around while someone is butchering animals, but junzis have a reason not to be in there anyway (they don’t want to feel compassion for livestock; that presumably would interfere with ritual/ceremonial slaughter and consumption of animals).

    For Dan: I don’t really see why we ever need to attribute non-ironic use to the Mohists; the junzi isn’t admired in the least by them.

    For Chris: I don’t think “exemplary” captures any of the older meaning so to that extent I don’t like it all that much.


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