Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

James Legge, Missionary and Scholar
An Article about the Chinese Classics

This article was taken from as I found it quite difficult to read being white text on a grey background.

The main site is at


To claim that James Legge’s Chinese Classics set new standards for classical translation in the last third of the 19th century may not be too surprising to those seated here today, simply because active translators and scholars of China generally know about the Chinese Classics, even if they have not very often employed them in their own studies as reference works. Describing the details about these standards may prove to be a positively stimulating experience, however, simply because there have been a number of major discoveries during the last two decades dealing with Legge’s life and translation corpus, so that these standards can now be highlighted in a concise and comprehensive manner. Yet it could probably be surprising to some if this claim was extended further: Legge’s Chinese Classics have set standards in the 1860s and 1870s which still carry much insight and authority even now at the beginning of the 21st century. His precedents for translations in canonical Ruist (“Confucian”) literature, therefore, require some extensive preliminary explanations.

Reasons for pursuing these explanations should be made clear from the start. First of all, under certain assumptions about the incremental growth of scholarship across the years, many might assume that we have long ago superceded standards of translation set over 140 years ago, especially those set in the context of the newly established colony of Hongkong. Not only is there a historical gap to be considered, but the cultural climate of a colonial setting certainly, it would be assumed, nurtured restrictive interpretive interests. Furthermore, the simple fact that Legge was a Protestant missionary should make us all concerned about his own personal hermeneutic orientation. How could a person whose intention was to challenge Chinese traditions with a Christian worldview be capable of anything close to an interpretively balanced or well-justified set of translations?

In response, I must clarify from the start that I would agree that there have undoubtedly been many technical refinements in the broader area of Chinese classical translations over the past 140 years as well as some major theoretical advances regarding the nature of translation during the same period. Nevertheless, I do want to assert that the grammatological event of Legge’s publication of the Chinese Classics involved numerous principles for translating authorized texts or canonical literature that not only went far beyond anything which had been done previously in translations of Chinese canonical texts, but also still offers some very salutary suggestions for those of us who are involved with translation work in the 21st century. That there were also aspects of his translations which are now pass and are no longer able to guide us today I will also readily agree, and in the subsequent details will try to make some of these manifest as well. Nevertheless, his Chinese Classics were such a watershed event in foreign translations of Chinese canonical literature that they do still provide insight and guidance into ways of translating these same texts and others of similar status even in the 21st century.

As a consequence, the explanatory preliminaries I have prepared here will include an overview of recent scholarship related to Legge’s sinological translations in six points, and then move to discuss briefly just how much Legge engaged the traditions of sinological translation and interpretation known during his time. Following this, I will appeal to a Gadamerian understanding of hermeneutics to indicate just how a Christian missionary such as Legge might be able to do the unexpected: that is, to provide an engaging and well-justified translation of Chinese canonical literature even when he himself did not always agree with its claims. Having accomplish these preliminary tasks, we will move directly into the discussion of fifteen of Legge’s constructive standards for sinological translations as found in his opus magnum, the Chinese Classics. 

I. An Overview of Recent Scholarship related to James Legge’s Sinological Translations 

Some years ago a phrase was coined, referring to James Legge as an “intellectual black hole”. The image was intended to suggest that James Legge’s (???1815-1897) presence as a sinological “heavyweight” was undisputed, but there had been no more substantial effort to reveal what has made him so significant. During the past fifteen years I have made it my purpose to correct this intellectual shortcoming, gaining in the process many new understandings and insights which were previously unknown about the man and his sinological corpus. A brief summary of these discoveries as they relate to his sinological corpus as it is primarily found in classical Ruist literature includes the following major points.

A. James Legge’s Sinological Achievements

1. Legge’s Multiform Translations.

Besides the well known eight-tomes-in-five-volumes set of the Chinese Classics and the six volumes of Ruist and Daoist classical literature translated and interpreted as the Sacred Books of China (please see the appended chart of his major translations). part of the much larger 50 volume series edited by Friedrich Max Mller under the title of the Sacred Books of the East, Legge had translated many of the same “Chinese classics” at least twice. In the cases of the Great Learning (????) and the State of Equilibrium and Harmony (first known as the Doctrine of the Mean, ????), Legge translated and published four different renderings of these two works throughout his lifetime. This made the interpretive questions surrounding the hermeneutic justifications and his careful translation adjustments across the different versions of the same work more complicated historically and, in terms of research discoveries, far more interesting.

2. Two Editions of the Chinese Classics.

The two editions of the Chinese Classics – the first set completed during Legge’s last stage of his missionary-scholar career in Hongkong (1861-1872) and the second edition republished by the Clarendon Press in Oxford near the end of his professorship there at Corpus Christi College (1893-1895) – proved to be related in more complicated ways than initially understood. The second edition is only partially revised, the first two volumes dealing with the Four Books being the portion which had been revised in subtle but significant ways. These revisions not only involved corrections of certain translation tropes, but also additions and corrections to his lengthy commentarial materials, adding new materials to his bibliographies for those two volumes, and – easily the most significant – radically changing his assessment of Master K?ng ??, the person he regularly referred to as “Confucius”. In the second edition, therefore, readers had to know that they were facing some texts not revised in the 1890s, but the same texts (with older transliterations and other problems) published first as the Book of Historical Documents in 1865, the Book of Poetry in 1871, and the Spring and Autumn Annals with its Zu? Commentary in 1872. Because some readers and scholars have not understood that this was the case, they have misinterpreted or misunderstood what Legge had actually accomplished in these two editions of his Chinese Classics.

