1. The Classical Chinese Language: What, How, and Why Does It Convey What It Conveys?

1.1 Chinese Characters

Odd as these three initial questions may appear, all of them have
been asked and answered differently by Western linguists at one time
or another. To be sure, much sophisticated work has been done over the
past century, and there is a general consensus on a variety of
phonetic, syntactic, and semantic matters. But disputes on an equally
wide range of other issues are just as numerous, with evidence and
arguments being advanced for incompatible theses about the different
dimensions of the language(s). Many of these issues have implications
philosophers should not ignore when engaged in translation and/or
interpretation, and perhaps should not ignore even when working
closely only in the contemporary Western philosophical tradition.

European scholars have been fascinated by the Chinese written
language since the early Jesuit missionaries to China began writing
about it in the late 16th century. A little later Andreas
Muller claimed to have worked out a “key” for Chinese in
the 1670s, which excited the young Leibniz, already keenly interested
in all things sinological since at least 1668 (Leibniz WoC: 11
[1668]). At about the same time Jacob Gohl wrote a book arguing that
the language had to have been invented all at once (Duyvendak
1936). John Webb argued instead that Chinese was the primitive
language of the human race (1669). Leibniz retained his interest in
the language as well as all else having to do with China, but fairly
early gave up on the possibility of the written language being the
basis of the “Universal Characteristic” he sought as the
basis for reasoning throughout his life (Leibniz WoC: 38 [1679]).

For the next 150 years the study of the Chinese language was
overwhelmingly in the hands of missionaries, merchants, and diplomats
to the “Middle Kingdom”, amateurs all, with several
insights into the language mixed with fanciful speculations about its
origin, nature, and development. Most of these studies had as their
major goal ascertaining the extent to which Chinese philosophical and
religious beliefs were or were not compatible with “the one true
faith” in order for conversion work to go forward.

Coming closer to the present, the disputes about the nature of the
language are very different than in Leibniz’s day, but almost
equinumerous, beginning with what to call the characters that comprise
the written form. Among the candidates nominated for the title
are lexigraphs, phonograms, phonic
, phonoideographs, logographs,
morphographs, sinographs, syllabograms,
and syllabo-phonograms (DeFrancis 1984: 73; the list is not

For current purposes it is only necessary to note about this
nomenclature that its terms divide between emphasizing that the graphs
convey sounds (phonetics), which are in the majority, and a minority
suggesting the graphs function basically as conveyers of ideas, or
meanings, i.e., semantics (hereafter the more general terms
“characters” and “graphs” will continue to be
employed interchangeably). Within the general category of the
characters there are smaller groupings, the names for which have been
commonly agreed upon for some time. Three of these smaller groupings
we must examine briefly.

The total number of characters (individual graphs) in the largest
Chinese dictionaries is a little under 50,000, but less than a fifth
of those are found with any regularity in the classical texts, and
still today a working vocabulary of from 5000 to 7000 graphs is
considered sufficient for all but the most advanced reading. A very
small set of these characters are labelled “pictograms”,
or “pictographs”, being basically stylized pictures of
what they stand for: “tree” is written 木, the sun
日, and child, 子. These characters are highly
stylized now. They better represented what they signified before, but
were nevertheless conventional even then, as all characters have been
(see below).

The members of a second, still rather small set of characters are
generally called “ideographs”, supposedly representing
more abstract ideas incapable of being pictured directly. There are
two subsets here. The first comprises fairly simple and direct graphs:
一, 二 , and 三 signify 1, 2, and 3 respectively,
and 上 and 下 are “above” and
“below”, or “high” and “low”. The
second subset involves less simple and direct graphs, but they do have
much illustrative content. Some famous textbook examples of this
category of ideograms are ming, which combines the pictures
of the sun 日 and moon 月together to signify the Chinese
word for “bright”, 明 (as with English, it also
means “intelligent”). Here is a paradigmatic example of
the conventionality of the characters. The sun and the moon together
do suggest light, illumination, etc. But so would a picture of a
candle, or two candles; a fire, or two fires. Many pictures might
represent a word, or concept, and consequently, to some extent at
least, using sun and moon together for “bright” is
arbitrary, the signified cannot be determined unambiguously from the
signifier alone; it must become conventional.

Together, pictographs and ideographs make up less than 10% of all
Chinese characters. Among the remaining 90+%, far and away the most
common are generally referred to as phonetic compounds. These
are made up of at least two elements, one of which is semantic, or
meaning-indicative, and are called significs or, more
misleadingly, radicals. The other element in compound graphs
is the phonetic, or sound-indicative component. Thus the word
for “spider” in Chinese (zhu) sounds exactly like
the word for “dark red” (burgundy, vermilion), so the
graph denoting “spider” contains that color word
(朱). But to indicate the reference more clearly in its written
form, the graph for “insect” (虫) has been added as
a signific, obtaining the phonetic compound graph
蛛, zhu.

Phonetic compounds do not, however, form a neat and tidy
set. Dao—probably the most pregnant character in the
Chinese classical lexicon—has two major components, both of
which are significs in themselves, and neither of which is pronounced
anything like dao, in either their ancient or modern

Similarly, the word wu which means “lie”,
“falsely accuse”, or “malicious” is and was
pronounced like the word for “witch” or
“shaman”, 巫, which became the phonetic component of
the word when it took on a written form, with “speech”,
言 added as signific. If we now note that witches were not
trustworthy in ancient China we end up with a graph signifying
“words of a witch”, 誣—but the graph is listed
as a phonetic compound, not an ideograph. This example can be
generalized: many so-called “phonetic” elements in complex
Chinese characters also have semantic content, and often are even more
meaning-indicative than the signific. Using similarly-sounding words
to generate new meanings for one or more of them is called
“paronomasia” (Ames 2008), and at times, homonyms or
near-homonyms are used to define a word, a technique used in
China’s first dictionary the Shuowen jiezi (ca.
1st century CE).

It probably seems odd that the sounds of a language could
be of any import in explicating the philosophies of its speakers:
French certainly sounds different than German, but it is highly
doubtful the differences are of any philosophical import. The links
between spoken and written Chinese in the past, however, are more
tenuous than between French or German, contributing to the written
language developing a grammar that is sui generis, requiring
semantic material on a much larger scale than is common in other
languages. And if the grammars of the spoken and written languages
differ, one must be very careful when considering the relation of
language to thought in ancient (and to some extent modern) China.

In the first place, the Chinese language has only about 400
distinct sounds (virtually all characters are single
syllable). Because it employs tones—from four to eight depending
on the “dialect”—the sounds may be multiplied to
1600, but this is still a very small number for developing a
vocabulary, and of course the sounds are not distributed evenly across
the characters. Consequently there are a very large number of homonyms
in Chinese. In a modern 5000+ dictionary, for example, there are 81
graphs pronounced yi, 46 of them in the falling tone; 80
graphs are pronounced shi, 15 in the even tone. Anciently
there were a number of consonantal endings to the sounds that have
since disappeared in most dialects, but even then there would be
anywhere from 3 to 10 or more different graphs—hence with
different meanings—pronounced in exactly the same way (Karlgren

What this means is that the written language often cannot be
understood when read aloud unless the listeners are already familiar
with the passage and what this means in turn is that the written
language should probably not be seen as a transcription of speech
(Graham 1987: 390; DeFrancis 1984: 126).

All languages have this difficulty with homophones, but those with
an alphabet have recourse in their written forms to disambiguate the
aural homonymy without a context even though the mechanism is not
consistently employed (Cooper 1978: 7). Speakers of English are never
confused about the meanings, for example, of “bare” and
“bear”, or “flower” and “flour”.
“Bear” and “bear” however can cause speakers
of English trouble without a context that gives them the animal and
not the “carry” reading, or vice versa.

To complicate the graph/sound relation still further, there are
some graphs that have different meanings when pronounced differently.
樂, for example, means “music” when pronounced
as yue, “joy”, “pleasant”, or
“find pleasure in” when pronounced as yao, and
“to enjoy” (intransitive) when pronounced
as le.

