We got Walden wrong.

Speaking of Walden, the Chinese translation has been launched in an endless stream, readers should be familiar with. Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was an American writer and philosopher. Thoreau advocated transcendentalism and transcendentalism, promoted the abolition of slavery, advocated the peaceful struggle for civil rights, and opposed the domination of industrialization and commercialization on people’s way of life and thinking. “Mahatma” Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) said that his thinking was deeply influenced by Thoreau. The talented poet Haizi (1964-1989) also said, “Thoreau was a man with brains,” and wrote a series of poems on the subject, the most popular of which is:

Thoreau had brains?

Like fish with water, birds with wings?

Clouds have a sky?


My clouds, my neighbors?

The clouds, quiet?

West of the bean field?

On my straw hat

Walden is said to have been one of the four books he took with him when he died. But what would Thoreau have said about Haizi’s eventual behavior? In my humble opinion, I would respect and regret, but not approve.

Thoreau’s ideas were greatly influenced by his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882). Emerson argued in his famous 1837 lecture, The American Scholar:

Living life, the odds can’t opposing independence, being as the man who has character, or not proper fruit, instead of mixing with others, being thousands of general evaluation, to our party or regional population to calculate, with distribution to predict our opinions, known as the north or south, it is not shame? This can’t happen! Brothers and friends — as God is my witness, we wish it not, we will walk on our own feet, we will work with our own hands, we will have an opinion. (Botey, Ed., Translated by Zhao Yifan et al., Emerson: Essays and Lectures, Sanlian Bookstore, 1993, P84)

In fact, if each person is not an individual, how can “form” and “come out” from the mother’s womb? How could he eat with his mouth open, stretch out his hand to dress himself, walk with his legs lifted? The “independence” of “careful independence” in Chinese classical philosophy also refers to independence and uniqueness. Independence and uniqueness are the foundation of connectivity, and in connectivity, independence and uniqueness can be better realized. It is this independence and uniqueness that have earned Thoreau and his work enduring and widespread acclaim.

Up to now, there are dozens of Chinese translations of Walden, among which Mr. Xu Chi’s original translation in 1949 and reprint in 1982 (published by Shanghai Translation Publishing House) have the greatest influence. But Mr. Xu Chi has a number of misinterpretations of Thoreau, spread very widely. What kind of man was Thoreau? The hermit, the warrior, the maester? What kind of book is Walden? Is it seclusion, escape from society, or is it the kind of civil disobedience associated with Thoreau? Or neither? Much has been said about Thoreau and his book, but there are still misconceptions about what the book is really about, from its title to its content.

First, the title of the book. Walden was translated as A Lakeside Essay, but the other title was “Life in the Woods” — Thoreau had gone to live in the woods at Walden Lake for the immediate purpose of writing a book called “A Week on the Concord and Merrimac rivers.”

Second, the purpose of writing. Thoreau lived in the woods by Walden Pond as a thought experiment: to immerse himself in nature, to work with his own hands, to see how far one could reduce the cost of living to implement his ideas.

Walden is not only a record of daily life, but also the expression of his own thoughts and ideas through recording, as well as the play and practice of Emerson’s thoughts. Emerson is called “America’s Confucius” and his ideas are considered a symbol of America’s spiritual independence. “Transcendentalism”, represented by Emerson and Thoreau, advocates intuition and feeling, loves nature, advocates individuality, calls for action and creation, and opposes authority and dogma, divination and empiricism. They believe that people can rely on intuition and inspiration to obtain knowledge. Thoreau retained the originality of his ideas, but he also thought and expressed them carefully. Walden is an important symbol of Thoreau’s maturity and independence.

Third, the living atmosphere. A close reading of the book makes it clear that Thoreau was not a recluse: Walden itself is not a lonely place; Meanwhile, while living by the lake, Thoreau mingled with the people who lived nearby, as well as with his friends. Walden has a chapter called “The Visitor.” Thoreau said:

I think I’m as social as most people, and I’m ready to attach myself like leeches to energetic people I meet. I’m not a hermit by nature, and I can sit longer than the most regular at the bar if needed over there. (P90-91)

Fourth, hospitality. He added: “My room has three chairs, the first for solitude, the second for friendship, and the third for socializing.” He borrowed the axe with which he built the cabin. His small house hosted 25-30 people at a time, many of whom Thoreau himself said were “in my house, soul and body,” and were often so close to each other that they did not realize they were separated. His “best” rooms were reserved for viPs.

Fifth, entertain the most guests. Many visitors there is a person is very special, Thoreau’s account is in the long winter nights, when heavy snow, the wind roar in the forest when he visit, he is concord thickly, it dug walden said that he was at the same time, with the stone lake, and in the surrounding planted a pine tree, the lake water surrounded, wit and humor, and it is nice to talk to Thoreau. Thoreau, for all his emphasis on loneliness in crowds, received more visitors on the lake shore than at any other time in his life.

Its six, receive condolence. Thoreau apparently did not live in seclusion on the shores of Walden Pond, but found a new world of living. Instead, many visitors thought he was lonely, asked if he was, and left cards and supplies for him. (P84)

From these six points, Thoreau lived a rich life in the woods by Walden Pond, and solitude was not always up to him.

