Good quality editions of the Chinese classics

If you go to Amazon looking for the Chinese classics you will find a total mess. A bunch of publishers have ripped public domain books from Google Books and are selling them at various prices.

Why should you avoid these? (1) The original editions of what you are buying were bilingual, but the cheap books might have removed the Chinese. If you are really going to read these texts seriously you need the accompanying Chinese. (2) Even worse, these editions might be bad OCRs replete with typos and missing pages. (3) You will want to hang on to these print editions for many years, and the cheap publishers will likely give you a version with an ugly cover, and no guarantees on the quality of binding glue. (4) Any markup you are charged on the printing costs is done out of utter greed and adds no value to the book at all.

Here is the solution: buy print-on-demand versions from Google Books, thanks to the Espresso Book Machine. However, it is hard to find what you are looking for on Google Books’ search engine. So, I made this blog post.

The classics, by James Legge

This might sound kind of strange but some of the authoritative translations of the Chinese classics were made in the 1850s. I know, who was even reading them back then? The fact of the matter remains that James Legge still towers above any classical Chinese translator who has lived since, with the exception of maybe Burton Watson. There is still no other full translation of the Rites, Odes, or Documents. Furthermore, Legge’s books include the full Chinese in beautiful woodblocks, something that will probably never happen again.

Legge’s books can all be found on Google Books for free. The Espresso machine in the Harvard Book Store is the cheapest and shipping is also very cheap. I have included links for that order form as well, although you could just click the “Get this book in print” link available on the Google page. I also include a link to the Dover editions. These are rather good reprintings made in the 1970s that carefully mimeographed the original texts instead of swiping them under a digital camera. But they apparently did not find it profitable to reprint the more obscure books.

I have linked as well to any superior modern translations that are available so you can compare their merits with the Legge. The exception is the Mencius, for which there are other translations out there but I did not find any of them comparable.

英名 Google Harvard Dover Compare to
論語 Analects Schiller
孟子 Mencius N/A
易經 Changes Rutt, Lynn
詩經 Odes Waley
尚書 Documents N/A
左傳 Zuo Zhuan Watson
儀禮 Rites

孝經 Filial Piety Chen
道徳 Tao Te Ching 全* 全* 全* D.C. Lau
荘子 Zhuangzi 下* 下* 下* Watson

* The Taoist texts were translated a little differently. They were in Max Müller’s Sacred Books of the East series and he apparently didn’t like including original texts. So, no Chinese, the Zhuangzi begins in the Tao Te Ching volume, and the translation is not the best. Might be better to consider alternatives.

What Legge didn’t translate

Legge translated the complete Confucian canon of the medieval era. However, Confucianism is more than just the canonical texts. Actually, Legge employed a scholar named Zhu Xi who was responsible for a major innovation in the way the texts were read. In order to really understand Confucianism it is necessary both to read texts that are outside the canon, and to read Zhu Xi and his detractors. Accessible translations of the unorthodox and medieval books are still in the works as we speak. Here is a list of what’s currently available for general audience readers.

Ancient books

Surprisingly, the Hanshu 漢書 has never been translated in full.

Zhu Xi

Unorthodox schools

Bonus: 19th century translations of Chinese literature!

繡像正徳皇遊江南傳 1842 original Englished
玉嬌梨 182? original Englished

Posted: July 21st, 2014 | Books, Confucius 6 Comments »

6 Comments on “Good quality editions of the Chinese classics”

  1. 1 jnelson said at 5:49 am on August 2nd, 2014:

    Hi! I’m John Nelson, an independent scholar from America! I found your work while searching for Codex Rohonc and got interested again in Hotsuma Tsutaye and Mikasafumi and Jindai Moji from your postings. I have heard of all of them before and hope some day to write a free online book covering the various Jindai Moji scripts and texts.

    Since you seem to be from Japan and fluent in Japanese, would you be willing to one day help me make guesses at the Old Japanese original pictoral identities of various signs in the various scripts called Jindai Moji ? Some of them are very pictoral and non-abstract. I can only read a little Japanese and Classical Japanese. I hope to learn Japanese some day but I might not because of all my already heavy research load.

    I am mostly a scholar of the linguistics of logographic writing systems, studying the original identities and later values of individual signs.

    This above post is very welcome and startling to me, because I spend time on Google Books and in my nearby university libraries looking for books in Classical Chinese and Japanese. I hope that you will put your book The Sacred Science of Ancient Japan online for free or give me a free copy, as I haven’t got much money (and won’t find it in any university near me, no doubt). For works like Legg’s Classics, I am happy to have them on a hard drive, and would not print them off because of the expense. But it’s a good idea to mention, I have done this for one key text.

  2. 2 leoboiko said at 1:21 pm on August 14th, 2014:

    Thanks for this, it’s appreciated.

    I know your post on “how to learn kanbun” has been closed for some time – and I’m sorry for venting here – but: trying to learn Literary Chinese as a Japanese scholar has been so unsatisfying & irritating. Memorizing the Mandarin pronunciations seems to be very hard for me without actually learning Mandarin, which is not feasible at the moment. Reading it in ondoku is way easier but soo uglyyy; one feels like all æsthetic nuance and texture of Chinese is garbled and lost (even Mandarin causes some of this feeling wrt other Chinese phonetic systems, but Japanese ondoku is even worse). Yamato-kotoba sounds much better, but reading in kundoku feels like cheating, as if I was mechanically converting Latin into Portuguese – and giving up any hope of keeping in touch with the author’s vision.

    I guess shikata ga nai but going the “Japanese schoolboy” route, at least for now, and then try to learn some Mandarin (or Cantonese or Taiwanese) Any Of These Days…

  3. 3 Avery said at 3:20 am on August 15th, 2014:

    I actually like ondoku, and here’s why. I attended a masters’ program where we all read and discussed the Chinese classics, and my favorite writer was Xunzi. But whenever I talked about him (I was carefully pronouncing it the way my Chinese friends had told me), everyone around me thought I was saying Zhuangzi. I ended up referring to him as “human nature is evil guy”. If we had simply been calling them Junshi and Soushi this wouldn’t be a problem. Never mind that we would have been running garbled Chinese through a meat grinder to achieve such pronunciations, it’s close enough to English phonetics and that’s what counts.

  4. 4 leoboiko said at 11:11 am on August 15th, 2014:

    If you say that kind of thing to this kind of person, it just makes us *more* greedy to learn some sort of Chinese or another (you mean the tonal and consonantal distinctions are so subtle and alien that they’re barely perceptible to most Indo-European speakers? gotta acquire that! (…one day))

  5. 5 Avery said at 12:14 pm on August 15th, 2014:

    Oh yeah, I totally understand that inclination! I just prefer to be the curmudgeonly linguist who Englishes things. When I googled “Junshi” I found that Ezra Pound was in my camp, and that was good enough for me.

  6. 6 Jeff said at 1:11 am on December 11th, 2014:

    Mr. Morrow, I’m almost done with your “Sacred Science” book and it’s wonderful, kudos to you. Regarding the Eastern Classics, you or your readers might want to know about Wing-Tsit Chan’s (1963) “Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy.” It is an overview, but contains many key works on Mencius, Confucius, Chuang Tzu, and many others. Also, for popular translations in an accessible yet poetic style, Thomas Cleary with Shambala Press has done some nice work, and his Taoist Sourcebook and others have been wonderful. His “Thunder In The Sky” compilation was touted as a business strategy book, but one read shows its roots in spiritual alchemy, which may pique your interest.