The Daxue and Zhongyong

When reading Serious Literature for Grown-Ups, we may often feel like the Ethiopian courtier reading Isaiah, “How can I understand, if there is none to instruct me?” This can be difficult for some to admit, given the modern preference among many for coming to one’s own conclusions on things, but if we’re to grow in wisdom we need the intellectual humility to recognise that we do not and cannot know everything, especially on an early reading of a difficult text.

Most obviously, an author may refer to facts or cultural norms that are unfamiliar with us, which we need someone to explain. Beyond that surface level, others may notice subtleties in the text that we overlook. This can be true even for light reading; see Gardner’s The Annotated Alice, for example. If the Alice novels, written for children, contain surprising subtleties and nuances, how much more must readers of great works like the Divine Comedy or Plato’s dialogues benefit from a guiding hand?

Consider also that these texts don’t exist in a vacuum. Historically, they’ve very often been read alongside or in light of commentaries. This is true of the West, and even more so of the Chinese Classics, whose readers have benefited from a rich commentarial tradition.

Unfortunately, that tradition is largely closed to Westerners. First, there’s the question of which commentaries to start with, but this is almost a moot point since hardly any of it is available in English translation. Who is this “Juicy” guy, anyway? Probably not important. Better to put out the thousandth translation of Sun Tzu, the Analects, or Tao te Ching, or maybe the I Ching for the New Age crowd.

Not that I don’t understand the plight of the translators. Those four works are about the only Chinese books Americans may know, so it’s hard to sell a publisher on a guide to a work that few outside of a niche have even heard of. Still, these commentaries need to be made available if Anglophones are to engage meaningfully with the Chinese intellectual tradition.

Fortunately, there are some bright spots. Some translators, in their introductions and annotations, at least refer to notable Chinese commentaries. The ideal, though, is something like Ian Johnston and Wang Ping’s edition of the Daxue and Zhongyong, which I came across recently.

This book’s rather straightforward titles, Daxue and Zhongyong: Bilingual Edition, sells it short. It doesn’t just include those two works (the 大學 and 中庸, most often called The Great Learning and Doctrine of the Mean in English), but two versions of them. First, the books as they were arranged in the Li Ji (禮記, the Book of Rites), a compendium of several broadly related short works, then as arranged later by the great Song Dynasty Neo-Confucian scholar Zhu Xi. This isn’t just a matter of rearranging some chapters, either. The _Li Ji_version includes and is translated in light of the commentaries of Zheng Xuan (who lived 127-200 AD) and Kong Yingda (574-648), and Zhu Xi’s version is similarly translated in light of and includes his comments. The translators give additional annotations on each chapter to address a range of points, most often to highlight how each commentator interprets a given passage, especially where they differ, and occasionally to discuss textual difficulties or to further expound on points in the text or Chinese commentaries that may remain unclear to modern, Western audiences.

The primary texts and commentaries all have the full text in Chinese on the facing page. That all adds up to a lot of material in each section, giving a different reading experience than the norm of just working straight through a text, but one adjusts quickly. It’s certainly a book that expects the reader to approach it seriously, rather than just breezing through.

Johnston and Wang also include a general introduction, introductions to the individual works, appendices on the origin of the Li Ji, a list with descriptions of prominent commentaries and translations of the works, and terminology, as well as a bibliography and index. They put a lot of thought into this book, and again, they’re clearly targeting serious students and not just casual readers.

As one might expect, their translation leans to the “literal” side, with explanations when they stray a bit. It still reads well enough, even if it’s not the most graceful prose.

Let’s look at the opening of the Daxue as an example. First, the translation of the first chapter:

The Way of highest learning lies in displaying enlightened virtue; it lies in loving the people; it lies in coming to rest in the utmost goodness. Know [where] to come to rest, and afterwards there is stability; be stable, and afterwards there can be calmness; be calm, and afterwards there can be tranquility; be tranquil, and afterwards there can be contemplation; be contemplative, and afterwards things can be done in the proper way. Things have roots and branches; matters have ends and beginnings. Know what is first and what follows; then you come near to the Way. [1]

Johnston and Wang’s comment, which is always beneath the Chinese text on the page facing the English:

Comment: This opening section is a concise statement of the three fundamental aims (the principles) in the programme of self-cultivation advocated in this text: allow one’s natural and perfect virtue to shine forth clear and unclouded by emotions and desires, love the people, and settle oneself in a state of perfect (or the highest or utmost) goodness. These three components of the Way of the highest learning allow calm contemplation of the nature of the external world, both the things and the events within it, and therefore give rise to appropriate conduct. No position is taken, in either text or commentary, on whether the ming de 明德 (enlightened virtue) is innate or acquired. The other point of note is Zheng Xuan’s comment on the pronunciation of 大 as tai and thus the reading as tai 太 indicating the superlative-see the introductory discussion on the title.