These communicative difficulties could, however, also be seen as a
blessing in disguise, for they seem to have given Chinese thinkers two
distinct linguistic media for communicating their thoughts and
feelings: speaking their native tongue, a natural language, and
writing classical Chinese using characters, at least a semi-artificial
language (but one with great beauty and power to affect readers). Thus
what follows “so-and-so said” in any classical text is
very rarely a strict transcription of what the speaker actually said;
instead, it very probably indicated in brief form what was
meant. Adding a syntactic/stylistic note in this context, one
scholarly wit has said of the classical language

Its telegraphic terseness could reflect ordinary speech only if
every Chinese speaker were far more laconic than any Gary Cooper
character. (Hansen 1992: 34)

Although the grammar of written classical Chinese differs from the
language spoken then or now, and it is neither systematic nor
complete, one shouldn’t think it was consciously put together by
some particularly clever language-oriented members of the Chinese
intelligentsia at a particular place and time long ago, as Jacob Gohl
did (Duyvendak 1936: 6). Rather is it almost surely a development of
the oracle bone inscriptions of the Shang Dynasty (Keightley
1978). Thus the written and spoken languages evolved differently over

The spoken language, like all others, was undergoing phonetic
change much of the time, which the written form could not reflect
because of its non-alphabetic nature; hence the rise of the use of
phonetic compounds, of which there were already almost 7000 out of the
9350+ graphs recorded in the Shuowen. Because the written
form could no longer reflect the sounds of the spoken there was much
less incentive to attempt reflecting syntax either, especially when it
is kept in mind that the spoken language was indeed continually
undergoing change as well, and that to refer to the differences in
sounds and sound patterns between them as “dialects”
overlooks the fact that some of the variants were (and are) as
different from each other as Italian from German. In this sense to say
“I speak Chinese” is like saying “I speak
European”. So the two language forms evolved separately for the
most part, the spoken, we may surmise, much more rapidly, both within
and between regional “dialects”.

Factors such as these are what must have led at least one
well-known sinologist to claim that “The Chinese characters made
Chinese civilization the culture of the book and not the orator”
(Creel 1997: 447). This generalization was based in large part on the
basis of Creel’s earlier work attempting to show the semantic
basis of the majority of the characters, i.e., that they were
basically ideographs (1936). Peter Boodberg replied quickly and in
detail, offering phonetic explanations for graphs Creel had analyzed
as semantic (1937). The debate continued, not without acrimony, with a
response from Creel (1938), and a rejoinder from Boodberg (1940). More
recently John DeFrancis argued long and hard for the phonetic
interpretation of the Chinese script (1984), as did William Hannas,

rejected the untenable assumption that Chinese
characters are “ideographic”, that is, relate to meaning
directly without the intervention of language. (1997:

Chad Hansen challenged this phonetic view (1993), arguing for the
appropriateness of the semantic emphasis of the graphs on a number of
counts, not the least of which was that the Chinese themselves took
the graphs to be semantically and not phonetically based, and that
they used the ideograph rather than the phonogram as the unit of
classification of their dictionaries. He was quickly rebuked for
engaging in “scientific creationism” (Unger 1993: 949; see
the pages following Unger for Hansen’s rejoinder).

In addition to the problem of ignoring the Chinese scholars’
view of their own language, the phonetics-based position suffers from
the fact that the graphs do not make for an efficient representation
of the sounds of the spoken languages. Both DeFrancis and Hannas,
insistent on the characters as basically representations of sounds,
nevertheless admit they do the job “poorly” (DeFrancis
1984; Hannas 1997: 1).

Establishing the precise nature of the relationship between
phonetic and the semantic elements of classical Chinese is not an easy
task; it is closer and more complex than it may seem at first,
especially when we take historical context into account. The earliest
philosophers conveyed their views orally, not in written form, with
the Confucian Analects as a prime example; more than half the
entries begin, as above, with “The Master said”, even when
what follows is paraphrase, unless extremely brief. It is of
importance, however, that readers of the Analects always keep
in mind that the Master was engaged in conversation with his
students. There is a dynamism in the text that is difficult to
appreciate if it is overread.

Further, China’s most revered book of poems is also its
oldest (ca. 8th century BCE), and the poems were and are
centrally concerned with sounds and sound patterns (and Confucius
insisted his students study it). Moreover, far and away the best means
of memorizing texts or parts of them is by knowing how to pronounce
the graphs in sequential order. Indeed, many works in the canon were
consciously rhymed at times during their composition to aid
memorization as a philosophical exercise (we will have more to say on
this theme in §4.2). On the other hand,
once you know that “to lie” is depicted as “the
words of a witch” you will likely not forget it. On the one hand
again, over 90% of the characters have a phonetic element in them. But
on the other, the Chinese themselves used semantics and not phonetics
for the construction of their dictionary classification system, as
Hansen noted.

The place of rhetoric in China is also contested. Like Creel,
another well-known sinologist could say “We know of no early
oratorical tradition in China” (Crump 1964: 36), and a
communications scholar maintains that there was no tradition of
rhetoric in China (Murphy 1983: 3). Others allow that there was, but
it was not worth much. To them, “Chinese rhetoric is
characterized by harmony, deprecation of speech, and lack of interest
in logic” (Lu and Frank 1993: 445). Contradicting all of these
latter generalizations is a lengthy work entitled Rhetoric in
Ancient China, Fifth to Third Century B.C.E.
(Lu 1998).

Clearly the relation of sound to meaning in classical Chinese is
not yet established to the satisfaction of all, linguists,
sinologists, or otherwise. The issues involved, as we are seeing,
extend far beyond linguistics normally construed to include problems
in philosophy—Chinese and Western—and politics. In the
words of one contemporary scholar:

In the scholarly war over the nature of Chinese
writing, while the two sides are engaged in earnest battles, the
Chinese scholars are onlookers, whose views are almost completely
ignored. (Gu 2014: 695)

There is more to be said about these matters, but first we must
consider briefly what links sound and meaning together in any
language: syntax.

1.2 On the Syntax of Classical Chinese

Roughly speaking, if phonetics/phonology is the study of the
relation of words to their sounds, and semantics the relation of words
to meaning, then syntax is the study of the relation of words to each
other, which is what we usually think of as grammar. Classical Chinese
is an isolating language, meaning that each graph stands alone at all
times, in isolation, without affixes of any kind, and unmarked for
case, number, gender, or tense. The third-person pronoun ta
can be he, him, her, she, it; they, them. And so can the
graph qi, 其. qu, 去, retains exactly
that form for go, going, gone, and went. What follows is that most
Chinese characters can serve equally as both nouns and verbs, and
modifiers too (adjectives and adverbs); apart from context no graph
has a unique grammatical function. Word order is supposedly fixed,
being Subject-Verb-Object, but so-called nouns regularly default to
verbs (e.g., “running is a strenuous exercise”). Style
also made the topic subject of the sentence difficult to ascertain, as
when the head noun or object was omitted whenever context made it even
slightly clear who or what it was.

Not infrequently the identity of the omitted subject
was not clear, even to fairly knowledgeable readers.
Consider one of the love poems in the Book of Odes about a
noblewoman and her knightly lover, translated three different ways.
First, (Legge 1871: 150):

“The cock has crowed
The court is
But it was not the cock that was
It was the sound of the blue

Second (Waley 1960: 37):

The Lady: The cock has crowed; it is full
The Lover: It was not the cock that crowed,
was the buzzing of those green flies.

Third, (Pound 1954: 45):

Cock’s crow’d. The courtiers are all

Crowding the hall.’
Cock hasn’t, she lies
one hears some blue flies.

Now in the first translation, we don’t know who says the cock
has crowed. In the second it is the Lady, and in the third, her lover.
And these patterns continue through the remaining stanzas. Clearly the
poem will be differently understood and enjoyed depending on who we
think is saying what. Legge and Waley are very well known translators,
and if some sinologists arch their eyebrows at including Ezra
Pound’s work—he knew only the rudiments of classical
Chinese when he began it—there are others who admire
Pound’s efforts, especially his translation of
the Analects as well as the Odes (Harbsmeier 1990:
140; for an appreciation of Pound of another kind in this regard, see
Nylan 2014: xxxiii–xl). An equally ubiquitous stylistic rule was
to employ parallel construction of sentences. At times this proved
extremely helpful for interpreting opaque sentences, when they
preceded or followed others structurally the same. But just as often
vagueness and/or indeterminacy resulted for all save the first

Thus, while matters of style are formally distinguished from syntax
in the study of languages, they are neverthless linked closely
together in classical Chinese, making many sentences difficult to
understand even in context. (At times it makes them easier: style,
especially parallelism, can at times indicate the best syntactic
reading of a passage). Overall—especially with its lack of
inflections—the language can be said to be “syntactically
overdetermined” in that there may well be a number of
grammatically possible ways of interpreting a syntactically generated
sentence (Fuller 1999: 2; Karlgren 1962). In a number of cases more
than one reading will be consistent with the context of the section,
and/or the entire text. This situation is exacerbated by the lack of
punctuation in early classical Chinese: no periods, colons,
semi-colons, dashes, commas, or parentheses were inserted into texts
until much later, and both then and now you can get very different
readings of a text depending on where you place a comma and/or a
period (for example: “John thought Marsha was a fool”;
“John, thought Marsha, was a fool”). The written language
compensates in part for the lack of punctuation marks by the use of
“function words”, graphs that have little or no meaning on
their own, but serve as grammatical instructions: zhe,
者, for example, usually nominalizes what precedes
it; ye, 也, is a phrase-final marker; hu,
乎, concludes sentences to be read interrogatively; and so on. A
few other graphs serve as both function words and meaning words. The
graph zhi, 之, is a sign of the genitive. Unfortunately
for easy reading, it can also be used as a pronoun, and as another
word for “to go”. That is to say, it is not always easy to
see the syntactic category into which zhi should be placed in
a sentence. Indeed, it has even been maintained that while the focus
of language in English is the sentence, in classical Chinese it is
context (DeFrancis 1984: 52; Hansen 1992: 34).

