The Analects

An Illustrated Edition

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Confucius
Editor(s): 
C. C. Tsai
Translator(s): 
Brian Bruya
The Illustrated Library of Chinese Classics
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , June
     2018.
     232 pages.
     $22.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780691179759.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

C.C. Tsai’s illustrated Analects is one of four volumes in The Illustrated Library of Chinese Classics published by Princeton University Press. Tsai has illustrated many more classical Chinese texts, only some of which have been translated into English. A fan of Tsai’s work, I nevertheless approached this book with some skepticism. First, how effectively can the Analects be rendered pictorially? Second, could this translation be used as a secondary text in a classical Chinese or Chinese religions course? 

Readers should be aware that this book does not contain the Analects in its entirety. This is understandable, however, as the original text is comprised of twenty sections, each containing multiple sayings and conversations. Magnify this by adding illustrations for every passage and it would become unwieldy. Tsai’s selections offer readers who are new to classical Confucianism a basic understanding of the work as well as insights into its relevance to the contemporary audience.

How effectively can passages from the Analects be rendered as two- to eight-panel cartoon strips? The original is, after all, primarily a record of conversations between master and student; with his two-part graphic novel version of Journey to the West (Modern Publishing House, 2007), Tsai had a distinct, chronological story to relate. For the most part, Tsai’s illustrations are highly effective in conveying the sense of each selected passage. His appealing style, particularly the marvelously expressive faces of his characters, makes the great sage himself appear relatable and quite accessibly human.

In the well-known passage, Analects 2:4, “When I was fifteen I set my mind on learning” (56), Tsai depicts Confucius from childhood to sagehood. The pictures show Confucius’ transition from diligence to spontaneity so well that the accompanying words are almost superfluous. In 9:17, “All things that pass are like this! Night and day, it never stops” (117), Tsai’s flowing river, flying birds, wind, mountain, and clouds all reflect the continual change inherent in the world, while Confucius calmly observes and accepts the movement all around him. The illustrations explicate the passage more vividly than a less succinct verbal analysis could accomplish. The visual representations are more than just complementary to the text; they themselves convey subtle meaning beyond the text.

Some of Tsai’s illustrated passages do not work as well. In the conversation between Zigong and Confucius, 12:7 “Zigong asked Confucius about the principles of governing” (128), only the speech balloons convey information. The pictures, while pleasant, add very little of substance. Analects 9:1, “Confucius rarely brought up the subjects of personal advantage, fate, or benevolence” (116), is a passage one would like to see depicted through Tsai’s wonderful imagination; instead, extra sentences not in the original Analects are put into the mouths of Confucius and his disciples to explain the passage. There are enough such examples of meaning-empty drawings to make the collection less balanced than in Tsai’s Dao de jing or The Way of Nature (illustrations from the book of Zhuangzi).

For faculty looking to supplement a beginning course in classical Chinese, Tsai’s Analects might well be useful. Its value in this context is due to Bryan Bruya’s nuanced translation. The conciseness of the classical Chinese language leaves works such as the Analects open to many interpretations. Bruya has captured the essence of Tsai’s reading of the text beautifully. The book would also be a good addition to undergraduate courses in Confucianism or Chinese culture, offering a highly accessible entry into one of the earliest works of Chinese religion and philosophy.

It is not necessary to have any background in either the language or the teachings of Confucius in order to enjoy and learn from this book. Anyone interested in the foundations of East Asian belief, culture, and philosophy will find this a joy to read.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Alison C. Jameson is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and East Asian Studies at the University of Arizona.

Date of Review: 
June 10, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

C. C. Tsai is one of East Asia's most popular illustrators. His bestselling editions of the Chinese classics have introduced generations of readers to the wisdom of such luminaries as Zhuangzi, Sunzi, and Laozi. Born in Taiwan, Tsai now lives in Hangzhou, China.

Brian Bruya is Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Michigan University, where he teaches Chinese and comparative philosophy. He has translated many of Tsai's books into English.

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