Cutting a hatchet

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.

5 Comments


  1. Fascinating. I’ve no doubt the double entendre is intended, which makes Snyder’s allusion all the more interesting since I sense he’d appreciate that reading.

    What I’ve always liked about “Axe Handles” is its emphasis on the passing down of cultural traditions from teacher to student or parent to child: “How we go on.” Of course, sex is another way that “we go on,” so maybe the double entendre is continued (in indirect, implicit form) in his poem.

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  2. Perhaps Confucius’ is making a point about leadership — if you want your subordinates to govern their subjects properly, you need to likewise govern them properly. This of course is currently a major issue in modern America!

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  3. Lorianne – I think Snyder accepted the pious reading of the poem — I don’t see any evidence to suggest otherwise — but I am intrigued by the idea that procreation might be hinted at in the Shi Jing poem. It seems likely that loss of virginity and impregnation would have been closely linked in Zhou-era notions of marriage ceremonies, so if the hatchet is a synecdoche for the narrator, perhaps he is thinking not just of his penis here but also his male heir.

    David – Perhaps so. With Confucius, as I understand it, the cosmos can be brought into order if each individual governs himself properly; proper treatment of others flows naturally from proper treatment of oneself. In the concluding section of the chapter, he gives examples for each of the Five Relationships, such as, you should treat your younger brother the way you would want to be treated by an older brother. So it’s reciprocity within a hierarchical framework. Elsewhere in the book, he says, “The administration of government lies in getting proper men. Such men are to be got by means of the ruler’s own character. That character is to be cultivated by his treading in the ways of duty. And the treading those ways of duty is to be cultivated by the cherishing of benevolence.”

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  4. Post header: mmm
    You could have graphic above the black strip without any loss of clarity, I think… (like Frizzy Logic), but finding the right graphic on this kind of layout is difficult – perhaps a b/w or b/w/pale olive graphic, retaining the green lettering.
    Enough of my opinions, I think.

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  5. I was thinking b&w too, if anything. Maybe a small porcupine. :)

    Thanks for all your input, Jean. I have deep respect for your aesthetic sensibilities.

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