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Hello everyone! I'm curious about how many people here studies or can read ancient chinese.

 

How did you learn? Can you recommend any accessible textbooks? 

 

And if you've had a lot of experience reading ancient texts....how transparent are there in the original? I know from reading the greek magical papyrii and some tantras that the practices themselves are oftentimes veiled and cryptic. Is that the case here too?

 

Also I'm curious if are there any lesser known texts in daoism on energy cultivation and qigong. Stuff in a similar vein as the Yijin Jing (tendon changing classic).

 

Cheers

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Posted (edited)
On 5/23/2019 at 7:01 AM, matthewmerlin said:

Hello everyone! I'm curious about how many people here studies or can read ancient chinese.

 

There have been quite a few people who can read classical Chinese in and out of here over the years, with a range of specialties and skill levels. 

 

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How did you learn? Can you recommend any accessible textbooks? 

 

I started with Language of the Dragon, which was recommended to me by a guy who'd studied with the author, I think at Oberlin. It's not a pretty book but I think it was an excellent place to start. A few months later I started pouring over the Yellow Emperor's Inner Classic for an hour or two a night, dictionary in hand, and attending classes on this text over the weekend (I was living in China). I used paper copies of the Kangxi Dictionary, the Shuowenjiezi, and Pleco. One person had recommended that I always write dictionary definitions by hand in the margins of books in order to strengthen my impression of the words; another suggested I always write the full Chinese definition, not the English synonym. I combined both people's advice and the pages of my books became very full of words (for a few years, at least), but I learned a lot and now I sit and read things that are a thousand years old at my leisure. Later I attended a few university level intro classes taught in Chinese in China, which were helpful. The key was really just keeping at it on my own, though.

 

Also, early on I had a bilingual copy of the 《太上老君說常清靜經》, translated by Brenda Hood, who's now at the National University of Natural Medicine in Oregon. This was very helpful to have, because she did a great job and it had the original text right before her English version. If you're trying to learn to read Daoist cultivation texts this would be a good thing to track down. 

 

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And if you've had a lot of experience reading ancient texts....how transparent are there in the original?

 

It really depends on the topic, the author, the era, the style, the genre, the intended audience, etc... and of course your own knowledge of the relevant vocabulary and similar texts or predecessor texts (because lots of ancient Chinese authors love using allusions or partial quotes which are easily recognized by those "in the know," but bewildering if you don't know what you're looking at). Nowadays I can read some ancient Daoist writings as though they were as transparent as a pane of glass--some of these books even respected, native speaker professors who research Daoism cannot read, but that is simply because I've spent a lot of time learning the terms related to the minuscule sliver of classical Chinese writings that I'm interested in. Conversely, the things that they're into are often just as opaque to me as blocks of wood... and just as boring, too, to be honest!

 

In any event, no matter which fields interest you, building the relevant vocabulary will take you quite a few years, in part because no single dictionary is up to the task of shedding light on a specialized field. 

 

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I know from reading the greek magical papyrii and some tantras that the practices themselves are oftentimes veiled and cryptic. Is that the case here too?

 

Most definitely. This is a major issue in Daoism. For one, alchemical imagery can be very complicated and requires you to be able to figure out what's being alluded to, sometimes by allusions to symbols that represent the ineffable... sometimes, even, symbols that mean one thing in one arcane field (such as Chinese medicine) might mean a whole different thing in a different arcane field (such as when certain Chinese medicine terms show up in inner alchemy writings). In short, a lot of "decrypting" is required to make heads and tails of these things.

 

On top of that seldom if ever did old texts spill the beans with really clear, straightforward instructions like you'd hope for in a well-written cookbook (and even if they did, without having a teacher who's been taught orally to pass the practical explanation to you in person, could you be sure you had the right interpretation?). Then, on top of that, in some fields of the Daoism--especially ritual, but I've seen the same in one instance with "Daoist medicine"--some things are intentionally written out of order, incorrectly, or with omissions to prevent outsiders from being able to use the instructions unless they also got the relevant oral teachings. And then, on top even of that, there is human error from mistranscribing, misprinting, misinterpretation etc. If you get so involved that you're working with 300-year-old handwritten manuscripts, then you're also dealing with rot and bug eaten pages. Ah, there's no end to the fun you can have if your obsession is deep enough...

 

None of this makes achieving your goals an insurmountable task. If this is really you're path, then the 苦 will naturally taste 甜 and things will fall into place and one day you'll find yourself having what a professor I know who researches Zhengyi Daoist ritual calls the "third eye." He doesn't mean what most people mean by third eye--he means that you're so familiar with Daoist texts in a certain field that you're able to correctly anticipate and guess meanings that no dictionary exists to confirm or disconfirm for you, but then months or years later you find some missing piece and realize, ah-ha!, you had indeed been right in your guess. (For the record, whatever "third eye" I have is totally useless in his field of research... Daoism is so huge and old and mixed up with other traditions like Tang Dynasty tantric Buddhism and 法教--which is so little-known in English that I don't even know what to call it--that it's impossible to know it all. Not that the knowitalls would agree with me...)

 

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Also I'm curious if are there any lesser known texts in daoism on energy cultivation and qigong. Stuff in a similar vein as the Yijin Jing (tendon changing classic).

 

Yes, tons, although the Yijin Jing text is quite a late development (Ming or even Qing, iirc), so it is not especially representative of what's out there. My impression is that writings attempting to describe physical postures and movements in great detail are not especially common in older Daoist texts. 

 

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Cheers

 

乾杯!

Edited by Walker
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"used paper copies of Dictionary and Shuowenjiezi " -- very impressive! 

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