One of the most striking phenomena of American literary history has been the gradual growth of Thoreau’s reputation, both domestically and internationally (Jiang et al., 2007, p. 1). No longer simply regarded as an obscure disciple of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) has been labelled posthumously as “American’s greatest philosopher”, an “ecological writer”, a “romantic naturalist” and “one of the few American writers of the nineteenth century who deserve the appellation ‘great’” (Harding, 1995, p. 1). An indication of Thoreau’s global appeal lies in the fact that the Thoreau Society, founded in 1941, recruits members from far beyond the borders of the United States. “It seems erroneous to claim that Thoreau is too quirkily and idiosyncratically American to appeal to foreign readers or his peculiar brand of American nativism has little international appeal” (Otterberg, 2017). The international reputation of Thoreau has been both mediated and boosted by numerous translations of his acknowledged masterpiece, Walden, into different languages.

The last three decades have witnessed a surge of translations of Walden in China, with no fewer than 129 versions being published in Mandarin and one in Taiwanese. Most of them are still in print and some are forthcoming. For over three decades, the book has regularly featured in lists of recommended reading in China for both young and adult Chinese readers, and Thoreau/Walden-related literature produced by Chinese scholars diversifies in perspective and increases in number year by year.

Methodology and research questions

The present study adopts a descriptive approach to the translation and reception of Thoreau/Walden in China. To provide a general overview, we sample from the many Chinese versions of Walden, identifying their ideological frameworks and principal themes. We attend to the textual details of the sample translations, contextual information, and paratexts such as the editor’s introduction, the translator’s preface, postscript and/or notes. We also survey recent Chinese scholarship on Walden. To understand how the reception of Walden has evolved over time, we follow Hans Jauss (1978/1982) in attending to the “horizon of expectations” in recreating how Thoreau’s contemporaries would have perceived the text.

[T]he reconstruction of the horizon of expectations, in the face of which a work was created and received in the past, enables one […] to pose questions that the text gave an answer to, and thereby to discover how the contemporary reader could have viewed and understood the work. (Jauss (1978/1982), p. 28)

By conducting a historical or diachronic study of the Walden versions and the associated scholarship in China, we trace the changing nature of Chinese engagement with Thoreau from the publication of Walden in 1926 to the present day. We address, in particular, the following questions:

  • What are the main translation strategies employed by the representative Chinese versions; and what kinds of image of the book are constructed by the translations?

  • What images of Thoreau are portrayed, respectively, by the translators of Walden, literary scholars and writers in China?

  • What are the various impacts of Thoreau/Walden on Chinese literary scholars and writers?

  • What possible reasons are there for the lasting popularity of Walden in China?

Given the vast number of Chinese versions of Walden, the examples here have been selected on the basis of year of publication and popularity. By selecting a range of popular titles from different points of time in the past century, we are able to present a reliable portrayal of changes in the way Thoreau has been imagined and perceived through translations of Walden in China.

Walden from the perspective of Chinese translators

Otterberg (2017) has noted that “Thoreau’s international reception is both broad and deep”, a fact borne out by the translation of Walden, into numerous languages, including Czech/Slovakian, Dutch, French, German, several Nordic languages, Italian, Japanese, Russian, Spanish, and Chinese. While there have been detailed studies of the reception of Thoreau in different countries (e.g., Timpe, 1971 and Harding, 1995), relatively little attention has hitherto been paid to China. Nevertheless, the popularity of Thoreau towards the end of the last century was confirmed by the late Chinese poet and pioneer of ecocriticism, Wei An 苇岸 (pseudonym of Ma Jianguo 马建国Footnote 1), who noted that the reprints of Walden outstripped those of other nineteenth century authors, and commended the prophetic quality of the author and the charm of his prose (Wei, 1998, pp. 283–284)Footnote 2. In the following sections, we consider in detail the perspectives that a selective range of Thoreau’s Chinese translators have taken on his work.

Representative Chinese versions of Walden: Hua’erteng 华尔腾, Hubin Sanji 湖滨散记 and Wa’erdeng Hu 瓦尔登湖

No fewer than 130 versions of Walden were published in Chinese mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan, between 1949 and July 2022 (see the publication details in the dataset at These do not take into consideration the re-publications of a version by a given translator, versions where the translator is anonymous or excerpts of translations in anthologies. As Fig. 1 shows, Chinese translators’ interest in Walden has been accelerating since the 1990s.

