Five Canons in the Eyes of Léon Vandermeersch

Leon Vandermeersch’s Address at the First Formal Meeting of the International Committee for the Study and Translation of the Five Canons. The Five Canons refer to the five ancient Chinese books–The Book of Poetry, The Book of History, The Book of Rites, The Book of Changes, and The Spring and Autumn Annals. Over 2,000 years, the Five Canons have been acknowledged as the most significant classics of Chinese culture and the core of Chinese civilization.

Leon Vandermeersch

Profile

1950
Graduate from Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales.

1950-1965
Researcher at Sài Gòn University, Hanoi Museum, Kyoto University, and the University of Hong Kong.

1966
Teach at Aix University of France and initiate Chinese teaching in this university.

1973-1979
Professor of Chinese at Paris 7 University.

1979
Research fellow at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Paris.

1989
Director of École Française d’Extrême-Orient.

JOURNALIST’S NOTES

Liu Chang, Confucius Institute Trainee Reporter

On July 27, 2009, when Professor Léon Vandermeersch, an octogenarian, walked with measured but firm strides onto the podium of the multi-function hall at Xiangshan Hotel at the first formal meeting of the International Committee for the Study and Translation of the Five Canons, there was rapturous applause from the audience. Undoubtedly this was the best way to salute the revered scholar.

Prof. Vandermeersch’s presence at the meeting, despite his long trip, bore witness to both his enthusiastic support for the Wujing Project and his ardent affection for the studies of ancient Chinese classics. He spoke with utter sincerity when he said to his international colleagues: “Standing at this meeting, I feel as if I were ten years younger, full of energy.”

The meeting lasted only three days. Many tasks were jammed into the schedule. Meeting in the daytime and discussing in the evening, Prof. Vandermeersch missed no report or discussion. He was now listening attentively, now taking notes, now pondering with his hand on his forehead. “Amidst the crisis of modern civilization, nothing is more urgent than the translation of the Five Canons into major foreign languages.” Prof. Vandermeersch said. “This is a project of significance we must begin now for the sake of the future of mankind and the earth.” Also during the meeting, he talked with Mr. Xu Jialu, exchanging ideas about the development of Chinese culture. When discussion turned to those contemporary Chinese youth who ignore the value of traditional culture and a defiant attitude toward some aspects of Chinese culture, tears ran down his cheeks. Mr. Xu was obviously touched, too.

The following is Prof. Vandermeersch’s address at the opening ceremony of the meeting on the Wujing Project:

Leon Vandermeersch
Photo by Xu Jianjun

Five Canons: the Core of Chinese Civilization

Leon Vandermeersch’s Address at the First Formal Meeting of the International Committee for the Study and Translation of the Five Canons.

What is the significance of the study and translation of the Five Canons in the early 21st century? As early as two millennia ago, they were already ancient classics. What about them today? I think Mr. Kristofer Schipper, my long-time friend and director of the Wujing Project, offered the best answer. I consider it appropriate for him to compare the translation of Wujing into major foreign languages to the translation of The Bible into many languages. After all, the Wujing and The Bible were created in almost the same period.

As the Five Classics during the Han Dynasty (202BC – AD220) was the basis for the Thirteen Classics, so is the Pentateuch for The Bible. They were both written between 1000 BC and 600 BC. Hence we can safely regard the Wujing as a Pentateuch in China. Even in post-modern times, The Bible remains valuable, so, of course, does the Wujing. As long as we have a real understanding of the content of the Wujing, its significance will remain.

The great contribution of The Book of Changes (Zhouyi) to Chinese culture is well-known. In the present global environmental crisis, the philosophy of Zhouyi is not antiquated; instead it appears more important than ever before.

Here is a quote from The Book of Changes:

The character of the great man is identical with that of Heaven and Earth; his brilliance is identical with that of the sun and the moon; his order is identical with that of the four seasons, and his good and evil fortunes are identical with those of spiritual beings. He may precede Heaven and Heaven will not act in opposition to him. He may follow Heaven, but will act only as Heaven at the time would do. Heaven will not act against him, let alone human beings and spiritual beings?

Then comes a quote from Genesis, The Bible:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them: Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

Obviously the two passages are different in concept.

