March 5th, 2009

There was something that got me thinking about Bao Pu’s and Peony’s last comments on this post of Peony’s this morning that I just about, but didn’t have time to, put into words early this morning. There’s been a long running discussion on several blogs closely related to Peony’s about how to translate 德. I guess most of us, looking at modern Chinese, will say ‘Virtue’, but looking back at the ancient texts, life gets more complicated.

Bao Pu says:

Me: “Also, there are dozens of examples where De has nothing to do with a human moral quality.”

Derek: “I’m curious as to what these are.”

— Well, we have De ascribed to the sun (日), the stars (星), alcohol (酒), oxen (牛) the seasons (春, 夏, 秋, 冬), roosters (雞), etc. Often, some sense of “power” is implied.

And Peony replies:

Hi Bao Pu,

Derek will ask the same question no doubt– but can you give a full example? Do you mean like what I wrote about in lunar virtue?

夜光何徳 死則又育
厥利維何 而顧菟在腹

The above might be an argument to keep the translation virtue, because in this case integrity might not work– even “moral power” is iffy… but “what virtue does the moon have?” can just mean, “what does the moon teach us?” No?

In this case (above) while some “power” may perhaps be implied, it is more about human interpretation… that is to say, what “de” does the moon have could also be understood (in my opinion) as “what can the moon teach us about “de” in life?

And I get to thinking, based purely on their attempts to translate 德, especially with reference to these two comments: Well, aren’t we talking nature here? Not nature 自然, but the inherent natural properties of a thing, the vital force that animates it, mauri…. oh dear. Not the first time I’ve been tempted to inject a Maori word into the discussion, and it is rather disturbing to find the first google results referring to shoes. Shoes, for crying out loud! Oh well, here’s wikipedia. Look at the top result.

There are problems, though. First, I don’t speak Maori. It goes like this: Growing up in New Zealand, I learned a fair few Maori words and phrases, first in school, and then seeing more and more the way society was evolving around me, the increasing use of Maori words first of all to express Maori concepts that can not be expressed easily in English, then in a broader sense to cover ideas that us Pakeha had grown used to, but for which we could not find any English word, only Maori words. The most obvious examples of these words are haka, hangi, hongi, tangi, iwi, hapu, even perhaps whanau. And on the periphery you find such words as mauri, words that haven’t quite found their way into wider Pakeha consciousness, but which are lurking there around the edges, bugging those of us more observant than most.

Mauri, the vital force, the life force that animates living things.

Oh, and I finally find something helpful.

On the one hand, having grown up in New Zealand developing a certain linguistic awareness and curiosity woke me up to the facts that:

  1. All things can be translated.
  2. But not all ideas have an equivalent in the language you want to translate them in to.

In other words, sometimes in translating you just have to take the closest equivalent you can find for that particular context, and sometimes you just have to adopt that foreign word. 德 and mauri are perfect examples.

My biggest trouble relating my heavily Pakeha understanding of mauri with 德 is that my Pakeha self has never heard mauri used to refer to any non-human, let alone inanimate object, except, perhaps, and I’m stretching here, in the case of Hone Tuwhare’s poem of that name from his first published collection no ordinary sun. Here it is:


Ere gods were shaped

to polished images of brass

and fired clay

the meek stone hardened

to a consciousness its own.

From its soul’s core sun

to another sun responded:

succoured the lonely man

his tribe’s invention of trees

sweeping the sky’s floor clean.

When gods were fused

to an angered one

all-seeing triple-faced


did this man’s tribe store

reverence for the stone

from whence plants sprang

sweet water leapt:

and jealous of its well-spring

destroyed utterly

the new god’s sour

and honeyed strength

turning alas

the meek stone’s joy

to a cloud

to an ashen face.

And the rather slim edition that is no ordinary sun contains, at the bottom of that very page, a note informing us that “Mauri is a material symbol of the hidden principle protecting vitality. Life principle, talisman, thymos of man. (Denotative meaning taken from Dictionary of Maori Language by Rev. Hoani Laughton.)” But that’s because it was first published in 1964.

