Translating Daoist ritual texts

Zhaoqing screenshot

Dunno about anyone else, but I enjoy watching my film again!

I can’t now imagine all the work that went into this. Apart from the filming itself, and working with Michele to do all the editing, it was good to match up Li Qing’s ritual texts to the hymn singing, and fun showing how the cymbal patterns work, captioning the guangcha mnemonics—first as Daoist percussion karaoke (from 24.03) and later as they whizz past in Yellow Dragon Thrice Transforms Its Body (from 1.11.07).

Translating all those ancient Daoist texts was no picnic, but they’re really beautiful—like the Invitation sequence at the edge of the village towards dusk, with Golden Noble’s solo rendition of the “Vowing with Hearts at One” verses:

Vowing with Hearts at One we Invite:
Emperors and lords of successive dynasties,
Empresses and concubines of epochs immemorial,
Bedecked in twelve-gemmed crowns,
Countenance outranking three thousand rouge-and-kohl belles.
All under heaven their remit, all under heaven their family,
Ultimately ascending.
Singing within the palace, dancing within the palace,
At the final moment they can only perish and fall.
Alas! Have you not heard?
Once astride the dragon of Yu they cannot return,
In vain to deploy the Pipes of Shao within the Department of Caverns,
Fluttering the shadows and echoes, imperceptibly approaching!

But once rendered in exquisite solo melody, such textual beauty is multiplied.

Having consulted the exegeses of wise abbot Min Zhiting (no less) in the White Cloud Temple on the meaning of the hymns, I still had some doubts. I recall the months of email ping-pong with Li Bin as I sought his advice. The Li family never discuss the “meaning” of the texts, nor did their elders ever “explain” them as they were learning, so I was really impressed when Li Bin clarified points phrase by phrase. The process of singing them, molto adagio, almost daily over more than thirty years, does seem to give them the occasion to reflect on their meaning. Of course they’re not “educated” interpretations, but the Daoists do clearly have their own “understanding” of the texts they sing.

I also relish the language of Thanking the Earth memorials (my book, pp.230–33):

At the Numinous Treasure Court of the Great Ritual it is hereby declared: upholding the Orthodox Unity Teachings, resident in that place named Upper Liangyuan village in the southeast district beyond the city gates of Yanggao county in Shanxi province; responding to heaven and rewarding the gods, beseeching blessings and fulfilling the vow, to avert calamity and assure well-being; I, Li Tang, with faithful heart, on this day do kowtow.
[…]
Reciting the auspicious texts of the Eleven Great Luminary stellar lords of the Sombre Capital of Upper Clarity, Li Tang and others, resident in the Central Kingdom, favored among mankind, invariably moved by the great virtue of dragon heaven, ever reliant on the Earth Court to engender thorough understanding of the high and the broad, repaying sincerity unretained. Hereby having augured the auspicious period, the retreat is to be held as follows. This day we invite the Daoist acolytes to set up a Daoist arena for well-being in our courtyard over two whole days in the hall, kneeling and reciting the Diverse true scriptures and holy mantras for the Great Supreme, facing the Heavenly Worthies in homage; the precious litanies for the Great Ritual, Lighting Lanterns, and Bestowing Food, burning paper and presenting up offerings for the holy gods of the seven originals and the true lords of the nine thearchs. Our wish is that the whole family will be tranquil, its members in well-being, livestock thriving, our fields fertile, relying entirely on the protection of holy benevolence in the lustre of our daily business.

There are some fine translations of such numinous ritual texts in the works of Ken Dean and John Lagerwey—and indeed in David Hawkes’s translation of The Dream of the Red Chamber.

One thought on “Translating Daoist ritual texts

  1. What a coincidence! After your last post I also went back to watch your film again, and it is immensely satisfying and interesting to watch. I learn so much from it. I thought the visual aids for the cymbal rhythm section helped a lot to understand what was happening in the music. Very creative and inventive!

    Like

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