3. Understanding the Relationship between the CC and SBC.

Because Legge’s goal was to complete renderings of all of the Four Books and Five Classics, it is important also to see the interrelationship between his Chinese Classics and the Sacred Books of China. In fact, the Chinese Classics include only the Four Books and three of the major older canonical texts; two of these (the Sh?j?ng???? and Sh?j?ng????) were reprinted in other formats within the first volume of the Sacred Books of China. Only when Legge had completed and published his renderings of the Book of Changes with its Appendices in 1882 and of the Book of Rites in 1885 had he actually accomplished what he set out initially to do in the late 1850s.

4. Assessing Legge’s Chinese Language Corpus.

Other factors illustrating the understanding and transformation of Chinese classical texts within Legge’s own Nonconformist Protestant consciousness were discovered within his publications made in Chinese media (both in relatively more stylish standard Chinese as well as in Cantonese demotic) during the period before and during his preparation and publication of the first edition of the Chinese Classics. The consequent roles of his life-long friend and colleague, whom he referred to as his “co-pastor”, Ho Tsun-sheen ???, and his hired researcher who worked with him for ten years from 1862 till 1872, Wng T?o ?? – both serving simultaneously as informants, research partners, and language teachers – proved to be a new and fruitful way to gain a more precise comprehension of what Legge learned from them and how he employed what he had learned. 

5. Understanding Legge’s Scottish Orientations.

The extremely significant formative influences of Legge’s religious and philosophical training in northeastern Scotland in his home and at King’s College, Aberdeen, and then later in London at the Congregational seminary called Highbury College, were hermeneutic gold mines. Fortunately, recent research into Legge’s background coincided with a surge in studies of the Scottish realist philosophers in North American and United Kingdom philosophical circles as well as the publication of watershed-making research tools in the history of Scottish church history and theology, making this particular dimension of the hermeneutic comprehension of Legge’s own assumed categories of understanding far more accessible and much more precisely documentable. Stated more directly, Legge’s fairly rigorous schooling as a young boy in Scottish grammar schools was based upon a revisionary moral and religious worldview created initially by 17th century Scottish Presbyterians deeply influenced by Calvinist theology. This system of the theological reconstruction of life and society was adopted in a critical manner by Scottish Christians who no longer felt it right in their consciences to continue to be associated with the state religion or the so-called “National Kirk” (that is, the Scottish Presbyterian churches and its General Assembly). It formed a new style of life which I have coined as “Sabbath culture”, a form of life Legge brought with him to southeastern China, seeing it successfully transplanted and translated into a Ruified Chinese Protestant form of life. 

In addition, the Neo-Aristotelian Scottish realism that emerged in the mid-18th century as a self-conscious contrast to the extreme skepticism of their fellow Scottish philosopher, David Hume (1711-1776), provided the intellectual categories for an understanding and assessment of different beliefs within broad ranging groups of human beings (what we now would refer to as “culture”) as well as the hermeneutic principles which would help one interpret, evaluate, and argue toward a higher level of consensus among dissenting groups of human beings. This Scottish school of philosophy, part of a too-often-forgotten Scottish Enlightenment which took place in the 18th century, was brought into being by the intellectual labors of a pastor-scholar and philosopher, Thomas Reid (1710-1796), whose student, Dugald Stewart (1753-1828), was the main influence in James Legge’s philosophical studies while at university in Aberdeen. Even more significant was the successful combination in the 1820s of a moderating Calvinist theology with this “Scottish commonsense” philosophy, epitomized in the work and writings of another famous Scottish pastor-scholar, Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847). Armed with this ideological panoply – one which not only left its manifest impact in James Legge’s writings, but also shaped much of North American education (James McCosh (1811-1894), President of Princeton University in the latter quarter of the 19th century, was a Scottish realist) and its theological and missionary traditions – Legge expressed in his prolegomena, translations and commentaries a well-rounded and committed viewpoint fully informed by this theologically systematic and philosophically engaging system of “first principles”. 

6. Legge’s Involvement in Ruist Commentarial Traditions.

Finally, Legge’s preparations for translating these ancient Chinese scriptures involved him necessarily, due to his own philosophically informed convictions about the proper ways to understand texts and contexts, in a wide-ranging search through related Chinese commentarial traditions. Whenever he could do so, he tried to locate hermeneutic traditions within these commentarial works that represented various approaches to interpretive options, indicating where he agreed, disagreed, or found the text and/or its related commentaries incomprehensible. As a consequence, Legge cited more than 300 Ruist scholars from the pre-Hn to the Q?ng dynasty by name and by their works, creating a completely new standard of hermeneutically justified translations which remains a monument to his own life-long effort as a missionary-scholar and sinological translator. 

