Garden of Eloquence / Shuoyuan說苑

Newell Ann Van Auken

Garden of Eloquence is Eric Henry’s masterful and meticulously annotated rendering of Shuoyuan說苑, a Western Han dynasty (206-9 BCE) anthology of brief narratives and dialogues. The Garden of Eloquence collects over 700 short accounts, compiled by archivist Liu Xiang (79-78 BCE) and arranged thematically into 20 sections or “books.” These include, for example, “The Way of a Ruler,” “The Craft of an Officer,” “Prizing Virtue,” “Repaying Favors,” “Upright Remonstrance,” “Judgment and Strategy,” and so on. The accounts are brief, many occupying a page or less, and include quasi-historical narratives as well as dialogues, often between an interlocutor and a wise authority figure such as Kongzi (Confucius). The purpose of this collection, Henry writes in his introduction, was not to achieve “historical veracity” but to create a “resource book for rulers and officers” (p. xviii) with the “goal of achieving enlightened government,” and while the accounts are not necessarily historically reliable, they nonetheless are “valuable as a source for Han dynasty views concerning history and ethics” (p. xvi). Certainly, much of the material is didactic, promoting virtuous conduct or providing cautionary tales of those who did not act as they ought, but many of the stories are also quite entertaining and enjoyable to read.

A prolific editor and compiler, Liu Xiang exerted profound influence on the shape of the ancient Chinese literary canon, determining not only what early texts were transmitted, but in which versions and, in some cases, how textual material was classified. In addition to preparing the Garden of Eloquence, Liu Xiang also bore responsibility for compiling Intrigues of the Warring States (Zhanguo ce) and Biographies of Exemplary Women (Lienü zhuan). As Henry notes in his introduction, Liu Xiang is also credited with having played a role in the compilation of many other important ancient texts, including Guanzi, Zhuangzi, Liezi, Yanzi chunqiu, Xiaojing, and Liji, as well as the Xinxu (pp. xii-xiv). Nearly all of these works have been brought across into English, some more than once, but Eric Henry’s Garden of Eloquence is the first complete translation of Shuoyuan.

Henry has given us is a solid and clear translation, the value of which is greatly enhanced by the paratextual presentation and substantial scholarly apparatus that accompany it. This is the third volume in the beautifully produced Classics of Chinese Thought translation series from University of Washington Press. Like other works in this series, it is an en face bilingual edition, with the Classical Chinese source text and English translation printed on facing pages. Each account is numbered, and the translated accounts have also been given appropriate titles by the translator. Thus, moving back and forth between the translation and the corresponding Classical Chinese source text is quite easy.

The text is carefully annotated and followed by an extensive bibliography plus four indices. An unusual feature of the translation is the presence of two separate series of footnotes, each independently numbered, one beneath the English translation on the right (odd) pages, and the other beneath the Classical Chinese source text on the left (even) pages. The great majority of notes on the translation assist the reader by identifying people, places, and historical events mentioned in the text, and others identify allusions and their sources or explain translation choices. The notes to the Classical Chinese text are longer and more numerous. These notes cite textual variants, discuss the reasons for interpretive choices, and explain the translator’s choice to follow a particular reading or the grounds on which he (or the edition he follows) supplies missing characters, and they often refer to parallel versions of the account that appear in other early texts, which are sometimes quoted at length. These notes draw on a range of  commentaries used by the translator, providing a helpful summary for specialists. The great majority are based on the commentary of Xiang Zonglu 向宗魯 (1895-1941), whose edition served as the base text for the translation; indeed, Henry translates or paraphrases nearly all of Xiang’s remarks, and it would be fair to say that this book contains both a formal translation of the Shuoyuan and an informal rendering of Xiang’s commentary. The presence of these copious notes bear witness to the labor and meticulous attention to detail that Eric Henry invested in preparing the translation. 

One of the remarkable features of the Garden of Eloquence is that many of its stories and dialogues appear in other ancient texts, often in slightly different versions. Comparison of these corresponding accounts is a fascinating topic. At the end of the Classical Chinese text for each account appears a footnote that either lists parallel accounts or notes that no parallel text is extant. By my count, these notes indicate that approximately three quarters of the Garden of Eloquence accounts have parallels in other texts. One hopes that this translation will facilitate analysis of this material, an area that remains poorly studied but rich in promise.

Following the translation are four indices. The “Personal Name Index” – which identifies individuals, notes any alternative names, and lists all mentions in the text – and the “Place Name Index” are standard fare. Another index allows readers to search by “Topics and Motifs,” and an “Allusions Index” lists ancient texts quoted in the accounts (whether explicitly attributed or not); thus, for example, a reader can easily find all references to the Odes (Shijing) in the Garden of Eloquence.

The translation proper is preceded by an Introduction (pp. xiii-xxxiii), which provides general background on the Garden of Eloquence, its place in the literary tradition, and its textual history, along with a discussion of the base text used for the translation, together with an explanation of translation decisions and reasons for these choices. Here I will mention the only point on which I have reservations about this translation. Correctly observing that the source text is often “repetitive” and, moreover, that such repetition is a stylistic feature of Classical Chinese, the translator writes that he has deliberately varied the language in his translation (p. xxvii). For example, the standard approving response by a ruler on hearing wise words is “Excellent!” (shàn 善). There are numerous possible ways to translate this word, all of which are correct. In adherence with what is considered good English style, the translation eschews repetition; thus, renderings of this expression of approval vary widely. This is what may be called a “domesticizing” translation strategy, which brings the translation closer to the expectations of an anglophone readership, making its style more familiar and palatable. My own preference would be to maintain the repetition of the original, both to maintain the threads of the intertextual linkages running through the diverse content of these accounts, and also to require readers to engage in the labor of leaving their familiar comfort zones to experience immersion in a style that exploits, rather than eschews, repetition. Although I respectfully disagree with this translation choice, I must also emphasize that it is not a heedless mistake but a thoughtful and highly intentional translation strategy, to which Eric Henry has given much consideration and with which many specialists will agree.

This translation will be valuable to a range of readers: specialists in the field will benefit from the highly competent translation and meticulously executed annotations, and even general education-level undergraduate courses could make use of excerpts. Overall, Eric Henry’s Garden of Eloquence is an excellent and beneficial contribution to the growing number of translations of ancient Chinese literature.