Essays

A Forgotten Himalayan Love Gospel6 min read

Jonathan Keir on translating a little-known classic by Tang Junyi

The Western reader stands before the untranslated continent of Chinese literature like Columbus in 1492: take me to the treasure! There is far more, of course, than one can ever hope to load back onto the boat. An egregious recent case of neglect, to cite but one example, is the great Chinese translator of Don Quijote, Yang Jiang (杨绛 1911-2016), whose late masterpiece Reaching the Brink of Life (走到人生边上) has not yet been rendered in English (the same cannot, fortunately, be said for her husband Qian Zhongshu’s equally deserving Fortress Besieged). 

Another shamefully forgotten giant of 20th century Chinese letters is Tang Junyi (唐君毅 1909-1978). Tang is perhaps best known – to the extent that he is known outside the Sinosphere at all – as a co-drafter of the 1958 New Confucian Declaration on Behalf of Chinese Culture Respectfully Announced to the People of the World, in which the authors invite Western sinologists, missionaries and historians to reappraise Chinese attitudes to spirituality. The Chinese humanities, so the Declaration argues, must be experienced and embodied from within, not merely described and critiqued from without via abstract categories.

The Chinese University of Hong Kong hosted a conference in December 2018 to mark the 40th anniversary of Tang’s death. I was attending because of an amateur interest in Tang’s 1940 novella Aiqing zhi Fuyin (爱情之福音), a story about a lapsed Zoroastrian guru travelling on foot to die in India. The protagonist, Delas, is confronted by young groupies in a Himalayan forest on the banks of the Ganges; he spends the night with them, answering their questions on love before heading off into mountain solitude.

Translating the title was just the first of endless forking paths”

I had translated the book as a hobby – wine-fuelled and slowly – without knowing much about its author. What I learnt at the conference was that the non-Sinophone world has no real idea about Tang Junyi at all; my well-meaning but unpaid and unpublished amateur translation is in fact one of the first attempts to bring his work into English. Translation dilemmas began with the title: fuyin literally means “gospel” in Chinese, but that sounded too Christian to me, so I opted for The Truth of Love instead (colleagues have suggested The Call of Love and The Voice of Love as alternatives). But this was just the first of endless forking paths: the text as a whole – a story by a Chinese author about a Persian guru travelling in India – is ambiguously transcultural. Take this passage where Delas warns his young Indian fans not to fall prey to the scientism of global modernity:

“There is no point trying to make you aware of [the spiritual significance of love] by talking about it; you need to experience the same bitter effort for yourselves that others before you have experienced. But we are living in a new age now; our educated classes have emptied the contents of life onto the dissecting table of academic research, mutilating the mystery of human activity and blocking humanity’s path to an understanding of spiritual philosophy. By seeking to explain the higher orbits of human movement in terms of the lower, we have come to doubt the existence of the higher spheres altogether. What we need to do is the opposite, namely to explain the lower spheres in terms of the higher ones. Human love is typically regarded as a lowly business, so the first thing we need to do if we want to understand it is to bring it up to the level where it can be seen to stimulate moral and spiritual improvement, and ultimately to provide access to metaphysical truth.”

Beyond Delas’s abstract and rootless philosophising about love, however, the youths provide comic relief with concrete questions about coupling and marriage, such as “How do I choose between two loves?”, “Can I remarry if my partner kicks the bucket?”, and “Is it alright for me to wear lipstick?” Delas has answers – lofty but real – for everything:

“The goal of love between human beings is freedom from cold and meaningless determinism. Human love allows the individual gradually, over time, to build up her stock of spiritual energy. The longer you are with someone, the more likely you are to move beyond your merely animal attachment to one another and to achieve a certain spiritual purity in your relationship. The difference between this type of bond and the bonds of mere friendship is that your bodily union with your lover, and your arrival at a higher plane of union, represents a pure and absolute victory for the spirit. Son, the goal of human love is to build on short-term natural impulses to create a longer-term and more ethical form of human relationship … the purest expression we know of the spirit itself.”

Tang had not yet completed his turn to New Confucianism in 1940, but he was already busily engaged in rescuing Chinese humanistic education, which he and his New Confucian colleagues would come to see as threatened on both sides by the Scylla of capitalism (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore) and the Charybdis of communism (mainland China). Questions of love and marriage would remain central to Tang’s mature philosophical and political vision, even if Thomas Fröhlich, the author of the only systematic overview in English on the evolution of Tang’s thought (Tang Junyi: Confucian Philosophy and the Challenge of Modernity) fails to mention The Truth of Love at all. This observation is not even a criticism; it is simply a reflection of the breadth and depth of Tang’s later literary, philosophical and public engagement as a defender of the place of traditional Chinese culture in the modern world.

Questions of love and marriage remain central to Tang’s philosophical and political vision”

If the reader pictures Tang in 1940 – unmarried, barely thirty – putting his inexperienced thoughts on love into Delas’s wise old mouth, she may smile to herself at the unalloyed chutzpah of it all. But despite the contrived nature of the plot, The Truth of Love remains a decent contribution to the “international wisdom literature” canon, a kind of Chinese answer to Kahlil Gibran, Paulo Coelho and Hermann Hesse. Like Hesse’s 1943 novel The Glass Bead Game, Tang’s The Truth of Love offered its author refuge in a parallel universe of imagination as war and cultural devastation enveloped the world around him. Here, Delas throws himself into the Ganges:

Delas, the great Zoroastrian, had come to recognise the truth of the Hindu Brahman. Having reached India on foot via Central Asia, he was following the Ganges to begin a life of seclusion in the Himalayas, a path of spiritual cultivation, immersion in the truth of the universe and union with the Creator. … He wanted to join the countless ranks of spiritual travellers who since ancient times had come to these mountains and ascended to the level of creation, whose bodies had long since decomposed but whose spirits were busily alive beneath. … The universe was a profound place, he thought, and he stayed with these thoughts as he suddenly threw his white hair and beard into the Ganges and began bobbing in and out of view like the snow-white Himalayan caps above him.”

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Header: Zoroastrian deities. (Wikicommons)

Jonathan Keir

Jonathan Keir is a visiting scholar and associate researcher at the Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies (IAHS), Peking University