B. Initial Evidence of Legge’s Effort in Engaging Contemporary Sinology

A more thorough study can manifest just how unusual Legge’s standards for publishing the Chinese Classics were, especially when they are compared to past Roman Catholic, Protestant, and academicians’ translations. Significantly, as we will learn below, the majority of works he cited were from missionaries – Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Russian Orthodox missionaries – rather than from academicians, suggesting something unusual about the cultural context of early Chinese translation work and the distinctive role taken up by those like himself who were “missionary-scholars”. Significantly, Legge regularly cited these works in the bibliographic sections of his prolegomena to the major translations, and so he certainly realized the limitations of these previous efforts and had thought carefully about how he wanted to overcome their deficiencies. Relevant questions involve issues such as which languages the renderings were made in (for example, the scholarly Latin of Jesuits or the use of contemporary languages such as French, German, and English), whether they included the full text in translation, whether they provided access to the original Chinese text, and whether they indicated what different Chinese scholars had to say about difficult or important passages. In all of these areas Legge went far beyond his predecessors, and so also was able to produce a translation which – though questionable in some places and awkwardly expressed in others – produced an overall advance in both general understanding of the ancient Chinese Ruist scriptures as well as new particular interpretive advances within texts which had previously been overlooked or misrepresented in various degrees.

What should be added here is the additional fact that Legge not only produced translations, but also provided interpretations sharpened by his own Christian scholarly training and Scottish philosophical commitments. As a consequence, we can learn very much about Legge’s motivations and standards of judgment from not only his commentarial notes, but also from his more lengthy and systematic treatises on “Chinese religions” and essays on a wide variety of ancient Chinese texts. The following hermeneutic reflections attempt to clarify how a person with his own peculiar interpretive commitments could produce such a monumental and beneficial corpus of sinological translations.

C. Hermeneutic Reflections on Christian Renderings of Chinese Classics

Before moving directly into listing and explaining the new standards Legge established within sinological studies of the canonical Ruist texts, let us reflect more about the hermeneutic significance and the profound challenge of the whole process of translating an authoritative text, a scripture, particularly one that is written in an ancient foreign language previously unknown to the translator. As Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2001) insightfully illustrates, it was the Continental Enlightenment’s bias that one’s own reason should stand against all “prejudices” created by authority and “over-hastiness”, that is, by a “blind obedience” and an unjustified judgment made on the basis of one’s own inadequately prepared understanding. What Gadamer sought to rejuvenate as part of the real problem of hermeneutics was the fact that there could be “justified pre-understandings” even within the consciousness of those just starting to learn about foreign authorized texts that are “productive of knowledge”, so much so that some of these pre-understandings could add to our grasp of the message and meaning of canonical texts. Classical and scriptural texts, then, can be a source of contemporary insight, and are not merely “fixed” in a distant past so that they become in principle irrelevant to the present. In them “ a consciousness of something enduring, of significance that cannot be lost and is independent of all the circumstances of time” is revealed. Here is the “normative sense” of the classic or the scripture which Gadamer highlighted as a clue to getting at a deeper problem in the process of understanding and interpreting ancient texts. In order for a person to acquire a new historical horizon of texts written in ancient times and in a foreign language, it is particularly necessary for there to be a precondition that this process is assumed to be possible. In the most general sense, this means that a person accepts a proposition of the following sort: “I can learn about and gain an understanding of what previously was not known and understood by myself or by anyone else among my contemporaries.” This is a strained form of the more common assumptions about normal dialogue, because when we share a common language and the same historical contexts, the extent of our differences are not as pronounced. Put into the context of Legge’s own hermeneutic experiences after he arrived in southeastern China, he believed (due very much to the influences of neo-Aristotelian developments of Scottish “commonsense” philosophy) that the beliefs and worldviews of other human beings – even those of distant times and using Chinese forms of communication -- could in principle be approached, understood, and evaluated precisely because they were products of human beings. 

Significantly, this did not mean that he had to believe in their truthfulness in order to understand them, for Gadamer argues to the contrary that “the word of scripture addresses us and that only the person who allows himself to be addressed – whether he believes or whether he doubts – understands.” This basic comprehension of the preconditions needed for justified translations of ancient texts in foreign languages has many times been denied by those who argue that “one who doubts” could never truly understand a text which is doubted. This would only be the case, however, if the authoritative text were not approached by the translator in a manner which subordinated her or his mind to the text’s claim of bearing an authority to and over the reader. If one reads a text only to criticize it from an independent point of view, that is, where one’s own knowledge dominates the text and rejects its authority in principle, then no genuine and justified understanding could be obtained. What is difficult for some to imagine, and this is precisely what we should recognize as a dimension in Legge’s achievement as a sinological translator, is that he could submit himself to the authority of Chinese scriptures as canonical texts, even while he carried many doubts within his mind about their claims. To reveal and understand the claims of an ancient scripture was a different task from evaluating and doubting its claims; a translator and interpreter (or translator-interpreter) can clarify this difference in the act of translation, when it is done well, even while retaining a distancing doubt. What becomes a more profound element in this process of translation is when new understandings of the authoritative text(s) break through one’s previous doubting assumptions, providing a way forward into “acquiring a new horizon” previously obstructed by doubts one held to be justified. This breaking down of pre-understood and existentially confirmed doubts and their final overcoming, breaking through into a new and positive synthesis of translated understandings which enrich the translator’s ability to sympathize and recognize the value of the foreign text, can come through the study of the impact of the canonical texts on subsequent interpreters within its original historical traditions. It suggests that the final goal of translation presented by Goethe (the idealized “true interlinear”) and summarized by Steiner in the last stage of his account of hermeneutic motion in translation (“restitution”) may still hint at something important for at least the aesthetics of translation, that being a disciplined turn back toward the original text which reveals something of its otherness to both a translator and a reader. 