Why did Thoreau love Walden Pond? According to the book, before settling down, he went back and forth to Walden Pond many times, with different feelings each time. And for the American intelligentsia, no natural attraction attracted as much widespread and sustained attention as Walden. The site is also a magnet for Chinese tourists, so much so that even those who have not visited it have plenty to ponder.

According to statistics, in general, hundreds of thousands of people visit Walden Pond every year. And then there are tons of people talking about Walden. Why did Thoreau choose Walden Pond? It’s also because Thoreau had a special feeling about the lake. He said:

Lakes are the most beautiful and expressive landscapes in nature. It is the eye of the earth; Gazing at the water makes him measure the depth of his own nature.

He researched the origin of the name, asking the oldest Native American in the neighborhood who believed walden was the name of an old woman who was the only one to have survived the cataclysm when the hills had fallen and the lakes had sprung up. The height of the hill is the same as the depth of the lake. But Thoreau speculates that the name came either from Saffron Walden in England or originally from closed-in Pond.

Thoreau also had a special idea about travel. He believed that the fastest and cheapest traveler to travel was the traveler on foot. As transportation becomes more and more developed, we should learn the meaning of walking as Thoreau did, and one should not be bound by faster and faster means of transportation. Thoreau’s experiments at Walden Included food, clothing, shelter and transportation. He earned his income by farming around the house, especially beans. Beans are also used for counting, in exchange for rice. (Walden, Chapter 7, bean Fields)

Thoreau’s lakeside life was varied: working, boating, buying and selling, meeting friends, entertaining guests, reading, listening, watching, thinking, measuring, writing. It can be seen that Thoreau loved life and hoped to sow sincerity, simplicity and purity. What he pursues is not isolation. On the contrary, he has a strong sense of responsibility and mission, and a strong sense of social concern.

Thoreau had a consistent belief:

I went to the woods because I wanted to live meaningfully, to confront the essentials of life, and see if I could learn a lesson; Not in dying, only to find that I have not lived; It is so precious to be alive. I do not want to live is not life, alive is so precious; I will not retire to the woods unless it is absolutely necessary. I want to live deeply and absorb all the marrow of life.

Thoreau, too, was a believer in goodness.

Our lives are strangely moral. The struggle between virtue and vice is ceaseless. Kindness is an investment that never loses money.

He agreed with Mencius’ theory of the goodness of nature, including the distinction between man and bird. But Thoreau was an avid observer of animals and plants, and he recorded many of their habits in Walden. Moreover, he defied the conventional notions of good and evil.

Mr. Xu Chi once believed that:

Walden is a quiet book, a very quiet book, not a noisy book. It’s a lonely book, a lonely book. It is only a book of one person, and if your heart is not quiet, I am afraid you can hardly enter the book. What I’m telling you is that when you calm down, you think about something. When you think about something, it’s possible to think about yourself with this Henry David Thoreau, and think about higher principles. (Preface to Shanghai Translation Publishing House 1982 edition)

I think Mr. Xu’s remarks are a big misunderstanding that affects a lot of people. Others cite Walden as an example of environmentalism, even though Thoreau said walden would be a good place to do business. Another story is that some merchants wanted to turn Walden Into a port, and it happened to be the classic book that protected the resort. In other words, the idea of environmental protection is not the main idea of Walden, but it undoubtedly provides ideological resources for environmental protection behavior.

Thoreau also quoted the sayings of Confucius, Zengzi, mencius and others in the book, which, according to the context, should have been based on a translation of Zhu Xi’s Annotations on The Chapters and Sentences of the Four Books. This, of course, is more intimate to Chinese readers, and also shows that the deep cultural exchange and positive interaction need to be based on their respective classics and interpretations.

Thoreau devotes a chapter to “reading” in Walden:

It sometimes seems to be said that the classics will eventually give way to more modern and practical study, but the inquisitive student will always study the classics, no matter what language or when they were written.

But he also valued experience gained by doing and criticized the avoidance of labor:

Students delude themselves with the experience of making leisure fruitful by systematically avoiding any Labour that is needed by all, and seeking only the coveted leisure and retirement.

Now that Walden is a widely read classic, we need to read it as a “study,” and try not to dabble or misrepresent it. In the United States, there are dozens of annotated editions of Walden. Jeffrey S. Kramer’s annotated edition translated by Mr. Du Xianju (East China Normal University Press, 2015) has attracted academic criticism, but at present, it is still an ideal Chinese reader. Another popular translation is Mr. Wang Jiaxiang’s version, readers can refer to their own.

Of course, there have always been different opinions about Thoreau. An anthropology professor at Harvard’s Department of East Asia was surprised by our Chinese readers’ enduring enthusiasm for Thoreau, telling us that he was not that important in The history of American thought. In the United States, however, Thoreau’s associations, research, and social activities are not uncommon. Many readers, including well-known scholars, have never been to Walden, but have written beautifully about it. (See He Huaihong, Thoreau and his Lake (Generation), translated walden Pond by Wang Jiaxiang, Beijing October Literature and Art Publishing House, 2009) This is also an interesting phenomenon. But what walden is all about is reading the original book and its excellent translation.