Chinese, Greek, and Latin, part 2

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[This is a guest post by Richard Lynn.  It is all the more appreciated, since he had written it as a comment to "Chinese, Greek, and Latin" (8/8/17) a day or two ago, but when he pressed the "submit" button, his comment evaporated.  So he had to write the whole thing all over again.  I am grateful to Dick for his willingness to do so and think that the stimulating results are worth the effort he put into this post.]

James Zainaldin’s remarks concerning the Lunyu, Mencius, Mozi, Zhuangzi, and the Dao de jing, his frustration by the limits of grammatical or lexical analysis, that is, the relative lack of grammatical and lexical explicitness compared to Greek and Latin texts, is a reasonable conclusion — besides that, Greek and Latin, Sanskrit too, all are written with phonetic scripts — easy stuff! But such observations are a good place to start a discussion of the role of commentaries and philological approaches to reading and translating Literary/Classical Chinese texts, Literary Sinitic (LS). Nathan Vedal’s remarks are also spot on: “LS is really an umbrella term for a set of languages. The modes of expression in various genres and fields differ to such a high degree that I sometimes feel as though I'm learning a new language when I begin work on a new topic.”

This last jogged my memory, a conversation with Achilles Fang 方志彤 many years ago, when he made three remarks that seem pertinent to this discussion (I paraphrase):

(1) Studying premodern Chinese letters is equivalent to learning the entire corpus of ancient Greek and Latin literature, including medieval Latin texts, plus all the early European vernaculars, from the earliest written versions up through the modern languages.

(2) When dealing with any Chinese text, one should gather every known version of it so, by comparing differences in wording, one might more accurately punctuate the version used for study and translation, bridge ellipses, and better establish contexts.

(3) If commentaries for texts existed, it would be unwise not to take full advantage of them, whatever their biases and limitations, for, if nothing else, interlinear commentaries can help with delimiting syntactic units.

As I said, this was a long time ago, but I think I remember the essentials rightly.

Now, as for the value of commentaries in interpreting texts, this varies enormously, and when multiple commentaries exist, say, for the Zhouyi (Classic of Changes), one is faced with the problem of deciding which one to trust, which one is “right,” etc. One way is to cherry pick from several or more of them:  Richard Wilhelm’s Classic of Changes was done this way, whereas my The Classic of Changes: A New Translation of the I Ching as Interpreted by Wang Bi is restricted to one commentator; I attempted to integrate original text and commentary so that each defined and clarified the other. I did the same with my Wang Bi version of the Daode jing, and I am now (2/3 complete more or less) engaged in a similar project, the Guo Xiang version of the Zhuangzi. This is not to say that Guo Xiang is “right”—for with such early texts they are often so opaque in places that the meaning can be seen to differ with each different commentary.

Peipei Qiu (Vassar) is doing a Zhuangzi with the commenary of the Song era Neo-Confucian Lin Xiyi, so her translation will be very different from mine — as it should be. Text and commentary are inseparable, so it would be nonsense to tack on a new translation of a commentary to an earlier translation of the original text (benwen 本文), as one particularly inept reviewer of my Dao de jing book thought I should have done.

The Lunyu, Mencius, Mozi, Zhuangzi, and Dao de jing are all pre-Han and thus full of eccentric, irregular, erratic syntactic forms and peculiar terminology. With the Han era, syntax and vocabulary become far more regular, which, while helping considerably in some ways, presents problems in others, for the great majority of texts from the Han through the Qing, two millennia later, do not have attached commentaries, are not even punctuated, and when they do have commentaries these often are usually factual and not interpretive.  This is especially true for poetry, where, for example with Du Fu, commentaries identify people, places, and allusions, but provide no help in explaining what particular lines mean.

Of course, in most recent times many such texts now exist in modern annotated editions with full punctuation, the annotations including baihua (modern Chinese) paraphrase (dayi 大意) interpretations — but beware, a paraphrase is not a translation! And this brings us to another problem:  the continuity between LS and modern Chinese certainly seems much closer than, say, between Latin and Italian, ancient Greek and what one reads in an Athenian newspaper. I have always (as a non-native speaker of Chinese) found my ability in putonghua, such as it is, to be a great help in intuiting meaning in LS texts, for there often is much bai in old wen texts (and wen in modern bai texts, by the way). But as a non-native Chinese I have little trust in such intuitions, so tend to verify (or abandon) them after what a native speaker might regard as excessive philological investigation. I know I just need more help.

So then an enormous battery of Sinological sources is brought to play: dictionaries, leishu [VHM:  encyclopedias; premodern reference books with material taken from various sources and arranged according to subjects / categories], background searches through local histories (difang zhi), global searches for comparable contexts in such resources as the electronic / digital Siku quanshu [VHM:  Complete Library in Four Treasuries], Christian Wittern’s 漢リポ Kanseki Repository,, etc., etc. , as well as all the guidance provided by modern Chinese scholarship and pre-modern and modern Japanese Sinology (Kangaku 漢學) (I wish I knew Korean!).

