Category: Ancient Chinese literature

127. The Mencius by Mencius (c.320 BC)

127. The Mencius by Mencius (c.320 BC)

Plot:  The philosophical writings of the Confucian follower Mencius, largely dealing with the need for rulers to act with benevolence.

My copy was the Penguin classic translated by D. C. Lau (ISBN 0140442286)

My thoughts:  Much like Confucius’ Analects, these writings are largely analogies based on the actions of rulers and men which time outside China has now forgotten. There is some interest in the time of these writings, as the Empire was going through the Warring States period, and Mencius seems to have been a wandering philosopher and wise man visiting the various courts.

I tried very hard to stay interested, but I’m afraid Chinese philosophy is not for me, any more than Greek. So what I can share with you?

Favourite lines/passages:

“From biased words, I can see wherein the speaker is blind; from immoderate words, wherein he is ensnared; from heretical words, wherein he has strayed from the right path; from evasive words, wherein he is at his wits’ end.”    Book II, part A.

“Mencius said to King Hsuan of Ch’i, ‘Suppose a subject of Your Majesty’s, having entrusted his wife and children to the care of a friend, were to go on a trip to Ch’u, only to find on his return, that his friend has allowed his wife and children to suffer cold and hunger, then what should he do about it?”

“Break with his friend”

“if the Marshall of the Guards was unable to keep his guards in order, then what should be done about it?”

“Remove him from office”

“If the whole Realm within the four borders was ill-governed, then what should be done about it?”

The King turned to his attendants and changed the subject.              Book I, Part B.

Personal rating: 3
The sanity in between:  Doctor Sleep, Stephen King’s sequel to his much better work, The Shining.  Entertaining but not brilliant.

Next : One last try with Chinese philosophy, the Inner Chapters of Chuang Tzu (sometimes written as Zhuangzi)  Nope, a few pages in and I know when I’m beaten. Its back to the Greeks and the Idylls of Theocritus.


21. The Analects of Confucius (c. 490 BC)

Contents: 20 ‘books’ of quotes by the Chinese philosopher Confucius and his disciples
My thoughts : In modern Western parlance, the name Confucius is a stereotype for wisdom, but few people would be able to say they know much of what he actually said or taught. Much of what is written here is via analogy to third parties and their actions and remains obscure, but certain threads are repeated throughout, often about the moral way to live, the value of learning, and direction in what it means to be benevolent, wise, courageous, reverent and truthful, for its own sake, rather than any reward of heaven or earthly gain.
None of the “sayings” I have seen attributed to Confucius appear in the Analects, and Confucius has probably become a convenient name to hang various anonymous snippets of triteness upon. Read the Analects if you want to seriously consider self-betterment – they are a good start.
Favourite lines/passages:
“Every day I examine myself on three counts. In what I have undertaken on another’s behalf, have I failed to do my best? In my dealings with my friends, have I failed to be trustworthy in what I say? Have I passed on to others anything that I have not tried out myself?” Book I

“When you meet someone better than yourself, turn your thoughts to becoming their equal. When you meet someone not as good as you are, look within and examine your own self” Book IV

And his description of himself as “the sort of man who forgets to eat when he tries to solve a problem that has been driving him to distraction, who is so full of joy that he forgets his worries, and who does not notice the onset of old age” Book VII

Personal rating : at its heights I would rate the Analects at 5/10.
Next : The Old Testament of the Holy Bible. My copy since I was a boy and never read is the Authorised King James version, although I have been advised that there will be some words and phrases so removed from everyday understanding as to prove impossible to understand even in their context, so a copy of a more recent version kept nearby might be essential for reference.

20. The Tao te Ching, or Lao Tzu (c. 490 BC)

Contents: Another small Chinese classic (just over 50 verses) supposedly written by a hermit contemporary of Confucius, the name Lao Tzu can refer to the book and/or the author.
My thoughts : It seems that the meaning behind much of the surviving religious and philosophical texts from ancient civilizations is remarkably or even deliberately vague and contradictory. The Tao, or the Virtuous Way excels in taking this to the furthest extreme by confessing to being ultimately indescribable, unnameable, inexpressible and dare I say it, inscrutable.
The Tao te ching appears to be descriptive of the proper way to live, behave and govern, as demonstrated by the Universe or Heaven. Meekness, stillness, humility and a lack of desire are recommended, as are the avoidance of action, arrogance and contention : in general, you will be more the less you are, seek contentment free of desire.
Favourite lines/passages:
In the pursuit of learning, one knows more every day;
In the pursuit of the way, one does less every day.
One does less and less until one does nothing at all,
And when one does nothing at all there is nothing that is undone.

Deal with a thing while it is still nothing;
Keep a thing in order before disorder sets in;
A tree that can fill the span of a man’s arms grows from a downy tip;
A terrace nine storeys high rises from hodfuls of earth;
A journey of a thousand miles starts from beneath one’s feet.
Verse LXIV

Is not the way of heaven like the stretching of a bow?
The high it presses down, the low it lifts up;
The excessive it takes from, the deficient it gives to.
It is the way of heaven… The way of man is otherwise.
The last quoted above (from verse LXXVII) is beautiful and sad – the whole book was worth reading simply for this gem.

Personal rating : 6/10, but if the whole was as beautiful and serene as the verses I have quoted above, this would be a 10/10.

Next : while I’m still in the Orient, I will continue with the Analects of Confucius. After that, we’re going to be in the Mediterranean for a long, long time.

