- Vital Nourishment: Departing from Happiness
In recent years, François Jullien has come to be regarded as among the most provocative Western interpreters of traditional Chinese thought, bringing his sophisticated training in philosophical method to bear on his reading of the Chinese texts. Each of his best books tends to focus on a single Chinese concept: La propension des choses (1992) on shi (the “dynamic configurations” of a given situation or power structure) and Éloge de la fadeur (1991) on dan (a prized quality of understatement in aesthetics and in personal relations, infelicitously translated in the English version of this excellent work as “blandness”). In this latest slim volume to appear in English, Jullien applies the same approach to the crucial Chinese notion of yang-sheng (“nourishing” or, perhaps better, “nurturing” life), as expressed in the classic writings of the shadowy Daoist thinker Zhuangzi (4–3 c. BCE) and the “Neo-Daoist” savant Xi Kang (3 c. CE). Jullien’s rambling meditation on the uncategorical immediacy of Daoist wisdom is remarkably compelling as a revelation of his own personal philosophy of life, less so as a reliable reading of the Chinese texts, which he tends to refashion in line with his own beliefs, apparently ignoring them through long stretches of impassioned prose. To be fair to Professor Jullien, a large measure of the failure of this book to persuade must be laid at the feet of the translator, who consistently fails to grasp the fine differences of nuance between Gallic and English modes of argumentation, falling back for the most part on literally accurate yet conceptually misleading calques of the original phraseology.
Andrew Plaks, professor emeritus of East Asian studies and comparative literature at Princeton University and regular visiting professor of Chinese at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is the author of Archetype and Allegory in the “Dream of the Red Chamber” and The Four Masterworks of the Ming Novel. He recently translated two canonical Confucian texts, Ta Hsueh and Chung Yung, for Penguin Classics.