Fig. 1
figure 1

Chinese versions of Walden by year.

Out of the 130 Chinese versions available, we have selected 4 for close analysis, based on period of publication and degree of popularity. Hua’erteng 华尔腾 (or Walden), the first version in Chinese, appeared in 1949 and is attributed to the translational endeavour of a Chinese poet and essayist, Xu Chi 徐迟 (1914-1996). It was later edited and retitled as Wa’erdeng Hu 瓦尔登湖 (or Walden Lake) by the same translator, with the second and third editions published respectively in 1982 and 1993. The third edition of Xu’s version has been issued by over 18 publishers in China and is still in print today, thus becoming the most widely available Chinese version of Walden.

Hubin Sanji 湖滨散记 (or Essays at Lakeside) in 1984, a version by Kong Fanyun 孔繁云, was highly valued and recommended by its readers, firstly from Taiwan and then Chinese mainland. A second Hubin Sanji 湖滨散记 (or Essays at Lakeside) in 1998, a version by Chen Bocang 陈柏苍, has been recommended by over 50 prominent Taiwanese academics. Another version, Wa’erdeng Hu 瓦尔登湖 (or Walden Lake), by Li Jihong 李继宏, which was published in 2013, is particularly recommended for teenage readers.

A survey of these sample versions shows that they differ in terms of the translator’s strategies and the types of translation. In general, translators can choose to employ sentences that are “foreign” in structure, or they can “domesticate” them. Similarly, translators can choose to retain the foreign associations of certain cultural elements, or they can find domestic equivalents. As the examples below demonstrate, a greater number of foreignised sentence structures and cultural elements are found in the earlier versions, whereas there is a greater trend towards domestication in syntax and cultural reference in the versions of the past four decades. For instance, Xu’s 1949 version displays the specific syntactic features of its source text, in contrast to the more domesticated structures in the later versions, such as the version of Kong Fanyun 孔繁云:

Example 1 Excessive subjects/pronouns (underlined parts in Xu’s version)

(Thoreau, 1971, p. 17)

“I have met one or two who had heard the hound, and the tramp of the horse, and even seen the dove disappear behind a cloud, and they seemed as anxious to recover them as if they had lost them themselves.”

(Xu, 1949, p. 17)

“我遇到过一两个人, 他们曾听见这猎犬吠声弛马的足音, 甚至看到白鸽隐入云中, 他们也急于追寻它们回来, 好像他们自己已遗失了它们一样。”

(“wǒ yùdàoguò yīliǎnggè rén, tāmen céng tīngjiàn zhè lièquǎn fèishēng hé chímǎ de zúyīn, shènzhì hái kàndào báigē yǐnrù yúnzhōng, tāmen yě jíyú zhuīxún tāmen huílái, hǎoxiàng tāmen zìjǐ yǐ yíshīle tāmen yīyàng.”

Literally, “I have met one or two persons. They had heard the hound, and the tramp of the horse, and even seen the dove disappear behind a cloud. It seems that they were as anxious to recover them as if they themselves had lost them.)

(Kong, 2010, p. 49)

“我也遇到过一二游人, 说曾听过这狗的叫声、马的蹄声, 甚至看到这斑鸠消失在云端里, 游人也都急着想把它们找回, 好像自己就是那失主似的。”

(“wǒ yě yùdào guò yī’èr yóurén, shuō céng tīngguò zhè gǒu de jiàoshēng, mǎ de tíshēng, shènzhì kàndào zhè bānjiū xiāoshī zài yúnduān lǐ, yóurén yě dōu jízhe xiǎng bǎ tāmen zhǎohuí, hǎoxiàng zìjǐ jiùshì nà shīzhǔ shìde.”

Literally, “I have met one or two tourists, who said that they had heard the hound, and the tramp of the horse, and even seen the dove disappear behind a cloud. The tourists were also anxious to recover them as if they were the owners.”)

In comparison with Kong’s version, Xu’s 1949 version is typical of a Chinese translation of its time, containing, as shown in the above quotation, obvious and abundant examples of the influence of English grammar on the Chinese target text, e.g., an excessive number (compared with non-translated Chinese) of subjects and pronouns, “他们” (tāmen, or “they”, a personal pronoun referring to a group of people), “它们” (tāmen, or “they”, a personal pronoun referring to a group of animals) and linking devices, “和” (hé, or “and”), “还” (hái, or “and/also”) from the original.