I have been at this stuff for more than 50 years now, so experience and ever wider familiarity with texts seems finally to be paying off. Göran Malmqvist (b. 1924) once told me about a visit he made to his teacher Bernhard Karlgren (1889-1978) in hospital a few weeks before Karlgren passed away.  Karlgren was propped up in bed reading the Zuozhuan, surrounded by other books. He said to Malmquist, “You know, Göran, after some 70 years I am finally getting the hang of these things!” I can hardly wait.


  1. A-gu said,

    August 15, 2017 @ 9:43 pm

    No doubt, The Analects are an entirely different beast than say, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. But actually all the references you have put here will make my future work on classical works all the more easy.

    Do you have any special go-to texts for Buddhist texts?

  2. Bathrobe said,

    August 15, 2017 @ 10:12 pm

    If your comment is too long it tends to evaporate…

  3. Richard John Lynn said,

    August 16, 2017 @ 10:24 am

    for Buddhist sources

    multiple useful links

  4. Michael Pratt said,

    August 16, 2017 @ 10:31 am

    The Karlgren anecdote is as wonderful as it is sobering.

    Achilles Fang must have been an interesting man. Did he ever write anything about his involvement with Pound?

  5. Victor Mair said,

    August 16, 2017 @ 10:35 am

    From Michael Silverstein:

    My sense is that in the tradition of philological commentaries one tries to establish, first, genre within a socio-historically specific cultural tradition, thus implicating specific registers of language germane to making particular readings of a text as a communication within a socio-cultural framework. So there is a cumulativity of commentaries, some indeed arguing with earlier ones, and all this is exceedingly useful to anyone outside the envelope of socio-spatio-temporality in which a communication — receiving and understanding an entextualization-in-context — makes sense. Even Proust, Joyce, and Woolf scholarship is vital to reading their text artifacts with retrospectively oriented comprehension — let alone ancient ones! In literary circles, the "New Historicism" serves as a slightly hokey way to do such an historical ethnography of communication.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    August 16, 2017 @ 10:37 am

    From Richard J. Smith:

    Dick’s comments are wonderful. His story of Karlgren’s remark, “You know, Göran, after some 70 years I am finally getting the hang of these things!,” recalls a similar remark made by my teacher and long-time friend, Benjamin Wallacker, who, at the age of 75 or so, in answering my question as to when he finally felt comfortable with classical Chinese texts, said: “I’ll let you know.”

  7. Bathrobe said,

    August 16, 2017 @ 3:25 pm

    I'd just like to point out a case where a trend to turn away from the commentarial tradition — in the field of poetry — has given rise to trash interpretations. And this one isn't even hard!

    There is a famous Su Shi poem that everyone here is likely to know that starts:


    A translation randomly plucked from the Internet goes:

    When will the moon be clear and bright?
    With a cup of wine in my hand, I ask the blue sky
    I don't know what season it would be
    In the heavens on this night
    I'd like to ride the wind to fly home
    Yet I fear the crystal and jade mansions are
    Much too high and cold for me
    Dancing with my moon-lit shadow
    It does not seem like the human world.

    Looking for Chinese interpretations of this poem both in bookshops and on the Internet, I found only gushing paens to the beauty of Su Shi's poetry and its deep resonance for all Chinese on Mid-Autumn day. I had trouble finding a reasonable explanation for exactly why this "beautiful poem" seemed to be about a loopy old man who wanted to go back to the moon!

    After a lot of looking around, I found that some old commentaries apparently did supply an answer: Su Shi had been banished from the capital and wanted to go back, but feared that he would get a frigid reception from the imperial court. The moon thus stood for the court, a reading which apparently has a basis in Chinese tradition. This is the only interpretation that makes any sense, and yet it is curiously ignored in modern interpretations — at least those that I could find. The cause, it seems to me, is that Chinese critical appreciation of poetry has in modern times freed itself from the "dead hand of tradition", allowing critics to appreciate it for its "formal beauty" rather than reading it in a way that would have made sense to the poet.

    As I said, this isn't really a linguistically difficult example, but it does seem to illustrate in a small way how we ignore how older commentaries at our peril.

