‘Key Concepts in Chinese Thought and Culture’ (Part I) will be published in June 2015 by the Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press. As the first “Chinese ideological and cultural terms” series of books, the book contains the first 100 terms of ideology and culture embodying traditional the Chinese humanistic spirit and core values, covering the arts, history, and philosophy as the main three subject areas. Concise Chinese interpretation and translation are provided for each of the terms.
In December 2013, the State Council approved the establishment of ‘Key Concepts in Chinese Thought and Culture Project’ (hereinafter referred to as “Project”), established in Beijing Foreign Studies University and related research organizations. It collaborates with more than 70 leading experts and scholars, from China and abroad, in the fields of literature, history, philosophy, and other disciplines, jointly screening the historical body of research and interpretation, and carrying out translation of those Chinese ideological and cultural key terminologies.
Spread to the world the China voices
Due to the lack of a uniform interpretation and translation guide, those ideological and cultural characteristics of traditional Chinese culture embodied in its key terminologies, reflected in its ways of thinking in the international exchange and dissemination of ideas, it appears that different interpretation have often led to cultural misunderstanding. This publication ‘Key Concepts in Chinese Thought and Culture’ was needed to breach into this information gap and discuss the most important concepts in Chinese thought and culture and provide accurate expression and translation for them, but also point out to translation difficulties that in the past were affecting the quality and effectiveness of the ‘China voices’ spread. As German literary critic Pei Desi (Thorsten Pattberg) pointed out, “Even among the most highly educated Westerners, few intellectuals have ever heard about ‘ren’ or ‘tianxia’, these Chinese words and termini.”
‘Key Concepts in Chinese Thought and Culture’ (Part I) is to solve the actual problem
“Project” Academic Committee, FLTRP chief editor Mr. Yan Xuejun said the book will be sold mainly to English-speaking countries, the Confucius Institute worldwide, and the Chinese Embassy and consulates around the world in order to help promoting it. The intended audience includes not only those invested in the Chinese tradition and culture, but also our foreign friends, and domestic young readers. “Deeply influenced by Western culture, many of today’s young people not pay enough attention to the nation’s outstanding traditional culture”, he expressed concern.
“For those Western students who emerge into Chinese philosophy, and hope to carefully and accurately understand the Chinese traditional culture, it is necessary to master the vocabulary of this series. The new interpretations of the key terms provided in this book are ‘entry’ and ‘key’ to the study of cultural China.
Another of the “Project’s” distinguished scholars, Roger Ames, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Hawaii and editor of “East-West Philosophy” journal, praised the importance of such a book published. He believes that the “Project”, a collaboration of a number of leading scholars of high academic reputation, is going to provide students in the West a new cultural horizon and valuable key resources of architectural, cultural significance.
What terms were selected?
Perhaps readers are curious about the screening process, and how the core terms for ‘Key Concepts in Chinese Thought and Culture’ were selected. “Project” Expert Committee member Wang Bo, Professor at the Department of Philosophy of Peking University, explained:
“The basis for the election [of the concepts featured in this publication] is their eminence in works of literature and philosophy. We first choose those that best embody the spirit of China and signify a Chinese philosophical understanding of the world. What do Chinese people actually understand when hearing those terms and concepts? To this, we consulted and reflect upon the latest researches and interpretations by contemporary scholars. For example ‘tian’, ‘ren’, ‘yi’, and ‘wu-wei’ are of tremendous cultural significance for China and are still widely used today. ”
Another “Project” expert, Yuan Jixi, Professor at Renmin University, illustrated the principle terms screening: “We paid attention to our cultural heritage, of course, but mainly focused on those key terms that have an impact on modern society. For example, ‘zhiyin’, this word, has rich cultural connotations, and is usually used to describe intimate friends. It originally referred to a person with literary appreciation for an author’s artistic creations –a soul mate.
Yan Xuejun pointed out that the Chinese Classics were screened and interpreted thoroughly for this project. We have several experts and scholars familiar with the key concepts from important Chinese texts such as the Book of Songs, the Analects of Confucius, Mencius, The Book of Poetry, History Through Justice, and many other classics.” He said, “The most difficult was for us to restrict ourselves to equal or less than two hundred characters to explain the meaning and content of the very complex ideological and cultural termini. Each term could be written lengthy essays about. Refining and editing the available knowledge down to short text is not always easy. But there is a growing need in the humanities for precise and concise nutshell explanations so that the average reader gets the best possible overview and entry point. In addition, our interpretations of the terms reflect the most up-to-date research.”
Challenges in Translation
Due to the huge differences in Chinese and Western languages, translators often struggled to find the corresponding translation. Many Chinese cultural key terms are exceedingly unique and complex to find accurate, matching English words for. “Many times,” Academic Committee member and FLTRP deputy editor Zhang Si Ying said, “an exact term and equivalent for the Chinese concept can not be found in English.”
Pei Desi believes that Chinese has many unique vocabularies that should not be translated at all. For example, instead of “dumplings”, we could use the correct Chinese name ‘jiaozi’. Traditional food names should be transliterated (not translated) and this way should be able to enter the English language proper. He said the Islamic world has given us many new word creations such as ‘bazaars’ (market), ‘kebabs’ (kebab), etc. Other recreational vocabularies from other parts of the world have also been successfully incorporated into European languages, Hindu words such as ‘dharma’ ‘karma’, and ‘yoga’, etc. Chinese words, on the other side of the spectrum, are lacking behind. Although Chinese concepts such as ‘kungfu’ (martial arts) or ‘Yin-yang’ have been accepted by the West, but with regards to cultural soft-power, Chinese words in Western languages are vastly underrepresented.
In order to maximize the accuracy of Chinese interpretation of the original presentation, people should avoid the wrong translation. Let us look at previous translations of ‘ren’. The book recommends a transliteration. “People used to translate ‘ren’ as “benevolence,” but ‘ren’, this Chinese term, is far more technical and complex than what daily users of the English word “benevolence” refer to. Broadly speaking, there are three aspects to ‘ren’. First, it refers to compassion and conscience. Second, it is morally rooted in and the basis for all relationships, for example between a father and his sons. Third, it refers to the state of the [human] universe. By simply translating ‘ren’ as love or benevolence we do not quite catch the richness of connotation in the Chinese tradition.” Zhang Si Ying explained.
Zhang Si Ying said that all the entries were excessively peer reviewed. Some interpretations and translations had to be changed five or six times during the process in order to achieve the most accurate, reliable representation. Take ‘liangzhi’ for example. It roughly means intuitive knowledge or conscience. In the Chinese Canon, there are cases in which ‘liangzhi’ corresponds to justice, or even principles of heaven, as in “Tianli ji shi liangzhi”. However, such translations do not make a lot of sense. So, after sinologists and scholarly translators engaged in several rounds of discussions, they agreed that a more appropriate translation of “Tianli ji shi liangzhi” should be ‘principles of heaven and conscience are the same in essence’. Zhang Si Ying also said the book’s translation does not exclude various existing translation, but provides a new choice and point of reference for scholars and translators.
The rest of the series is expected to be published in the coming years. At the same time, the “Project” website, ‘Key Concepts in Chinese Thought and Culture’ at www.chinesethought.cn, will be updated regularly and present videos, essays, and other content to our reader.