For example, Legge could learn more about his own doubts about the Chinese scriptures through studying the debates of Ruist commentators from different ages about various troubled passages in their own canonical literature. In this way, he had the possibility of discovering like-minded scholars (confirming his belief in the commensurability of basic understandings of human life and experiences) as well as more acceptable translations and interpretations of canonical texts which were particularly difficult (due to the use of strange or unusual terminology, distances in historical-cultural modes of presentation, and possibilities of forgery, among other problems).

All of these problems happened to be included in Legge’s education based on Scottish realist philosophy and his Nonconformist Christian training, because he was groomed to understand the Bible as just this kind of authoritative text, and had only accepted its profoundly authoritative significance for his own life after he had graduated from university in 1835. When Legge began to consider making the translation and interpretation of what he called the “Chinese classics” his missiological goal, he did so under the assumption that his approach to those authoritative Chinese texts should be taken with the same kind of rigor and thoroughness – a principled submission to their claims even in spite of his ignorance and doubts – as he assumed for the Bible. Notably, he did this without referring to these canonical works as “sacred books” or “scriptures” within Chinese traditions, a factor he reconsidered when he published six more volumes with F. Max Mller in Oxford as the Sacred Books of China. It did not mean that he read into them any divine authority, as he did believe was the case with the Bible, but that he took every word, phrase, and sentence seriously, as a text to be grappled with, and to be interpreted in the light not only of grammatical and historical understandings of the text, but also from a broader understanding of the whole authoritative text itself. This explains in part why Legge, though he first conceived this massive project as early as 1841, he did not actually produce his first volume in the Chinese Classics till twenty years later. He sought to have a fuller understanding of the whole text, as a text with authority within the Q?ng empire having its own cultural history, meaning in general, a history of the impact of its understanding on people across many ages who received its authority (what Gadamer calls Wirkungsgeschichte). While others before him may not have been so cautious, Legge self-consciously took up this attitude, making it possible not only for him to establish new standards in sinological translations of the ancient Chinese scriptures with which he worked, but also to experience over a lengthier period of time a transition in his own legitimation of doubts about these texts, opening doors for an Ruified accommodationist form of missionary presentations of Christian proclamations which he had not previously seen as possible or understood as justifiable. 

The most important breakthroughs in sinological standards came in Legge’s understandably well-attested translations found in The Chinese Classics. There were significant and subtle differences between the first edition (1861-1872) and its later, partially revised second edition (1893-1895), but here below we will mostly focus on the most obvious elements which were shared by both editions of this major work.

II. Standards Set in Legge’s Chinese Classics for Sinological Translations

Now I would like to enumerate the fifteen new standards set by James Legge’s first edition of the Chinese Classics (1861-1872), some being refined in his partially revised second edition (1893-1895). In addition, I will provide brief historical comments to explain why these standards were so significant, illustrating them with overhead transparencies whenever possible. When relevant, I will also indicate why they remain important for all subsequent translations of classical Chinese literature, that is, the canonical texts of the authorized Ruist traditions.

1. Identification and Use of a Recognized Chinese Standard Text

To begin his work on the Ruist canon, Legge required of himself to locate the most updated and authorized version of all of the relevant texts. These he called the “modern version”, and only in the prolegomena to one of the later volumes of the Chinese Classics made it explicit that these texts were culled from the larger collectanea edited by Ru?n Yun (?? 1764-1849), the Hung Q?ng j?ngji? ??????. This was a precedent of momentous importance. Previously, very few translators who were either missionaries or academicians ever made clear the status and source of their Chinese original, not to mention discussing the history of the redaction of a particular text in the Ruist canon or the Chinese scholarly consensus about which among the extant versions of text(s) should be considered most authoritative. Among those who did, even fewer then went so far as to print the Chinese text along with their translation. For example, Joshua Marshman provided some Chinese text for his very early version of a portion of the Lny published from Serampore in 1809 (ironically titled The Works of Confucius) it was neither elegant in form nor precise in punctuation.

Legge discussed the textual history (Redaktionsgeschichte) in his lengthy prolegomena, and then published the Chinese text above his own English translation in all cases except in the last volume (CC5), where he published the Ch?nqi? and the extremely lengthy Zu?zhun first in Chinese as a complete text, and then followed them on subsequent pages with English language texts of these two Ruist scriptures.

Since this time, every major translator of canonical texts has needed to clarify the authorized Chinese text used in order to make their own rendering. The most recent example I am aware of is Andrew Plaks publication of his translations of the Dxu and Zh?ngy?ng for Penguin Press; and even just last year here in Hongkong one could find that D. C. Lau was willing to published an edited version of the Mencius which included a standardized Chinese text along with his English rendering. Both these examples suggest that something very fundamental was brought to light by Legge’s insistence in identifying an authorized version of the Chinese original and publishing it along with his English translation.