19. The Art of War, by Sun Tzu (c. 490 BC)

Contents: 13 brief chapters explaining the strategies of war in almost dot point simplicity, this small book was reportedly studied through history by generals such as Napoleon.
My thoughts : The advice given seems obvious and simple, yet its application on the field of battle and keeping the rudimentary principles clearly in mind without letting impatience or other emotions sway decisions has no doubt ensured this work its place. Much of the advice sounds like a yin/yang philosophy for employing and protecting armed forces.
My copy was published in the early 1980s, and edited by the novelist James Clavell of Shogun and Noble House fame (ISBN 0340276045). His footnotes linking the points made by Sun Tzu to famous generals and battles throughout history provide interesting asides and help illustrate the ideas put into action. There is also a faint whiff of Clavell applying the advice against “current adversaries”, presumably communist Russia given the timing of publication, including warning against the allurement of beautiful women!
Favourite lines/passages:
“All warfare is based on deception. When able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near …”

“the skilled leader subdues the enemy’s troops without any fighting; he captures their cities without laying siege to them; he overthrows their kingdom without lengthy operations in the field”

Personal rating : 6/10
Next : staying in the Middle Kingdom, next up is the Tao te Ching, by Lao Tzu, an underlying text of the Taoist religion.

8. The I Ching, or The Book of Changes

Content: The I Ching is an ancient book of divination. In fact, to its devotees it is almost a semi-aware oracle which assists the user to reach decisions on questions in their life through the interpretation of messages selected by random castings of coins (or originally, yarrow sticks). This is known as bibliomancy and has been practised using other books, including the Bible, but not necessarily with this depth of choice of random number generation (64 possible choices with alternative meanings on some lines depending on the strength of the random castings)
My thoughts : Another odd book to review. More of a reference book than a work of literature, although there is beauty in the simple messages given via the trigrams (or patterns of castings). To read the actual messages is more like scanning dozens of thoughtful and puzzling hidden truths in peculiarly wisdom-inspired fortune cookie messages (and yes, I know fortune cookies are an American invention)
And yes, I did ask the I Ching a few questions for myself. No – I’m not going to divulge the details on the blog, but the answers certainly seem to lean on the side of common sense! That said, the use of the I Ching could be said to be of most value in making the enquirer think solidly about their question when interpreting the messages, and reach their decision after that process of examination, or even their subconscious feelings, rather than any oracular guidance.
My version was the highly regarded translation by Wilhelm, originally in German, then translated again into English by Baynes (ISBN 069109750X), which I had to get the librarian to fetch out of storage. The lengthy foreword by Jung (the famous psychiatrist) was both interesting and useful in understanding the history and impact of the work.
Favourite lines/passages
More than any particular passage, what I enjoyed most was how each of the 64 combinations are actually a marriage of two trigrams, or three line patterns, and each trigram has a meaning : heaven, earth, thunder, water, mountain, wind, fire or lake. Combining two meanings gives a theme which implies characteristics: e.g. earth on top of water equals groundwater, which is like an army formed by the common people in times of need, unseen until required, so hidden strength ; while water beneath a mountain is likened to the spring rising at the foot of the mountain, a symbol of youthful folly. These characteristics are then tied to action (or inaction) when interpreting the seeker’s question.
Diversions/digressions : only in actually getting some coins and trying out a few questions.
Personal rating 5/10


7. Selections from The Book of Poetry c.750 BC

Content : The Book of Poetry, or Shi jing, is a compilation of 305 Chinese folk songs, hymns and odes, and was one of the six Chinese classics believed to have been used by Confucius to teach his disciples. The poems themselves are thought to have been composed between the 11th and 6th centuries BC. While the songs were largely collected from rural river valleys, the odes and epics were mostly written by nobles in the imperial courts.
My copy is a selection of 50 of the songs and odes with accompanying paintings from earlier texts.
My thoughts : A very difficult book to review. Until now, the books I have read have been translated into English by native English speakers. This selection of poems has been translated into English by a native Chinese speaker, and at first, the attempts to create rhyme seems forced and even a little desperate. I wondered how much of the natural original beauty of the poems I was losing due to the translation. But after a while, I started to understand the method behind the poetry, and the choice of English words and rhyming jarred less.

The volume I read was heavily weighted towards the folk songs, where there was a definite theme of hardship and sadness in the poems. The farm workers struggling with their lot in life, the jilted lover, the lowly soldiers ….

There is much nature symbolism and background to many of the songs, which provides the artists with the opportunity to create paintings for specific songs in different editions of the work through the centuries.

The odes, epics and hymns are generally much more interested in praising the kings and nobles, and without the beauty and sadness of the common man’s experience, these are far less affecting and interesting.

Favourite lines/passages
I did like the following verses, despite their inherent sadness : the misery of the present day, the loss of youth and the realisation of the loss of youth and years

The cricket chirping in the hallcricket

The year will pass away
The present not enjoyed at all
We’ll miss the passing day

                         (from The Cricket)

The rabbit runs away
The pheasant in the net
In my earliest day
For nothing did I fret rabbit_and_bird_in_tree_15
In later years of care
All evils have I met
O I would sleep fore’er

                    (from Past and Present)

Diversions/digressions : Wondering how a young bride can have “a forehead like a dragonfly’s”
Personal rating : 4.5 /10  (5/10 for the folk songs, 1/10 for the odes and hymns)

Next : The Book of Poetry, or Shi Jing

Leaping across the expanse of Europe and Asia to the Middle Kingdom and one of the Five Classics : The Book of Poetry, or Shi jing. Over 300 poems is a big ask, so my copy is a selection of about 50 only, but in a beautifully illustrated copy published by China Intercontinental Press, titled Selections from the Book of Poetry : illustrated edition (ISBN 9787508508870). I will try to scan some of the paintings to go alongside my review in the next post.

shi jing