BOOK REVIEW: Dao De Jing: A Minimalist Translation by Lao Zi [Trans. Bruce R. Linnell]

Dao De Jing: A Minimalist TranslationDao De Jing: A Minimalist Translation by Lao Zi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Available Free on Project Gutenberg

The Dao De Jing presents the core philosophy of Taoism, a philosophy that values simplification, non-action, naturalness, spontaneity, and recognition of opposites in [and their influence on] each other. There are numerous editions (this is the Wang Bi / “standard” ed.) and English translations of this Daoist tract, and the translation matters because the Dao De Jing is at once simply stated and arcane. I liked what Linnell did with this translation, which – as the subtitle suggests – he aimed to make simple and straightforward.

One nice feature of this translation is that each of the 81 chapters has four segments: the original Chinese text, a readable English translation, a word-for-word literal translation, and notes. Having the Chinese, a literal translation, and notes can be helpful when one has trouble deciphering the more cryptic passages. Another nice feature is an appendix in which the author discusses another scholar’s hypothesis that the chapters of the Dao De Jing were composed in layers, and Linnell re-orders the chapters as suggested by this hypothesis. Finally, the book ends with a Jefferson Bible-esque excerpt collection that takes all the places where Lao Zi wrote “Thus the sage:” and builds a single composition describing a wise person.

If you’re interested in Taoist philosophy, you may want to read this translation, whether you’re new to the Dao De Jing or you’ve read other translations or editions in the past.


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Sun Wukong [Common Meter]

The Monkey King with magic staff
outmatched monsters and gods,
defying the Jade Emperor's
edicts against all odds.

He erased himself from out of 
The Book of Life and Death,
and lived through the Crucible --
nearly holding his breath.

Finally, the gods called Buddha,
though some had their qualms,
but the one thing Monkey couldn't do
was leap from Buddha's palm.

BOOK REVIEW: Cold Mountain Poems Translated by Gary Snyder

Cold Mountain PoemsCold Mountain Poems by Gary Snyder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection consists of twenty-four of the three-hundred-plus surviving poems by the Tang-era poet-hermit who went by the name “Cold Mountain” [i.e. Han-Shan.] This translation was produced by the Beat poet, Gary Snyder, and both the translation and the selection are informed by Snyder’s sensibilities and worldview. Snyder is known for nature-centric poetry infused with Buddhist and Native American sentiments, but, like other Beats (though far less than, say, Allen Ginsberg,) Snyder sometimes engages in social commentary. This makes Han-Shan’s body of work a fertile field because it, too, focuses heavily on the beauty and harshness of nature, is framed by Buddhist and Taoist perspectives, and occasionally interjects a societal rebuke. The poems are mostly octave (eight-line) poems which often follow the format of a “straight” sestet that sets up a “punchline” in the last couplet. [Not to suggest the poems are jokes, but they often present a clever twist or commentary at the end.]

Han-Shan’s poems focus heavily on his life as a hermit and the dichotomy of Cold Mountain (the locale) as both a harsh place to live and the only place for him. The Snyder selection focuses heavily on the appeal of nature and the living of a simple and natural life — as well as on the shunning of materialism.

Han-Shan is a mysterious figure, but what is known of him is intriguing. He is considered a mad saint by some, though most of what is known about the man comes from his surviving poems. (Some believe that the 313 known poems maybe only about half of what the hermit composed during the course of his life.)

Even if you’ve read one of the full collections (e.g. Red Pine’s,) you may find some unique insight and imagery in Snyder’s select translation. I’d highly recommend it.


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BOOK REVIEW: Poetry and Prose of the Tang and Song [Trans. by Yang Xianyi & Gladys Yang]

Poetry and prose of the Tang and SongPoetry and prose of the Tang and Song by Yang Xianyi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection includes works from eighteen prominent poets and writers from the Tang (618-907 AD) and Song (960 – 1279 AD) Dynasties of China. Among the most famous of the included authors are: Wang Wei, Li Bai, Du Fu, Bai Juyi, Wang Yucheng, and Su Shi. The included works (mostly poems but including some brief prose writings) explore subjects such as nature, social justice, patriotism, travel, and drinking. If some of those topics surprise you, you’re not alone. I may be letting my biases show, but I was surprised by how much social outrage and humor was contained in these works from the China of 750 to 1,400 years ago. That said, most of the works do present the kind of sparse imagist depictions of natural scenes one would likely expect from Chines poets in days of yore. (Think haiku, but longer — though no less devoid of analysis or judgement.)

As someone who isn’t an expert on Chinese literature or even a speaker of any of the Chinese languages, I can’t comment intelligently on how precise the translations are. However, the English language versions contained in this volume are evocative, clever, and, occasionally, funny.

To give one an idea of the kind of humor, I’ll offer this quote from a poem by Xin Qiji:

Last night by the pine I staggered tipsily
And asked the pine, “How drunk am I?”
When I imagined the pine sidling over to support me,
I pushed it off saying, “Away!”


I enjoyed this collection, and would highly recommend it.


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