There is much more to say about the syntax of classical Chinese,
and the ways in which it does not reflect exactly the syntax of the
spoken language at any time, but for the purpose of understanding
issues of translation in Chinese philosophy, we might let the author
of a contemporary textbook of classical Chinese have the last word
(Fuller 1999: 2):

[T]here may be several perfectly grammatical ways to
explain the syntax of a [classical Chinese] sentence. Skill in reading
lies in deciding which alternative is most likely… Such
judgments of meaning cannot be based on grammar alone. They rely not
only on a knowledge of grammar, but also on a sense of the larger
arguments of the sentence, the paragraph, and the composition as a

1.3 On the Semantics of Chinese Characters

As we have seen, a few phonetic and a number of syntactic features
of Classical Chinese, singly or severally, can contribute to
generating a host of possible interpretations of any given passage(s)
in a text, by allowing for multiply grammatical readings of them. In
many if not most of these cases more than one of the readings will be
consistent with the context, and in keeping with the principle of
logical charity when that principle is applicable. At times semantic
concerns can reduce the number of interpretive possibilities of a
sentence or section, but unfortunately at other times the semantic
content of the characters can increase them. This is a major
reason why the Daodejing, to take a famous example, is
impenetrable to a few, enigmatic to many more, and highly allusive for
everyone, and has been the subject of well over 150 translations of it
in English alone, as noted earlier.

The opening line of Chapter I reads:

道 可 道 非 常

Dao ke dao fei chang dao.

  • (in first,
    third, and sixth positions here) means “path”,
    “way”, “the way”, “to
    follow”, “to go down a path”. It also means
    “to speak”, “doctrines”.
  • functions like
    English modal “can”.
  • a sign of
    negation; usually in the sense of “not the same

  • “unvarying”, “constant”,
    “enduring”, “unchanging”.

Literally, then, we have something like “dao
can dao not the same as unchanging dao”.

Here are six translations of this passage, all by reputable

  • 1.
    The Way that can be told of is not an Unvarying
    Way. (Waley n.d.: 141)
  • 2.
    The way that can be spoken of is not the
    constant way. (Lau 1963: 57).
  • 3.
    The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring
    and unchanging Tao. (Legge 1959: 95)
  • 4.
    A Way that can be followed is not a constant
    Way. (Ivanhoe 2002: 1)
  • 5.
    Way-making (dao) that can be put into
    words is not really way-making. (Ames and Hall 2003:
  • 6.
    As to a Dao—
    If it can be specified
    as a Dao
    It is not a permanent Dao. (Moeller 2007:

A bit of syntax first. Translations 1–4 all take the first
and third occurrences of dao as nouns, the second as a
verb. 5 makes verbs of all three, and 6 pretty much makes nouns of all
three. Nothing in the original strictly prohibits any of these; the
ultimate determinant of each translation almost surely had more to do
with the translator’s interpretation of the text overall than
with its language.

Turning to semantics, while all six translations have family
resemblances to one another, philosophically the ontological claims
made in 1, 2, 4 and 6 are different from 3 and 5 with respect to the
nature of the dao: in the former, if you can talk
about it, it isn’t a (or the) unchanging dao; whereas
in 3 and 5 the claim is that if you can walk (tread, follow)
the (or a) dao it isn’t a (or the)
unchanging dao. The articles in parentheses are also of
ontological import here:
a dao is surely different from
“the” dao (there are no articles in
Chinese). Four of the translators had
“way”/“tao”/“dao” grow capital
letters, presumably to tell the reader something more than would be
conveyed by using lower case (impossible in the original, of course).
But what exactly is it that is being conveyed?

Dao is by no means the only character with such different
meanings, although it is a special case. De, 德, has
the same multiplicity of them: “virtue”,
“power”, “excellence”, “force”,
“conduct”, “charisma”. And so do many other
graphs of philosophical import. At the same time, many other graphs do
not have meanings different enough to cause philosophical problems of
interpretation. Fa, 法, entries, for example, include
“law”, “regulation”, “method”,
“pattern”, where the general meaning of fa is
fairly clear, or at least clear enough that any of the English terms
could normally be used to translate it without undue loss of meaning,
or philosophical distortion.

Returning now to the first line of the Daodejing, all six
of the translators can proffer good reasons for choosing the English
words they used; their translations are consistent with Chinese syntax
and semantics, but without context it is impossible to ascertain which
meaning the author of the sentence intended; indeed, we don’t
know which of the several contributors to the text wrote the first
line. The principle of logical charity is no help in this
case—assume that the author(s) do not contradict
themselves—because the Daodejing is notorious for being
paradoxical: Chapter 56 begins: “Those who know do not speak;
Those who speak do not know”, which is clearly intentional, and
rhetorically efficacious despite its logical invitation to a charge
of tu quoque. It thus makes no sense at all to ask which of
the six translations is the correct one, or even
the best one, except on the basis of an interpretation of the
text as a whole, all six of which currently on offer herein contest
the others. Indeed there is a high probability that the author of the
line intended the ambiguity attendant on the construal
of the second dao, in which case it becomes impossible to
give the correct translation in English. One long-time student of
early Daoism summed up the matter succinctly: “Reading [it] is
an act of creation” (Welch 1971:
11). We will return to
the theme of ambiguity—both syntactic and
semantic—in §4.2.

If the student new to the study of Chinese philosophy takes away
one idea from this brief summarization of a complex set of
interconnected linguistic issues focusing on texts, perhaps the most
fruitful one would be that the writing of philosophy in classical
Chinese affects the philosophy written in a number of ways that call
into question the unquestioned assumption that writing is simply
transcribed speech, relatively unaffected by its means of
transmission. This is a dubious idea for any language, but especially
suspect with classical Chinese. Consider the following from Michael
Nylan, writing about the compositions of the Han Dynasty
scholar-official and author Yang Xiong (53 BCE–18 CE):

Phrases replete with reduplicatives, verbal alliteration and
rhymes would have delighted the tongue and the ears. The eye would
have been attracted by the dance of the black ink graphic patterns
on the silk scroll or bamboo bundle, especially where there was
visual alliteration. (Nylan 2011: 63)

A second useful idea to retain would be that relatively few issues
of translation of early Chinese texts can be resolved once for all on
linguistic grounds alone. Even judging better from worse readings
almost always hinges more on the interpretation given to the text by
the interpreter and/or translator, and the purpose(s) for which the
translation was done, topics to which we will now turn. We will begin
with some issues that are of import both in contemporary Western
philosophy and for the student of Chinese thought, following which we
will concentrate directly on the latter.

2. Metaphysical Issues

2.1 Can Machines Think in Chinese Rooms?

As we begin to address the major issues and problems in the
interstices between translation and interpretation a major problem
arises immediately, for some scholars would claim that there are no
such issues or problems: translations and interpretations are, and
should be kept distinct. Many proponents of machine translation and
Artificial Intelligence (AI ) are prime examples of this orientation,
and the field has become far more sophisticated than in the days when
the term “hydraulic ram” in an article on dam construction
came out “water buffalo” in the Russian. Many advances
have been made in the purely linguistic dimensions of mechanical
translation, enough, obviously, to maintain at least minimal
plausibility for the claim of distinctness between the two endeavors,
especially because of the rising number of users of automatic
translation on their laptops. But as those users also realize, when
the text to be translated exceeds the phrase level by much, context
must enter in to achieve correct outcomes. In context,
Khrushchev’s famous “We will bury you” at the
U.N. translated fairly literally a Russian colloquialism for which the
English equivalent would almost surely have been “We will leave
you in the dust” (he was talking about the difference between
planned and market economies at the time). Had the U.N. interpreter
heeded context, the Cold War might have been less chilling, and thus
perhaps less dangerous.