Then, Zheng Xuan’s notes, which often focus on glossing characters that may be unfamiliar to his contemporaries due to language changes:

[1] Ming ming de 明明德 speaks of clearly displaying one’s perfect virtue. Zhi 止 is like zi 自處 (being naturally at rest in, accepting one’s position). De 得 refers to doing things in the proper way. The old pronunciation of da 大 was tai 泰 … Jin 近 is the jin of fujin 附近 (come near to, approach).

Finally, Kong Yingda’s notes, which often refer to Zheng but also expound on the main philosophical points:

1.1 The Zhengyi says: “This classic’s Way of highest learning lies in displaying enlightened virtue, in loving the people, and in coming to rest in the utmost good-ness. If you accumulate virtue and put it into practice, then you come near to the Way.
1.2 Lies in displaying enlightened virtue: This says that the Way of highest learning lies in clearly displaying the radiance of one’s virtue. This refers to having enlightened virtue oneself, and, moreover, displaying and manifesting it. This is its (i.e. the Way’s) first component.
1.3 Lies in loving the people: This says that the Way of highest learning lies in being loving towards the people. This is its second component.
1.4 Lies in coming to rest in the utmost goodness: This says that the Way of highest learning lies in stopping and coming to rest in the the [sic] practice of the utmost goodness. This is its third component. That is to say, the Way of highest learning lies in these three things.
1.5 Know [where] to come to rest, and afterwards there is stability repeats the statement of the matter of coming to rest in the utmost goodness. When you know to come to rest in perfect goodness, and afterwards the mind can have stability, there is neither error nor doubt.
1.6 Be stable, and afterwards there can be calmness: If the mind is stable and without desires, there can be calmness without the press of seeking. Be calm, and afterwards there can be tranquility: By being calm, the emotions and nature are tranquil and harmonious.
1.7 Be tranquil, and afterwards there can be contemplation: When the emotions are tranquil and harmonious, you are able to give thought and contemplation to matters.
1.8 Be contemplative, and afterwards things can be done in the proper way: When you are able to think and contemplate, afterwards you attain appropriateness in matters (i.e. you do things in the proper way).
1.9 Things have roots and branches; matters have ends and beginnings: If you attain appropriateness in matters and the ten thousand things of the world have roots and branches, there are ends and beginnings in carrying out the hundred matters.
1.10 Know what is first and what follows: If you can be like this, then you recognise and know in all cases what is first and what follows in the hundred matters and the ten thousand things of the world.
1.11 Then you come near to the Way: If you are able to do these several things, then you come near to the Great Way.

What Zhu Xi considers the first “chapter” is longer, but I’ll just include the part that corresponds to the above. First, the text:

The Way of greater learning lies in manifesting the original brightness of innate virtue; it lies in restoring the original brightness of that virtue in the people generally; it lies in coming to rest in the utmost goodness. [1] Know where to rest, and afterwards there is stability; be stable, and afterwards there can be calmness; be calm, and afterwards there can be tranquility; be tranquil, and afterwards there can be contemplation; be contemplative, and afterwards there can be attainment. [2] In things there is root (the brightness of innate virtue) and branch (restoring the original brightness of innate virtue in the people). In activities there is a beginning (finding a place to rest) and an end (attaining completion of the sequence). Know what is first and what follows. Then you come near to the Way. [3]

Next, Johnston and Wang’s comment (“DX” is the Daxue, “TX” is the title for the Li Ji version, Taixue):

Comment: Zhu Xi makes several important changes to the Li ji text in fashioning his initial chapter: (i) he combines what are sections 1 and 2 in the Li ji version; (ii) he transfers the final sentence of TX2 in the Li ji to his DX Comm. 5 which he regards as a largely lost chapter; (iii) he attributes this first chapter to Confucius himself and takes the remaining ten chapters in his version to be commentary by Zengzi 曾子. As Legge pointed out over a century ago, there is no conclusive evidence to support this supposition, nor indeed the assumption that chapter 5 of the commentary is the remaining part of a largely lost chapter on “investigating things.” Legge’s comment remains apposite today. In addition, Zhu Xi follows Cheng Yi in reading qin 親 as xin 新, in the sense of “renew” rather than qinai 親愛 in the sense of “to love,” so significantly altering the meaning of the opening statement. Several other important points of difference are discussed in the Introduction and Appendix 3 on terminology.

