[New Publication] Rethinking Knowledge Through Early English Translations of Zhu Xi’s Study of Li 理

By I-Hsin Chen

The English translations of Zhu Xi’s 朱熹 (1130–1200) study of li 理 by James Legge (1815–1897), Thomas McClatchie (1812–1885) and Joseph Percy Bruce (1861–1934) are analyzed in this essay. A central figure in Chinese history, Zhu established the li system and contributed to the renewal of Confucianism and Chinese intellectual tradition. English translators of Zhu’s thought over time have used various words to translate li. This essay presents the perspective shared by Arthur Schopenhauer and related discussions by George Steiner and Robert J. C. Young to determine the key role of translation in producing meaning, developing the field of philosophy, and creating knowledge. Using an overview of Zhu’s philosophical framework of li as a background to highlight translation as the agent for transforming this framework, this essay examines how the translations by Legge, McClatchie and Bruce have stimulated readers to rethink knowledge from different angles. Legge, who translated li as “principle”, engaged with Zhu’s related ideas and Christian teachings comparatively to reflect on children’s education as well as the meaning of God and knowledge acquisition, in an attempt to integrate Zhu’s li system and Christianity through his translational exploration. McClatchie, who translated li as “Fate”, indicated that Zhu’s li system vastly differed from Christianity and emphasized the demarcation between Christianity and pagan philosophy. Bruce used rich vocabulary to translate li, and thus created a highly nuanced and meaningful comprehension of religion and philosophy by appreciating the differences in Zhu’s thought. By analyzing the aforementioned translations, this essay will illuminate the under-discussed process of knowledge creation through translation across cultures.