With classical Chinese context is almost always essential for
translation, making some interpretation equally
necessary. This may be a low level of interpretation, of course;
simply ascertaining the correct subject of a sentence where no subject
is present, or inferring a verb from a prior occurrence, without going
into any metaphysical speculations. We should note in passing,
however, that this Chinese example does not automatically refute the
machine translation claim of the separateness of the two efforts of
translation and interpretation. If it is indeed the case that
classical Chinese is not a close transcription of speech (which it
isn’t), but embodies a grammar (which it pretty much does), it
can be argued that it is thus at least somewhat not a natural language
in the way Natural Language Processing scholars use the term for
written documents they work with, and hence not a genuine
counterexample to the AI claim.

This issue bears directly on another well known philosophical
controversy. In 1980 John Searle published his famous “Chinese
Room Argument” (Searle 1980). He was attempting to counter the
AI claim that computers could be said to be intelligent—could
think, had minds—if they could pass the “Turing
Test” (Turing 1950). His argument was that the Turing test was
inadequate for establishing computer intelligence, conducting a
thought experiment in which a person placed in a room with an
appropriate computer program, could “read” strings of
symbols (Chinese characters) slid under the door into the computer,
and the program would generate an appropriate symbolic response, hence
pass the “Turing Test” for intelligence even though the
person at the computer didn’t recognize a single Chinese
graph. The “test” was that if 70% of the people (later
reduced to 30%) who engaged in the keyboard exchanges for five minutes
could not tell the AI responses from those of a native Chinese
speaker, the machine was intelligent.

A vast literature has grown up around the “Chinese Room
Argument”, in the philosophy of mind and related areas, which it
would take us too far afield to consider herein. But we should note
that Searle’s example presupposes that it is modern spoken
Chinese that is being recorded, not the classical language. In the
former, the parts of speech can normally be established by syntax
alone, surely an asset in sorting out semantic elements
appropriately. But the classical language always requires context to
make clear the grammatical function of a graph, and it will surely be
a long time (if ever) before any program could include not only the
syntax, but all of the contexts necessary for correctly
“reading” the semantics of the sentence(s). Establishing
context requires common sense, which computers remain notorious for

Replacement tests for Turing’s based on common sense are now
being worked on, (Levesque, et al. 2012), and a future work may allow
appropriate exchanges in classical Chinese to pass such a test. But
until then Searle’s conclusion about the inseparability of
translation and interpretation will continue to have force, and we can
get on with the issues and problems attendant on the links between
them in Chinese Philosophy as they impinge on contemporary
metaphysical concerns.

2.2 On a Very Different Idea of Conceptual Schemes

In 1973 Donald Davidson published an influential paper claiming,
nuances aside, that the idea of cognitive relativism—with truth
relative to particular conceptual schemes—was incoherent.
Davidson’s argument hinges on his rejection of what he calls
“The third dogma of empiricism”, namely, that we can
meaningfully distinguish conceptual schemes from an uninterpreted
reality—taken as “a neutral ground” or
“coordinate system”—by means of which we could
compare and contrast differing conceptual schemes. He says:

In giving up dependence on the concept of an
uninterpreted reality …we do not relinquish the concept of
objective truth—quite the contrary. Given the dogma of a dualism
of scheme and reality, we get conceptual relativity, and truth
relative to a scheme. Without the dogma, this kind of relativity goes
by the board. Of course truth of sentences remains relative to
language, but that is as objective as can be. (Davidson 1973:

Angus Graham rejected Davidson’s claim, saying that the
postulation of conceptual schemes different from our (modern Western)
one was “inescapable” for scholars of the language and
thought of other cultures, and indeed, “that the very idea was
an indispensable tool for such inquirers, to which Davidson’s
objections did not directly apply.” (Graham 1992: 59).

The idea that truth might be relative to a conceptual
scheme, however, was as abhorrent to Graham as it was incoherent to
Davidson. To be sensitive to the differing thought patterns of another
culture while yet not descending into philosophical unintelligibility
or epistemological chaos Graham argued that languages not having a
common ancestor will seldom have synonymous terms in their lexicons,
and consequently many sentences in such languages (i.e., English and
Chinese) will not be fully intertranslatable because they do not
express the same proposition (1992: 65). He can thus hold to a
conception of truth by claiming that “if a true
statement does have a translation equivalent … the latter will
be true as well” (1992: 68).

The major problem with Davidson’s account is that he
construes “conceptual schemes” as sets of propositions, on
the basis of which he is claiming that there can only be one such true
set. But as we have already begun to see—and will see more
of—from the example of Chinese philosophy written in classical
Chinese, the Chinese concern is much more with naming, syntax, and
what we might call “written rhetoric”—composing
persuasive ideas and transmitting them for effect both visually and
aurally—rather than truth in the propositional sense (for which
there is no close lexical equivalent in Chinese). Hansen has gone the
farthest with this claim throughout his major work: “…
language is a social practice. Its basic function is guiding
action” (1992: 3).

Indeed, for Graham and others the acceptance of the idea of
differing conceptual schemes to explain different vocabularies and
syntactic patterns is one important reason that makes the study of
Chinese philosophy interesting, so long as we also treat the different
schemes as equals and not treat one as in any way inferior to the
other. Seen as equals, it then becomes

… possible to use one to criticize something
in another, as Fingarette uses Confucius to undermine our inner/outer
dichotomy, Rosemont the problematic of moral choice, Hall and Ames the
concept of transcendence. (Graham 1992: 78)

We will be inclined to think of conceptual schemes as either true
or false if they are seen as systems of propositions as Davidson is
implying, but we can also view them as “a pre-logical pattern of
names … as the product of the classifying act of naming”,
according to Graham (1992: 68). And this is a proper area of study for
linguists, sinologists and philosophers; indeed, for Graham and many
others it is an area necessary to study for discussing
similarities and differences cross-culturally with any precision or
clarity (1992: 69).

There is, however, another dimension of Davidson’s position
that is also connected directly to his concern with propositional
truth as the locus of a “conceptual scheme”, but connected
in another way.

2.3 The Hypothesis of the Relativity of Linguistics

That idea can and does also refer to an overall way of being in and
responding to one’s world, which has been an important topic in
philosophy and linguistics since Benjamin Lee Whorf, who along with
his teacher Edward Sapir developed what has come to be known as the
Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity. Stated simply the
thesis is that the way human beings perceive and describe the world in
which they live is a function of the structure of the native
language(s) they acquire to describe and interact with it. In
Whorf’s words,

…[T]he grammar of each language is not
merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is
itself the shaper of ideas, the program and guide for the
individual’s mental…development. (1956: 212)

There is a “strong” version of the hypothesis, namely,
that the language structures determine the conceptual map we
employ in negotiating our world, and a weaker version that those
structures influence construction and use of the map, or to
return to Davidson’s language, the “conceptual
scheme”. Relatively few people subscribe to the strong version
of the hypothesis, but the weaker formulation has many adherents. For
thinking about translation issues, however, it is useful to note that
the standard objection to the strong interpretation of Whorf’s
claim is that if it was correct, he wouldn’t be able to give
examples of it. Davidson (among others), argues that Whorf endeavors
to describe the alien metaphysics of the Hopi, based on their
language, using, of course, English (Davidson 1973: 5). Mandelbaum
does the same for Whorf’s account of Apache and Shawnee (1979:
67). The point of the objection in both cases is that major
differences between languages in what they identify or call our
attention to notwithstanding, they may all be described in a single

But that is not the point that a strong version of Whorf
emphasizes. As Graham argued,

Whorf would hardly have denied that bilingual
readers would be clearer about the divergence with an equally
sophisticated Hopi account to compare with his. (1992: 68)

Of course we can give an account of different patterns of syntax
and naming—not different truths—between languages, in a
single language; that is what field linguists do, and increasingly,
comparative philosophers. Given that the 47 Eskimo words for
“snow” has been exposed as a hoax (Pullum 1991: 166) we
must take another example of the Whorfian orientation and its
implications. In China, native speakers do not seem to have
grandparents or siblings simpliciter. Rather do they have
individual lexical items for mother’s father, mother’s
mother, father’s father, father’s mother; and until the
one child policy went into effect they had younger brothers and older
brothers, and the same for sisters. Many of them will also use
distinguishing kin names for other elders with whom they stand in a
relation, whereas English makes do with generic “aunt” and
“uncle”. There is nothing at all mysterious here, nor any
question of truth: the Chinese simply have many more and specific
kinship terms than English speakers.

