Last week as I was fleshing out the particulars for our program “Recovering Chinese Religiosities,” I stumbled upon an interesting article about a discovery that the director of the Harvard Yenching Institute referred to as “like the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.” In 1993, Chinese archeologists uncovered several bamboo strips near Guodian, China. Those strips were found to contain what is thought to be the oldest written version of the Tao Te Ching, as well as many writings from supposed Confucian disciples. The texts are said to have challenged many previous assumptions about both Taoist and Confucian history:
For years scholars believed that Confucians were little concerned with human emotions. But in the Guodian texts, the element “xin,” — a pictographic image of the human heart — appears over and over again as part of several Chinese characters. It’s a startling display, both philologically, in terms of understanding the evolution of Chinese characters, and philosophically. “These texts conclusively show that emotions or feelings as we understand them today were major philosophical concerns,” Tu says. The Guodian texts offer detailed descriptions of a range of human emotions. They also extensively explore the relation between heart, mind, and human nature; between the inner self and the outer world; and whether human nature is good or evil — a cumulative emphasis on the inner dimensions of man that most scholars formerly believed came much later in Chinese intellectual history.
Continuing the lesson we learned from our program with David Treuer, here’s another example of how meaning is often tied to language — the deeper symbolic meaning of the pictographic heart is lost when the text is translated to English. I was also struck by the fact that, while the linguistic elements of this story are specific to Chinese culture, it also displays how the metaphorical relationship between the human heart and emotion seems to be a cross-cultural one.
I can’t help but wonder: What exactly is it about our own biological blood pumps that seem to inspire so much symbolism and meaning?