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For some years, now, I have been, off and on, a student of the essays of Huai Nan Tzû. Occasional papers on his work have been read before the Royal Asiatic Society (N. C. B.) and other societies. Some who heard the papers thought a translation of the essays was most desirable. In the course of time this object has been kept in view, and, at long last, it is now possible to publish, in English, eight of the twenty-one essays.
The work of Huai Nan Tzû has always been highly esteemed by all scholars. This is not surprising. It contains great ideals and passages of matchless beauty. It is a work not easy of interpretation. But though the shell is hard, the core is sweet. There are unusual words in the composition: the ideas are often recondite and vague. There are many things not clear in the description even of the phenomena of the visible world; but in the description of the invisible world the conceptions are often vague and the language necessarily not clear. To increase the difficulty there is frequent use made of paradox, hyperbole, the indirect and the allusive method: there is often the subtle reference and occultive meaning.
The theme also occupies a field of its own. Taoism is an original and unique philosophy. To anyone unaquainted with its teaching the language and ideas will seem strange and hard. As Huai Nan Tzû deals with the doctrine of Lao Tan, and was a keen follower of his teaching, it is essential for his readers to have some familiarity with the writings of that sage. These are found in the Tao Tê Ching. Unfortunately, there are no perspicuous translations of this important work. The best two are those of Dr. James Legge and Mr. Spurgeon Medhurst. But often they contain passages as vague as the original! The meaning does not shine out from the words. The translation seems quite correct; but yet the p. vi meaning is not quite clear.
This leads me to venture an opinion on what a translation should be. It should always convey a definite meaning and expressed as clearly as possible. The translation should be as near the original as possible. But the chief requisite is that each sentence must have a meaning clearly expressed. Otherwise the translation is useless. It is admitted that a paraphrase may sometimes be necessary; but if this conveys the meaning, it will be a good translation.
The Tao Tê Ching is hard to be understood. But a study of it is fruitful. It is conceded that Lao Tzû was one of the most original thinkers of China. His must have been a unique personality. He commanded the love and loyalty of a disciple, Chuang Tzû, who came 200 years after him, and was one of China's most celebrated scholars. He spent his talents and life in explaining and extolling the master. How much did this master ever write? We only know of the 5,000 words of the Tao Tê Ching. There are critics who doubt if such a person as Lao Tan ever existed. Those who hold such a view have to explain Chuang Tzû. That safe and sound critic Dr. J. Legge, is firmly convinced that he was a historical person and that the Tao Tê Ching is his work.
It has often struck me that Lao Tan bore some similarity to Mr. Bernard Shaw. The modern Irishman and the Chinese of a distant age have a floating resemblance, as they possess things in common. They take a delight in the paradoxical way of writing and in making strange affirmations. Sometimes a doubt hovers round the mind of the reader as to whether they expected him to believe their statements. Both like to shock the public by a seeming absurdity of assertion. Yet all becomes understood when one realises that the writers' great desire is to awaken men from dead tradition to a more real life. They discharge the function of the gadfly to which Socrates compared himself. It stings people to a new consciousness. There p. vii is, however, a difference of method. Mr. Shaw speaks much in the first personal pronoun, and vigorously. It would be transgressing against a fundamental principle of Lao Tan to do this. Suppression of self is a leading tenet of the Taoist philosophy. The Ego is only a medium for the expression of the Tao.
Besides a translation of eight of the essays, there are ancillary helps to the understanding of the work. And there are Notes and Annotations, Elucidations, Epitomes and Analyses. Under the heading of introduction, there are various themes discussed,—themes that have naturally arisen out of and that have been suggested by the subject-matter of the Dissertations. These, it is hoped, will be a help to a better understanding of the romantic mind of a thinker whose life-long meditations have been concerned with the profoundest subjects that can occupy human thought, the cosmos, spirit and man. These notes may help to solve some of the puzzling questions that are suggested by the work, such as, the science of "do nothing and there will be nothing undone" which will be recognised as conveying a deep truth connected with human and Divine nature. That "the existent comes from the non-existent" will not seem to be an irreconcilable contradiction: and the phrase "a wide experience gives but a little knowledge" is really not so absurd as it seems on the face of it. There are also words that are different in meaning but which seem so much alike that it is not easy to see the nuances suggested.
The author has ventured to give a new translation of the word Tao, viz., Cosmic Spirit. This seems to cover all the ideas found in the original. However, it is necessary to say, in anticipation of legitimate criticism, that the name has not been consistently used throughout. That of "Tao" is often retained.
I have not prepared a Bibliography nor a critique of the text. It is sufficient to say that a Chinese edition of Huai Nan Tzû can be bought in most old book shops. p. viii But the best edition is that published by the Commercial Press and edited by Liu Wen-tien. The introduction to this is by Dr. Hu Shih. I have taken the work as arranged in the ###, as the basis of my translation.
I have been under great obligation to many friends for help in preparing the book, and I take this opportunity of expressing my gratitude. I would like to mention Mr. Chou Yun-lou, Mr. Tu Shao-heng, Mr. C. F. Yeh and others. Especially am I indebted to Mr. T. M. Lien, an accomplished scholar. He has helped me in many ways. The essay on "The Life and Times of Lao Tan" has been prepared from materials supplied by him: also much of the matter in the elucidations and other subjects. The diagrams are also from him, I should also like to express my gratitude to the share my wife has had in the work. Her help has been invaluable. I offer my hearty thanks to all these friends.