Example 2 Excessive prepositioned modifiers and “的” (de, or “of”, possessive or adjectival suffix; or underlined parts in Xu’s version)

(Thoreau, 1971, p. 8)

“…; ay, in all the worlds of the ages. History, Poetry, Mythology!—I know of no reading of another’s experience so startling and informing as this would be.”

(Xu, 1949, p. 10)

“……; 是的, 生活了所有时代中世界, 历史、诗歌、神话!——我不知道读别的什么, 能像读这些, 阅读得到如此惊人, 报道如此详尽底别人的经验。”

(“……; shìde, shēnghuóle suǒyǒu shídài zhōng de shìjiè de, lìshǐ, shīgē, shénhuà!—wǒ bù zhīdào dú bié de shénme, néng xiàng dú zhèxiē de, yuèdú dédào rúcǐ jīngrén, bàodào rúcǐ xiángjìn dǐ biérén de jīngyàn.”

Literally, “ay, live in the history, poetry, mythology of worlds of all the ages!—I don’t know that any reading could be so startling and informing as the reading of these reports of others’ experiences.”)

(Kong, 2010, p. 42)

“……; 是的, 所有世上的所有时代。历史、诗歌、神话! 我深知阅读这些, 就能通古达今。”

(“……; shì de, suǒyǒu shìshàng de suǒyǒu shídài. Lìshǐ, shīgē, shénhuà! wǒ shēn zhī yuèdú zhèxiē, jiù néng tōng gǔ dá jīn.”

Literally, “ay, all the worlds of all the ages. History, Poetry, Mythology!—I know it well that reading these could inform me of what happened in history”.)

Xu’s more foreignised language structures are also evident, as Example 2 (above) shows, in the lengthy prepositioned modifiers “如此惊人, 报道如此详尽底别人的” (rúcǐ jīngrén, bàodào rúcǐ xiángjìn dǐ biérén de, literally, “so startling and informing as the reading of these reports of others’”), and, consequently, the excessive use of Chinese characters marking adjectives “的” (de, literally “of”) and “底” (dǐ, literally “of”, a synonym of “的” in Xu’s time), or the use of colons for intra-sentential pauses. Kong’s version lacks such features, which are clearly the results of Thoreau’s English exerting its influence on Chinese. As time goes by, the Chinese Waldens are assimilated more smoothly into the target language culture. This kind of transition is evident also in the types of translation available to Chinese readers.

The types of translation of published Chinese versions of Walden vary from “full” translations to free adaptations for particular readerships. Generally speaking, the translations before the mid-1990s are “full” translations (e.g., all three editions of Xu Chi and the version by Kong Fanyun 孔繁云); whereas those after the 1990s represent a broader range of translation types. As well as excerpts and selections, there are translations with a full editorial apparatus, translations with commentaries, and even “translations” that are in fact explanatory paraphrases. For instance, Kong Fanyun’s version in 1984 contains not only cultural notes but commentary and explanatory notes on Thoreau’s manner of writing; the version by Chen Bocang 陈柏苍 in 1998 is highly condensed in its content, as shown by its number of Chinese characters (6.5 thousand) in contrast to the original number of English words (107 thousand). Despite its brevity, this version is dotted with the translator’s comments and explanations, and with quatrains of poetry in the Classical Chinese form of five or seven-character lines. It is also characterised by modern expressions in domesticated Chinese jargon, such as “商业导向” (shāngyè dǎoxiàng, or “business-oriented”), “新新人类” (xīn xīn rénlèi, or “the new and materialistic generations”) and “品牌忠诚度” (pǐnpái zhōngchéng dù, or “brand loyalty”).

A more general survey tells that more diversified types of translation can be found for Walden in China, particularly in the last three decades. In 1996, a further version appeared, entitled Linzhong Shenghuo 林中生活 (or Life in the Woods) by Luo Shaoqian 罗少茜 and Wang Zunzhong 王尊仲, based on an adapted edition by Ralph K. Andrist (Thoreau and Andrist, 1969), an American scholar and writer. Later in 2015, a Chinese version of 404 pages by Du Xianju 杜先菊 was published based on “a full annotated edition” by Jeffrey S. Cramer (Thoreau and Cramer, 2006), the Curator of Collections at the Thoreau Institute Library. Meanwhile many editions of translated selections and excerpts are available on the Chinese book market; for example, a collaboration between Wang Xun 王勋 and Ji Fei 纪飞, published in 2011 consists of edited excerpts and translated commentaries presented for guidance as prefaces to each of the 18 original chapters of Walden in English. Zhi Tongnian de Wa’erdeng Hu 致童年的瓦尔登湖 (or To Walden during my Childhood) by Huang Fuhai 黄福海 in 2018, targeted at young readers, is composed of simplified paragraphs and sentences with illustrations by Giovanni Manna, an Italian illustrator.