And so I’m still lost and confused. Virtue and Integrity don’t do it for me. They don’t come close to encoding 德, at least, not as it has been discussed by Peony and her friends. I’m comfortable with 德 as virtue in modern Chinese, but that’s largely because I don’t know any better. But in the context of the 道德经, I just don’t know. Peony keeps putting Maori words in my brain, because the way she talks about 德 gets me thinking mana, and then mauri. But neither mana or mauri is sufficient. Nor is any English word I’ve ever heard of.

So I guess we’re just going to have to run with whatever English word fits the particular context, with footnotes for the more serious scholars to remind them that each particular English word is the best translation of 德 available under this particular context.

4 Responses to “mauri”

  1. Bao Pu Says:


    I pound this blog entry after reading your comment at the Useless Tree. I don’t know much about Mauri, but nature, “the inherent natural properties of a thing” often does work well. The problem lies in the fact that Xing 性 is usually translated as “nature.” It might be confusing to use it for both.

    re: “So I guess we’re just going to have to run with whatever English word fits the particular context, with footnotes for the more serious scholars to remind them that each particular English word is the best translation of 德 available under this particular context.”

    — I agree completely with this.

    Good health,
    Bao Pu

  2. wangbo Says:

    Bao Pu, I see you’re point re nature and 性, and that’s why I reached for mauri. But yeah, we agree.

  3. Peony Says:

    Hi Bezdomny! I thought you were being awfully quiet on this topic and was wondering what you were thinking about….

    So, I agree “virtue” is good for modern Chinese and modern Japanese… but what about ancient Chinese?

    In technical books, 徳 is usually not translated and just left as is (ie “de”), but that is because it is assumed that scholars would already be aware of all these issues. I mean, fundamentally, this concept is far more complex I would say than “mana” or like Japanese “genki”– with genki, you explain once (why it doesn’t map on to any real English) and voila– people can easily grasp it… I think mana is very much like that as well. It is elegant but simple…

    And in translation, you would almost need to have a standrad translation. I mean especially when it is not a compound we are talking about but just “徳” a case by case translation would complicate things. Not good, not good!

    Your comment at Sam’s place– to me– pretty much sums up my problem with Integrity as a translation, by the way (though I admit to waffling). “Authentic” works much better I would argue but even there… it is like you said, if one goes with Integrity– than why would the wrestler’s action by wrong– if not for moral reasons found outside his Self?

    If you strip the “moral” out of “moral power” or if you strip collective ideas of virtue out of the concept “de” than we are left… like you said with nature or this kind of natural authenticity. Right? And so therefore, under that logic only the wresteler could judge in the end if his action was Authentic or not.

    But in effect that doesn’t seem to be what is being signified. And for the same reason, I would also have problem with this idea of the inherent natural property of things as Bao Pu said there is already a word for that Xing 性 (which is not Nature is it but that inherent natural property, like human nature).

    The people that I have met who actually seem to be most comfortable with the ancient language tend to like this idea of “moral power” but like Red Pine said, two word translations can be annoying!

    Anyway, I still think mana maps to 気
    And I am glad I put Maori words in your mind– since you put crazy scenes from Russian literature in my mind– touche!

    It’s raining here.

  4. wangbo Says:

    Rain, yeah, I’d love to see that. We had a few days of precipitation late last month, but we’re back into the regular North China spring.

    As for mana, my trouble is we’re coming at it from opposite ends of Polynesia. It seems to me that mana where I’m from is rather more complex than the Hawai’ian version you know.

    I’m in total agreement with you and Bao Pu on nature/xing/性, my problem was that the comments that sparked this post got me thinking mauri, and I suspect mauri is closer to 性 than it is to 德, although the translations are, as always, far from perfect.

    The big trouble is, though, I have no idea how one finds a standard translation. I was about to say that a standard translation seems impossible, but then I thought how in the Bible, John 1:1, Greek logos became English word, French parole and Chinese 道. But each of these words represent entirely different concepts! Well, maybe not entirely, but at least radically different concepts.

    As for me being awfully quiet, well, this is the kind of problem I prefer to sit on, quietly observing and pondering over, until eventually I can think of something worth saying. That and work has been a bit busy.