A happy ending which only The Buddha could bring

She rained tears and made prostrations day and night without ceasing. Three days later, during her worship, she saw an image of the Buddha, who announced to her “Your bridegroom’s lifespan is coming to an end. You need only continue your ardent practice without harboring sorrowful thoughts.” The next day her bridegroom was gored to death by an ox.

Lives of the Nuns, tr. Katherine Ann Tsai (Hawai’i, 1994), pp. 49-50; cited by Mark Edward Lewis on p. 193 of China Between Empires (Harvard, 2009).

Published in: on January 13, 2011 at 6:45 pm  Leave a Comment  

The end of civilization as we wish we had known it

Berthelot went on with his dispiriting revelations, at the end of which I exclaimed:

“So it’s all over? There’s nothing left for us to do but to rear a new generation to exact vengeance?”

“No, no,” cried  Renan, standing up and going red in the face, “no, not vengeance! Let France perish, let the Nation perish; there is a higher ideal of Duty and Reason!”

“No, no,” howled the whole company. “There is nothing higher than The Nation!”.

Pages from the Goncourt Journals, Edmond and Jules Goncourt (tr. Baldick, NYRB 2007),  p.172: September 6, 1870.

The captain remarked that was fighting between the Turkish troops and the Serbians, who are in revolt. The Russians intend to stir up a quarrel and then sit by and reap their reward. Since England, France, and Germany see that it would be to their detriment if Russia were to have full access to the Dardanelles Straits, they have been earnestly deliberating as to how they might protect them…. In their hearts the Russians fear the assistance that the English might render to the Turks, so they do not dare to act presumptuously. Since the Turks have recently agreed to settle the trouble in Turkey, their joint efforts make it seem unlikely that the various powers of Europe will be embroiled in a general war. (January 13, 1877)

Kuo Sung-t’ao, The Record of an Envoy’s Journey to the West, in J.D. Frodsham, The First Chinese Embassy in the West, p. 65, Oxford, 1974

“There is nothing higher than The Nation!”. The invading Germans had just captured Napoleon III with his army, and Paris was surrounded. The Second Empire was overthrown and a provisional government proclaimed, but the military situation remained grim and within five months France would surrender and be forced to accept an unfavorable peace. Very few Frenchmen held to Renan’s humane universal values; the call for vengeance was much more compelling. (As far as that goes  Germany, now become an empire alongside Britain and in place of France, wasn’t satisfied with the outcome either, and would soon enough come back for more.)

Seven years later Kuo Sung-t’ao, the first Chinese ambassador to England, kept a record of the long sea voyage  taking him to his post. During his trip he improved his knowledge of the Western nations and the relationships between them, and as it happened, at the time when he reached the Mediterranean Russia and Turkey were engaged in a dispute about Serbia, with all the other powers hovering on the wings to keep things from getting out of hand.

“Their joint efforts make it seem unlikely that the various powers of Europe will be embroiled in a general war”, wrote the Ambassador.  And he was right for the moment, but he had put his finger on the place where the general war would in fact break out 37 years later. In 1914 it was Russia v. Austria-Hungary instead of Russia v. Turkey, but it was the same game.

The sovereign nation-state is a war machine and the international order is a system for scheduling wars.  Already by 1870 culture was pretty much at the service of the state, and by 1914 most of the left and avant-garde enthusiastically committed themselves to the murderous, pointless Great National Causes of their various homelands, all hell broke loose, and the world was never to be the same again.

Published in: on May 22, 2010 at 6:08 pm  Leave a Comment  

Edward Schafer, Part I: Mixed feelings

Edward Schafer, Mirages on the Seas of Time, California, 1985

Kenneth Rexroth, “Review of Science and Civilization in China“,  The Nation, November 10, 1956; collected in Assays, New Directions, 1961.

Peter A. Boodberg (Alvin P. Cohen,  ed.), Selected Works of Peter A. Boodberg, University of California Press 1979; reviewed here.

A few days ago on Leanne Ogasawara’s Facebook page Ifound myself defending Edward Schafer’s translation principles against several translators and Asian scholars. This was very odd, because for a decade or two now I’ve been cursing Edward Schafer. How did this happen?

Schafer’s translation theory is hard-core and heavy-duty. For Schafer, poems exist only in the language in which they are written, and translations can only be cribs serving to elucidate the original. He takes the old slogan “Poetry is what’s lost in translation” and makes it into an imperative: when translating poetry,  your goal is to lose the poetry.  He expresses himself with admirable bluntness:

I have little automatic reverence of “masterpieces”, and regard my translations as nothing more than aspects of explication — instruments which may help wise men to detect masterpieces. I am certainly not trying to write English poetry — to make pleasing constructs in lieu of hidden Chinese originals — a task to which I am ill suited…. I regard almost all approved translations of T’ang poetry as malignant growths(Mirages on the Sea of Time, pp. 26-7).

Kenneth Rexroth, a Bay Area contemporary of Schafer’s, was on the other side of the line:  he was one of the finest of the poetic translators of Chinese poetry into English. Something he wrote in 1956 was, in a sense, a pre-response to Schafer:

For more than twenty years American Sinology has been dominated by individuals and traditions from the old Tsarist academy, where Far Eastern studies were essentially part of the curriculum of military policy, with the resultant narrowness, formularization and bigotry. (more…)

Published in: on April 20, 2010 at 8:58 pm  Comments (12)  

Krakens, Basilisks, Clam-monsters

In his book Mirages on the Sea of Time (which I plan to return to) Edward Schafer describes a  monstrous mollusc with many of the traits of Hugo’s horrible octopus:

In imaginative literature, particularly, but also in some soberer sources, the ch’en mollusc acquired more extravagant attributes. It was transformed into a monster lurking in dark lairs — mysterious submarine grottoes — where it assimilated some of the traits of a sea-dragon, frothing at its ambiguous mouth and belching bubbles into the world of man, in a way somewhat reminiscent of the occidental dragon crouched over its kingly hoard and spouting puffs of smoke and fire:

“He worked his jowls and dripped saliva, gaping and sucking, so that people took him to be a veritable sea-basilisk [kraken, giant squid ]  or dragon-clam [clam-monster]”.