The Book of History is more important and profound. In The Counsels of Great Yu(ruler of China between 2297BC – 2198BC), there is such a passage:

The character of the King is so high that he is sagely, divine, and adorned with all accomplishments, military and literary. Great Heaven regarded you with its favour, and bestowed on you its appointment. Suddenly you possessed all within the four seas, and became ruler of all under heaven.

We should note that the ancient concept of “Tianxia”:( 天下), did not mean country. However, “Tianxia” does not indicate that the ancient Chinese held that their kingdom covers the entire world. In fact, the ancient concept “Tianxia” integrates the metaphysical cosmology and the tangible reality. Because there is only one heaven in the world, there is only one “Tianzi” (the Son of Heaven, i.e. ruler of the world). That’s to say there should be an authority superior to all countries, something like that of the ancient Chinese emperor over all the dukes. This is the real system to rule all under heaven, which is different from the United Nations at present.

The Book of History was succeeded by The Spring and Autumn Annals, which records how individual avarice for power ruined the brilliant ancient idea of “Tianxia”. Meanwhile, we find that the ancient political policy oriented to integration of heaven and man hardly posed any infringement on local autonomy. The reason: the “Tianzi” rules on the principle of doing nothing against nature.

Lastly, I’d like to emphasize that the core of the Five Classics is propriety. A strongly cultured idea in philosophy, propriety is believed to be the best solution to all conflicts in society. The rites described in The Book of Rites (Liji), especially those about the arrangement of social organizations, are much better than the Western idea of etiquette, which is comparatively rough. It is due to the recent negligence of propriety that there have been atrocities on the part of those without any sense of propriety. In the course of time, the moral principles of Christianity have been neglected. So have the principles advocated by the Wujing. Long ago, the Chinese people’s respect for heaven and earth prevented the natural environment from being destroyed. But later the forests along the Yellow River gradually fell into ruins so that it has changed its courses many times. In later imperial dynasties, the moral principles were reduced mere nostalgia. Neo-Confucianism after the Song Dynasty (AD960 – 1279)rendered ethics all the more rigid. However the Wujing had such a strong and lasting influence on Chinese intellectuals that they often opposed the governments. Their great concern for the nation and the people was nourished by humanism.

I hope the Wujing Project will help to integrate humanism intrinsic within China with other major civilizations in the world. Amid the crisis of modern civilization nothing is more urgent than the translation of the Five Canons into major foreign languages. Only by doing this can we expect a global forum on moral principles in the foreseeable future. Ours is a project of significance that we must commence now for the sake of the future of mankind and the earth.

BRIEFING ON TRANSLATION WORK OF FIVE CANONS

The Five Canons refer to the five ancient Chinese books–The Book of Poetry, The Book of History, The Book of Rites, The Book of Changes, and The Spring and Autumn Annals. Over 2,000 years, the Five Canons have been acknowledged as the most significant classics of Chinese culture and the core of Chinese civilization. For historical reasons, no complete multi-language versions of the classics have been available so far. The translation of the Five Classics is expected to be highly readable and also reflect the latest academic standards. The multi-language versions to be published will serve as teaching materials for international Chinese teaching and help promote Chinese traditional culture in the world. In the summer of 2008, Hanban (the Confucius Institute Headquarters), officially set up the project to translate the Five Canons.

The first working conference of the International Academic Committee for the Five Classics Study and Translation was held in Beijing in July 27-29, 2009. More than 30 reputed sinologists from 11 countries, including China, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and France, attended the conference. They had indepth discussions on the academic issues concerning the translation work, such as the original text, the style and the publication. An English version of the Five Classics will be published first in three and a half years. Then, the classics will be translated into French, German, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Hebrew, Hindi and Malay on basis of the English version and the original text. The classics have about 700,000 characters and the English version is expected to contain about 1 million words. Efforts will be made to ensure fidelity to the source language, and contemporary language features and demands of readers with different cultural backgrounds will also be taken into consideration.


Confucius Institute Magazine 5

pdfPublished in Confucius Institute Magazine
Number 05. Volume V. November 2009.
View/Download the print issue in PDF

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