Caigentan - Philosophyical Classic of China
The Caigentan (Chinese: 菜根谭; pinyin: Càigēntán; literally "Vegetable Root Discourse") is circa 1590 text written by the Ming Dynasty scholar and philosopher Hong Zicheng. This compilation of aphorisms eclectically combines elements from the Three teachings (Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism), and is comparable (Goodrich and Fang 1976:678) with Marcus Aurelius' Meditations or La Rouchefoucauld's Maximes.
About the Title
Chinese Caigentan combines cai 菜 "vegetables; greens; (non-staple) food; dish; course (in menu)", gen 根 "roots (of plants); bottom (of mountains)", and 谭 "talk; conversation; discourse". This compound caigen 菜根 "inedible root of a vegetable; cabbage stalk" is a literary metaphor meaning "bare subsistence" (originating in Zhu Xi's Xiaoxue 小学"Minor Learning"). The Chinese proverb Jiao de caigen, baishi ke zuo 嚼得菜根, 百事可做 (Rohsenow 2002:66) literally means "[One who has] chewed vegetable roots [for lack of anything better to eat] can accomplish anything", or figuratively "One who has gone through hardships can do anything". "By vegetable roots, food such as turnips, radish, carrots and sweet potatoes is meant", says Vos (1993:172).
English translations of the Caigentan title range from literal to figurative:
"Musings of a Chinese Vegetarian" (Isobe 1926)
Isobe clarifies the title as meaning "Talks by a man who lives on vegetable roots", or more freely "Talks by a man who lives a plain and humble life".
Contents of Caigentan
In terms of traditional Chinese literary genres, the Caigentan is a yulu (lit. "recorded sayings") "quotations; aphorisms", a subtype of shanshu ("good book") "moral-instruction; morality" book category.
The individual entries are predominantly written in pianwen ("parallel style"), an ornate rhythmical prose marked by parallelism or chiasmus. For instance,
口乃心之门, 守口不密, 泄尽真机; 意乃心之足, 防意不严, 走尽邪蹊.(1:220)
The mouth is the portal of the mind. If not carefully guarded, it leaks true intents and motives. Feelings are the feet of the mind. If not carefully watched, they will take you onto all kinds of wayward paths. (tr. Aitken and Kwok 2006:100)
The Caigentan records life lessons from the decadent and corrupt late Ming society, many of which have universal appeal. Take, for example, this warning to partygoers.
Those who pick up their coats to depart at the height of festivity are admired as adepts who can halt at the precipice. Those who pursue their night journey after their candle has burned out are ridiculed as ordinary persons awash in the bitter sea. (2:104, tr. Aitkens and Kowk 2006:147)
Referring to the first of the Buddhist Four Noble Truths, Sanskrit dukkha (Chinese ku) "suffering; bitterness", this kuhai 苦海 "bitter sea" is the Chinese translation of dukkha-samudra "sea of bitterness; ocean of suffering".
Retirement and old age are common themes in the Caigentan.
The sun is setting and the evening clouds are more colorful than ever. The year is about to end and the oranges and tangerines are all the more fragrant. Thus noble persons in their old age should all the more enliven their spirits a hundredfold. (1:11, tr. Aitken and Kwok 2006:91)