Edward Schafer, Mirages on the Sea of Time, California, 1985, p. 81

Oddly, this mythical creature (like the dragon “hid in the deep”, of which it may be a prototype or relative) is not regarded as evil. It’s merely one of the strange creatures living in an undersea Taoist fairyland corresponding to the terrestrial Kun Lun Mountain fairyland, and its most prominent power is the creation of the strange nautical mirages or fata morganas  which sometimes confuse sailors.  Schafer speaks of it as a kind of clam, but it behaves more like a cephalopod, and Schafer probably should have treated it as one (or perhaps, since it’s mythical,  as a hybrid clam-squid.)

Whether the Taoist clam monsters have anything to do with the thetan clams who have left bivalve engrams deep in our psyches, or with the Pirates of the Caribbean Kraken,  is unknown to me.

Published in: on March 24, 2010 at 1:29 am  Leave a Comment  

The Radish of Emperor Wu Zhao

“Perhaps the most interesting of her many auspicious omens was a radish of prodigious size, more than three feet in diameter, unearthed in the fields on the outskirts of Loyang and presented to her.”

Wu Zhao: China’s Only Woman Emperor,

N. Harry Rothschild, Longman, 2008

Wu Zhao (a.k.a. Wu Zetian) was a very successful Emperor (not Empress) during one of China’s great ages, but she was also one of the most maligned and most misrepresented of them all. Rothchild does a pretty good job of sorting things out, and his book is highly recommended. Many of things that most surprise or shock us about her and her career were actually normal behavior for Chinese Emperors (if Unique and Lonely Ones can be said to have normal behaviors), but in some respects Emperor Wu Zhao was genuinely original. Her sponsorship of Fa Zang and his Hua Yan (Kegon) school of Buddhism deserves special notice; some call Fa Zang the greatest of all Buddhist philosophers.

Published in: on January 8, 2010 at 9:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Daodejing as a dispersed network

 It is generally agreed that the Daodejing, like many scriptures, is a composite text (not really “an anthology”) which includes material from many different sources and from more than one period. Beyond that there’s little agreement about the process by which the present state of the text was reached. The theory that it has been accidentally jumbled or disarranged is no longer widely held, and there’s probably a consensus that the text was put together by some kind of editing process. But the difficulty of finding a thread of argument, the scattering of certain themes throughout the text, and the many puzzling juxtapositions, even within a single chapter, lead some to suspect that the editing process was rather haphazard. (more…)

Published in: on December 1, 2009 at 6:47 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Freestanding Sage in the Daodejing

The free-standing sage (i.e., outside the “Therefore the sage” formula) appears six or seven* times in the Daodejing. Two of the Wang Pi text’s chapters which include the free-standing sage (chapters 5 and 19)  are found in the Guodian text without the sage. Chapter 19 is hostile to the sage in any case  and thus not a trustworthy source (exterminate the sage, discard the wise, and the people will benefit a hundredfold), and I will  leave it out of this discussion for that reason. (more…)

Published in: on November 27, 2009 at 12:34 am  Comments (1)  

The “Nei Ye” and the Daodejing

In his book Original Dao (Columbia, 1999) Harold Roth has argued that the “Nei Ye” chapter of the Guanzi is a guide to meditation produced within an organized teacher-student lineage devoted primarily to the arts of “cultivation of life” (meditation, diet, ritual, and physical practices), and that the  Daodejing, a handbook of political wisdom, is the product of a late politicized stage of this same school, or of a branch of the school. Roth’s theory is a beginning toward giving a definite answer to the question “What kind of book is the Daodejing?”, a question which has divided Daodejing interpreters more or less from the beginning. (more…)

Published in: on November 22, 2009 at 6:48 pm  Comments (2)  

Primitivism in the Daodejing

A.C. Graham has distinguished between Individualists, Primitivists, and Syncretists among the early Daoists, with the first group dedicated to self-cultivation and meditation, the second advocating a kind of peasant anarchism, and the third adapting Daoist principles for the ruler’s use. In his book Original Dao Harold Roth has argued that the “Nei Ye” chapter in the Guanzi and parts of the Daodejing represent the Individualist contemplative strain of Daoism, whereas other parts of the Daodejing are Primitivist or Syncretist. I generally agree with Roth, and have defined an Individualist “early layer” within the text of the Daodejing which has many points in common with Roth’s “Nei Ye”. (more…)

Published in: on November 21, 2009 at 11:55 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Sage in the Daodejing II

*Daojing and Shengjing  
* Shen Dao * 聖 “sage” *不害 “not harm” * 不傷  “not hurt”


In the classic Chinese texts the “sage” 聖人was the highest category of human excellence. The sages were the legendary past rulers and founders (e.g. Wen Wang or the Duke of Zhou) together with hoped-for future saviors of equal merit. Both Confucius and Mencius demurred on their disciples’ suggestions that they were Sages, though Mencius did declare that Confucius was indeed a sage. The translation “sage” is not va very good one: the English word “sage” normally refers to a wise elder, but the Chinese sages were not only wise, but also holy and powerful, the founders or rulers of states, and their sageliness was apparent while they were still in their prime. (more…)

Published in: on October 23, 2009 at 9:44 pm  Leave a Comment