I recently posted an article on Zen Buddhism. It was Linda Holt’s article on how Buddhism was transformed when it made its journey from India to China. A Facebook friend commented that while it is informative, the author seems to have no Chinese references. He suspects that the author does not know the Chinese language.
So, here is the big question — do we need to know the original language in order to understand a culture? Applied to religion, do Chinese Christians have to know Hebrew and/or Greek in order to understand Christianity? Do Buddhists have to know Sanskrit and/or Pali in order to know Buddhism? Do Americans and Europeans have to know Chinese in order to know Chinese culture in depth? Also, when we read world poetry, do we need to know the various world languages in order to get the meaning? I am a bi-cultural and bilingual person. I would answer “No.”
The Chinese poet, Su Shih, has a poem which reads: “I do not know the true face of Mount Lu, because I am right in it.”( 不識廬山真面目 只緣身在此山中) This is true for many things. We often don’t see things which are right under our noses. Too close to something has its disadvantages. It takes distance to gain a perspective.
I feel the same way about Chinese culture. I did not really understand Chinese culture when I was growing up as a boy in Hong Kong. When I asked my teacher about it, he referred me to Lin Yutang’s books. For example, Lin wrote a book titled My Country and My People. I brought that book with me when I came to the US over forty years ago. I would recommend his books to anyone interested in Chinese culture.
I understand Chinese culture much better now, after having spent most of my life in the US. Lin Yutang too had lived in the US for decades. Sometimes, it takes stepping away in order to see something clearly. How can we see the shape of a mountain well when we are right in it?
It is for this reason that some Western scholars may know Chinese culture better than many native Chinese. Having done comparisons between cultures is particularly helpful. Having undergone academic training and having the analytical tools for research also help. I am a native Cantonese speaker. I recently watched a video of a Caucasian teaching Cantonese. It was incredible. I don’t think a native Cantonese speaker can teach Cantonese as well as he does. He clearly has substantial experience teaching various languages.
Being too close to something is sometimes a problem. This has theological implications too. Atheists complain that they don’t see God. But can fish see the water around them and inside them?