Unearthing proverbs, essential to life but hard to swallow


ZEN OF VEGETABLE ROOTS, calligraphy by Siu-Leung Lee, paintings by Fu Yi Yao, translated by Siu-Leung Lee. Yuzankaku, 2006, 254 pp., 2,800 yen (paper)

The original “Zen of Vegetable Roots” integrates the philosophy of Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism in a collection of more than 750 Chinese proverbs dating from the 14th and 15th centuries.

As a guide to the art of living, the proverbs contained were considered fundamental, but hard to take — like the title’s “Vegetable Roots,” which are the most nutritious parts of a plant but also have the most unpalatable textures and flavors.

As the popularity of these proverbs spread over Japan, Buddhist priests aligned them with their teachings; and more recently, they have provided the moral backbone for many businessmen and politicians. This feature has alienated the proverbs from the young modern reader despite their convincing profundity.

But in this new edition of 108 proverbs, through unpretentious calligraphy by Siu-Leung Lee and freely sketched paintings by Fu Yi Yao, their inspiring truths resonate into the young mind. In fact, the collaborators feel that the proverbs are more appropriate than ever in a materialistically wealthy world in which education “at home” is fast deteriorating.

Indeed, they are no more poignantly telling than in current Japan, where despair and cynicism over the education of young people shake the nation daily.

What is refreshing and humbling to a modern mind more than a little impatient with its overexposure to moralistic advice is that these proverbs do not simply echo cliched warnings about good and evil. The collaborators have chosen those proverbs whose perception of modern troubles anticipates the reader’s own morals.

These proverbs may by their nature be inevitably idealistic, but it is not the idealism of a hothearted revolutionary or a coldhearted traditionalist, but that of an optimistic and realistic modern reader who acknowledges his responsibilities both to society and to himself. They speak of preferences between town and nature, ambition and humility, materialistic wealth and spiritual wealth. Yet they encourage you not to undermine what you have, but rather to make the most of it. They do not approve of being swept along by a spiritless society; nor do they promote estrangement from it.

One such example is the 63rd proverb: “A scholar with reputation and affluence has not lived without leaving his legacy.” If you are blessed by good fortune or intelligence, then contribute to the world by capitalizing on it.

This particularly speaks to the ambitious and competitive nature of the Japanese people, for whom spiritualistic arguments against school-entrance examinations or work promotions would simply be inappropriate.

The English translation performs a difficult task, but at times, the depth and precision of the original have been lost. Connective words have been omitted (for example, proverb 80), sacrificing the delicate balance of irony in an accumulative argument, leaving only a list of contradicting phrases.

The Japanese translation of the 40th proverb speaks particularly of “talents” and “skills”; but in English, with a couple of words too few, it becomes an unconvincing generalized statement that “[i]t is better to have less than more, be simple than complex.”

In other proverbs, the translation admirably overcomes the comparative poverty of English in range and subtlety for certain emotions and concepts. To translate “kokoro no mochikata” as “decisions” in proverb 85 seems grossly inadequate for something that covers moral discipline and emotional strength; yet a better alternative is not easily found.

The 108th and last proverb provides the solution: “Keep your lips sealed, and you shall know how foolish verbosity is.” Through the beauty of the calligraphy and paintings, neither the translation nor the specificities become the essence here, but rather the visual delivery of the ideas. The tension in the fine strokes and the freedom in the loose strokes create a neutrality and vitality that liberates the script, encouraging the young modern reader to interpret the proverbs in a personal way.

The education, after all, should be, as Fu Yi Yao writes herself, “at home.”