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Updating Chinese classics and Western mindsets

China scholar Roger Ames is painstakingly reinterpreting ancient chinese literary works to remove old biases and fostering better communications between east and West

Over the past four decades, tens of thousands of skyscrapers have sprouted in major Chinese cities as part of breakneck economic growth. While these glittering towers are a clear indication of economic progress, the building boom and rapid growth that fueled these projects also yielded a stunning array of archaeological finds from ancient China. Those finds include many never-before-seen copies of classic Confucian works and other writings of classical Chinese philosophy and thought. This was particularly significant because the philosophical tradition in China is dialogical as each subsequent generation adds its own thoughts to traditional texts. Researchers recovered silk texts, bamboo texts, and wood block texts in excavations. For Roger T. Ames, the confluence proved fortuitous.

A professor of Chinese philosophy at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa and the former director of the school’s Center for Chinese Studies, Ames has used these finds to craft new translations into English that he believes better reflect the true essence and nuance of Chinese thought and belief. This is part of his life-long quest to bring about a better understanding of China in the West. “Most previous translations of great Chinese works were drafted by Missionaries or people living in China during the Missionary Era. This colored the works with thoughts that reflect the Christian lens through which the authors viewed the world rather than a more Confucian view that the original author likely held,” explains Ames. “For example, the idea of an individual God in Western Philosophy does not easily translate into the Eastern Idea of God as a more collective entity reflective of Chinese society.”

Ames’ has produced his revisionist translations during a crucial period when China’s role has steadily shifted from impoverished backwater to global superpower. In early 2011, the size of the economy of Mainland China surpassed Japan’s to become the world’s second largest economy. Despite the economic headwinds of the past three years, China’s economy has continued growing at a blistering 10% annual clip. “Roughly 25% of the world’s population is Chinese. Yet many Americans know very little about Chinese culture or philosophy or the worldview of its people,” says Ames, the author of 30 books and dozens of book chapters and academic articles. “Understanding Confucianism, Daoism and other key belief systems will help the United States co-exist more harmoniously with China.”

While he is careful not play the role of China apologist, Ames is also quick to caution that China’s seeming contradictions are often the result of opposing internal forces. For example, the extensive environmental destruction wrought by China’s rapid economic rise to industrial power may have looked irresponsible to the West and might seem to contradict Chinese beliefs in harmonious co-existence with and respect for nature.

“Remember, China pulled nearly half a billion people out of poverty as a result of this economic expansion,” says Ames. “This was also a moral act. Now China has arrived at a place where it has begun to question the impacts of these policies and to ask ‘What does China want to be in the next 50 years?’” The answer will have a tremendous impact on both China and the U.S. The lifework of Ames could play a crucial role in ensuring that interactions between the two superpowers remains cordial and healthy.

About the Researcher
Roger T. Ames is a professor in the Department of Philosophy, UH Mānoa, specializing in Chinese philosophy. He has authored, edited, and translated some 30 books, and has written numerous book chapters and articles in professional journals. Professor Ames was the subject editor for the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean entries in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Currently he continues to work on interpretive studies and explicitly “philosophical” translations of the core classical texts, taking full advantage in his research of the exciting new archaeological finds.

Source:  This article originally appeared in the Summer 2011 print edition of Kaunānā.