A more complicated if not mysterious situation obtains, however,
when we shift from simple naming to matters more syntactic. Graham
again (1992: 78):

Since the interrogative words of different languages
are not synonymous, and connect with their syntactic structures, it
seems inevitable that Aristotle or anyone else asking questions with
them will be categorizing along lines initially set by the language in
which he thinks.

Appreciating the full significance of what Graham is saying here
for issues of translation and interpretation is difficult at first,
for the very simple reason that the Aristotelian categories are quite
familiar to students of Western philosophy, having been conveyed to
them in translations from the Greek into English; therefore the
interrogatives of Greek won’t seem all that foreign to us, and
we feel fairly confident that we can read and understand Aristotle
pretty much as he intended to be read.

Thus, if we think only in terms of translating into or out of our
native tongue, and draw all our examples therefrom, many of
the more general linguistic and conceptual difficulties
attendant on the work of translation and textual exegesis elude our
understanding against the Whorfian perspective. To see what is at
stake, let us suppose that a South Asian philosopher wished to
translate Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason into Sanskrit.
At first blush it appears that there will be a fair amount of semantic
overlap in the vocabularies (perhaps not entirely surprising, both
German and Sanskrit being Indo-European languages). For the dual
nature of the world, saṃsāra can work very well
for phenomena (the world of experience), and the non-negative
dimensions of nirvana can stand duty for noumenal
(The world beyond, of which we cannot speak or know directly). The
fits are not exact, but close. Maya
approximates Erscheinungswelt (the world of appearances),
and dharma seems to embody pretty well Kant’s
overarching concern with the concept of duty, especially
since dharma also means and is closely bound up with
’law,’ matching Kant’s linking of duty and (moral)

These semantic parallels are not inconsequential,
but it is highly unlikely that by utilizing a Sanskrit vocabulary
Kant’s philosophy is going to come through a translation at all
clearly. What, for example, to do with karma? It does not
appear in the Critique or in any of Kant’s other
writings. The Hindu Sanskritist, however, might believe that every
rational person had an idea of karma even though it might not
always be explicit beyond the confines of Indian civilization, and
therefore feel justified in attributing the concept to
Kant implicitly, and get on with his translation and
exegesis. Of course for us this will not do; it is incredible that the
concept of karma played any role whatsoever in Kant’s
thinking. But if this be admitted, then the employment of the other
terms adumbrated above becomes suspect, for their meanings are linked
intimately not only to each other, but
to karma. The dharma of each of us is determined by
our karma, the chains of which, speaking figuratively, we
must break if we are to escape samsara
for nirvana.

Thus Whorf seems to require translators and interpreters—of
non-Indo-European language materials in particular—to think
about how best to explicate abstract classifications based on
grammatical categories and lexical items not found in one of the
languages under study. But in addition to the conceptual, it is also
imperative to think carefully about how best to explicate the
experiential sense of being in the world among speakers of very
different languages. Returning to our earlier example of kin terms,
the Whorfian orientation suggests we might ask whether or how young
Chinese are or are not situated in their families differently than
their American cousins, owing to the difference in the specificity of
the relations in which they stand and speak with their kin.

That is to say, the Whorfian hypothesis does not have to be
construed as having to do solely, or even mainly with truth
conditions, but rather with human experiences as they are
molded by the languages people speak that affect the contexts of their
experiences. This is what seems to be the point of the Whorfian
hypothesis: there are very different ways we may describe and be in
the world we inhabit jointly, but experience differently because of
our language and cultural determinants, and thus describe in ways that
may not be altogether intertranslatable with a language that molded
different experiences for its speakers.

Thus the translator and exegete must struggle to convey the ways of
being in the world the authors of their texts indicate in their
writings, and learn how to get around the problems caused by the fact
that not all passages from the Chinese classical texts are fully
intertranslatable into English. It is an important struggle which few
translators have engaged in, but must begin to tackle if the charge of
a Eurocentric bias in Chinese philosophy is ever going to be fully met
(see §3.4, below).

Conceptual relativism does not follow from these claims. It would
follow only if two languages were fully intertranslatable, but that a
true statement in one turned out to be false in the other; so far no
plausible examples of this possibility have been advanced. Thus truth
conditions à la Davidson should not be of direct
concern in these contexts—but will be in the consideration of
how to deal with incommensurability with respect to exegetical
methodologies, to which we will turn
in §4.1.

3. Why Interrogate Chinese Philosophical Texts?

3.1 Introduction

There are almost as many answers to this question as there are
comparative philosophers working in the field of Chinese thought.
Herein we may cover only a few of them as illustrative of more general
trends and tendencies. Moreover, the reader must bear in mind that a
great many translations and accounts of Chinese philosophy have been
and still are made by non-philosophers, adding more answers to the
question of why the texts are deemed worthy of interrogation than can
be taken up herein.

Despite the multiplicity of appropriate responses to the questions,
however, the reasons for asking them basically reduce to two, and they
hold not only for Chinese writings, but all foreign philosophical
texts. We translate and interpret them in order to 1) learn more about
the people in the culture whence the text came; and/or 2) to learn
more about ourselves and our own culture. That is to say, most texts
worthy of translation and exegesis are both windows on the culture
that produced them and mirrors of our own.

There are numerous ways these goals can be achieved individually,
and together, depending on the nature of the approach to the
texts. First we will examine briefly the interrogation of Chinese
texts against the background of the problems, patterns of
argument and standards of rational justification in the Western
philosophical tradition; its “grammar”, so to speak
(Makeham 2012: xii). The governing idea is that although surely
different, Chinese thinkers have enough in common with their Western
counterparts to make associative and contrastive comparisons between
them and/or their ideas a useful method of engagement with the

Then, in the following section (3.3) the
texts are interrogated a little differently, with the governing idea
being something like a “hermeneutics of suspicion” in
reverse. With this approach the “grammar” of the Western
philosophical tradition is downplayed to the extent possible, the
exegetes and translators believing that it distorts the Chinese
materials by overwriting them with distinctly Western concerns; we
should not look for theodicean writings in a culture without a concept
of an all-good creator God. Instead of asking “To what extent do
these texts suggest answers to philosophical questions that vex
us?” they tend to ask “ To what extent do these texts
suggest we might ask different philosophical questions?”
Finally, in §3.4 we will sketch quickly
the problematik of Chinese philosophers in China, and how and
why it overlaps only slightly at present with the Western

3.2 The Comparative Approach

For the great majority of Anglophone and European comparative
philosophers of China the Western philosophical heritage is the basis
for the comparisons. This may or may not be regrettable, but is in
some measure unavoidable because it is obviously the more familiar
tradition and the ground of the comparativist’s views. It is
hard to imagine any scholar essaying a translation of a text without
some knowledge of what it’s about, and its importance, and for
philosophers that “aboutness” and the importance stem from
conceptions drawn from the translator’s own philosophical
training, which is the kernel from which the interpretation will
grow. Obviously close and careful readings of the text can
alter—perhaps significantly—the original interpretation
given to it, but an interpretation of some kind we tend to have at all
times when working with a Chinese classical text (or any other).

Some texts wear their interpretations pretty much on their sleeves;
it is hard to interpret the “Legalist” Hanfeizi
text as a Confucian treatise because of the extent to which it is a
criticism thereof, championing a system of regulations and laws that
was an anathema to The Master. Most Chinese classical texts are not,
however, of this kind, as we should already expect from our earlier
discussion about the classical language. They require a good deal of
interpretive analysis and evaluation. Almost none of them are pure,
the work of a single author and unaffected by the vagaries of history
or the ravages of time. They are composites, with fragments of several
texts often strung together by we-know-not who, then burned in large
quantities during the bibliographic holocaust of 213 BCE and the
destruction of the libraries during the civil war that followed soon
afterward; with remaining copies re-assembled—again by the
nameless—and that is pretty much the way they have come down to
us. Greater understanding of several texts has come from unearthing
very old copies of them written on bamboo or silk at recently
excavated archaeological sites, particularly those at Mawangdui in
Hunan and Guodian in Hubei; but it remains that virtually every work
we have today is more or less corrupt.

