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Digital Dialogues #3: Lifeworld and Philosophy in Translation: Zhuangzi and Laozi

Nov 17, 2021 | 01:00 PM

As part of the Digital Workshop Series "Digital Dialogues 數字對話", researchers will discuss various aspects and questions of the joint project.

Lifeworld and Philosophy in Translation: Zhuangzi and Laozi

November 17, 2021, 1.15 – 2.45 pm CET via Webex

The participants of the third Digital Dialogue attend to two ancient classics of Chinese Daoism in German translation. Albeit in different ways, both the Book Laozi and the Book Zhuangzi take a critical stance towards the systematic controllability and conventionalisability of world constituents.

Natalie Chamat analyses modes and conditions of success of world and self-relations in philosophy, art and literature. In German-language reception, the Book Zhuangzi is read both as a philosophical text and as an outstanding work of world literature. World appears here in the title of the fourth of the Inner Chapters as "human world" (人間世 rén jiān shì); however, the text is known - and infamous - for its reflections on the "care of life" (養生主 yǎng shēng zhǔ). And so, in the fourth chapter, it is unusual figures from the periphery of the social order who pit the life-value of their unworthiness against the world-improvement ambitions of the cultivated counsellor - or give him something to ponder upon along the way. Before Richard Wilhelm published the first, almost complete sinological translation in 1912, Martin Buber had already presented his selection of predominantly narrative passages of the Zhuangzi in 1910, following the English versions by Herbert Giles (1889) and James Legge (1891). It was not until the late 1990s that new translations into German followed. There is no historical evidence for the existence of a person named Zhuang Zhou, who according to Sima Qian is said to have lived as a lacquer garden supervisor during the time of the Warring States, and we know little about the various circulating versions of the book before it was brought into the form known to us today and annotated by Guo Xiang (253-312). It is therefore only of limited use for reliable information about the use of signs in a particular time, a particular milieu or a particular tradition of Chinese thought. What can be observed here are dynamics of synthesis, syncretism, incorporation or harmonisation in Chinese philosophising. However, beyond this the book of Zhuangzi offers the possibility of an aesthetically mediated experience of time in reading.

Fabian Heubel is working on a philosophical commentary of selected chapters of the book Laozi (or Daodejing) into German. He is asking himself how “concepts” (gàiniàn 概念) are coined by way of translations that open up access to the world of Daoist thought for a German readership. For his research perspective, the translingual dynamic between the Chinese and German languages is of outstanding importance, always also keeping an eye on how German concepts have been and are translated into Chinese. For his translation and interpretation of the Laozi, moreover, the diversity of internal Chinese perspectives is an important corrective to the history of translations into German and other Western languages. The richness of the Chinese commentary tradition provides him with indispensable insights into profound transformations that the understanding of the Laozi in particular and the Daoist worldview in general have undergone. Finally, the discussion of various translations and commentaries prepares for the experimental unfolding of transcultural correspondences, which open up a variety of references between Chinese and European texts and contexts that situate the book of Laozi in the temporal and spatial dynamics of antiquity and modernity, East and West. Thereby Heubel attempts to inspire the communication between classical Chinese and contemporary philosophy in a critical way.

After a presentation of examples from the projects, Dr Wang Ge will moderate the subsequent discussion of the two approaches and the general Q&A session.



Natalie Chamat is a literary scholar and did her PhD on the philosophy of language and history in translation theories focusing Walter Benjamin's Baudelaire translations. She researches intercultural modes and conditions of success of world and self relations in philosophy, art and literature.

Prof. Dr. Fabian Heubel is a philosopher and sinologist, Research Fellow at the Institute of Chinese Literature and Philosophy at Academia Sinica in Taipei and is working on a philosophical commentary of the Laozi.


Dr Wang Ge is a translator, philosopher and Germanist. After a Research Fellowship of Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin on moral agencies, she currently works for the Bildungsnetzwerk China.


The speakers of the Dialogue are introduced by PD Dr Hans Feger, who enabled them to offer seminars on classical Chinese philosophy (Buddhism and Daoism) in translation at the Philosophical Institute of the FU Berlin as part of the German-Chinese Alumni Network (DCHAN) The Good Life during the Pandemic.


The Digital Dialogue is hosted by Prof. Dr. Sebastian Conrad, PI of the project "A Translingual Conceptual History of Chinese Worlds", which investigates the development and intertwining of different world concepts and concepts of global scope in China from a historical-translingual perspective.


The participation at this event is open to everyone, who registers prior to the event. To register please send an e-mail to Ms. Susanne Ebermann at susanne.ebermann@fu-berlin.de. Registered participants will receive the Webex link to join the event.