Just want to add my voice to those others (on Twitter) who have called out the nice little piece in the NYRB on translator Red Pine (aka Bill Porter). For me, it demonstrates some of what I have been blogging about of late: the ways in which "culture" is open and intelligible and learnable.
Porter lived for a long time in Taiwan, practicing Buddhism and translating Chinese texts into English. He has now found somewhat greater publishing success (not that that was what he sought) in China. A couple of his more recent books, observational travel writing, have been translated into Chinese and sold fairly well there. He is, therefore, someone who has moved between cultures and, I suspect, melded apparently disparate cultural practices into his own life.
His Chinese publisher makes an interesting comment in the NYRB story:
“Our culture is really broad but how does it affect our daily life? Today we’re very westernized—our food, clothing and so on—but here is someone from the West who finds value in China,” Tang said in his short introdutction. “Why does he do this? What does it say to us Chinese?”
This point - the modern transformation of Chinese culture - is noted again in these lines about the popularity of his travel writing:
His [Porter's] goal is to tell interested foreigners about revealing byways of Chinese culture. Unexpectedly, this approach also works for Chinese, many of whom are about as removed from their culture as Porter’s target audience is in the West. But this means that what is a niche market in western countries—the Chinese culture enthusiast—is a mass market in China. It also helps that Porter is a foreigner. Many wonder how foreigners see this complex culture, which during the 20th century Chinese writers, thinkers, and politicians blamed for their country’s demise.
I suspect this is true: Many Chinese do not make a study of the ancient texts, largely because the old books are seen as not particularly useful for a modern, competitive life. However, the novelty of someone who is putatively "outside" the culture, but who then enters into it, or at least enters into some facets of it, provides a new window for seeing the culture for those who are putatively inside it. His "Western" perspective on "Chinese culture" illuminates and shapes the "Chinese" perspective on "Chinese culture."
But at what point do the "Western" perspective and the "Chinese" perspective spill into one another, dissolving clear distinctions?
Daodejing 20 takes up these themes. And here is the Red Pine translation (which seems to ignore the first line; something like: "give up learning and troubles end"):
Yes and no aren't so far apart lovely and ugly aren't so unalike
what others fear we too must fear
before the moon wanes everyone is gay as if they were at the Great Sacrifice or climbing a tower in spring I sit here and make no sign like a child that doesn't smile lost with no one to turn to
while others enjoy more I alone seem forgotten my mind is so foolish so simple
others look bright I alone seem dim others are certain I alone am confused receding like the ocean waxing without cease
everyone has a goal I alone am dumb and backward for I alone choose to differ preferring still my mother's breast
絕學無憂，唯之與阿，相去幾何？善之與惡，相去若何？人之所畏，不可不畏。荒兮其未央哉！衆人熙熙，如享太牢，如春登臺。我獨怕兮其未兆；如嬰兒之未孩； 儽儽兮若無所歸。衆人皆有餘，而我獨若遺。我愚人之心也哉！沌沌兮，俗人昭昭，我獨若昏。俗人察察，我獨悶悶。澹兮其若海，飂兮若無止，衆人皆有以，而我 獨頑似鄙。我獨異於人，而貴食母。
Of course, the apparent confusion that comes with the erasure of cultural boundaries and certainties ("I alone am confused receding like the ocean waxing without cease...") is, for a Daoist, a good thing....