The composite nature of most texts also means there can be no tidy
classification system for them either, nor even for their parts at
times: labelling this chapter of a text Daoist, or Mohist, and that
one more or less Confucian ignores the fact that there were a large
number of ideas current in the classical period, with different
thinkers adopting and adapting them in different ways. We may speak of
lineages—the followers of a particularly gifted
teacher—but few scholars any longer think of clear and distinct
philosophical “schools”.

One highly composite text—both ideologically and
temporally—is the Analects of Confucius, a long string
of abbreviated statements by or about Confucius and his students, not
put into its present form until at least two centuries after he died
in 479 BCE (Kim and Csikszentmilhalyi 2014). Most translations and
exegeses of the text place great emphasis on his ethics, and those of
his successors, especially Mencius. They have been interpreted against
the background of consequentialism (Im 2011); Christianity (Legge
1871); Kantian (many mainland scholars ever since Liang Qichao and his
student Mou Zongsan a century ago); as virtue ethics, Aristotelian and
otherwise (most comparativists working in the field today; see Tiwald
2010); as Character ethicists (Kupperman 2004); as one among several
“natural moralities” (Wong
2006); or their views
have been addressed against the background of differing strands of
feminist ethics (Raphals 1998; Li 2000; Wang 2003; Rosenlee 2007).

It would be a mistake to ask which of these readings of
the Analects or the early Confucians in general is
the correct one. In the first place, we must note that all of the
ethical theories save one are Western, and the questions focus on
which one best fits with early Confucian writings. Even more
basically, the concept of ethics as a delimitable field of
philosophy is itself Western
, not Chinese, which problematizes
even more the question of “correctness”. Consequently the
translator/exegete must constantly guard against reading out of the
text simply what he or she has read into it. Rather obviously
Confucius and his successors could not hold all these ethical
positions, and perhaps they didn’t hold any of them, or any
ethical theory at all. Thus all these interpretations can’t
possibly be right, and more probably they are all of them wrong in at
least some respects.

Indeed, perhaps even to suggest right and wrong is wrong here. If
the reader wants only to know what the statements in
the Analects originally meant to those who first heard them
then all these philosophical readings must be suspect in some
degree. A more purely narrative and less analytic/evaluative approach
is called for. Asking how much like Aristotle the sayings of Mencius
may be is different from ascertaining how King Liang heard them when
Mencius supposedly first spoke to him.

Answering the latter question is more often done by sinologists
with disciplinary training other than philosophy, in which the issues
are more philological, etymological and historical (see Brooks and
Brooks 2001), but a number of philosophers have well served the
profession by focusing heavily on the translation rather than
exegetical side of comparative work, saving their exegetical remarks,
if any, for introductions or notes (an older example is
D.C. Lau’s Tao Te Ching (1963), a newer one Eric
Hutton’s Xunzi (2014)). Again, textual problems arising
from this kind of activity tend to be more philological and historical
than exegetical or philosophical, even though the texts are basically

Both questions, however, are important ones with respect to
translation and textual exegesis, for both can generate significant
insights. Asking whether Confucius may be legitimately construed as a
closet consequentialist, or feminist, can enlarge the reader’s
view of these ethical orientations, as well as illumine a number of
dimensions of the Master’s views. On the other hand, striving to
give an account of a thinker or group of them at the time they lived
allows readers more conceptual room to form their own judgements about
the value of the views in the translation and/or exegesis.

We may see the same points with another type of comparative
textual scholarship done philosophically, examining similarities and
differences between a specific Chinese and a specific Western
thinker. One might take two intellectual giants from their cultures
and juxtapose them, like Aristotle and Confucius (Sim 2007; Yu 2007;
Ivanhoe 2014). Or investigate how much like Kierkegaard’s
anti-rationalist reaction to Hegel is Zhuangzi’s skepticism
about reason (Carr and Ivanhoe 2000). Or choose two disparate
thinkers, and employ new comparative practices to elucidate some
ostensibly similar concepts in differing cultural contexts (Yearley

What can be learned from such studies? Taking the
Aristotle/Confucius comparisons, we learn just how much weight
Confucius gave to rituals, family, customs and traditions as
prerequisite for flourishing personal lives and social harmony, for
example. The weight grows even heavier when we reflect that Aristotle
said almost nothing about rituals, family, customs and traditions,
though he dealt in great detail with great sensitivity in virtually
all aspects of human life personal and social. By his silence on
ritual matters he obliges us to look at Confucius’s insistence
on those dimensions of human life again. He was deeply
concerned with ritual performance; why?

In the same way we may obtain new insights into Aristotelianism:
there are libraries full of commentaries on the writings of Aristotle
gathered over the past two millennia, but it is doubtful that any of
them commented on the significance of the absence of any concern with
ritual matters in those writings. By placing Confucius alongside him
the lacunae quickly becomes obvious, and invites our

Another dimension of the comparative approach involves focusing on
a specific audience for the comparativist’s translation work and
commentary. If we believe the Mozi resembles Utilitarianism
in many respects for instance, the writings of Bentham and Mill can
serve well as the interpretive framework for our efforts. The specific
syntactic patterns and lexical items we employ, however, plus notes
and commentary, will be somewhat different if we are basically writing
for a general audience of undergraduates or the general reader than if
we are trying to engage other philosophers of a Utilitarian persuasion
in dialogue about the contribution(s) the Mohist views can
make to the further sophistication of the views of Bentham and Mill
(Angle 2014: 229). And with only minor caveats, the same may be said
for exegeses of the text in comparative contexts.

Many comparative philosophers also do strict exegeses no less than
comparative ones, focusing on simply explicating, against a
philosophical background, the dominant views of a person,
“school”, text or concept. Examples of each are Leo
Chang’s The Philosophical Foundations of Han Fei’s
Political Theory
(1986); Daoism Explained, by Hans-Georg
Moeller (2011); Heaven, Earth and Man in the Book of Changes,
by Hellmut Wilhelm (1977); and Ironies of Oneness and Difference:
Coherence in Early Chinese Thought
by Brook Ziporyn (2013).

3.3 The Contrastive Approach

The comparative approach to exegesis in Chinese philosophy
obviously leaves much room for consideration of differences as well,
which are often as illuminating as the similarities, and at times even
more so. This approach also tends to enrich philosophy overall by
increasing its scope, reach, and capacity for self-correction; there
is no better cure for culture-boundedness than steeping oneself in
another. And in that way—as well as many
others—comparative philosophers of China may hope to engage in
fruitful dialogue with other philosophers ignorant of non-Western
cultures in general, Chinese in particular.

All of these laudable consequences of the comparative approach
notwithstanding, there is another way to interrogate Chinese texts
which merits attention because it is equally capable of illuminating
them. This latter approach places the Western tradition more in the
background while engaged in research, interpretive and translation
efforts. That is to say, the translating philosopher must be open to
the text as it is, not within the contexts determined by the nature of
the questions addressed to it in the vocabulary of Western philosophy.
This critical stance is not urging philosophers to approach a text as
a tabula rasa, for such cannot be done. It is to urge that
philosophers attend very carefully to the lexicon for translating
Chinese into English, for that lexicon may be construed as
a theory of sorts, and an increasingly poor one; it is a
theory that Chinese philosophy is pretty much like Western philosophy,
and consequently the vocabulary of the one can be carried over to the
other without undue distortion (Hansen 1992: 17).

But no translation is innocent, nor any interpretation. The form of
our questions determine the range of the possible answers we can
obtain. Thus, if we ask what view of the inner life Confucius held, we
almost surely will not be able to see that perhaps he didn’t
hold any such view, or even think about having an “inner
life”, as Herbert Fingarette argued in his famous book on the
Master (1972). Asking which theory of propositional truth early
Daoists held makes it difficult to see, as Hansen argued, that the
early Daoists (and all other early Chinese thinkers) had little
interest in propositional truth, but in language as praxis-guiding
behavior, as we noted earlier
(§2.2, and will take up again
in §4.3 ). There are multiple
cosmologies in Western philosophy, beginning with the several put
forth by the Greeks, all of them conforming to a logical order. But we
shouldn’t ask which one of them early Chinese cosmology most
nearly resembles if Hall and Ames are right in claiming that Chinese
cosmology is best described as an aesthetic order not a
logical one (1987: 16). It might be that the early Confucians
didn’t have any ethical theory, but based their
descriptions, analyses and evaluations of human activity on the basis
of their roles (Rosemont and Ames 2009; Ames 2011; Rosemont 2015).

These suggestions clearly do not fit well with the standard
“grammar” and presuppositions of the Western philosophical
tradition. It makes no sense to ask what contribution Chinese thought
can make to the mind-body problem if the dichotomy is altogether
absent their writings, nor to seek light on the nature of
propositional truth if its propositional content was not a factor in
their thinking about language.

