Livia Kohn‘s Daoist writings are of linguistic interest and global significance because Professor Kohn uses the correct Chinese terminologies (instead of fabricated Western translations) most of the time, earning her the nickname “Professor Dao” from Chinese and Western professors and audiences at the latest high-profile 2012 Conference on ‘From Axial-age Civilizations to Dialogical Civilization’ in Dengfeng, China. In fact, Professor Kohn, in my opinion, embodies the idea of ‘Dialogical Civilizations’ linguistically like few others.
The seemingly effortless blending of European philosophical writings with the correct Chinese terminologies creates two obvious effects: First, the true names of unique concepts like qi, Dao, yin and yang, and so on, are correct and thus feel more authentic and intrinsically East-Asian and non-European. Second, because Professor Kohn’s texts are sprinkled with those correct Chinese names, the casual English reader (letting alone the monolingual one) will be overwhelmed by the foreign vocabulary and, simultaneously, be confronted by his own ignorance about some key elements of the Chinese tradition. Most will want to learn more about it. But some impatient commentators may get impatient, angry, even flip the books away and call those Chinese words in an English text some unnecessary burden of word magic, spiritualism or, worse, frippery.
After all, how do we translate qi? Maybe “life energy”? Or “Harmonious energy flow”? “Primordial substance”? No wait, those are definitions, are they not? Definitions are one thing, translation is another. No. Better to call qi just what it is and how it came to be known and loved outside China: qi. Ah, now we can enter a fairer dialogical age, an age in which – unlike in the colonial past – East-Asian concepts will make a comeback onto the world stage, and a deep dive into the history of thought.
Professor Kohn, of course, employs also common neutral Western translation of Chinese words like bianhua (change), or ziran (natural order, or “self-so”), but, as sinologists should do, she always provides the original Chinese characters and transliteration, and she does so not by putting them into (brackets), but by letting them enter the natural text flow uninhibited. People in academia know how rarely this is done, and done so well, as most publishers require us sinologist to follow a common format and typographical conventions that treat Chinese language as a dead (or better: undead) entity that needs first a proper European translation, and in addition a special treatment and punctuation to mark it as foreign anachronism. No, Livia Kohn’s writing style is the successful merging of many languages into a global East-West language. This should be celebrated.
Here’s a simple extract of her public lecture entitled ‘Daoist Contributions to a saner world’:
Daoism is the higher indigenous religion of China. It has prehistoric roots in nature veneration, ancestor worship, and the appreciation of the universal order. Historically its first representatives are the axial-age thinkers Laozi 老子 and Zhuangzi 庄子 whose works –the Daode jing 道德经 and the book Zhuangzi– have remained at the heart of the tradition. They focus on the nature of Dao –the underlying order of the cosmos- and fundamental principles of working with it to the greater benefit of all.
For more information of the 2012 China Dengfeng Conference 中国-登封 see here.