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  • The Victorian Translation of China: James Legge's Oriental Pilgrimage
  • Roger Corless
The Victorian Translation of China: James Legge's Oriental Pilgrimage. By Norman J.Girardot. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2002. xxx + 780 pp.

Don't make the mistake I made and allow the size of this book intimidate you. I let it sit around for many months, fearing, as did the author, to "[row] out over the great ocean of material" (pp. xix-xx), but once I had set sail I found myself in enjoyable, if sometimes irascible, company and I was unwilling to jump ship. Girardot is in full command of his ark of fascinating and diverse creatures, and his main argument is never lost in the details. His writing is lucid and the text is broken up into manageable blocks by subheadings with intriguing titles, rendering each segment ehipassiko, encouraging us to keep reading.

A book of this importance and weight (about 1.5 kg) deserves a review article more than just a review, or, better, a discussion panel at a major academic conference. This journal is notorious for reviews of astonishing length, but I would like my review to be short enough that it will actually be read, so that it will entice you to read the book. I will not attempt a summary nor will I critically address all the issues that are brought up. Instead, I will try to show why I regard this book as an instant classic and even, I would say, a watershed in the meta-science of sinological and Religionswissenschaftlich self-reflection.

We all know James Legge as the perpetrator of The Chinese Classics, the multivolume opus that, in the 1960 Hong Kong University Press revision, dominates the Chinese religion(s) section of our personal libraries. Since there is nothing like it, we consult it, but we pretend we do not, for, after all, it's out of date, surely, and Legge was an old fuddy-duddy—Scottish, a Protestant missionary, and, worst of all, a Victorian. Girardot seems to have had somewhat this opinion of Legge when he assayed a brief biography of him, but he discovered that his "Legge work" (as he calls it) opened the door to a pivotal era in academe and world culture. Once the door to the long-neglected cupboard had been opened, all kinds of fascinating objects came tumbling out. "Oh, so that's how it used to be, and that's why it's like this today!" No scholar of Chinese religion(s) can afford to ignore Girardot's extensive and insightful ruminations on the state of the field then and now.

The point of the book is summed up on page 531: "[Legge] is an outstanding [End Page 276] example of the difficult nineteenth-century passage from religious discourse to what Edward Said calls the 'secular criticism' of the modern world." To study Legge is to study the origins of our discipline. He may have been a fuddy-duddy; he was certainly a workaholic, putting his Sassenach colleagues at Oxford to shame by sleeping little and rising in the middle of the night to persist in his hermeneutic labors. But he was also a student of the heathen land he went to convert, and he tried his best not only to see (the presumed universal) God in the ancient texts but also to find something noble in apparent atheists and agnostics such as Confucius. In his interaction with Max Mueller (and this book is as much about Mueller as it is about Legge) he both agreed and disagreed, in a complex choreography, with the comparative method underpinning The Sacred Books of the East. He was a Scotsman's Scotsman, a stag at bay, dourly standing his ground (as a Congregationalist, and therefore a nonconformist both north and south of the border) against, first, the London Missionary Society and, later, the prevailing academic and ecclesiastical climate at Oxford.

No armchair orientalist, as were some of his colleagues across the Channel, he befriended native informants and studied the indigenous commentaries (mostly Qing) to which they referred him, so that his translations, although not as fluid as Waley...