One problem with this approach to interrogating Chinese texts is
that it thus reduces the opportunities for comparative philosophers to
engage in genuine dialogue with their Western-oriented brethren, and
makes it easier to continue using the shibboleth that Chinese thought
“isn’t really philosophy”. On the other hand, the
contrasters will insist that the comparative approach robs the Chinese
of their own voice, forcing them into a philosophical milieu that is
not theirs. This can be seen in the frequency with which the
comparisons tend to be asymmetrical: when something is lacking, or an
argument missing, or some other deficit is seen, the Chinese side is
at fault. But the plausibility of the charge rests almost solely on
assuming the Western definition of the problem and approach to it. And
in the end, just how plausible is it to think that all
the real problems of philosophy, and all the methods for
dealing with them, have been advanced in a single civilization?

These sketches of the comparative and contrastive approaches to the
exegesis of Chinese philosophical texts have been just that: sketches;
there are many more examples of each kind, and a number of comparative
philosophers combine the two. And it must be remembered that much work
has been done by scholars not trained in philosophy, increasing the
number of ways of approaching the texts. Good exemplars of the variety
of approaches to the field are introductory works on Chinese
philosophy, which tend to combine both some comparative and
contrastive elements, and differ in thrust as their authors foreground
the Chinese elements, or emphasize philosophy
(especially analytic) in their narratives. Two examples of the former
are Lai (2008) and Wen (2012); coming down more firmly on the
philosophy side are Van Norden (2011) and Liu (2006). The field is
thus fairly fluid as it continues to come into its own, which readers
should celebrate and not bemoan because of the variety of perspectives
on the Chinese tradition on offer, all based on solid scholarly work
from one discipline or another. We shall return briefly to these
issues in §4.3.

3.4 The Chinese Approach

Chinese scholars working in the field of Chinese philosophy have
much in common with their Western peers, but the differences are even
greater, at least at present. In the first place, with few exceptions
the Chinese would not see themselves as comparativists. They will read
closely comparative works on Aristotle and Confucius, but basically
for what they can learn about the latter, not the former. This is not
chauvinism. To be concerned with how Confucius might illuminate the
thought of Aristotle is to do philosophy, but not Chinese
philosophy, and that is what they are about

Confucianism looms large in their work. Some scholars are working
with Daoist and other texts unearthed from Mawangdui and elsewhere
(Cao Feng), and a few are essaying Chinese themes against a Western
model (Yang Guorong). But Confucianism is still seen as the embodiment
and expression of Chinese culture, and is enjoying a renaissance of
interest and scholarship—and general popularity—not seen
since the May 4th Movement of 1919. A few Chinese
philosophers are asking what contribution Confucianism might make to
philosophy in a global context, but most of them are concentrating on
its relevance to China today—and tomorrow.

A second difference between Chinese philosophers and Western
comparativists is that the Chinese do their work in accordance with
their own “grammar”, their own questions, definitions of
problems, methodology, patterns of argument and standards of
justification. They, too, have inherited a tradition over two
millennia old, with a monumental amount of material—there are
over 8000 commentaries on the Analects alone—but the
questions and problems are seldom those of the West, except in those
sections of university philosophy departments that specialize in
Western philosophy. and there are not inconsequential differences in
methodology, patterns of arguments and styles of justification as

Among the questions contemporary Chinese scholars are asking is the
extent to which Confucianism might legitimately be considered a
religion. Are there resources in the texts to suggest making it a
state religion? (Kang Xiaoguang). Shouldn’t the focus be on
spiritual practice, not theory? (Pang Fei). What kind of constitution
best reflects Confucianism in today’s world? (Jiang Qing). Is
Confucianism better studied today against the background of Western
philosophy? (Zhang Longxi). Or must it be studied in its own cultural
context? (Zhang Xianglong).

This is important work, which clearly has much of political as well
as philosophical import, although the politics do not seem to be
inspired by nationalism of any sort (although recapturing cultural
pride is clearly in evidence). Some of it will appear conservative to
Western eyes, as when the editor of an anthology on The
Renaissance of Confucianism in Contemporary China
says that
“One finds in these essays … only sparse attention to the
Western notion of human rights” (Fan 2011: 2). Others envisage a
“progressive” Confucianism (Angle 2012: 1), which,
unsurprisingly, includes more Western elements. The bulk of
contemporary philosophical scholarship in China is not, however, of
much direct interest to Western philosophers (or the general public),
which is why there is such a disparity between translations of work
done by the comparativists into Chinese (a lot) and Chinese
scholarship rendered into English (very little). The Chinese can and
do study the work of their Western counterparts fairly closely,
largely for the insights that work provides on their own
tradition. Coming the other way we have few works in English: the
political text of Jiang Qing (2012) and some works on aesthetics by Li
Zehou (2006, 2009). There is little else, and what there is tends to
be articles in specialized anthologies (Fan 2011) or journals of
translation (Contemporary Chinese Thought, The Journal of
Chinese Humanities

In sum, textual exegesis and translation in Chinese philosophy is a
cultural practice, but it is usually practiced differently in different
cultures. The situation is changing slowly, but probably will not
change very much for some time.

4. Methodological Issues

4.1 On Generalizations Cultural and Philosophical

Deciding whether to be basically narrative or dialogical is
probably the first issue facing the exegete. Another issue
interpreters of Chinese texts must take into consideration in
advancing their positions is the extent to which one may make
generalizations about Chinese civilization and culture writ large.

This question arises because the conceptual categories within
which Chinese authors thought and wrote differ sufficiently from the
contemporary English reader’s that the former will be very
difficult to understand without being placed in a larger cultural and
philosophical overall conceptual framework, at least at first
perusal. At the same time, however, if Western scholars are inclined
to shudder when they hear sweeping generalizations about the history
of Western culture and philosophy, knowing how diverse they really
have been and are, we should perhaps want to embrace the Golden Rule,
and do unto other cultures what we would have done with our own. And
it can also be highly misleading, as a number of sinologists have been
arguing recently against their generalizing colleagues.

This is a perplexing problem. If we do not generalize to the larger
milieu in which a particular text is placed it is difficult to
appreciate either what it says or the significance it has in the
culture that grew it. But if the best we can do—like a number of
late 19th century German scholars—is characterize
China as a land of ewigen Stillstand we are surely better off
with no generalizations whatsoever; making vague or erroneous
generalizations tend to stereotypes, and there are already a
superfluity of these for China, from Charlie Chan to Fu Manchu.

Thus the historian Michael Puett warns us that

All of these interpretive
strategies—reading in terms of schools, essentialized
definitions of culture, evolutionary frameworks—have the
consequence of erasing the unique power that particular claims had
at the time,

and recommends that

we dispense with … frameworks…
[and] … should instead work on a more nuanced approach….
(Puett 2004: 23–25).

But on the other side is the Shang Dynasty historian David
Keightley, who believes it important to essay major generalizations
and who addresed the issue by asking “What made China
Chinese?” (Keightley 2014). The reader of that paper will see
that in addressing the grand question Keightley throws light on
another, closer to home: what makes us “us?”

Yet at the same time Puett was not simply crying
“wolf”. A disturbingly large number of scholars have made
generalizations that were not simply misleading in their consequences,
but have had racist, or “orientalist” undertones, or, more
commonly, have just been plain flat-out wrong. To take only a few more
egregious examples, although not a trained sinologist, Kant studied
China and lectured on Chinese thought in his geography classes
including statements that Confucius taught nothing but manners for the
elite, and referred to the views of the Daodejing as
“the monster system of Laotse”; generalizing his remarks
to “a concept of virtue and morality never entered the heads of
the Chinese” (Ching 1978: 168–69). These examples could be
multiplied many times over, and are not relics from the past:

It can be argued that almost every change China
has ever undergone originated from abroad or because of some foreign
stimulus. (Deeker 2013: 70)

Moreover, there is an additional reason for eschewing
generalizations (Goldin 2008: 21):

If there is one valid generalization about China,
it is that China defies generalization. Chinese civilization is
simply to huge, too diverse and too old for neat

Undercutting the image of a multimillenia, monolithic static
culture is certainly a good thing, politically as well as
intellectually. Arguably more nonsense and worse has been written
about China than any other non-Western culture, and it is ongoing, as
above. But perhaps we should not eschew generalizations about China
altogether. Shifting the angle of vision only very slightly Roger Ames
gave an important rejoinder to the anti-generalizers (Ames 2011: 21):

I would maintain that the only thing more
dangerous than striving to make responsible cultural generalizations
is failing to make them… . Philosophical interpreters must
sensitize the student of Chinese philosophy to the ambient uncommon
assumptions that have made the Chinese philosophical narrative so
different from our own.

