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Readings from the Lu-Wang School of Neo-Confucianism (review)

From: Philosophy East and West
Volume 61, Number 2, April 2011
pp. 388-391 | 10.1353/pew.2011.0022

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A new set of translations of works by Neo-Confucians is a desperately needed project for the study of Chinese philosophy, and Philip J. Ivanhoe, in his new book Readings from the Lu-Wang School of Neo-Confucianism, has taken an admirable lead in his selective translations of two prominent Neo-Confucians, Lu Xiangshan and Wang Yangming, known together as the Lu-Wang School. Readings from the Lu-Wang School reflects a deep philosophical understanding of the two philosophers' views, and a comprehensive knowledge of the tradition of Chinese philosophy. The translated text is accompanied by helpful introductions to each philosopher and detailed scholarly notations. These notations, along with the elegant translation and representative selections of the text, make this book the authoritative edition of the Lu-Wang works in English.

The writings of Neo-Confucians have not been adequately translated into English, and this is a main reason why Neo-Confucian philosophy is not widely known in the English-speaking world. Many philosophers working on Chinese philosophy lack a mastery of Chinese and must rely on existing translations. The only comprehensive translations from all of the major Neo-Confucian works are compiled in Wing-tsit Chan's A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy (Princeton University Press, 1963). However, it is not easy to engage in respectable philosophical study of Neo-Confucianism on the basis of this source book alone. Ivanhoe's translation of Lu Xiangshan's and Wang Yangming's works is thus a welcome endeavor.

When the reader must rely on existing translations to approach Chinese philosophy, she would naturally wonder whether the selection is representative of the philosophers' views and whether the translation accurately captures the philosophical spirit of these philosophers. Ivanhoe's Readings can dispel such worries. With both Lu Xiangshan and Wang Yangming, Ivanhoe's selections are more comprehensive than Chan's Source Book. Ivanhoe's choice of Lu Xiangshan's work is similar to Chan's selections, including Lu's philosophical correspondence with friends, his short essays, and his recorded sayings. Ivanhoe does not provide as many quotes from Lu's recorded sayings as Chan does, and this is a minor drawback of the book. However, Chan's selection from Lu's letters or other writings amounts to scanty paragraphs or remarks out of context, while Ivanhoe places his selections in their original context by covering a major part of each piece. Chan's selections from Wang Yangming's work include only Wang's Inquiry on the Great Learning (Daxuewen 大學問) and Instructions for Practical Living (Chuanxilu 傳習錄), whereas Ivanhoe's Readings includes both these documents (which he translates as Questions on the Great Learning and A Record for Practice), as well as additional selections from Wang's philosophical correspondence and his poetry. Overall, Ivanhoe's Readings gives a more complete presentation of the two philosophers' philosophical writings than the Source Book does. One also gets to see more of the philosophers' personalities from the various writing styles selected.

In comparing Ivanhoe's Readings to the original Chinese texts, I was often struck by the ingenious choice of words that Ivanhoe makes. The choices reflect Ivanhoe's philosophical insights on the philosophy at issue. For example, one would naturally be tempted to translate Wang Yangming's phrase benti 本體 as "substance" (as Chan has done in the Source Book) since this is the standard translation for the phrase in other contexts, but this rendition makes it seem that Wang has postulated some transcendent entity in his ontology. Ivanhoe translates it as "the original state," "the fundamental state," or "the embodied state," depending on what the context demands, such as in "Knowing is the original state of the heart-mind" (p. 147) and in "The nature is the embodied state of the heart-mind" (p. 145). Such translations not only make Wang's philosophy more accessible, but also prevent misinterpreting Wang's philosophy as a form of "panpsychism" (p. 109). Ivanhoe's translation is both reflective and insightful. He does not rigidly use the same word to translate the same Chinese character, since he understands that Chinese characters take on different meanings in different contexts. For example, the Chinese word shi 實 is translated as "the real thing itself...

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