Then, Zhu Xi’s first comment, which would’ve been to the side of the text in a Chinese edition but here is below. These tend to highlight the main point in a passage, though this first is longer:

To the right (above) is the first chapter of the classic comprising the words of Confucius and transmitted by Zengzi. (Altogether, there are 205 characters.) Its commentary in ten chapters consists, then, of the thoughts of Zengzi recorded by his disciples. The old original version (of the Daxue) has, to some degree, disordered writing slips. Now, because of what Master Cheng has established, as well as [my own] further study of the Classic, it has been rearranged to give the sequence which follows to the left (below). (Altogether, there are 1,546 characters. In general, the commentary variously quotes the classics as if there is no governing principle. Nevertheless, the style is coherent, and one argument pervades the whole. This argument is both profound and simple. It has a beginning and an end and it achieves precision. If one reads it closely and examines its essence carefully, then after a long time one ought to see it. When this happens, no exhaustive explanation [is needed].)

Finally, Zhu Xi’s more thorough annotations. He also glosses possibly unfamiliar characters, but his primary concern is philosophical:

[1] Cheng Zi says: “Qin should be made xin 新 (to renew).” Da xue 大學 is learning for adults. Ming 明 is to make something clear (display or manifest it). Ming de 明德 is what a person gets from Heaven and is pure spirit unobscured. It is the instrument of the myriad principles and is what responds to the ten thousand matters. But if there is the endowment of qi 氣 (disposition) which restrains it and human desires which conceal it, then there are times when it is obscured. Nevertheless, the brightness of its original substance will never die away. Therefore, the learner ought to rely on what it gives out and subsequently let it shine forth, so restoring it to what it was at the beginning. Xin 新 (to renew) refers to getting rid of the old. This says that once one has let one’s own innate virtue shine forth, one also ought to extend it to others, letting them also find a way to rid themselves of the stains of old impurities. Zhi 止 (to come to rest) has the meaning of certainly reaching to this and not changing position. Zhi shan 至善 (perfect or utmost goodness) is, then, the proper end-point for matters and principles. That is to say, manifesting the original brightness of innate virtue and restoring the original brightness of that virtue in the people should, in both cases, come to rest in a place of perfect goodness and not shift. This must be seen as the highest point of the Heavenly principle and must not be tainted by one iota of private desire. These three things are the essential points of the greater learning (learning for adults).
[2] Hou 后 is the same as hou 後, i.e. hou 後 is like this. “To come to rest” (zhi 止) refers to the place where one ought to come to rest (abide); that is, the place where perfect goodness exists. Know this, then the will has stability of direction. Jing 靜 (calmness) refers to the mind not acting foolishly. An 安 (tranquility) refers to what is at rest and peaceful. 慮(contemplation) refers to managing matters with close attention to detail. De 得 (to attain) refers to attaining this place of rest.
[3] Manifesting the original brightness of innate virtue is the root; restoring the original brightness of that virtue in the people generally is the branch. “Know where to rest” is the beginning; “being able to attain” is the end. Root and beginning are what come first; branch and end are what come afterwards. This brings together the meanings of the previous two sections.

So, as one can see, that is lot of material for just one chapter of a fairly short book. For newcomers, it may seem overwhelming, and those who just want to get a feel for the books would probably do fine reading a more typical edition. James Legge’s is the one I’m familiar with, and he provides enough annotations to help orient the reader. For those who want to truly understand and fully engage with these books, though, this is invaluable. I checked it out from the library, but I plan to buy my own copy because there’s so much helpful material here, from the commentaries to the introductions and even the references to related works. It’s a must-have for anyone interested in Confucianism, and I hope to find more editions like this not only for the rest of the Confucian canon, but really for any great work.