The "Zhenzheng lun" by Xuanyi

A Buddhist Apologetic Scripture of Tang China

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Thomas Jülch
Monumenta Serica Monograph Series
  • New York, NY: 
    , December
     204 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Thomas Jülch’s translation and study of the Zhenzheng lun (“Treatise on Revealing the Correct”), a 7th-century polemic arguing in support of Buddhism against Daoism, is a welcome addition in light of the dearth of Western language translations of classic Chinese texts. Translations of such works generally do not receive the appropriate credit they deserve in the academic world, which seems to value theoretical speculation over the art of understanding and interpreting classical works through translation. Jülch is to be congratulated for his contribution.

The annotated translation takes up the bulk of the book but is preceded by a brief introduction outlining the historical and political circumstances that led to the composition and the anti-Daoist arguments found therein, along with a short summary of the influence of this text and some comments on the general field of interreligious apologetics. One could hope for a more detailed discussion of these topics, especially on the appropriateness (or not) of the anti-Daoist polemics at various levels (doctrinal, political, social), but clearly the focus of this book is on the translation itself.

The translation is paired in two columns with the original Chinese text on the left, organized into bite-size phrases or short paragraphs. This layout allows the reader to quickly check the original Chinese while also, if preferred, to read just the English translation. I found myself usually reading the English and only glancing over to the Chinese to satisfy my curiosity or to confirm the choice of a possibly ambiguous rendering, and at times pausing to ponder a possible variant translation. The English text reads well, though often stiff, but this is due to the content and style of the original rather than to the translator’s foibles. The translation is sufficiently annotated to explain unusual (to the English reader) phrases and references to classical Chinese ideas and texts. The hard choices that a translator must make between “literal” rendering and literary English are mitigated by these helpful annotations; for example, the common Chinese phrase 萬物 is rendered the literal “ten thousand things” but quickly annotated to give the more understandable English of “everything that exists.” Again, the term 偽 is translated differently in various contexts, as “false,” “counterfeit,” or “forged,” avoiding the hobgoblin of foolish consistency.

Or again, illustrating the difficultly of capturing the nuances of some Chinese terms,  三洞 is rendered the literal “three caverns” (the three sections or parts of the Daoist scriptures or canon), and then the text itself  explains the nuances of the Chinese character, that “‘cavern’ here means ‘to know clearly’ or ‘to understand splendidly’.” Of course such renderings require a balance between a variety of “correct” possibilities but alas, such are the choices that a translator must make.

What of the content of the polemic itself? First, this is not a dialogical exchange, with fair opportunity for the Daoist side to offer its own explanations or counterarguments. The Daoist side is presented briefly and mostly as a “straw man” easily debunked. The main accusation is that Daoist texts are “forgeries,” based on the argument that one cannot seriously accept that the texts were revealed by the “Celestial Worthy” (tianzun), the creator of the world and highest deity of Daoism. It repeatedly criticizes Daoist texts as “forged” or “false” without any awareness of the equally questionable origins of many Buddhist texts. There is also a rather simplistic refutation of the idea that Laozi, after disappearing to the West, ended up as the Buddha, and therefore Buddhism was merely another aspect of Laozi’s teachings. Later in the text Daoism is criticized as less ethically based than Buddhism, because much (such as celibacy and ethical norms) is borrowed from Buddhism. This may have been true historically and socially, but ignores the ubiquitous—mundane, even—cross-pollination among the various Chinese traditions.

In short, this text may have served its purpose as propagandistic support for the current Tang imperial dynasty, and it is worth studying as an example of sophisticated Buddhist polemics (more as a literary text than for the strength of its arguments) and even of Tang literature, but the arguments in favor of Buddhism may not carry much weight for claiming a higher stature for Buddhism at all times and situations. Yet it is an informative text that provides a window into the political and religious arguments and movements of its time, and allows us in turn to ruminate on the universality (or not) of the religious polemics of our own time. We should be grateful to the translator for providing an accessible annotated translation, and I look forward to further good work by the translator in the future.


About the Reviewer(s): 

Paul L. Swanson is Professor and Senior Research Fellow at the Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture, Nanzan University, Nagoya, Japan.

Date of Review: 
March 27, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Thomas Jülch is Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Centre for Buddhist Studies, Ghent University, Belgium.


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