2. Using Standardized Transliterations and Special Tonal Marks

Previous to Legge’s time, there was no standardized romanization system which all major sinologists used consistently for referring to the phonetic equivalents of Chinese characters. This caused much trouble for those European readers such as Leibniz who were very interested in early Jesuit renderings of Ruist canonical literature, since at times they could not identify specific terms, and were not always unable to distinguish homonyms.

Relying first on the transliteration system developed by Robert Morrison’s Chinese dictionaries (1815-1823), which did not include tonal marks, Legge published the whole of his first edition of the Chinese Classics, employing Morrison’s precedent. What he did do to correct this tonal inadequacy was to change the Chinese text itself by adding special markers where alternative readings of characters were indicated. That is to say, if a Chinese character had more than one phonetic pronunciation and so carried different meanings, Legge added a small circle in one of the four corners of the character to indicate the use of an alternative phonetic (sound and tone). This made his Chinese text immediately take on a certain kind of “foreignness” for a Chinese reader, since these phonetic markers were usually only written into the text and not made part of the printed Chinese format, but Legge justified its use because he was preparing the books for both foreign and indigenous readers. Significantly, at least from an existential point of view, Legge complained of being musically “tone deaf”, and so this also apparently affected his expression of Chinese languages. Nevertheless, in spite of this deficiency, he understood the principles of tonal expression and explained them to his readers by relying on traditional Chinese accounts of these matters.

By the time he began preparing versions of Ruist classics for the Sacred Books of China (1879-1891), Legge became convinced that Thomas Wade (1818-1895) had provided a more precise system, and so he began employing this transliteration system for his subsequent translations. As a consequence, in the second edition of the Chinese Classics, where he only reedited the Four Books, one finds that Legge’s transliterations there (CC1 and CC2) were using Wade’s system, while the latter three volumes were reprinted with the less precise Morrison transliteration system. Unfortunately, the later standardized transliteration system of the Wade-Gile’s hybrid had not yet been developed by Herbert Giles at the time Legge was working on the Sacred Books of China, and so this particular system which was used in English language texts for much of the 20th century was not accessible to Legge.

This unhelpful inconsistency has been overcome in later bilingual translations of some of these texts in the 1990s, where the contemporary standard P?ny?n ??has replaced all the transliterations of personal and place names as well as other technical terms in the text when Legge’s translations were employed (as in the case of the Four Books). 

Translators will know that this problem of employing a recognized standard in transliterations is still a major problem across sinological worlds, where there are still some differences between systems employed, for example, in French and German texts. The trend is to adopt a truncated form of the mainland Chinese P?ny?n system, that is, one without tonal marks, but now with the advantages of Chinese computer software, we could hope that this also might be overcome. Fortunately, some precedents for the practice of providing the complete P?ny?n (sound and tone) have already been set (Australian Mark Elvin, Americans P. J. Ivanhoe and this author, among others).

3.Adding Numbered Sectional Indicators to the Authorized Chinese Text

Readers of classical Ruist texts will know that not all traditional Chinese texts separate the different paragraphs or “verses” in a regular way. Many simply indicate the beginning of a new passage by raising the scriptural text to the top of the Chinese page, or perhaps adding a large circle (?) in front of the subsequent text. Following precedents he knew of in both biblical and classical Latin and Greek texts already published in England, Legge chose to add location indicators to his renderings, including chapter numbers, paragraph numbers, and even “verse” numbers, depending on the length and complexity of the texts involved.

As a consequence of this innovation, Legge was able to prepare a more systematic reference system for all the Chinese Classics, making it possible then to create several other standard features of his translations (see below #8 and #14). That these can be seen as part of the “Orientalist” mode of creating tools for gaining a “comprehensive” account of the text can be considered, but it should be done also in the light of the fact that many modern versions of these same Chinese texts published in contemporary China now incorporate at least sectional or verse numbers for each passage. Some aspects of the Sinological Orientalist production of the “classical” texts, it would seem, have even had a creative and synergetic effect on the presentation of Chinese canonical texts themselves.

4.Bilingual texts (SL and TL) followed by Subordinate Commentarial Notes

By presenting the reader with a tri-leveled text involving different kinds of texts related to the Chinese original – a translation followed by commentarial notes – a special dynamic within the translation text is grammatologically achieved. A reader by this means can judge for himself or herself whether the rendering is appropriate, whether it can be more elegantly expressed, and whether the justifications are illuminating or not. 

This clarification between a translation and the commentary was not always previously done. For example, in the French translation of the Analects presented by the French academician, Guilliame Pauthier, he at times mixed up the translation with glosses from the commentaries without letting the reader know, and so produced a very different kind of text (and effect) for the reader. There was some previous efforts presented by Legge’s missionary predecessor in Malacca, David Collie, where he also provided commentarial notes to his translations of the Four Books (produced in 1828, but without any Chinese text), but these were much more limited in scope and were generally unaware or unresponsive to the larger corpus of commentarial literature which Legge regularly employed.

