- Zuo Tradition. Zuozhuan 左傳: Commentary on the "Spring and Autumn Annals." trans. by Stephen Durrant et al.
It was an exciting moment to first hold in hand, after many years of waiting, Stephen Durrant, Li Wai-yee, and David Schaberg's translation of the Zuozhuan: three handsome volumes with a total of over two thousand pages, including an extensive introduction, the Chinese and English text, annotations as well as a bibliography, and two useful indices. Almost 150 years after James Legge's groundbreaking work (1872), we now possess a new, state-of-the-art English translation of the largest and perhaps "most important text" (xvii) from preimperial China. Although the translators modestly decline that "our work replaces that of our predecessor" and reaffirm Legge as the "measuring rod" (xxiv), there can be no doubt that their work will henceforth set the standard.1 If Legge's translation marked the beginning of modern Zuozhuan studies, the translation by Durrant, Li, and Schaberg summarizes the achievements of the field in the twenty-first century. So how far have we come in these 150 years? To answer this question, it may be useful to compare some main aspects of Legge's work with the Zuo Tradition.
Both works have an extensive introduction giving an overview of the nature of the Zuozhuan, its composition, transmission, place in Chinese cultural history and other aspects of Zuozhuan studies. Both are impressive in their own ways: Legge's because it is based on a great deal of original research, and Durrant, Li, and Schaberg's because it provides a clear and accessible distillation of an ocean of scholarly literature. Despite the distance in time and scholarship that [End Page 491] separates these two introductions, the reader is immediately struck by the fact that both largely deal with the same issues: the relationship of Zuozhuan, Chunqiu 春秋, and the other two commentaries, Gongyang zhuan 公羊傳 and Guliang zhuan 穀梁傳; the history of the Chunqiu period; Zuozhuan's transmission; the scribal background; the role of Zuo Qiuming 左丘明, etc. True, much of this is essential information, and recent studies offer quite a few new insights: the historical caesura of the "ritual revolution," the importance of Zuozhuan texts for teaching and the "art of speaking," and so on. But despite the claim that "the last century or so has brought genuine advances in our understanding of the Annals and Zuozhuan" (xxiv), one cannot help the impression that scholarship is still circling around many of the same questions as 150 years ago.
Nor are "genuine advances" to be seen in all of them. For example, the very nature of Zuozhuan is still uncertain: should we treat it as a commentary on the Chunqiu, a work of history, or a literary work? The title of Durrant, Li, and Schaberg's translation seems to reflect this uncertainty. Whereas Legge chose a bold The Ch'un Ts'ew with the Tso Chuen, we now read Zuo Tradition supported by "Zuozhuan" as well as the Chinese characters 左傳, and additionally an explanatory Commentary on the "Spring and Autumn Annals." This title is as unsure of itself as Zuozhuan scholarship is of the nature of the text. Sinologists still discuss the Zuozhuan's "reliability as a historical source, at least for the period of time it claims to describe" (xxiii), without noticing that the question itself betrays a lack of theoretical understanding. The Zuozhuan is not a source for the Chunqiu period, period. It is a "literary masterpiece" (ix), as Durrant, Li, and Schaberg quite correctly note. And yet they seem to feel uneasy about this categorization, alternatively calling the Zuozhuan a "history," albeit "a particularly problematic instance of this category" (xxv), and they argue that "it might be as dangerous to dismiss the historical reliability of all the Zuozhuan as it is to accept it all uncritically" (xxxi). This is Solomonic but also extremely fuzzy. What, exactly, does "historical reliability" refer...