Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Paul R. Goldin reviews Zuo Tradition/Zuozhuan

Stephen Durrant, Wai-yee Li, and David Schaberg, trans. Zuo Tradition/Zuozhuan: Commentary on the “Spring and Autumn Annals.” 3 vols. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016. 2147 pp.

Review by Paul R. Goldin

For centuries, the prism through which most Chinese literati understood their culture’s classical history was the sprawling text known as Zuozhuan 左傳, or Zuo’s Commentary to a chronicle called Chunqiu 春秋 (Springs and Autumns), which covers the years 770-476 B.C.E. The entries in Chunqiu are so lapidary as to be scarcely comprehensible without background information (with whole wars and affaires d’état summarized in a few judicious words), and Zuozhuan is by far the most extensive source of such guidance. For example, when Chunqiu might record merely that two states waged war upon each other in such and such a year, Zuozhuan will typically lay out the casus belli (often a violation of ritual), the ensuing battle, and the political aftermath. Much ink has been spilled since the twentieth century on identifying the authors and sources of this indispensable octopus, with modest results.[1] The truth is probably too complex to be perfectly reconstructed today.

There have been some good literary studies of Zuozhuan as well,[2] but opening it to a readership beyond the small band of early China specialists has been hampered by the lack of a modern translation. Until now, the only complete English translation was by James Legge (1815–1897), which is one of the most impressive accomplishments in all Sinology, yet maddening because of its inconvenient layout, archaic diction (and romanization), and lack of glossaries and cross-references. (The text contains a mind-boggling variety of names, often referring to the same person by diverse titles and epithets—just as Richard Neville [1428–1471] could be called Earl of Warwick, Captain of Calais, or simply Kingmaker almost interchangeably.) A recent Chinese attempt to make Legge less forbidding was basically unsuccessful.[3]

The three scholars who have joined forces to produce this new translation are, therefore, to be heartily congratulated. The resulting publication is necessarily long (more than two thousand pages over three volumes) but eminently readable, with bilingual text, helpfully divided into coherent sections, and annotation that provides necessary explanations without overwhelming the reader with minutiae. The front matter includes summary essays on the nature and genesis of the text, and, crucially, its reception by literati over the many centuries of its existence. The back matter consists of the glossaries that one wishes Legge had furnished.

Naturally it is impossible to do justice to this monumental publication in a brief review; let me merely emphasize that these renowned translators, working as a trio, amount to even more than the sum of their parts because their strengths are complementary. No single human being could have handled so many aspects of this text, a case in point being the surveys of its role in later historiography and literature (see pp. lxix–lxxxiii), which is compact but rooted in three lifetimes of learning and reflection. With the possibilities for a wider audience and comparative study solidly in place, now we just need people to read the book.


[1] The most judicious discussion is Wai-yee Li, The Readability of the Past in Early Chinese Historiography (Cambridge, Mass., 2007), pp. 33–59. See also Barry B. Blakeley, “‘On the Authenticity and Nature of the Zuo zhuan’ Revisited,” Early China 29 (2004): 217–67.

[2] See David Schaberg, A Patterned Past: Form and Thought in Early Chinese Historiography (Cambridge, Mass., 2001), and Yuri Pines, Foundations of Confucian Thought: Intellectual Life in the Chunqiu Period, 722–453 B.C.E. (Honolulu, 2002).

[3] Zuo’s Commentary, trans. Hu Zhihui (胡志揮) (Changsha, 1996).