Academic journal article Quarterly Journal of Chinese Studies

The Misreading of the Confucian Cultural Context in Translation of the "Great Preface" by Stephen Owen 1

Academic journal article Quarterly Journal of Chinese Studies

The Misreading of the Confucian Cultural Context in Translation of the "Great Preface" by Stephen Owen 1

Article excerpt


As a classical document of Studies of Confucian Classics, the Great Preface is a systematical summarization of poetics of pre- Qin Confucianism, which is of far- reaching and profound influence upon the poetic creation and criticism of later generations. Stephen Owen ' s the Great Preface, as a model work of overseas studies of ancient Chinese literary theories, is ingenious and delicate in text translation with too many gaps and omissions of cultural codes to decode and recode the original messages included in the Chinese text effectively, making the narrative context of Confucian culture in the Great Preface greatly distorted or even neglected, mainly because of the non- equivalent words used to match the key concepts in Confucian culture without taking the original differences between Chinese and Western culture into consideration. Hence an intensive reading of and contrast analysis on Stephen Owen' s version will be made in this article with respect to Confucian political and instructional systems, ethical ideas and poetic items.


Zheng Zhenduo had once criticized Maos ' Preface to The Book of Songs as " drawing a farfetched analogy from the songs while giving a forced inteipretation illogically" 2. Actually, Maos ' Preface purposefully lays more stress on the instructional function of poetry rather than on opinions on poetry to beautify the customs and consolidate the political rule, as is said by some commentators that Biography of the Mao' s agrees most with Confucianism and fits in with the ancient ritual systems (Huang, 2012). Needless to say, there is distinctive Confucianism political philosophy in it. As to The Great Preface, the "beautifying" and allegorical function of poetry is especially emphasized with extremely strong utilitarianism. To start with, the inadvertent negligence of Confucian classics studies pervasive in the Great Preface can easily be seen in the following analysis of Stephen Owen's version:

When the royal Way declined rites and moral principles ( SL ) were abandoned ; the power of government to teach failed ; the government of the states changed ; the customs of the family were altered. And at this point the mutated ($) feng and the mutated ya were written. ( Owen, 2002 )

The historical connotation of "righteousness" and "change" is distinguished by the standard of "gain and loss of politics and instruction" in the above quotes, where there lies Stephen Owen ' s misreading of the core words involved in Confucianism politics. It is imprudent and risky for him to use word - for - word translation method to deal with the characters " TUË (benevolent government)" on which Confucian political ideal is highly concentrated by putting them as the royal Way. The " benevolent government " from The Book of History Minister Hong Fan, is the political ideal painstakingly pursued by the Confucianists: "Without bias or favor, a benevolent government will be great and majestic; without favor or bias, the management of state will be smooth and orderly; without playing fast and loose, the benevolent government will be upright and honest", which originally refers to "the way employed by the ruling families" or "the doctrine an emperor has set up". It was developed by Mencius into a political view opposite to "rule by force" 3, advocating the emperors to establish a benevolent government while opposing the mandatory rule by force and violence. Only by a benevolent government can one achieve a long- lasting rule, in opinion of Confucianists. " And there has been no such ruling with unconvinced people."(Mencius) "Royal" in the English words "the royal Way" has double meanings: (1) of kingly ancestry; (2) of relating to, or subject to the crown.4 The word "royal" is derived from Latin which is related to " royalty " and " royal family " ; the word emerged as a reflection of the evolvement of the West- European society from the slavery system to the feudalism. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.