Columbia University Press is publishing a complete translation of the Huainanzi, a Han-dynasty compendium of philosophy and statecraft which has been of great interest to scholars for many years but is only now receiving a full English translation

We are lucky enough to have John Major, one of the translators here for a guest post on the process of translation and also to answer a few questions.

In March of this year Columbia University Press published The Huainanzi: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Government in Early Han China, a translation of a classic work of early Chinese philosophy written under the general editorship of Liu An, King of Huainan, and presented to the Han imperial throne in 139 BCE. My colleagues and I in the translation team hope and expect that this first-ever translation of The Huainanzi into English will make an important contribution to the study of Chinese intellectual history by opening a fascinating window into currents of thought in the early Han dynasty.

The process of translating this massive and challenging work may be of interest.

In about 1994 I mentioned to my friend Hal Roth (Harold D. Roth, Brown University) that I was thinking of doing a full Huainanzi translation, and he replied that he was thinking of doing the same. So we decided to join forces; that’s how the project got started. Both of us had already devoted large amounts of our professional attention to the Huainanzi. We believed that it was under-appreciated in the field of early China studies; everyone in the field knew of Liu An’s great work and perhaps consulted it for comparative purposes when working on other texts, but few people at that time had made The Huainanzi the focus of their research. It was the last really major work of Chinese philosophy from the early imperial period that still lacked a complete English translation. (A Paris-based group beat us to the distinction of publishing the first Western-language translation; their French translation was published in 2002.)

We landed a Chiang Ching-kuo fellowship to begin the work in 1996-98. Jay Sailey, an independent scholar who also had a longstanding interest in The Huainanzi was initially part of the project but later dropped out; a few years into the project two additional participants came on board. The final team consisted of John Major, Sarah Queen (Connecticut College), Andrew Meyer (Brooklyn College) and Hal Roth. Michael Puett (Harvard) participated in the translation of chapter 13, and Judson Murray (Wright State U.) participated in the translation of chapter 21. But the core team was the four of us.

The project took so long — about fifteen years — partly because the text is quite large (the published translation runs to just over 1000 pages) and also quite difficult (it is in standard Classical Chinese but there are many textual issues to deal with and some of the language and the technical terminology is far from transparent). Also all of the participants had other ongoing obligations; it was never possible for everyone on the team to work on the project full-time, all the time. The last three years or so were very intense and we all basically put aside as much as possible of our other research and writing to concentrate on the Huainanzi, but even so, there were courses to prepare and teach, administrative work to be done, other research and writing commitments to honor, and so on. But we were determined to work as a team rather than simply dividing up and parceling out the work (as the French group had done); we were convinced that approaching the text in a truly collaborative fashion was the key to making the translation as accurate and graceful as possible. The procedure that we adopted was complicated. We began by dividing up responsibility for doing first-draft translations of all of the 21 chapters. Then each draft was read and critiqued by all other members of the team, revised, read and critiqued again, and further revised. The aim was to make the final versions as complete, accurate, and seamless as possible, no matter who did the initial draft. From 1998 to 2009 we met for four or five very hard-working weekends per year at Brown to hash out difficult passages and discuss, for example, uniform ways of translating important terms. The last stage of translation consisted of reading the entire work aloud — taking turns, one person would read while the other three followed along in the classical Chinese text, looking for errors. That took many, many hours, but it proved to be extremely worthwhile.

Manuscript preparation itself was a big job that took about two years: peer review, revision; copy-editing, more revision; page proofs, corrections; appendices, index, etc. It was a huge undertaking just in the physical sense; the final typescript ran to over 1600 double-spaced pages.

Working as a team was really essential to the project; it was a much more complicated way of doing the task than a solo effort might have been, but the result is much better than any of us could have done alone. Intensive, long-term collaborative work is quite common in the natural sciences but relatively rare in other fields; I think that the success of this project demonstrates the merits of such close collaboration in the humanities despite its complexity and the hard work required to implement it.

The Huainanzi is full of fascinating material, and the effort of translating it was more than repaid by the intellectual challenge of doing the work and the satisfaction of having it turn out well. And we are delighted with the actual published volume, which was extremely handsomely produced by Columbia University Press. It is gratifying that the first printing sold out within three months, and the book is already in its second printing. It is very satisfying to have this work finally out in the world.

John S. Major


  1. This really is quite impressive, and a model for complex and critical translation projects. The down side is that there’s hardly anyone left who can review the book competently!

    The next step — though I hesitate to offer more work — would be to produce an abridged version suitable for undergraduate use. I could see using it myself, especially as the eclectic nature of the work seems to me a more authentic version of the intellectual life of early Imperial China than the later neo-Confucian orthodoxy which treats thinkers as coherent and exclusive/contradictory ideologies.

  2. I’m glad to report that the abridged version is well in hand; “The Huainanzi: Basic Writing” is slated to be published by Columbia in the fall of next year, and the work of abridgement is in process right now. We hope very much that the shorter (and less expensive) version will meet the needs of many people who teach courses in (or involving)early China.