That Legge persisted in presenting these extensive commentarial notes during a Victorian period when the translator, along the lines of Matthew Arnold’s suggestion, should “disappear from the text”, makes his self-conscious effort all the more remarkable. Yet it remains a much more common practice now, especially within translations of canonical Chinese literature, to have “translator’s notes” added to portions of the text where the rendering cloaks or camouflages certain dimensions of the original text. In this regard, Legge’s precedent has become a boon for all subsequent translators and readers.

5.Renderings Based on Research into Commentarial Traditions

Most translations of Ruist scriptures previous to Legge’s time did not reveal the commentarial texts they employed in interpreting passages and coming to a decision for translating them. Even less often did them manifest to readers where there were important alternatives within the text and so translation options which should also be considered. For example, the major 17th century Jesuit translation project which presented one of most important earlier renderings of most of the Four Books, entitled Confucius Sinarum Philosophus, utilized only two commentaries. The first was the influential commentary of Zh? X? (??1130-1200), and the second was the relatively accessible commentary prepared by the tutor of the young Mng emperor, Wnl ??, the “straightforward explanations” (zhji? ??) prepared by Zh?ng J?zhng (??? 1525-1582). On his part Legge referred to more than 300 individual Ruist commentators throughout the commentarial notes of his five volumes, highlighting the new level of engagement he had taken up with the past and present Ruist scholarly traditions.

6.Handling Difficult Text by means of Critical Readings and Paraphrases

Because Legge knew that there were some texts that had a very complicated and problematic redaction history, such as the Dxu and the Shngsh? (which he called by an alternative name, the Sh?j?ng, or the Book of Historical Documents), Legge realized that at times he would have to provide a critical account of how he came to his chosen translation option. His ways of handling these problem texts are still instructive for 21st century translators. 

For example, where indigenous commentators pointed out alternative readings in extant texts, he might refer to them. Rarely did he ever offer other alternatives which had no precedent in Chinese commentarial traditions (in opposition, for example, to the more libertine methods of textual emendation employed by the German translator, Richard Wilhelm (1874-1930), who nevertheless continued to cite precedents in Chinese or Japanese commentarial traditions whenever he could locate them).

Another kind of problem arose when the text was manifestly corrupt, or was simply incoherent in its canonical form. What was a translator then to do? When corruption was identified and confirmed in Chinese commentaries, Legge employed an alternative which had also been adopted by British missionary translators of the Delegates’ Version of the Christian Bible: Rather than translate what would appear to be incoherent, he provided a gloss of the text based on imperially authorized paraphrases (regularly entitled as ?? Rji?ng or “Daily Lectures” or what Legge called “Daily Lessons”), and then explained his use of this text in his commentarial notes. 

In cases, such as the Dxu and Zh?ngy?ng, where more than one form of the standard text existed within the Chinese canon (as in the case of the “old texts” of the Book of Rites and the “revised texts” prepare by Zh? X? and authorized by the Q?ng imperial house as the standard texts for the Four Books), Legge made translations of both texts in their appropriate canonical context. (See CC1 and SBE28.)

Translators are often tempted at these points when redaction difficulties arise in the text to offer a rendering without informing the reader about the inherent difficulties. Legge’s particular ways of resolving these issues, especially by offering an imperially authorized paraphrase of the passage, may not seem adequate now, but it was a clever choice of alternative readings which still reflected a high level of standardized interpretive authority. In the cases of the Dxu and Zh?ngy?ng, however, his special effort to provide renderings for both forms of the text still goes beyond what has generally been made available in contemporary translations of these same texts, even in spite of the fact that the problems within the redaction history of these texts are far more often addressed in both philosophical and classical studies of these canonical pieces.

7.Providing Alternative Renderings in Commentarial Notes

In cases where there were controversial interpretations of important passages, Legge would first come to his own decision which option was the comparatively better one, but then would include the alternative(s) in the commentarial notes, often including the Chinese statement of a representative indigenous commentator, so that the reader could “judge for themselves” which was better.

This was a particularly bold act in the light of the mid-19th century preference to have the translator “disappear” from the text, but I take this to be an example of the extraordinary effort Legge took to objectify the translation options available to an informed reader of these classical traditions. Whatever his missionary predilections, Legge handled many texts of this sort with a generosity that brought many benefits to interested readers. This standard reflects his own training in classical and biblical exegesis, but remains a fine scholarly example for translators of authoritative texts to this day.

8. Providing Cross-References to Quoted Texts

Because Legge chose to add numbers as location markers for each classical text, he could also make precise references to quotations made to relatively ancient canonical passages found in the later texts (such as quotations of the Sh?j?ng in the Lny?). This made the translation all the more accessible to the uninitiated reader, and provided a facility for checking these sources.

Many traditional commentators would refer to texts by more general reference terms, citing the chapter or poem in which the original quotation appeared, but never anything more precise. In this regard, Legge employed standards of cross-reference he already knew in both Latin and Greek classical studies as well as in biblical studies to these texts in the Chinese Ruist canon, and so set a new standard of precision in cross-referencing texts (and also indicating when the quotations reflected an alternative textual tradition no longer found in the authorized version of these texts. Making this kind of information available took a lot of painstakingly precise study, but Legge kept his standards high, and as a consequence made his texts useful for many generations of readers, even long after the traditional form of Ruist study had become anachronous.

