Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Ways to go

I've only just scratched the surface of the surface of the Chinese language, but I'm starting to sense the depths below. The surface is deceptively simple - little grammar, none of those pesky genders, articles, conjugations or, for that matter, tenses which entangle other languages. Its classic texts are often columns of just four characters per line which, in translation, spill out in nuance over many more words. And it's long been thus. I was disconcerted - excited and confused - to recognize every character in this text, for instance, which came up in the East Asian Religions course I'm auditing. The text is the early Daoist "Inward Training," possibly the oldest surviving mystical text in China (2500 years old, or more). This poem, VI, is translated as:

As for the Way:
It is what the mouth cannot speak of,
The eyes cannot see,
And the ears cannot hear.
It is that with which we cultivate the mind and align the body.
When people lose it they die;
When people gain it they flourish.
When endeavors lose it they fail;
When they gain it they succeed.
The Way never has a root or trunk,
It never has leaves or flowers.
the myriad things are generated by it;
The myriad things are completed by it.
We designate it "the Way."
Harold D. Roth, Original Tao: Inward Training (Nei-Yeh)
and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism (Columbia, 2004), 56-57

As when I was understanding some of the lines in the Hangzhou Yue opera performances last week, it's trippy to be recognizing anything, just two months in. How is that even possible?!


That there's more than meets the eye was confirmed by a story the instructor of the class told us. He'd gone to visit Maoshan, a famous Daoist mountain, important in the medieval history of Daoism, only to find it had been turned into a Daoist theme park: on a hillside facing it a huge gilded statue of Laozi (who never set foot anywhere near this place) looked out across the valley. Near the foot of the sacred mountain itself was a stone marker with these characters carved in red:
In modern Chinese this means something like special or cool path (feichang dao), but as N ascended the paved path which led uphill behind it he encountered stone plaques with the entire text of the 道德经 Daodejing [Tao Te Ching] along its sides. Eventually he remembered that 非常道 appears in the Daodejing, whose very first lines (again in characters all of which I recognize) are, with D. C. Lau's translation:

道可道
The way that can be spoken of
非常道
Is not the constant way;
名可名
The name that can be named
非常名
Is not the constant name.

Was the sign advertising a special walking trail, or the sacred text whose second line describes a way that is not the constant way? Why, yes?!

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