China Conversations

John Minford and the Dao De Jing9 min read

A Sinologist and translator reveals his secrets to Jonathan Chatwin

John Minford is a Sinologist and literary translator, known particularly for his translations of Chinese classics such as The Story of the Stone, Strange Tales and The Art of War. John’s recent work includes a translation of the famous Chinese divination text, the Yi Jing, and a new version of the Dao De Jing, the foundational text of Daoism, published in late 2018. Writer Jonathan Chatwin sat down with him to discuss his path into Chinese translation, the ineffability of the Dao, and the challenges of translating classical Chinese into modern English.

You studied Chinese at Oxford in the 1960s. How unusual a choice was undergraduate Chinese at that time, and what drew you to the subject?

When I began studying Chinese, in the summer of 1966, China was launching itself into the Cultural Revolution and was very isolated. There were few students doing Chinese at Oxford – I think there were about five who enrolled in my year. By then I had already been a student at Oxford for two years – I entered Balliol College from Winchester on a Brackenbury Scholarship in Classics in the autumn of 1964. What I really wanted to do all along was study the piano, and I had been offered a place at the Royal College of Music. But neither my parents nor my college approved of the idea. So I was obliged to continue studying something or other at Oxford, and somewhat reluctantly drifted into the Philosophy, Politics and Economics program.

After two years of attending no lectures, I came to the decision that I couldn’t go on wasting my time in this manner, and resolved to settle on a subject I could involve myself in deeply. I toyed with Forestry (I was a tree-loving hippy) but I had none of the requisite science subjects at A-level. Then one day I sat down outside the Bodleian Library and, with my eyes closed, opened at random the Oxford book of undergraduate courses (there was no internet in those days). My finger fell on the Honors Chinese program in the Oriental Institute. I accepted it at once as a stroke of fate; it was only much later that it occurred to me that I had consulted the book in the manner of the Yi Jing (易經) oracle. The very next day I went to see the faculty, who kindly allowed me to enroll. So in answer to your question, it was clearly fate that drew me to the study of Chinese – a decision I have never regretted. My father, who was a career diplomat in the Foreign Office, assumed that I had chosen Chinese in order to follow in his footsteps. A gentleman in a tweed suit did once tap me on the shoulder in the corridor of the Oriental Institute, but I was already much too interested in Chinese poetry to think of becoming a spy.

How does one begin the process of translating a text as significant to China’s culture as the Dao De Jing? Some of the pieces you’ve written suggest that this is an endeavour you have been preparing for, consciously or otherwise, for much of your life.

At Oxford in those days, Chinese studies began with the venerable classics. Raymond Dawson taught us classical Chinese using two ancient texts: the Book of Mencius (孟子) and the Zuo Zhuan Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals (春秋左傳). I went on to choose the Dao De Jing and the Book of Daoist Master Zhuang (莊子) as my two special subjects, having discovered early on that Daoism was my cup of tea (I was first introduced to Daoist thinking by the wonderful writings of Alan Watts). Those Daoist classics have been my constant companions, from that time until the present. I never imagined I would ever translate either of them, but concentrated for 20 or so years on putting Chinese fiction and poetry into English. Then in about 1998 I was invited out of the blue by Caroline White, the senior editor at Viking-Penguin in New York, to do a new version of The Art of War (孫子兵法), which led straight to the subsequent Yi Jing, and eventually, thanks to the generous suggestion of the new Viking-Penguin editor John Siciliano, to the Dao De Jing.

The origins and authorship of the Dao De Jing are shrouded in mystery. Can you illuminate the reader as to its provenance, and which version of the text your translation is based on?

As I wrote in the introduction to my translation, it’s my personal conviction that the book is actually a collection of early Daoist hymn-like meditation texts, put together anonymously in about the fourth century BC. I have followed the recent debates concerning the early texts of the book unearthed at Mawangdui and Guodian, but from the outset I decided to create a version of the received text, sometimes called the Vulgate, pretty much as it has been read and meditated on in China for 2000 years. I mainly followed two commentaries written by practicing Daoist masters of early and later times, whom I call the River Master and Magister Liu.

The more I work with traditional Chinese, the more I find that part of its magic is the simultaneous coexistence of many meanings”

Presumably part of the process involves reading other translations: which did you find most helpful to your translation process?

