The translation of a small passage can turn out to tell us a great deal. Consider section 4B12 of the Mencius. Mencius says in this section that the great man is one who retains, or does not lose, chizi zhi xin 赤子之心. This Chinese phrase translates literally as something like “heart/mind of baby.” Most translators have followed the interpretation of the great Neo-Confucian synthesizer Zhu Xi, which dovetails smoothly with the optimistic view of human nature generally attributed to Mencius: in D.C. Lau’s translation, “A great man is one who retains the heart of a new-born babe.” We are born naturally good as babies, and become bad only if something intervenes to impede our natural development. (Contrast Augustine in the first chapter of the Confessions, who observes babies as creatures of desire and envy.)
Bryan Van Norden’s recent translation of Mencius challenges this interpretation. He translates 4B12 as “Great people do not lose the hearts of their ‘children.'” And he notes that in this he is following the early commentator Zhao Qi – for whom “children” refers to the subjects of a ruler, whose hearts must be won over. Nothing here about babies or children being naturally good.
Van Norden could be right about Mencius to this point; I’m far from a Mencius scholar and wouldn’t be able to tell. What struck me as far more surprising, though, is what Van Norden says next. Continue reading