Perhaps Keightley should have the last word on this issue. As
justification for his asking “What makes the Chinese
Chinese?” He said:

The Chinese, after all, have probably fed more
people more successfully than any or other culture in world
history. How they developed the social capital to do this is well
worth our study. (2014: 83)

Given that it is nigh unto impossible to give an interpretation of
a text without making generalizations that go considerably beyond it,
we should give the nod to the pros rather than the cons in this
particular debate, but the latter perform the salutary function of
warning students to take the generalizations lightly at all times, and
abandon them for others in the light of further study.

4.2 Translating the Truth

Davidson’s focus on propositional truth
(§2.2 above) is altogether in
keeping with the concern of most Anglophone 20th century
philosophers to analyze language as the main means of communicating
facts about the world to our fellow human beings. When the facts are
indeed as communicated, we say the statements expressing them are
“true”. The precise nature of the relation between the
facts and the statements of them has generated different theories of
truth—correspondence, coherence, pragmatic, semantic, even
“deflationary”—with the question remaining an open
one today, although fewer philosophers are pursuing an answer to

No matter which theory one adopts, elaborating this concept of
“truth” involves a cluster of related
concepts: sentence, proposition, statement, fact, semantics,
reference, connotation, denotation
, plus a few others. There is
another conception of “truth”, however, where the direct
conveying of information is not central to the definition, and
consequently “knowledge” is also conceived somewhat
differently. Other uses of language might be equally or more important
for some philosophers. Remember Chad Hansen’s claim
(§2.2) that all of the
early Chinese philosophers held that “language is a social
practice. Its basic function is guiding discourse ” (1992:
3). If so, then the standard translation of the graph zhi as
“knowledge” becomes problematic, identified as it is with
“justified true belief”. Rosemont argues that “We
are inclined to focus on the informative uses of language, that is,
the transmission of knowledge that”. On his account
readers will profit more if zhi is translated as
“realize” instead of “knowledge”, following
Hall and Ames (1987). “If ‘to personalize’ means
‘to make personal’, then ‘to realize’ is
‘to make real’ in the sense of knowing how, knowing
about, knowing to
” (Rosemont 2012: 47). Much the same thing
has been noted by Stephen Angle and Justin Tiwald in a forthcoming
book on Neo-Confucianism, in which they say they will focus on
“knowledge as an activity rather than knowledge as a set of
truths” (2015: 5, 1).

This, too, may be construed as “truth”, even though not
propositional, and with a different concept-cluster around
it: authenticity, engagement, trustworthy,
integrity, honesty, upright, and more. In
2014 a Symposium celebrating the inauguration of a new online journal
of cross-cultural philosophy (Confluence, 1, 1) was devoted
to the question of whether the concept of truth was useful in the
pursuit of cross-cultural philosophical research. The four symposiasts
represented Japanese philosophy, Confucianism, Aztec philosophy and
Tibetan Buddhism. None of them found close approximations for
“truth” in the propositional sense in the cultures they
studied, but all four said there were analogues for the terms
associated with truth as “truthfulness” in the lexicons of
the thinkers and traditions they worked with. This non-propositional
sense of truth is of course not unknown in the West; everyone
understands what Vaclav Havel meant when he entitled an anthology of
his essays Living in Truth (1990). But it has not been a
major concern among English-speaking philosophers since the analytic
movement got under way a little over a century ago.

Helping people to hold true beliefs is a very worthwhile endeavor,
and so is helping them transform themselves to lead meaningful
lives. The translator/interpreter must be aware of which approach is
reflected in the text under examination. If we believe the author(s)
were concerned with the way things are in the world, we will employ
interpretive methods to ascertain the truth of the claims made,
namely, those methods concerned with propositional truth: logical and
linguistic analysis, especially in the Anglophone tradition, and/or
hermeneutics or phenomenology among continental philosophers.

If we understand the ancient Chinese philosophers as having
another basic aim, however, we might pause at using Western
interpretive strategies adopted for propositional truth-seeking to
study the praxis-guiding normative statements of the Chinese. In
praxis-guiding discourse(s) human flourishing for oneself and others
was the basic concern. Put another way, the standard style of Western
philosophical writings tends to be explanatory and justificatory,
whereas the Chinese style tends to be narrative (of experience) and
normative. There are exceptions in both cases of course; normativity
is no more unknown in the West than explanations are in China. But in
general truth is associated with facts and propositions in modern
Western philosophical texts, and with values and the conduct of
one’s life in China’s classical texts. If so, it is by no
means clear that the methodologies developed for philosophical
critiques and exegeses in the modern Western tradition are suitable
for application mutatis mutandis to Chinese classical
writings; attempting to uncover and explicate one kind of truth may
well hinder acquiring insights about the other.

4.3 Translating the Sounds of Silence

These two different senses of “truth” bespeak two
different orientations toward philosophy and its purposes; we might
loosely refer to them as truth- seeking and way-making. The
truth-seeking approach is familiar to us, being at the heart of the
Western intellectual tradition, in science no less than
philosophy. And philosophical analysis, hermeneutics and phenomenology
are all tried and true methods for teasing the (propositional) truth
from texts. The model for writing in this philosophical tradition is
clarity and precision of expression (at least in the analytic

It is not at all clear, however, that those methods are equally
appropriate for working with Chinese texts much of the time. There are
two reasons for this, the first of which is the Chinese model of
writing. Hark back to the discussion of classical Chinese earlier
(§1–1.4) while reading the following two quotes. First,
from some NLP computer scientists:

Classical Chinese poetry … is particularly concise, finely
rich, highly rhetorical and thus linguistically complex, requiring a
high degree of creativity in writing it, sophisticated interpretation
in reading it, and difficulty in understanding it. (Fang, et
al. 2009).

The comment is specifically about poetry but the point is fairly
general, especially for the canonical texts of the early period. For
the next quote, readers should keep in mind the Western philosophical
model of writing, with clarity and precision the most valued narrative
qualities. Michael Nylan again (2011: 66):

Polysemy eminently suits the serious classical
turn. For where words have more than one meaning, their appearance is
apt to induce an initial state of confusion. This confusion proves
useful if it makes readers aware that it is context and context alone
that determines the values and valences that words assume in any piece
of writing, binding author to reader in the construction and
reconstruction of meaning.

If analytic and hermeneutic methods do not get us to the
“truths” found in the classical texts, what other methods
might be employed? Leigh Jenco (2007) has argued that while the
non-Western orientation in comparative philosophy is clear from the
texts studied, the possibilities for using
non-western methodologies for philosophical inquiry into
those texts are not, and hence the adequacy of Eurocentric approaches
to the discipline can be maintained, as well as the “not really
philosophy” charge frequently levelled against Chinese texts
because they do not contain arguments, are ambiguous, have little
empirical or logical content, etc. Put another way, while Chinese
texts can become objects of study for the ideas contained in them,
their methods of scholarly inquiry never enter the picture, continuing
thereby to legitimate a Eurocentric approach to scholarly

Kalmanson (2017) picks up on Jenco’s themes,
describing Chinese methods for gaining insights from Chinese texts
such as ritual preparation before reading them, meditation,
memorization and recitation. At first blush it might seem bizarre to
suggest that the performance of rituals, memorization and recitation
should be called “methods” for interrogating philosophical
texts. But the bizarreness can lessen if we can get away from
propositional truth, knowing-that, and expository models of clarity
and precision. The classical Chinese texts are composites more or
less, are neither clear nor precise, are extremely terse, appeal to
the eye and the ear equally, and are replete with ambiguities. Yet the
Chinese have long held that those texts, composed and/or edited by the
sages, contain all the truths needed to lead an exemplary life, a
belief firmly held by many for over 2000 years—and still held by
more than a few today. Is it possible that we may gain more insight
into the “truths” of the Daodejing by memorizing
and then reciting it than by subjecting it to logical and linguistic
analysis? The famous scholar-philosopher Zhu Xi of the
13th century suggested how we should read, and his advice
is perhaps an appropriate coda to this entry on issues in translating
and interpreting Chinese philosophy:

There is layer upon layer [of meaning] in the words of
the sages. In your reading of them, penetrate deeply. If you simply
read what is on the surface you will misunderstand. Steep yourself in
the words; only then will you grasp their meaning. (trans., Gardner 1990

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