  8. Eidolon said,

    August 16, 2017 @ 6:51 pm

    "trash interpretations"

    This is a curious comment with respect to literary studies. Philology might indeed be tasked with coming up with the "proper" or "authorial" reading of a text, but literary criticism is often concerned primarily or exclusively with "formal beauty." Since we are talking about poetry, both are valid modes of study, and I see no reason to consider such readings "trash" simply because they do not reflect authorial intent.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    August 16, 2017 @ 10:04 pm

    Compare this even more famous poem by Li Bo (701-762), who lived more than three centuries before Su Shi (1037-1101):

    Yuè xià dú zhuó

    huā jiān yī hú jiǔ
    dú zhuó wū xiāngqīn
    jǔ bēi yāo míngyuè
    duì yǐng chéng sān rén
    yuè jì bù jiě yǐn
    yǐng tú suí wǒ shēn
    zàn bàn yuè jiāng yǐng
    xínglè xū jí chūn
    wǒ gē yuè páihuái
    wǒ wǔ yǐng língluàn
    xǐng shí tóng jiāohuān
    zuì hòu gè fēnsàn
    yǒng jié wúqíng yóu
    xiāng qī miǎo yúnhàn



    • Perfectly literal, word-for-word translation

    flowers among one jar liquor
    alone carouse without mutual intimate

    raise cup greet bright moon
    facing shadow become three persons

    moon since not free to-drink
    shadow follow accompany my body

    briefly accompany moon with shadow
    go happy should avail-oneself-of spring

    my song moon walk-to-and-fro irresolute
    my dance shadow fragments disorderly

    sober time together mix glad
    drunk after each divide scatter

    eternal connect without consciouness-of-self roam
    mutual appointment remote cloud Milky-Way

    • John Derbyshire's translation

    Among the flowers with wine beneath the sky
    Alone I drink — no friend or kin, just me.
    I raise my cup to toast the moon on high.
    That's two of us; my shadow makes it three.

    Alas, the poor moon knows not wine's delight.
    My shadow follows like a living thing.
    At last with moon and shadow I unite
    In joyful bond, to seize the last of spring.

    I sing: it sets the moon to rock in time.
    I dance: my shadow cannot hold its place.
    Sober, we share companionship sublime;
    Drunk at last, we drift apart in space —

    Lost to worldly things, until some day
    We'll meet again, beyond the Milky Way.

    • Witter Bynner's translation

    From a pot of wine among the flowers
    I drank alone. There was no one with me —
    Till, raising my cup, I asked the bright moon
    To bring me my shadow and make us three.
    Alas, the moon was unable to drink
    And my shadow tagged me vacantly;
    But still for a while I had these friends
    To cheer me through the end of spring. …
    I sang. The moon encouraged me.
    I danced. My shadow tumbled after.
    As long as I knew, we were boon companions.
    And then I was drunk, and we lost one another.
    … Shall goodwill ever be secure?
    I watched the long road of the River of Stars.


    When I first read Su Shi's poem about forty years ago, I immediately thought of it as being inspired by and in dialogue with Li Bo's poem, which I had read approximately a decade before that.

  10. GeoffD said,

    August 17, 2017 @ 11:53 pm

    @Victor Mair, Li Bo poem
    Pardon my ignorance (not a Chinese scholar), but just curious:
    What is the pinyin meant to represent? How a present-day Chinese person would recite this poem? How the author would have recited it? Would they be different, and if so, would the present-day Chinese student know that?
    My only point of comparison is Ancient Greek. In English-speaking countries it's generally taught with a reasonable attempt at correct ancient pronunciation. In Greece they just give the letters their modern sound values, many of which are quite different from the ancient ones. So a present-day Greek reciting Plato is saying something that, without special training, is incomprehensible to another Greek (language change) and would also be incomprehensible to Plato, because of what Plato would see as the mangled sound values.

  11. GeoffD said,

    August 17, 2017 @ 11:58 pm

    The Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), reportedly said on his deathbed, aged 89, 'If only Heaven will give me just another 10 years I could become a real painter.' I find this quite moving. Something about journey versus destination.

  12. Rodger C said,

    August 19, 2017 @ 10:41 am

    @GeoffD: Since nobody that properly knows Chinese has answered you in two days, I will. AFAIK it's exactly like a present-day Greek reciting Plato. (Willis Barnstone used to set my teeth on edge reciting Sappho this way.) There are scholarly books that discuss the Middle Chinese pronunciation of Tang poems, but no Chinese reads them that way, and precious few Westerners.

  13. Jichang Lulu said,

    August 19, 2017 @ 11:51 am


    Here's someone (possibly Chinese) reading the Li Bai poem above in an approximation of what Middle Chinese might have sounded like. But Rodger C is right that only a minority of readers of Chinese poetry care about the original pronunciation.

    There are rival reconstructions of different dialects or stages of Middle Chinese, but (oversimplifying) old rhyme books provide enough information to get an idea of the aural aspects of a lot of classical poetry. I don't know where the transcription in the video above comes from. It could be the author's own, but it's clearly based on the Qieyun system.

    If you're interested in reading ~Tang poetry rather than in reconstructions of Middle Chinese, you might want to have a look at this by David Prager Branner.

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