It should also be mentioned that this did not always mean that Legge’s references were correct. Since he started his translations with the Four Books, he had not yet set his own numerical references for many of the older canonical works until much later, and so some of the reference terms in the first edition of the Chinese Classics needed to be revised in the second edition. Most of the time, however, his references were accurate, and so they became a boon for scholars. As a consequence, most later translators also provide similar kinds of cross-references, a practice that was rarely followed in many previous translations by Jesuit and Protestant missionary translators, though indicated in a less precise manner in the texts prepared by early 19th century French academicians.

9. Willing to Explore Translation Options within Commentaries

Legge did at times find it hard to render certain passages, and in at least one case, the title of a particular work. While choosing to render a poem in the Sh?j?ng initially in a literal fashion (Xi?o Y? , Tngg?ng, Hmng; ????????), later Legge reversed his decision and provided a more justified metaphorical rendering on the basis of Zh? X?’s interpretations, explaining beneath in his commentary his previous hesitancy. By doing so he not only revealed the challenges of poetic translation, but also shows how a careful translator who continues to return to texts, especially after spending time with other texts and commentaries, may return to a previous rendering with more insight and more courage to provide a comparatively more suitable rendering. 

The other major problem came about in Legge’s struggle to translate the title of the Zh?ngy?ng. Initially giving it the Aristotelian sounding name, the Doctrine of the Mean, he was nevertheless unsatisfied with this rendering on philological grounds, but was unable initially to resolve the problem. Later he became convinced that it should be entitled The State of Equilibrium and Harmony, publishing the text with this title in his version of the Book of Rites (SBE28), and then, apparently due to editorial restrictions denying him this liberty, reducing it to a footnote in the initial statements to the work in the second edition of the Chinese Classics. 

Here the principle involves not only being open to commentarial options which indicate alternative possibility with translation, but also living long enough with these canonical texts so that one can gain a new hermeneutic insight into their meaning, and so readdress what were previously more or less opaque passages or terms with new understanding.

10. Pursuing Comparative Analyses with the Commentarial Notes

Here some of the broader scholarship as well as the Christian elements of Legge’s own personal commitments came into play. The previous hermeneutic discussion has already indicated how Gadamer would justify renderings done under Legge’s interest only as long as he “submitted himself to the text” in spite of his contrary interests or criticisms. I personally believe that Legge did so, as illustrated already in a number of examples, to a degree that was quite remarkable. 

Nevertheless, one of the major “sticking points” that affects some translators and theorists of translation is the fact that of Legge’s preference for rendering shngd ??or d ? (in only certain contexts in this latter case) within a monotheistic framework. One particularly acrid criticism comes from Eugene Eoyang Chen. But, as I have indicated elsewhere at great length, Legge did have commentarial precedents for Ruist monotheism which he was aware of in the writings of his older contemporary, the Cantonese official and second ranking scholar, Lu Zhngfn (???, d. circa 1850). This he indicated very clearly in his prolegomena and commentarial notes, but it had been simply overlooked and the fact of there being a monotheistic Ruist tradition was flatly denied by many Chinese translators and scholars (foreign and ethnically Chinese) until new evidence of the fact was produced in the early 1990s.

What is important here is that Legge regularly sought out indigenous support for any interpretive position which he adopted, even when his own interests were obviously engaged in the relevant debates. It is this special effort at objectivity and making justified choices that marks off his renderings as being more than casual or prejudiced translations. This principle continues to be an edifying and challenging standard for translators to this day.

11. Searching for Hermeneutic Principles with Chinese Commentaries

On the flyleaf of every volume of the Chinese Classics Legge highlighted a passage from the Mencius which was for him an indication that Chinese classical scholarship already understood hermeneutic principles that were as rationally coherent as interpretive traditions he had learned about in European classical studies and his courses in biblical hermeneutics. The text is Mencius 5A: 4 (2), and runs (in the rendering Legge presents within the body of the work): 

“[Those who explain the odes] may not insist on one term so as to do violence to a sentence, nor on a sentence so as to do violence to the general scope. They must try with their thoughts to meet that scope, and then [we shall] apprehend it.” 

The Chinese text quoted in the flyleaf does not include any reference to the persons or texts being explained, and so Legge essentially lifts this passage out of its context to “create” the hermeneutic principle in its more universal form. Nevertheless, it is significant that he was searching for these interpretive cues, and found them not only in the Mencius, but also in various commentaries produced by Zh? X?. 

In this way, once more, Legge anticipates the rigor that sinologists have now taken to be a more justified route toward understanding Chinese canonical texts, helping scholars to search for ways in which indigenous commentators explained or “explained away” certain translation problems they encountered. In this regard Legge’s standard once more remains a healthy model and beneficial corrective to more arbitrary acts of translations.

12. Producing Annotated Bibliographies of Relevant Chinese Literature

Not only did Legge offer extensive commentarial notes to the passages he translated, he also provided annotations to all the main works in Chinese which he employed. This was an obvious boon to any reader who had some access to Chinese, since Legge not only provided the Chinese title and a translation of it, but informed the reader of the author or editor, gave background information about that person, and then characterized the relative importance, strengths, and weaknesses of each text. Even to this day his textual evaluations are instructive, revealing not only what texts he had access to, but also which ones he did not know that are now considered more important and standard commentarial works for various Chinese scriptures. In this way Legge’s own scholarly acumen and intellectual access can be carefully weighed, and so also advances in more recent translations and interpretive studies can be precisely indicated. 

