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Caigentan 菜根譚

Nov 19, 2013 © Ulrich Theobald

Caigentan 菜根譚 "Cabbage root talks" is a book on education book written by the Ming-period 明 (1368-1644) scholar Hong Yingming 洪應明 (1572-1620), courtesy name Zicheng 自誠, style Huanchu Daoren 還初道人, who also wrote the book Xianfo qizong 仙佛奇蹤 "Marvellous traces of Daoist and Buddhist (masters)".

Like the latter, the Caigentan is heavily influenced by Buddhist thinking and was widely circulating among a readership that was also acquainted with Tu Long's 屠隆 (1542-1605) book Shaluoguan qingyan 娑羅館清言. The Caigentan was presented to the throne to serve as a text of admonition towards state officials. The title is derived from a word of the Song-period 宋 (960-1279) master Wang Xinmin 汪信民 (1071-1110), who had said that if a man would be able to chew cabbage stalks (caigen 菜根), he could achieve everything.

The book is 2-juan long and includes five chapters that are written in the style of conversations (yulu 語錄) in rhymed verses. The sources for the Caigentan were written books as well as popular sayings and proverbs. The chapters are Xiuxing 修省 "The cultivation of sparingness", Yingchou 應酬 "Treat others with courtesy", Pingyi 評議 "The judgment of right or wrong", Xianshi 閑適 "Quietness and comfortability towards others", and Gailun 概論 "General discussion".

The Caigentan lays stress on self-cultivation and appropriate behaviour in social contexts, the treatment of others, careful planning in one's activities, the "equalization of all family members" (qijia 齊家), and the administration of a state. This included a certain caution towards others, not to be betrayed, the strength to overcome one's personal desires, and modesty, not to dispise others. As a state official, fairness (gong 公) and incorruptibility (lian 廉) were the highest virtues. At home, forgiveness (shu 恕) and modesty (jian 儉) would lead to harmony. If a member of the family had committed a misdoing, it was neither appropriate to be violent towards him, nor to ignore his fault. Avarice was the greatest sin in life, because those envious for gold would not be content with jade, and those aspiring the title of duke would refuse being made a marquis.

The Caigentan is a very descriptive treatise on the most important rules of social conduct and encompasses the concepts of virtue as described by all three great teachings of Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism. Hong Yingming made use of different stylistic methods like parables, simplification, or fables with a profound morale.

During the Kangxi reign-period 康熙 (1662-1722), the secretarial academician reader-in waiting (neige shidu xueshi 内閣侍讀學士) Hesu 和素 (1652-1718) translated the Caigentan into Manchurian, and in 1926 the Japanese monk Sōen 宗演 (1859-1919) published a discussion called Sōkontan kōwa 菜根譚講話. The Caigentan was a very widespread text and influenced later writings for education like the Zengguang xianwen 增廣賢文.

The best traditonal Chinese print was published by Qingrong 清鎔 (1851-1922), a monk of Tianning Monastery 天寧寺 in Changzhou 常州, Jiangsu. In 1989 the Ba-Shu Press 巴蜀書社 published Yuan Tingdong's 袁庭棟 (b. 1940) commented edition of the Caigentan.

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