July 18, 2006

Phony Oriental wisdom in the 12th century

[Guest post by Victor Mair]

About thirty-five years ago, I encountered for the first time the following saying (translated from Persian): “Seek knowledge even as far as China.” When I first heard this maxim, it immediately struck me as being counterfeit. Its empty sententiousness, plus the fact that I was unable to make sense of it historically, made me feel that it could not be genuine.

Since I have been working on forged “Chinese” proverbs lately, I now begin to feel that “Seek knowledge even as far as China” is comparable to such pseudo-profundities as the infamous “May you live in interesting times.” Although we are here dealing with an ersatz Persian aphorism, still it attributes inscrutable Oriental wisdom to China. As a Sinologist, I am compelled to respond whenever a smokescreen is put up around the object of my researches. Consequently, I decided to do a little investigation about the origins of this suspicious saying: “Seek knowledge even as far as China.”

It just so happens that I’m currently writing a paper on Eurasian avian bird colloquies, and one of the most celebrated of these is Farud ud-Din Attar’s “The Conference of the Birds.” Lo and behold, “Seek knowledge even as far as China” not only occurs in this famous Sufi poem, but it is provided with a most dramatic context.

The beginning of the affair of the Símurgh, ah the wonder!
In all His glory He flew over China one midnight;

Into the middle of China from Him a feather fell;
As a result every province was filled with tumult.

Everyone limned a tracing of this feather.
All who saw that drawing were much affected.

The feather is now in China’s Art Gallery;
“Seek knowledge even as far as China” is because of this.

[Farid ud-Din Attar, “The Conference of the Birds,” ll. 735-738 (Avery, tr. 1998: 69)]

This widely quoted, but poorly attested, maxim belongs to the class of Islamic wisdom called hadith, that is, a report of the sayings or actions of Mohammed or his companions, together with the tradition of its chain of transmission. Much serious scholarship has been expended on authenticating and interpreting the large body of extant hadith, the bulk of which have been gathered in ten or so major collections. Six of these, all compiled in the third century of the Islamic era, are considered to be the most authentic, and constitute an important source of legal injunctions for orthodox Muslims. Unfortunately, despite its notoriety, the hadith about the sensational midnight overflight of China by the Simurgh is not among the early, well-documented collections. In fact, several authorities consider it forged, while even those who support it consider it to be of only “fair” or “weak” authenticity. See <http://www.sunnah.org/sources/hadith_utlub_ilm.htm>. My own conclusion is that the fraudulent Orientalist mischief-makers were hard at work already in 12th-century Persia, when Attar wrote “The Conference of the Birds.” Whenever “Chinese wisdom” is involved, caveat emptor!

Incidentally, for those who are not familiar with the Simurgh, it is a mythological bird somewhat similar to the Indian garuda or the Arabic rukh (“roc”). There is a (false) folk etymology: si (“thirty”) + murgh (“bird”). The true etymology of the word reveals, however, that it has deep roots in Iranian (Persian simurgh < Middle Persian senmurv, akin to Avestan meregho saeno < meregha- [“bird”] saena- [“eagle”], the latter element being a close cognate of Sanskrit syenah [“a hawk, falcon, eagle; bird of prey”]). (Forgive me for simplifying the phonological representations in this e-mail message.) “Simurgh” is often translated as “phoenix,” but the mythological creature it signifies is sufficiently unique and important in world culture to warrant retention of the original name in Persian.

[Guest post by Victor Mair]

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 18, 2006 07:33 PM