Jullien’s decision to translate dan with a single French word fadeur, which is faithfully rendered into English as “bland” by his translator, contributes to the homogenized, essentialist account that I have criticized above. Why, though, should we assume that there is any adequate single-word translation for words like dan? Of course, there may be, and translators have a prima facie duty to look for good single-word translations of such terms. However, this duty is defeasible; it can be overridden by the imperatives to make sense of and be true to the texts we are working on. Terms of art excavated from the history of philosophy—e.g. eudaimonia—often introduce new meanings or senses into their home traditions; even when we attempt to find equivalents, we spend time qualifying and seeking to embellish the sense we choose and noting the dissimilar ways different thinkers understood and made use of such terms. We should expect the study of other cultures to offer at least as many opportunities to expand and enrich our conceptual repertoire. Examples are easy to come by. Who translates dharma or karma? The latter term has become an English word. Would it be wise to translate wabi or sabi? Shouldn’t we just transliterate and explain such terms rather than translate them? The process of enrichment works equally well in either direction, though given the nature of the Chinese written language, the expression of adopted words has distinctive features. There is no adequate single-word translation for words like “rococo” into Chinese, but with a little explanation, anyone can come to understand what the transliteration of this word (luokeke 洛可可) means.
Dan is used in an irreducibly diverse variety of ways throughout the history of Chinese thought, within as well as across individual traditions. There is no one concept, notion, or experience in play, and so we should not even attempt to provide a single-word translation appropriate for all contexts. Jullien’s book offers good evidence for regarding the word dan in this way. He and his translator go to considerable pains explaining how dan actually has a diverse and complex range of meanings that are very hard to pin down. They must and do spend a good deal of energy and time explaining that their preferred translation should not be taken as implying a negative quality or state. However, the simple truth is that “bland” means not just the absence of flavor or taste but a lack or inadequate amount of flavor or taste. It is like words such as ill or impoverished; there is an evaluative as well as descriptive dimension to the senses of these terms. With this in mind, it is clear that “bland” is a poor translation in cases where dan is used to describe things like the character of a sage. Sages are understated, unassuming, unpretentious, mild, subtle, etc.; they are not lacking in good and desirable qualities. Contrary to what Jullien claims, “perfect character” is not “without character”; it simply does not make a show of itself. (Jullien seems to sense this but obfuscates things with phrases like “plentitude inseparable from platitude.”) Bland does not work very well for the most widely employed analogy used to describe dan: the contrast between water and wine. The sage is like water; his more popular competitors are like wine. When I read such lines, I am reminded of what I keep telling my young son (my daughter is now old enough to decide for herself): that a good glass of water is better than the bubbly, sugar-laden soda he finds more attractive. When I say this, I am not saying that water lacks adequate flavor; I am saying that it has a pure and subtle taste not found in soda. I also am saying that water is good for you and that soda is not; that the latter is seductive but misleading and that the former is honest and reliable. The Way may seem insipid and without relish, but this is only apparent, not real. Most people rush to the wrong judgment, but only because their palates have been corrupted by the saccharine, syrupy, ornate, pretentious, and florid fare to which they are addicted.
For reasons such as those I have endeavored to sketch above, Jullien’s work falls short as a study of some quintessential Chinese quality; it is not a careful account of the notion or experience of dan and no work could be, because there is no single, unified notion or experience underlying the different expressions of Chinese culture that Jullien explores, much less all of Chinese culture. The book does succeed in conveying Jullien’s knowledge of, devotion to, and enthusiasm about Chinese culture, and that is most admirable. It also manifests his impressive command and creative readings of large expanses of Chinese and Western cultures. I can recommend the book not as a scholarly study of “the bland” in Chinese culture but as the meditations of a learned and creative intellectual who has been inspired by and reflected upon various aspects of Chinese and Western culture and synthesized a novel view of his own. The impressions his reflections leave upon one are anything but bland.