There are indeed countless other translations, but I found most of them very far removed from what I was trying to do. I had from my earliest student days come to respect the versions of Arthur Waley and the Dutch scholar J.J.L. Duyvendak. I find many of their observations thoughtful and enlightening, and I quote them from time to time. I decided, however, that rather than providing a digest of a myriad conflicting Western versions, I could help readers further by giving them, at the end of each chapter, a Chinese Daoist-inspired poem or piece of poetic prose. I also decided to give, at the very end of the book, my own florilegium of the Dao, putting it together in a new arrangement of my own a number of lines from the classic and its commentaries, for readers who might find the book itself hard to enter into.

To what do you attribute the interest of a young Chinese generation, often dismissed as somewhat superficial, in the Dao and in traditional modes of thought more generally?

However much the Chinese party-state seeks to impose a mindless and soulless ideology on its population, it will never succeed in destroying the basic human aspiration to be mindful and soulful. The younger generation in China may have lost their linguistic ability to read Daoist texts in classical Chinese, but they are still open to (some would say, hungry for) some of the deeper ideas contained within them. It is an inescapable part of the human condition to seek something richer than the empty aggressive materialism of the modern world – this is as true of China as it is of the developed societies of the West.

The opening of the Dao De Jing declares words to be inadequate in expressing the mystery of the Dao. Is that daunting for the translator – or reassuring, in that it acknowledges the limitations of language?

You’re right, this is the real challenge for a translator, to use language to evoke the ineffable. The translator must somehow find an inner voice to sing the song of the Dao. To that extent translation itself becomes a form of Daoist meditation or self-cultivation. In that sense, my translation is a rhapsody, a stitching together of tunes into one whole: musical variations on a theme. I have recently been listening to Edoardo Ballerini’s audiobook of my translation, and I really like the way he reads it. It is melodious and slow-paced. It is close to what I call in my introduction Lectio Sinica, a slow meditative reading akin to the Benedictine tradition of Lectio Divina, or Sacred Reading.

Could you give our readers an example of a short section or phrase from the text that illustrates some of the challenges of translation from classical Chinese?

A good example is perhaps to be found in the two opening words of Chapter 4: dao chong 道沖. Over the ages the word chong 沖 has been interpreted in many ways. It occurs again in Chapter 42, in the expression chongqi 沖氣. In modern spoken Chinese, the word’s most common meaning is “to flush,” as in “flush the toilet,” or “to infuse, pour” as in “infuse tea.” One dictionary gives no less than six meanings: “dash against,” “pour out,” “empty or void,” “soar, wander,” “weak or young” and “pleasant.” The more I work with traditional Chinese, the more I find that part of its magic is the simultaneous coexistence of many meanings. The Chinese poet or philosopher did not have to choose. But that very magic is the translator’s despair.

I remember my tutor at Oxford, Ian McMorran, interpreting chong in chapter 4 as “bubbling up” – the idea being (for him) that the Dao “bubbles up” like water, effervescently, from an inexhaustible spring. It was a lovely idea, and it stuck in my mind. But the commentators I was guided by throughout my translation, many years later, followed the generally accepted meaning of “empty.” It could be argued that the two meanings (“bubbling or effervescent” and “empty”) are in fact linked on a deeper level. The great Ricci dictionary (compiled in Taiwan by deep-thinking Jesuits) gives for one of the meanings of the character a “philosophical” interpretation that does indeed combine both: chong is “the central Void filled with the powerful and harmonious combination of the breaths of Yin and Yang,” the “flowing vital movement of Energy between Heaven and Earth, an expression of the Living Dao.” For chongqi, Ricci likewise gives “the harmonious effervescence of the vital movement of the energies of Yin and Yang between Heaven and Earth, made dynamic in the Void.” So one can spell out multiple meanings, but what works in a dictionary doesn’t work in a song.

Are there any other Chinese classics that you’d like to, or are planning to, translate?

Right now I am taking a break! I’m really not sure what I’ll come back to next. I’d like to do a second volume of my Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling. Back in the 1990s I wrote drafts of the whole collection, which contains about 500 stories, and my first volume with Penguin Classics only included 104 of them. In some ways Pu Songling’s supernatural tales have an underlying Daoist flavor, as did the great novel The Story of the Stone, on which I served my apprenticeship as a translator back in the 70s and 80s. ∎

Further reading:
In Chinese –
In English –

Jonathan Chatwin

Jonathan Chatwin’s travelogue Long Peace Street: A Walk in Modern China will be published in summer 2019. He holds a PhD in English Literature, and is author of Anywhere Out of the World, a literary biography of the traveller and writer Bruce Chatwin (a distant relation).