Translation of Chuan Xi Lu [Introduction]

Chuan Xi Lu is a classical Chinese work that records dialogues and letters of the Neo-Confucian thinker Wang Yangming. I translate selective chapters from it that I find to be enlightening and worth sharing and hope more readers can appreciate Wang Yangming’s wisdom.

Chuan Xi Lu or Instructions for Practical Living (传习录) is a major work of the Neo-Confucian philosopher Wang Yangming (1472 - 1529), who was also an important military general and politician in the Ming dynasty. Like The Analects (论语), the book includes his dialogues and letters with students on a wide range of topics. Chuan Xi Lu has significant impact in shaping the course of Confucianism’ development as well as guiding practical affairs. As summarized by Dr. Wing-tsit Chan in his translation of this classical text, he wrote in the preface:

As every student of Chinese thought knows, Neo-Confucianism, which developed and transformed Confucianism under the influence of Buddhism and Taoism, has dominated Chinese thought for some eight hundred years. The philosophy of Cheng I and Chu Hsi represents the rationalistic wing of that movement while that of Lu Hsiang-shan and Wang Yang-ming represents the idealistic wing. It is in the Instructions for Practical Living that the idealistic tendency has reached its full bloom.

Since Chu Hsi’s rationalistic philosophy ruled supreme in the Chinese intellectual scene for centuries and its influence continued to some degree until our own time, it is necessary to understand its idealistic counterpart.

Wang’s philosophy did not merely play the role of opposition, however. It overshadowed Chu Hsi’s philosophy for over a hundred years and because of its emphasis on sincere purpose and concrete action, the need of which was keenly felt in China’s troubled times, it has in recent decades exercised considerable influence on Chinese intellectuals and social and political leaders alike. In Japanese history it provided the leaders of the Meiji Restoration with inspiration and impetus and has thereby contributed substantially to the reawakening and revitalization of Japan. (Chan, 1963)

Despite Wang Yangming’ gaining popularity in China, especially since President Xi Jinping’s endorsement, I find very few people are actually familiar with Chuan Xi Lu, which is arguably the best articulation of his thinking and embodiment of his spirit. I think one reason is simply that the text is written in classical Chinese in the Ming dynasty, which makes it challenging to understand for modern Chinese speakers. Another reason, which I think is more important, is that most people, even those with formal education in China, simply do not have as much exposure to the text as they have with other classical work like The Analects (论语), Tao Te Ching (道德经) or The Art of War (孙子兵法)1 . As a corollary of its comparatively little-known status in China, I find there is only one English-translated version of Chuan Xi Lu by Dr. Wing-tsit Chan in 1963.

I hope more readers can appreciate Wang Yangming’s wisdom. In this enterprise (this post and more posts coming), I will try to translate selective chapters of Chuan Xi Lu that I find to be enlightening and worth sharing directly from the classical Chinese version. In doing so, I hope more people can gain awareness about Wang Yangming’s profound yet simple messages like “cultivate innate conscience (致良知)”, “unity of knowledge and doing (知行合一)”, “be sincere (诚意)”, “be determined (立志)” etc. Moreover, this translation exercise offers me a great opportunity to rectify and deepen my previous understanding, and to frequently remind me of his teachings for guidance and inspiration. In the following, I will include the classical Chinese text so Chinese readers can find them helpful as a reference. There must be inaccuracies in my understanding and expression, so I also recommend reading Dr. Wing-tsit Chan’s 1963 translation for comparison, which magically can be read for free here.

  1. I happened to read some chapters of Chuan Xi Lu in middle school since I became interested in Wang Yangming personally after reading the Chinese bestseller Stories about Ming Dynasty (明朝那些事). ↩︎

Jipeng Liu
Jipeng Liu
Research Associate

A researcher inspired by the great Economist, Philosopher, Statesman John Maynard Keynes