Richard Wilhelm's "The Soul of China"

In this insightful review as a Weixin post, the Chinese Christian author Promise Hsu gives an early review of my book in Chinese. Below, my discussion of it and parallels to Richard Wilhelm's own book on China's soul.

   For those who don't read Chinese, I'll summarize Promise's point: over the past few hundred years, many foreigners have tried to figure out the beliefs of Chinese people. The German missionary and Sinologist Richard Wilhelm (1873-1930) was one of them. He is probably most famous for his translation of the Yi Ching (aka The Book of Changes, or the Yi Jing) and The Secret of the Golden Flower (a book of esoteric meditation that I'll discuss below).

Wilhelm also wrote another book that came out shortly before his death. Published in 1928, The Soul of China discusses the conflict between tradition and newly arrived religions, especially Christianity, as well as atheism. Promise notes that from the time I arrived in 1984, until today, China has undergone even more profound shocks. Now, traditions and foreign religions have penetrated to every level of society, as well as atheism. Then he writes:


"Among these conflicts and recurrences, there are continuing sources of tension: between China and the West, between local and foreign, between the individual and the country; between the closed and the open, between the historical and the timeless. It seems these kinds of tensions cannot be resolved by human beings, though they always seem to hopefully strive to eliminate these kinds of tension once and for all."


I suspect that for Promise and many other Chinese, these tensions can only be resolved another way--through the spiritual, a key point of my book. He concludes by recommending my book for readers in China.


I thought this was a really insightful piece, and I appreciate his engaging with me on it. Too many book reviewers don't seem to have even read the book, or tried to figure out the writer's intentions, but Promise spent time and patience in reading and thinking about my book.


I was also struck that he noted the parallel to Wilhelm. I have to say that it is fascinating but unintentional--in fact, I hadn't heard of this book of Wilhelm's until he mentioned it to me. This is especially embarrassing because I discuss Wilhelm at length in my book, especially his translation of The Secret of the Golden Flower (太乙金華宗旨), an esoteric meditation technique. One thread of the book involves Chinese people who practice this.


I intend to read Wilhelm's The Soul of China, but in terms of titles I can say that when we were discussing titles for my book, my editor at Pantheon and I wanted to be sure that it was plural--The Souls of China--because we did not want to be reductionist or didactic. (I don't mean that Wilhelm is, but we felt uncomfortable with such a direct title.) In any case, it's I'm looking forward to reading this book and thank Promise for drawing my attention to it.

Category: Souls of China, 
Posted by: ian
Sep 10, 2016