  3. John,

    I’m rather impressed with the level of collaboration you put into this, which as you pointed out is more a natural science thing than a humanities thing and a good way to ensure a nice uniform translation. I was wondering how uniform the original text was. I’ve always seen it listed as a miscellaneous work, and I was wondering how well the text holds together, both in terms of ideas and in terms of style and usage. Did you find some chapters or sections different from others, or did it seem more like a single-author work?

  4. Our translation should finally put to rest the idea that the Huainanzi is an incoherent hodge-podge assembled from various pre-existing sources with no coherent organizing principle or point of view. The text has of course always been classified as “miscellaneous” (za) but that is a bibilographical category, not a qualitative assessment; it just means that it doesn’t fit into any of the standard bibliographical categories such as Ru, Militarist, or Yin-Yang. Several things support the idea that the text was assembled in a relatively short time, with a strong editorial point of view and a coherent system of organization. The most important of these points is that the text is clearly divided into “root” (ben) and “branch” (mo) chapters, with the break coming between chapters 8 and 9. That the chapters are arranged deliberately in this order is proven by the remarkable fact that the chapter titles rhyme (a fact first pointed out to us by Martin Kern) and a key break in the rhyme scheme comes precisely between the titles of chapters 8 and 9. The root-branch organization can be characterized as presenting two equally important points of view, which one might call “principles” and “applications.” The root chapters tend to privilege a Daoist point of view (with chapter 1 heavily dependent on the Laozi, and chapters 2 and 7 on the Zhuangzi) while the branch chapters are more eclectic and open to what one might call a Confucian point of view. But things are not as simple as “root” = Daoist, “branch” = Confucian; the ecclecticism of the text extends throughout the work. So for example chapters 3-5 are heavily dependent on the Lüshi chunqiu, among other texts, and chapter 12 uses quotations from the Laozi to comment on historical anecdotes. The text overall accepts a devolutionary view of history, from a primitive communitarian state of “Grand Purity” in remote antiquity to the complex political problems of the present; the message is that while identification with the Dao and rule through passive non-action was fine in ancient times, more expedient policies (including those based on Humaneness, Rightness, Ritual, and Music) are required in the modern world. So seemingly contradictory passages are less so when seen in the light of this overall root-branch/principles-practice framework. For example, the opening lines of chapter 8 describe “non-action” as passive and silent, radiating out into the world through the potency of the sage alone, while the opening lines of chapter 19 argue explicitly that sages were not merely passive, but in fact were hard-working and active. What seems like a contradiction becomes simply a contrast, between the theory of sagehood and what is required of rulers in the here-and-now.

    The Huainanzi’s final chapter (chapter 21) argues for the coherence of the work as a whole. The chapter has special status as a postface, written as a “poetical expression” (fu), probably by Liu An himiself, on the occasion of the presentation of the book to Emperor Wu in 139 BCE. The work is described as “this book of the Liu Clan”; it is, in other words, specifically a manifesto for the emperors of the Han dynasty. It claims to take the best features of all previous thinkers, regardless of “school,” and to fill up all of the cracks and interstices in political theory so that nothing further need ever be said on those matters. It argues that the chapters should be read in order (with those rhyming titles, again) and that each builds on the preceding one. (For example: “Had we discussed the Utmost Essence [in chapter 6] and not traced to its source the spiritlike qi of human beings, you would not know the mechanisms [described in chapter 7] by which to nourish your vitality.”)

    It is certainly possible to find passages in the Huainanzi that seem to be mutually contradictory, but when the work is read as a whole it seems quite coherent; its message is that a successful monarch needs both to engage in the “root” practice of self-cultivation with sagehood as his goal, and to attend rigorously to the “branch” techniques of government administration (everything from astrology to management of the bureaucracy). The book’s final couplet make the claim explicit: “[Thus], situate [this book] in the narrowest of circumstances and nothing will obstruct it, extend it to the whole world and it will leave no empty spaces.”

    One of the pleasures of translating the Huainanzi was its highly refined and elegant literary style; it is not a text that one gets tired of. Some chapters are certainly by different hands (as has been known since early times; Gao You’s preface names eight contributors to the work) but there is evidence too of Liu An’s editorial guidance in the generally high quality of the prose. There are some interesting discontinuities across the work as a whole; for example, the word “wen” (pattern, refinement, civil, etc.) appears seldom in the root chapters (1-8) and fairly frequently in the branch chapters; similarly, quotations from the Odes are infrequent in the root chapters but fairly common in the branch chapters. For sure, there is more work to be done (using word-frequency analysis, for example) on the authorship of specific chapters. But I think there can no longer be any doubt about the unity and coherence of the work’s overall editorial vision.

  5. Thanks for this wonderful posting. I also kept thinking how wonderful it would be if we had more of this kind of collaborative work in history of East Asia!

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