The classic of tea
by Lu Yu, translated from Chinese by Catherine Despeux
The Beautiful Letters, 122 p., €26.50
How to Read Chinese Classics
by Benoit Vermander
The Beautiful Letters, 336 p., 35 €
Taoist philosophers (vol. 1 and 2)
Translated from Chinese by Anne Cheng, Bai Gang, Charles Le Blanc, Jean Lévi, Jean Marchand, Rémi Mathieu, Nathalie Pham-Miclot and Chantal Zheng
Pléiade Library, Gallimard, 1,136 p. and 1,280 p., €65 and €68
“To quench thirst, we drink water; to dissipate melancholy or anger, we drink wine; if one is seized with some torpor or drowsiness, one drinks tea”, wrote Lu Yu (733-804), who recalls that “prolonged consumption of bitter tea strengthens the capacity to think”. This is therefore the beverage with which the French reader will be able to accompany the reading of the Chinese classics, texts from ancient China, which several recent publications offer to rediscover, including this new translation of the Classic of tea published in the prestigious “Chinese Library”.
Launched thirteen years ago at the Belles Lettres, this collection now offers nearly forty titles allowing you to discover the sources of Chinese thought, in a bilingual edition, accompanied by a quality critical apparatus. “Our goal is to allow a cultured reader to have access to Chinese sources, as we have been offering with the “Budé” collection for Greek and Latin texts for a hundred years. And we see that our Chinese titles are spreading well beyond the world of sinologists, explains Caroline Noirot, director of Belles Lettres, convinced that “to understand China, we need to have access to its sources. Not accessing the sources is the beginning of a misunderstanding”.
An informed sinologist living in China, the Jesuit Benoît Vermander also notes a renewed interest in the great Chinese texts. “We have regained consciousness, for about forty years, that China is a great civilization and each time we are impressed by Chinese civilization we return to its sources”, he underlines. His book How to read the Chinese classics?, published this fall, has just offered a scholarly introduction of high quality to all those who want to understand the spirit of these writings.
Engage in reading without fear
Because how not to be impressed by these great texts? “You have to approach Chinese authors without any fear, reassures the sinologist Rémi Mathieu, who this winter proposed a new translation of the Taoist Philosophers in the collection of La Pléiade. The main thing is to come to them without prejudice. Indeed, the obstacle does not come from our ignorance of China and its texts, but rather from our received ideas. »
To enter into these works, the reader must open up to another way of thinking and another way of writing, favoring an “experiential reading”. “Chinese philosophers reflect on experiences in such a way as to bring them to life for the listener and the reader,” explains Benoît Vermander. They want the reader to jump up at some point so that his eyes open up. They are writings full of anecdotes, parables. Chinese thought is an open thought which does not impose a conclusion, which hopes that the reader will find it himself. »
“It’s a literature that really invites us to develop our sense of observation, not to look for completely constructed knowledge, but to approach it in small touches”, adds Catherine Despeux, who has just published critical edition of the Classic of Tea. For the sinologist, the most difficult thing for the Western reader is to no longer remain passive in reading. “It’s a thought that invites us to put it into practice,” she insists. The first sentence of the Confucius Talks says about this: “To learn something and at the same time put it into practice, isn’t that a source of joy?” It is a typical Chinese approach not to separate theory from practice. »
For all these reasons, these texts require slow and patient reading. “You have to take the time to get used to the text, advises Catherine Despeux. These texts are not read from beginning to end, nor by following the order of the chapters. They are to be read and reread, they are meditated on. »
These writings can then release their wisdom and resonate with our questions, spanning the distance of centuries. “In a context of wars, the classical Chinese authors particularly ask themselves the question of the political link, of human nature – good or bad -, of the standards of conduct, and in particular of the rituals that hold men together”, explains Benoît Vermander. . So many universal questions to which they offer their paths of answers.
What is a Chinese classic?
The corpus of Chinese classics consists of reference texts drawn up between 600 and 200 BC. This period ends with the burning ordered by the Qin dynasty in 213 BC. “become authorities that we would dare to say are indisputable if the commentaries did not discuss them ad infinitum”, emphasizes Benoît Vermander.
Among them are Confucius (551-479 BC), Li Er or Lao Dan, putative and probably legendary author of the Laozi (contemporary of Confucius) and Mencius (380-289 BC).
The term “jing” (“weaving”) was chosen to designate the classic texts. It refers to the warp of a fabric like the thread joining the bamboo slats supporting a writing and refers to the regularities that cross the cosmos, the body, society and culture.
The “Chinese Library”, published by Les Belles Lettres, understands the term “classics” more broadly, as reference texts for Chinese thought.