Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Really, I'm just doing this to see if I can post Chinese characters

天人合一: Tian ren heyi.

The standard translation of this ancient saying is "Harmony between man and heaven," however a lot of people, including our institute leader Roger Ames, have major problems translating the first character, 天, as "heaven." Roger describes this as a tragic mistake first made by early Jesuit missionaries to China who were imposing Christian ideas on Confucian philosophy. Nevertheless, there a pretty straightforward reason for using translating 天 as "heaven": 天 both means "sky" and refers to an important cosmological principle in Chinese thought. Roger thinks this surface similarity is seriously misleading, because 天 is not at all transcendent. 天 did not create the world, it is coconstituted with it.

The imminent nature of 天 has actually lead some people to use "nature" as a translation. According to Robert Weller, early Chinese translations of Darwin actually referred to "天 selection" for natural selection. This would make 天人合一a strong environmentalist slogan: "harmony between man and nature." Roger resists this in his translation of the 中庸on the grounds that 天 is not separate from human action. Of course, viewing humans as a part of nature is a perfectly good environmental and Darwinist stance. In any case, according to Weller, ziran (自然)has been the standard translation for "nature" since the 1920s. "Mother nature" is translated "da ziran" (大自然), "great nature."


elliott said...

I came across your posting after google searching "translating 天". I was particularly happy to read it due to the fact that I just several days ago was asked by a Chinese friend how to translate "天人合一", and have since then become increasingly convinced that "heaven" is a very misleading way to translate 天.

Your colleague makes a good point; the cosmological worlds of China and Christian Europe are vastly different, and the picture that comes to mind when we English speakers hear the word "heaven" just doesn't do 天 justice.

I agree that 天 is not transcendental according to any religious notion. It did not create the world, but it does provide a standard for it, and it dictates a model of order for the world. This is clearly reflected in the concept of 天命 (typically translated as "heaven's mandate", the duty of the emperor to maintain social order) and the phrase 替天行道 ("to act justly", literally to represent 天 in one's actions). If we take 天 as an ideal of social order and justice to be strived for, discussing its concordance(合一) with humanity (人) is discussing the ideal state of humanity. I believe it is fair to say that discussions of 天人合一 are asking "have we realized the ideal?", whatever that ideal may be.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

Thanks for your thoughts. It seems that everyone agrees that "heaven" is a bad translation for Tian, although no one seems to agree on a good translation.

I'm most interested in the possibility of translating "tian" as "nature", for environmental reasons, although this also seems inaccurate.

elliott said...

I understand how "nature" is a tempting translation as well. And, as one of your other postings showed, it can be a pretty much accurate translation these days. I think this is the result of history, and the convergence of Chinese language with western concepts. But if we discuss the meaning of 天 in classical Chinese, sometimes a translation as "nature" is apt, it's just the nature of "a natural pairing of cheese and crackers" not the nature of "I'm going to the woods to experience nature."