Review of Musings

of a Chinese

Vegetarian (1926).

This book, which is also known as the Cai gen tan, is one of the great classics of Chinese literature.  It is a distillation of Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian thought written in epigrams of great poetic beauty.  The author was clearly a shrewd observer of both nature and the human condition.  His more insightful pronouncements have such a vivid and immediate impact that they can bring major transformations in your life.

Indeed, this text is one of the clearest and most valuable guides I have ever found to that most desirable of human states, that of mental tranquility.  After all the emotional turmoil I have known in my life, I now understand that if you don't have peace of mind in your existence, you don't have anything.  Of course in this day and age, acquiring a permanent sense of mental serenity is not the easiest thing in the world to achieve.  But once you start to study a text like this, you can learn how to deliberately start inducing a state of mental calmness within your being any time you like.

Like the Vijnana Bhairava, this text doesn't work too well if you simply read it straight through at one sitting.  Each epigram needs to be lingered over, pondered, or even memorized.  When you take the teachings as slowly and as carefully as you can, the text turns into a kind of spiritual devotional.  I have a very short list of texts to which I turn whenever my mind is perplexed or disturbed (I especially like the various writings of Epicurus, and the Golden Sayings of Epictetus).  However, the Cai gen tan holds a special place in my heart.  Whenever I pick up this beautiful collection of aphorisms, I find that the world simply drops away, and that I can bring myself back to a state of peace, tranquility, and contentment almost at once.

The Cai gen tan has long a popular text in Japan:  D.T. Sukuzi says that "cultured Japanese are much given to the perusal of this book, and find in it much to help their moral discipline and spiritual insight."  The translator of this 1926 text, Yaichiro Isobe (1861-1931), seems to have been as thoughtful and sensitive a man as Tzu-Ch'eng Hung himself.  In his introduction he utters some words which apply more to the contemporary world than to the Japan of eighty years ago:

During the last half century, materialistic civilization has taken the country by storm in consequence of which our people, both old and young, have been seized with an unquenchable thirst for worldly success; some of them seeking to acquire wealth, others aspiring to power. The mad stampede for their goals leaves them scarcely any time for the cultivation of that moral character and refined taste, which embellish our lives. It is hoped that the perusal of such a book as the present volume may cool down their fever in a measure and thus leave a margin to their too busy and bustling lives.

Well, maybe we'll start seeing something like that in another eighty years...


In his text Hung mentions several historical figures, some of whom such as "Cho" are unknown to me.  Here are links to ones I have identified:

Haku Rakuten is the Japanese name of the great Chinese poet Bai Juyi (772-846), also known as Po Chü-i.

Information about the Seven Worthies of the Bamboo Grove can be found here.

Fuku Gi is Fu Hsi or Fu Xi (circa 2800 BC), first of the mythical Three Sovereigns of China.

Chuang Tzu (Zhuangzi) (4th century BCE) is the great Daoist philosopher.

Also in his text, Isobe generally uses British spelling in words such as favour or clamour, but I have Americanized the spelling.

Finally, the name of the author used to be spelled Tzu-ch'eng Hung (sometimes as Hung Ying-Ming) but is nowadays usually spelled as Zicheng Hong.  The title of his work is variously known as Ts’ai ken T’an, Saikondan, Saikontan, Chaegundam, Cai gen tan, Musings of a Chinese vegetarian, Roots of wisdom, Tending the roots of wisdom, and Vegetable root discourses