Like a Wide Road

By John Hertz: (reprinted from Vanamonde 1410) I hadn’t read Mencius for a while, so was glad to find in a used-book shop the 1970 translation by D.C. Lau for Penguin Classics.  Dr. Lau (1921-2010) writes,

Only two Chinese philosophers have the distinction of being known consistently in the West by a latinized name.  The first is Confucius.  The second is Mencius…. second only to Confucius … in the Confucian tradition … officially recognized in China for over a thousand years [p. 7]….  [one of] the Four Books which, until the present century, were read and memorized by every schoolboy in his first years [p. 8]….  Mencius, besides being one of the greatest thinkers, happens to be one of the greatest stylists in the whole history of Chinese literature [p. 222].

Mencius, living a hundred years after Confucius i.e. 2,300 years ago (372-289 B.C.E. – roughly contemporary with Plato), as Dr. Lau says is called the Second Sage i.e. after Confucius himself.  His power as a stylist is as might be expected hard to render in translation.

Education based on committing texts to memory is so strange to us – perhaps rightly – that it is hard to grasp.  We know it has too often meant rigidity and blind acceptance.

Yet Mencius said (Bk. VII, pt. B, sec. 2) Chin hsin, tse pu-ju wu.

{Note 1: This piece from Vanamonde had to be re-formatted because Our Gracious Host’s software won’t allow some characters I could use in Van.  I’ll indicate as I go.

{Note 2: As some of you know, I prefer the Wade-Giles system of romanization to the p‘in-yin system so loved in Mainland China.  I’ll say something about that at the end.

{Note 3: The Vanamonde piece used both parentheses ( ) and brackets [ ].  I’ll use braces { } here to show what I’ve had to do for reprinting by OGH.

{Now back to what I had in Vanamonde – jh.}

The p‘in-yin romanization favored on the mainland would write this Jìn xìn, zé bùrú wú.

In Mencius’ literary Chinese – sometimes called “classical Chinese” – the word shu “book” is implied: Chin hsin [shu], tse pu-ru [shu].

I confess that while I prefer the Wade-Giles romanization, or transliteration if you like, its use of is confusing to readers of English.  W-G hs for the sound p‘in-yin writes as isn’t bad, but the of p‘in-yin is less misleading than W-G’s j.

Also I confess that the four diacritical marks p‘in-yin uses for the Four Tones are more helpful to readers of English than W-G’s superscripts i.e. chin4 hsin4 [shu1], tse2 pu4ju2 wu2 [shu1].  {But not all those diacritical marks are allowed by OGH’s software, while the superscripts come through just fine!}

Literary Chinese is terse.  Not only does Mencius omit the Chinese word shu, he expects readers to know from the context what book he means: the Book of History.

Wikipedia on Mencius, rendering the original’s six words, apparently misses some of what they imply, resulting in an exaggeration: “One who believes all of a book would be better off without books”.

Dr. Lau (p. 194) makes it “If one believed everything in the Book of History, it would have been better for the Book not to have existed at all”.

I call to your attention that this – from the Second Sage – is a healthful splash of water on our notion of a memorizer: the Book of History was almost revered, and thought to have been compiled by Confucius.

Here’s some more Mencius.

The organs of sight and hearing are unable to think and can be misled by external things.  When one thing acts on another, all it does is to attract it.  The organ of the heart can think.  But it will find the answer only if it does think [Mencius IV:A:15, Lau p. 168].

Benevolence overcomes cruelty just as water overcomes fire [IV:A:18, p. 169].

The Way is like a wide road.  It is not at all difficult to find.  The trouble with people is simply that they do not look for it [VI:B:2, p. 172].

To feed a man without showing him love is to treat him like a pig; to love him without showing him respect is to keep him like a domestic animal….  Respect that is without reality will not take a gentleman in merely by its empty show [VII: A:37, p. 190].

Wishing you the same.


B.C.E. = Before the Common Era, used by many who do not care for dates stated according to divinity in Jesus.

The Four Books were canonized by Chu Hsi (1130-1200 i.e. the Sung Dynasty): the Great Learning which he took from the Book of Rites (this English word is often used, but decorum might be better; to Confucius is attributed “Of all things to which people owe their lives, the Rites are the most important”; recorded in the Chou Dynasty 1122-221 B.C.E.), the Doctrine of the Mean another part of the Rites, the Analects of Confucius, and Mencius.

