On Failing to Understand the Yijing

How do you culturally translate a text when one of the most striking things about the text is that it is either misunderstood, or simply not understood, in its original language? This is a question I’ve been thinking about for a long time with respect to the Yijing (I Ching 易經) or Book of Changes. The question is particularly pressing as I have been attempting to carry out just such a cultural translation for my forthcoming book, Sixty-Four Chance Pieces: A Book of Changes. And so I’m very pleased to have just published a paper on this topic in JOMEC journal’s special issue on Cultural Translation and East Asia.

Alongside questions of cultural translation, this paper also discusses fish, fish-traps, Zhuangzi, understanding Derrida, not understanding Derrida, the terror of the English when faced with that strangest of French contraptions, the bidet (“what is it for?”), tango dancing in Hong Kong and three-legged birds made of bronze that turn into fish. In other words, it covers most of the things that are of pressing contemporary concern.

You can get hold of it as a PDF (nicely open access) by clicking this link.

A note on conversation

One good thing about France is the bookshops. Proper bookshops, filled with proper books — books that are about stuff, shelves of philosophy and science and all kinds of other things (there are reasons that French bookshops are good and British bookshops not so good, but I won’t go into these at the moment). So I made use of last week’s holiday in France to indulge in a buying frenzy — paperback editions are also reasonably priced — and to get hold of a number of books about philosophy, Chinese studies and so on. It’s good to be giving my French a work-out, and I like the style of French sinology, which tends to be more speculative than Anglo-American traditions.

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Accidental Sinology

I’m down in Bangor for a brief spell, where I’ve been talking to creative writing and translation students about how a few years back I found myself stumbling into matters Sinological, and the general mayhem that has ensued since then. I wasn’t sure that I was going to get here at all this morning, as there was train chaos across the midlands; but five trains (five!) later, I pulled in to Bangor station on time. And I’m glad I made it.

It’s been a fun afternoon. My talk was called “A Book of Changes? Writing, Chance and the I Ching: or, The Adventures of an Accidental Sinologist”, so I was talking about my forthcoming novel-of-sorts, A Book of Changes, based around the sixty-four hexagrams of the I Ching. Read more

Two Tales of Horse-Training

Lately, I’ve been thinking about training horses. Admittedly, this has been more of an abstract and philosophical concern than a practical one: generally I don’t have much to do with horses, and horses don’t have much to do with me, even though I sometimes go down to the meadows out of town and admire the beasts from afar. So whilst I haven’t been planning to pack in all the writing and the academic stuff and so on, to take up the mantle of a horse trainer, I have been thinking about is the notion of horse-training as a metaphor for training more broadly.

It was a long time ago now that I first came across the Pāli text, the Bhaddāli sutta, and was charmed—or perhaps taken in—by its account of the virtues of horse training. Bhaddāli, according to the text, is a monk who is unwilling to subject himself to the monastic discipline, on account—the text tells us usefully—of being “like a fool, confused and blundering.” The Buddha then turns to him and asks the confused monk if he remembers a parable that he once told him about horse-training; and because Bhaddāli is a blundering fool (the kind of blundering fool for whom I have a natural sympathy), he has forgotten the parable, so the Buddha repeats it. Here’s an extract, in the translation by [amazon_link id=”086171072X” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Bhikkhu Bodhi[/amazon_link]. Read more

Great images, non-objects and fog

It’s been foggy lately—the kind of fog that makes the edges of things blur into indistinctness; the kind of fog in which forms dissolve into the background, or loom again, imprecisely shaped, out of the greyness. I’ve been thinking a lot about fog lately, because I’ve been reading François Jullien’s book [amazon_link id=”0226415317″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]The Great Image Has No Form, or On the Nonobject Through Painting[/amazon_link]. The title is admittedly something of a mouthful, the first part coming from chapter forty one of the Daodejing, which reads 大象無形, dà xiàng wú xíng, “the great image is without form”, but it’s a fascinating read.

The central question of Jullien’s book is this: how did it become possible, in Western thought, to “posit an object of perception, simultaneously isolate it, and abstract it in a stable and definitive form?” (p. xxi). So Jullien sets out looking not so much at painting as representation, but as de-representation. This, in other words, is a book that is about vagueness, about that which is indistinct, about the mist and fog that swirls through Chinese painting, about the mountains that simultaneously arise out of, and are dissolved into, the cloud. Read more

The Thing Is…

When I was casting around for a name for this new blog—naming things is always a tricky business—I eventually settled on ‘The Myriad Things’. I tried out a few other names as well, but ‘The Myriad Things’ was the one that stuck. I toyed with ‘Myriad Things,’ without the definite article; but I thought that it sounded a little too much like an online store. I also thought about ‘All the Myriad Things’, which had nice rhythm to it; but to my ear it sounded a little too much like the title of one of those delicate, nuanced novels in which nothing very much happens. So in the end I settled for ‘The Myriad Things.’ And the more I think about it, the more I think that the name fits. Read more

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