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Edward L. Shaughnessy: I have ‘affections’ on Chinese culture

“Zhuangzi is a really interesting literary work. At that time, I learned Chinese because I wanted to read this book in Chinese. I am still learning Chinese 50 years from now. From the point of view of American sinologist Shaughnessy, many people think Chinese is difficult to learn, but in fact, Chinese is not difficult to master. Chinese scripts themselves are more complex, but we can master them gradually by memorising them. Therefore, regardless of studying Chinese, Japanese or Greek, relevant studies are required to achieve the proficiency level”.

In the early 1970s, Edward L. Shaughnessy was deeply impressed by Zhuangzi's charm as he came across the English translation of this work while studying at university and began to learn Chinese. At present, he still puts himself in Chinese studies. Although there have been some slight changes in research interests, his studies are still related to sinology by deeply studying cultural history in the pre-Qin period. He also deals with history and philology.

Recently, he accepted the exclusive interview with the East Meets West program of the China News Service to share his 50-year research on cultural history in the pre-Qin period, palaeography and other academic fields, as well as interpret his translation and research on the ‘Book of Songs.’Play Video

Discover a little part of traditional Chinese culture

When he was young, Shaughnessy was interested in the intellectual history of ancient China. After graduating from university in 1974, he lived in Taiwan for a while and became the disciple of Aisin Gioro Yujun, a master in classics, to study ‘The Four Books’ and ‘The Five Classics'. Yujun believed that traditional Chinese culture was perfect and complete already. No further archaeological evidence was needed to support this. But my views were different from my master’s. I think our understanding of traditional Chinese culture is still limited.

For example, only 10% of Literature Records in the Book of Han have been distributed so far. So far, there are even fewer relevant excavated documents. If we compare these documents with Literature Records in the Book of Han, I believe we only understand less than 1% of traditional Chinese culture. Similarly, he said, many precious heritage sites are still being discovered, which people have little understanding of.

David S. Nivison's research on sinology greatly inspired him in his early years. He began with the study of Zhang Xuecheng from the Qing Dynasty, then traced back to Wang Yaming from the Ming Dynasty, Mencius from the warrior states, and finally studied deeply the inscriptions of oracle bones.

The changes in the shape of the Chinese Character “tu(rabbit)” starting from inscriptions of oracle bones are projected by the National Museum of Classic Books. Photo by Hou Yu.

In 1978, David S. Nivison was studying inscriptions of oracle bones when Shaughnessy entered the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Stanford University. Unlike Nivison, he preferred to begin his research on the birth of China and oracle bone inscriptions and gradually proceed to subsequent years. ‘At that time, I thought about starting from the origins of China and working backwards, but my research stopped during the Warring State period.’ Right now, his research focuses more on West Zhou and the Warring State Period.

Understand the Ancient Study of the Universe from the Book of Songs and Book of Changes

Books of Songs is full of aesthetic values. They were the earliest poets with written texts. It was the most authoritative classic in pre-Qin China and was valued more than the Book of Shang and Zhou Yi, and Confucius regarded it as a classic. Shaughnessy pointed out that the Books of Poetry not only show ancient Chinese customs, but more importantly, it reveals the cosmology of time. Among the "six basic elements", namely ballad, court hymn, eulogy, narration, analogy, and association, "Association" is the most crucial and the "key" to understanding the Book of Songs.

On March 11, 2024, American sinologist Shaughnessy lectured at Beijing Language and Culture University to talk about the beauty of the Book of Songs. Photo by Li Guoqing.

The Book of Changes and the Book of Songs emerged in the same cultural context with the same outlook on cosmology. Therefore, we must compare these two literatures to understand them in depth. This is why I changed my research from the Book of Changes to the Book of Songs. From his point of view, Emblems played a similar role to associations in the Book of Songs

At present, many debates on pre-Qin history focus on the Book of Songs in Western academia, especially the debate on oral culture and written culture mostly based on the Book of Songs. "I am not against oral culture as the Book of Songs also relied on singing. I am on the side of words or texts. Poetry may have been written with a pen and spread through written texts. This pattern continued into the Han Dynasty.'

On April 20th, 2024. Performers played the Book of Songs at the Old Summer Palace. Photo by Cui Nan.

Book of Songs possesses both cultural and aesthetic value

Shaughnessy says that Zuo Zhuan (sometimes called the Zuo Commentary), Mencius and Xunzi, etc., often cited the Book of Songs, demonstrating its important status in cultural advancement. Apart from its cultural value, the Book of Songs has its aesthetic value. "Our research on Book of Songs is not deep and thorough enough. I also translate Book of Songs and try to capture the original meaning of this book. '

Although Western readers mainly read Arthur Waley's English Translation of the Book of Songs in the 1930s, Shaughnessy has been deeply studying Western Zhou script and ancient Chinese documents for decades, gaining profound insights into exegesis.

Shaughnessy believes that translation shall get back to the basic language expressions regardless of translating traditional kinds of literature like the Book of Songs or classics like Journey to the West.