Gentleman has been the usual translation of chün tzu {with Wade-Giles superscripts, chüntzu3; the First Tone is shown by a macron in p‘in-yin, the Third by a caron, but since I can’t do either of those here, I’ll write jûnzï: in p‘in-yin an is used here for the unstressed central vowel, like “a” in English “about”}, “either a man of moral excellence or a man in authority”, Lau p. 49 note 3.

This is not what we in the U.S. today call a class distinction, i.e. not hereditary, but a condition of being, to which any can aspire, which any can achieve – to which Confucianism directs us.

As for me, while I aspire to moral excellence, and think it engenders authority, I’m not a Confucian (nor am I big on memorizing); but I don’t read books to be agreed with.

{Here’s the further note on Wade-Giles which I promised above.

{The sign ‘ is used in Wade-Giles for Chinese aspirated consonants, so e.g. p‘in means an aspirated consonant, pin would mean an unaspirated one; in the mainland’s system, those two consonants are written pin and bin.

{Also, Wade-Giles uses a hyphen to show connected words, while in the mainland’s system they are run together, like writing in English “used-book shop” or “usedbook shop”.

{Thus in Wade-Giles p‘in-yin but in the mainland’s system pinyin.

{Wade-Giles writes the unaspirated consonant ts which the mainland’s system writes z.  Wade-Giles writes chin where the mainland’s system writes jin.

{As to whether Wade-Giles might actually be preferable for readers of English, I’ll quote the translator Red Pine: “I continue to find Mainland China’s p‘in-yin romanization system too cruel to use on uninitiated readers . . . [I] romanize all Chinese words according to the more traditional and somewhat less bizarre Wade-Giles system”.

{To give you something you can find electronically, I quote his 2004 edition of the Buddhist “Heart” Sûtra, p. 161.}

4 thoughts on “Like a Wide Road

  1. Gracious Host uses WordPress to host the site. WordPress can support the characters you prefer. An example of that is the Language Log site, a linguistics blog out of the University of Pennsylvania. The major poster these days is Victor Mair, a Professor of Sinitic Languages. You might want to have a look if you like things like Mencius.

    (I don’t know what plugins the site runs to support Asian languages.)

  2. Education based on committing texts to memory is so strange to us – perhaps rightly – that it is hard to grasp. We know it has too often meant rigidity and blind acceptance.

    And yet the time I’ve spent committing poetry to memory has made me a far better writer than I could ever have been without it. The relation of fact to idea is quite different from the relation of technique to æsthetic.

  3. DmCCunney: Gracious Host uses WordPress to host the site. WordPress can support the characters you prefer.

    I find 2020 has drained my reserves of patience — not that I’m alone in this. I really don’t want to keep having the same discussion every time John Hertz wants to use a special character of the kind that WordPress turns into a question mark when the post is published.

    I assure you that we ran a trial post using the characters he preferred, and WordPress turned them into six question marks. John has seen a copy of the output.

    What do you think I should do?

    (1) Forbid John from using special characters? Not going to to that.
    (2) Keep providing these lengthy explanations to people who have seen the WordPress dashboard and the characters it claims to support, and others who know the HTML or other code for these characters — many of which can be successfully inserted into COMMENTS here?
    (3) Continue to leave those who are provided these explanations privately convinced that I am just incompetent at using WordPress, or simply a liar?
    (4) Boot people from this site for making what seem to them innocent and helpful suggestions? (Does John Scalzi do merch, and does he sell a copy of that giant banhammer? I could run a GoFundMe to pay for it)

    America, YOU decide!

  4. re: “The Way is like a wide road”–Eric Schwitzgebel had a great post in August titled It’s Not Hard to Be Morally Excellent; You Just Choose Not To Be that makes a similar point (and draws on other passages from The Analects and Mencius).

    I was curious about Mencius omitting shu. It’s in the Ctext.org version as well as my bilingual Chinese University of Hong Kong edition of Lau. I haven’t checked my other editions of ????, but what am I missing?

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