I started to write a footnote to the previous post, but pretty soon it was longer than my poem, so I thought it deserved its own post.
Gary Snyder’s poem “Axe Handles” introduced a lot of American readers to a critical passage in the Confucian classic The Doctrine of the Mean, attributed to Confucius, who was himself quoting a folk-poem from the ancient Shi Jing. With the assistance of James Legge’s bilingual edition and my trusty Chinese-English dictionary, I’ve attempted my own translation — I hope it isn’t too much of a hatchet-job. (Fu can mean either axe or hatchet, of course. I prefer the latter here because I think a shorter-handled tool is at issue, though “axe” is certainly general enough to include hatchets as well.)
To cut a handle for a hatchet, what do you do?
Without a hatchet in hand it can’t be done!
In taking a woman to wife, what do you do?
Without a go-between it can’t be done!
Cutting a hatchet, cutting a hatchet,
The pattern is close at hand.
As soon as I laid eyes on the lady,
The serving vessel was ready to perform.
Folk poems tend to be earthy, and I see no reason to assume that this one is any different. If this were a country blues song, we’d take it for granted that “go-between” and “serving vessel” were both examples of double entendre. I guess it’s also possible that both were meant literally, and the only subsidiary analogy here is between woman and serving vessel (bian dou, “an ancient food container,” according to my dictionary. It would be a great help if I knew what one looked like). But in that case one would be left wondering about the violence of the hatchet-cutting image.
For the passage in the Doctrine of the Mean (13:1-3), I’m going to chicken out and just quote Legge this time. I’m sure there are better translations, but this is the best of the three I happen to have on my shelf (including the execrable one by Ezra Pound which Snyder references).
The Master said “The path is not far from man. When men try to pursue a course, which is far from the common indications of consciousness, this course cannot be considered The Path.
“In the Book of Poetry, it is said, ‘In hewing an ax handle, in hewing an ax handle, the pattern is not far off.’ We grasp one ax handle to hew the other; and yet, if we look askance from the one to the other, we may consider them as apart. Therefore, the superior man governs men, according to their nature, with what is proper to them, and as soon as they change what is wrong, he stops.
“When one cultivates to the utmost the principles of his nature, and exercises them on the principle of reciprocity, he is not far from the path. What you do not like when done to yourself, do not do to others.”
Chapter 13 concludes with an elaboration of the principles of reciprocity and absolute sincerity — or so Legge translates these key Confucian concepts. Since discovering and becoming a lurker at Manyul Im’s Chinese Philosophy Blog several months ago, I’ve gotten a pretty good idea of just how hotly contested these sorts of translations tend to be. I think it’s safe to say that the image of the hatchet handle appealed to Confucius because it spoke to his emphasis on ethical self-governing in the here-and-now. I love the way he derives the Golden Rule from this — especially since that seems (to me at least) to have been far from the mind of the original poet. My only, neo-Daoist criticism here concerns the fittingness of the image of carving itself. I don’t question the necessity of hatchets and hatchet-handles, but it seems to me that we can learn even more about how to conduct ourselves in the world from a contemplation of the uncarved tree. I admire the Talmudic way the Doctrine of the Mean borrows and reads into passages from the Shi Jing. But uncarved poems have a unique resonance and radiance that no single interpretation can ever quite do justice to.