On the 19th of October, 2014, the "Yellow River Elegant Collection - Poetry Classics Recitation Event" was held in Heyang, Shaanxi. Middle school students recited the "Book of Songs" and other Chinese classics in unison. This is the birthplace of the famous sentences in the opening chapter of the Book of Songs, "Guan Ju". Photo by Ren Haixia.

There are many well-known works in the Book of Songs, such as the frequently mentioned Guan Ju. Unlike James Legge, William Jennings, Arthur Waley and Ezra Pound's translation. Shaughnessy's translation is based on philology with extensive interpretation and research on Guan and Ju. For example, he translated Guan Guan Ju Jiu as 'Join Join', and chirps the osprey, which is both rhythmic and poetic. He says it is not easy to identify hundreds of different plants. The names of different plants, trees, birds and beasts in the Book of Songs have different characteristics and symbolic meanings, and it is necessary to study their historical origins and connotations.

In Shaughnessy's view, people will look at the Book of Songs differently. Some people believe in Mao's biography, some people pay attention to word-by-word interpretation, while others pay attention to its beauty. Therefore, he advocated that everyone should study according to their interests, rather than following a fixed methodology.

Young people should understand the Book of Songs

Over the past two decades, Shaughnessy opened a course related to the Books of Poetry every three to four years at the University of Chicago and translated some lines from the course. Currently, he enjoys reading poetry, translation, and explanation. In his spare time, he decided to translate all 305 poems in the Books of Songs.

Poetic beauty is essential. Translation will be assessed by readers. I will publish my translation, looking forward to feedback from readers. At least I provided a new way of translating. In the preface, Shaughnessy expounds his understanding and interpretation of the Books of Songs and discusses its role in developing Chinese literature.

At an activity centre in Hejian City, Cangzhou, Hebei Province, a reader is reading the Book of Songs. The Book of Songs is a glorious start for Chinese poetry and literature. Photo by Zhai Yujia.

Shaughnessy believes that younger generations in China and abroad should understand the Book of Songs. It is important for people who study Chinese culture and philology to grasp the classics. If we study Tang, Song, Ming, Qing and modern China, basic classics such as The Book of Changes, Book of Songs, Book of History, The Analects, and Thoughts on Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi represented by The Book of Changes, are the key to understand the history of philosophy and thoughts in China.

When it comes to The Book of History, Shaughnessy believes that it is often overlooked since it is difficult and dry despite it is the second best. However, The Book of History is still significant. In comparison, the Book of Songs is not only interesting and important but also easier to understand, so it is worth everyone to understand.

Shaughnessy, who is still teaching at the University of Chicago in the United States, recently taught the Book of Songs to students. He also plans to conduct a course on the Book of Songs for graduates and a general course on the pre-Qin era for undergraduates. He hopes that both undergraduate and graduate students will participate in this course.

I have ‘affections’ on Chinese culture.

In the 1980s, Western Chou Civilization (revised version) was written by Xu Zhuoyun. In recent years, young historian Li Shuo has published Revelation. Unlike Chinese scholars, Shaughnessy has his own unique views on Chinese culture. I have "affections" for Chinese culture. I spent 50 years studying pre-Qin culture and there is affection, of course. I aim to discover the relationship between different cultures because mutual understanding is the most necessary.

At the 2023 Peking University 20th International Cultural Festival, international students from all over the world sang and danced together. Photo by Yi Haifei.

Shaughnessy also believes that different cultures need to understand each other no matter in traditional Chinese culture or modern Chinese culture. Thus, education is particularly important.

Shaughnessy most admires Chen Mengjia, a Chinese paleographer and archaeologist. He recalled the days in the 1940s when Chen Mengjia held a lecture at the University of Chicago. In the lecture, he stresses the importance of establishing mutual communication programs and encourages students to learn a foreign language well, especially one that is completely different from the mother tongue. It is absolutely necessary to go abroad and see different cultures and civilizations, Shaughnessy said.

Shaughnessy believes that there are few differences between modern Chinese and foreigners in understanding the Book of Songs as neither came from that era. Thus, it is crucial to create opportunities for cultural exchange. Intercultural exchanges are crucial. I always believe that education goes beyond all boundaries.

Guest Profile

Edward L. Shaughnessy, Photo by Li Guoqing.

Edward L. Shaughnessy, American sinologist, Distinguished Service Professor in East Asian Languages and Civilizations at The University of Chicago, Director of the Creel Center for Chinese Paleography. He used to be the editor-in-chief of Early China. His research was devoted to the cultural history of China’s Zhou dynasty (c. 1045-249 B.C.) and the Warring States era, palaeography and the I-Ching. His important works include ‘Sources of the West Zhou History, Inscribed Bronze Vessels’, I Ching: The Classic of Changes, The First English Translation of the Newly Discovered 2nd Century B.C. (Classics of Ancient China), Reviewing the Past and Knowing the New Record: A Brief History of Shang, Before Confucius: Studies in the Creation of the Chinese Classics, A Different View of Ancient History, Rewriting Early Chinese Texts and Arousals and Images: Essays on Ancient Chinese Cultural History.


ChinaNewsKailun Sui

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