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  • Mengzi: With Selections from Traditional Commentaries
  • Yuet Keung Lo
Mengzi: With Selections from Traditional Commentaries. Translated by Bryan W. Van Norden. Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 2008. Pp. xliv + 207. Paper.

Despite a recent resurgent interest in traditional Chinese classics in the Chinese speaking world, the work of Mengzi seems to be neglected. Kongzi (Confucius), the master of Confucianism, appears to monopolize the limelight. Thus, Professor Bryan Van Norden's new English translation of the Mengzi should be received with great delight. It has the added value of including parts of the insightful commentary of the Neo-Confucian master Zhu Xi, which was required reading for the civil service examination in China from 1313 to 1905. Van Norden also interweaves his own comments [End Page 399] throughout the translation, sometimes illuminating both Zhu Xi's insights and the text of the Mengzi at once; altogether, he proves himself to be a reliable guide.

Van Norden's work is lucid, readable, and easily accessible to the layperson. The Introduction, in particular, was clearly written with a general audience in mind. In addition, the translation comes with a convenient English-Chinese glossary that explains the basic meaning of key terms in the Mengzi and gives references to where a particular term is used in the text. One cannot help but see Van Norden's confident experience as a college professor at work. He discusses virtually every important aspect, historical and philosophical, that is indispensable for the lay reader to understand Mengzi's philosophy.

Yet certain issues appear to lack proper contextualization. For instance, while Van Norden tells his readers "Mengzi situates his philosophical anthropology in a broader worldview" (p. xxxvii), they do not know why Mengzi would do that, what a worldview entails, and whose worldview was not as broad as his. They are also informed that "Mengzi sometimes treats Heaven as almost identical with the natural (and amoral) course of events" (p. xxxviii), but they do not know how Mengzi's idea of Heaven would be different from a totally natural and amoral course of events. This neglected comparison seems to be critical in defining who Mengzi was as a philosopher.

Factual errors also find their way into the Introduction. For instance, Van Norden says that Zhu Xi "approvingly cites Cheng Yi's view on Analects 17.2, which categorically identifies the term xing 性 (human nature) as nature endowed in qi 氣" (p. xliii). However, this is not how Zhu Xi understands it. Right at the beginning of his commentary, Zhu clearly says, "Human nature here includes qi endowment as well. Natures as embodied in qi of course vary in their qualities. Yet insofar as their beginning is concerned, they are not quite far apart."1 In other words, Zhu takes xing in this context to signify both nature as Pattern (li 理) and nature endowed in qi.

It is little known that Zhu Xi had a special method of exegesis in his Collected Commentaries to the Four Books. He first presents his own view, which he believes is faithful to the original meaning of the text. In elucidating this view, he may cite from other scholars. If he finds any other interpretation that could illuminate the text even though it does not unravel its original meaning, he attaches it at the end of his own view, with a little circle to demarcate it from the "faithful" reading. In the case of Analects 17.2, Zhu Xi no doubt disagrees with Cheng Yi, whose view is placed after a little circle, because to him xing in this context includes both the original nature of humans and their natures endowed in qi. Nonetheless, he considers Cheng Yi's view inspiring and useful in reminding readers of the distinction between original nature and nature endowed in qi. Thus, Van Norden's statement is misleading at best and, strictly speaking, erroneous.

Van Norden's error partly results from his ignorance of the said exegetic principle in Zhu Xi's nuanced, multilayered commentary, and in reality he consistently conflates the interpretations of distinctive nature assembled in Zhu Xi's Collected Commentaries into one grand exposition in his own running commentary. His inclusion of Yin...


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