How one would welcome such a high standard of objectivity in research work and translations within our own age!

13.Providing Bibliographic References to Relevant European Studies

Here Legge’s contributions to a historically self-conscious account of the state of sinological translations and interpretations in the mid-19th century is instructive in a number of ways. Unlike the case with the Chinese works, Legge did not provide evaluative annotations here, even though he regularly evaluated specific passages from these works in his commentarial notes. What is more significant here, especially for the more precise understanding of the nature of Sinological Orientalism and the new stage of sinology which Legge created, was the fact that most of the texts were prepared by missionaries. Though nearly half of all the foreign language texts mentioned in this section of his bibliographies (from CC1 to CC5) were in English, he also included 13 in French, nine in Latin, and two in both German and Russian. These represented 19 works by academicians and 26 works by missionaries (including nine by Catholic and two by Russian orthodox authors). Obviously, Legge’s concern was to sum up previous scholarship in both Chinese and foreign settings, and at the very least to set a new standard for sinological comprehensiveness, if not also to establish a more justified rendering for each classical text. 

This kind of recapitulation of previous scholarship is now considered standard fare for translators and interpreters, and so once more Legge becomes a much appreciated forerunner of this academic tradition.

14.Creating a Dictionary for “Classical Chinese Terminology”

Not only did Legge provide a vocabulary list, he also indicated where the terms appeared in the particular classical text, employing his system of more precise reference numbers to facilitate the reader’s access to alternative renderings. Though a final version of a Classical Chinese dictionary was never produced, due to a large degree because of the extensive work Legge would have had to give to this project in relationship to the massive text of the Zu?zhun, nevertheless, it stimulated precedents which have led to the creation of just this kind of dictionary in other languages within the 20th century. 
This precedent also stimulated further philological work in Hongkong which added much that was helpful for later sinologists. After Legge had produced these preliminary materials, John Chalmers (??? 1825-1899), his younger colleague in the London Missionary Society in Hongkong and Gu?ngzh?u, produce English versions of the K?ng X? Dictionary and some translations and philological interpretations of portions of the Shu?wn Dictionary. These breakthroughs in philological study were directly related to Legge’s influence on Chalmer’s life, and so they became well known in sinological circles during the last decades of the 19th century. 

15.Adding Indexes to all the Classical Texts

These included indexes to personal and place names as well as to the subjects handled within each Chinese classical text. These indexes were published by Legge, but were actually prepared by his younger missionary colleague, John Chalmers, the person who provided very important translations of other philological tools mentioned in the previous paragraph.

In a day and age when computer technology simultaneously makes some things easier and others things more difficult (as any editor and publisher will readily testify), these indexes are regularly seen as a “user friendly” tool of great importance. None of Legge’s predecessors in sinological translation presented anything like these thorough indexes, and perhaps it is not so surprising that most of them did not even have indexes attached to their works. In this way, once more, Legge set a standard for modern texts of canonical translations that can still be honored, and did so without the technical advantages we now employ. He worked at each text without the aid of typewriter or computer memory, saving up his notes in large piles, and keeping them categorized and accessible so that they could be made available whenever they were needed. However we do so today, our filing systems and our means of organizing vast amounts of data is always an indication of the level of comprehensiveness we have (and can) achieve. Legge’s example is remarkable in this regard, a true model of patient, thoughtful, and disciplined translation.

III. Concluding Remarks

These fifteen standards were all found in the first edition of the Chinese Classics, and were in most cases so far above and beyond the precedents set by other missionaries’ and academicians’ renderings that they were given the high honor of receiving the first Julien Prize for Chinese Literature presented in Paris in 1873. If I have achieved my stated purpose, I would hope that listeners here would now agree with me that Legge’s Chinese Classics did in fact set a remarkable set of standards for sinological translations, standards which remain, in most of the cases, important precedents for classical translation even in the 21st century.

Electric Scotland Note: I've tried to find some of these Classics but it's not easy trying to figure out which is which so here is the best I've been able to do...

This is the list of books...

(1) Thi Yi King, or Book of Changes
(2) The Shoo King, or Book of History
(3) The She King, or Book of Poetry
(4) The Li Ki, or Book of Rites
(5) The Chun Tsiu, Spring and Autumn Record
(6) The Lun Yu, or Analects of Confucius
(7) The Ta Hsio, or The Great Learning
(8) The Chung Yung, or The Doctrine of the Mean
(9) The Works of Mencius

And here is what I have found...

Vol IV The She King or The Book of Poetry
Vol V (Part I) The Ch'un with The TSO Chuen
Vol I Confucian Analects, The Great Learning, and the Doctrine of the Mean
Vol V (Part I1) The Ch'un with The TSO Chuen
Part I - Confucious
Vol IV (Part II) The second, third and fourth parts of the She King
The Life and Teachings of Confucious
Vol III the Shoo King
Vol II Life and Works of Mencius

There may be others but they are not well indexed and hence it's going to take some time to identify them.

There is another page for downloadable books by Legge at

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus