Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Book review - The analects of Confucius translated by Simon Leys

The Analects of Confucius translation and notes by Simon Leys

New York: Norton, 1997                                     ISBN 9780393316995

Although it is not a religious text, in many ways The Analects of Confucius have had a similar effect on the human race as the Bible, Koran, or other holy books. It became a guide for living a moral life, and defined a society for hundreds of years. Like many other ancient texts, it has become corrupted over the years by accidental or deliberate elisions and insertions. Add to that the difficulty of deciphering the actual meanings of many of the ancient characters, and the syntax of the writing, and it seems the task of translating the work would not be a pleasurable experience.

I'm not sure how enjoyable Simon Leys (the pen name of respected Sinologist Pierre Ryckmans) found the task, but he has produced something that has, and no doubt will continue to, give pleasure to those fortunate enough to read it. Leys has approached his task with a view to make The Analects accessible to the non-expert English speaker, while still providing a strongly academic work. He explains his choice to publish under his literary pen-name rather than his real name in the following terms - "What I meant to suggest by this choice is that this is primarily a writer's translation; it is addressed not merely to fellow scholars, but first and foremost to nonspecialists - readers who simply wish to enlarge their cultural horizon but have no direct access to the original text."

With this in mind Leys has occasionally added words where needed within the translation to enable us nonspecialists to make sense of what we are reading. Sometimes the original defies even this process, where the original text may be incomplete, or corrupted with later additions. Leys' notes - which run to as many pages as The Analects themselves - scrupulously inform the reader when he has added text, and let the reader know when there are alternative readings of any particular analect. His notes and introduction also help the reader by putting the work into its cultural context, as well as providing other amusing or instructive asides into literature and history. As such, they are a wonderful text in their own right.

To The Analects themselves: so much human culture has developed from them, and they are wonderfully descriptive of the human condition, which it seems remains the same in its essentials through the ages. From the pithy " Clever talk and affected manners are seldom signs of goodness.", to the more obscure "Duke Wen of Jin was subtle but not straight; Duke Huan of Qi was straight, but not subtle.", The Analects lead the reader on a winding and occasionally repetitive road through the best and worst of human nature. Thanks to those that followed him, Confucius presaged a revolutionary change in the way the Chinese ran their states: by accepting his contention that nobility did not necessarily come to a person through birth, but through education, they created a society where intelligence and merit was a way to climb the social ladder. This idea was unheard of in most of the rest of the World at the time, and partly explains how China became such a great power by the turn of the Millennium.

In fact The Analects became so powerful that many rulers turned them into instruments of power; by emphasizing some, reinterpreting others, and suppressing yet more. In fact The Analects came to be seen by the twentieth century as reactionary, and both Chiang Kai Shek and Mao Zedong repudiated them. Leys points out in his introduction that Confucianism had become so ingrained in Chinese thought that, in an ironic twist, the Communist idea of "re-education" harks back to the Confucian idea that "errant behaviour came from a faulty understanding...if only the delinquent could be taught, and be made to perceive the mistaken nature of his actions, he would naturally amend his ways."

Unlike many other classic texts of this type, the Analects is not a long work (100 paperback pages), and the nature of the Analects themselves is such that the reader can dip in and out at almost any point. Short though some of them are, this is a work that makes the reader think - about themselves, others, and society as a whole. This translation, and it's notes, is a great way into a classic work, and I highly recommend it.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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