The number and diversity of Walden versions in China is evidence not only of the phenomenal interest and wide appreciation of Thoreau and his writing among Chinese readers but also of the ways in which translators shape and respond to cultural fashions. Translators, of course, have multiple identities—readers of the original text, the prime subjective agents of the translating process, and the foremost mediators of the source text in the target context. Most of the readers in the target context rely on translations, rather than the scholarly writings of researchers, to perceive and portray the author.

In view of the centrality of the translator to the reception of a writer, we now focus on the “horizon of expectation” that successive translators have brought to the task of rendering Walden in Chinese. That is, in the following section we focus on the way translators have understood and presented Walden and so shaped the image of the author in China.

Images of Thoreau portrayed by Chinese translators of Walden

The images of Thoreau presented by American commentators are many and remain subject to change. Harding (1962, pp. 149–162) wrote that “Walden is read, not for just one reason, but for many”:

1) To most people,...Walden is a nature book.

2) A second appeal of Walden is as a do-it-yourself guide to the simple life.

3) A third facet of Walden is its satirical criticism of modern life and living.

4) A fourth approach to Walden is the belletristic.

5) A fifth level on which to read Walden is the spiritual level....And Walden, on its highest level is a guide to the saving of your own soul, to a spiritual rebirth.

More recently, Harding has observed that Thoreau

…gradually gained recognition in a series of advances based on widely differing appeals—as a nature writer, an economist, a literary artist, an exponent of the simple life, a philosophical anarchist, and an environmentalist. That perhaps is his greatest achievement—his multifaceted appeal. (Harding, 1995, p. 10).

Harding’s comments are suggestive of the enduring and developing appeal of different images of Thoreau in his native country. What images of Thoreau have been formed in China?

Figure 1 above shows us the steeply climbing number of Chinese versions of Walden, decade by decade since the 1990s after the lean years from 1949-90. The growth of interest in Thoreau in China parallels that in the United States. The first Chinese version of Walden remained little known for years. Then a sharp and steady growth occurred, as shown in Fig. 1, testifying to an enthusiasm among Chinese readers, which has been undented by the death of Xu Chi, the first translator of Walden in China, in 1996. A morbid but telling token of the influence of the book is that Hai Zi 海子 (pseudonym of Zha Haisheng 査海生, 1964-1989), a Chinese modernist poet, was found to be holding a version of Walden at his suicide in 1989.

From the analysis of the translated texts as well as various relevant paratexts, such as the promotional blurbs on the cover pages or elsewhere, we may infer the focal appeal or the images of Thoreau that these versions constructed for the Chinese readers, and how the multifaceted appeal of Walden to Americans was replicated or altered in the Chinese versions.

The versions of Xu Chi 徐迟 attempt to conjure Thoreau as the purveyor of a sense of meditative spirituality, specifically, “solitude, tranquillity and wisdom.” For Xu the value of the work lies in its depiction of “a simple life with rich thoughts” (Xu, 1993, pp. 9-10). In other words, as mediated by Xu, Thoreau is firstly a thinker or philosopher, or, to be exact, a spiritual mentor who “boosts the readers up mentally” and only secondly an artist of “lively descriptions and impressive thoroughness of exposition” (ibid, p. 11). In his preface to Hubin Sanji 湖滨散记 (or Essays at Lakeside), Kong Fanyun 孔繁云 (1984/2010, p. 1) wrote, in a similar but more explicit manner, that “firstly, Thoreau is a true thinker…; and secondly his Walden recommends itself through the beauty, simplicity and accuracy of its language”.

The condensed and edited version of Chen Bocang 陈柏苍 (1998, pp. 228-235) also contrasts the pastoral vision of Thoreau with the frenzied lifestyle of an industrial society. Chen recommends the book as “a touching philosophical classic” and a book of “serious life philosophy in the style of travel literature”. The most frequently occurring expressions amongst endorsements by over 50 prominent Taiwanese academics give a sense of the values they see represented in the work, namely, “a simple/slow life”, “return to nature” and “unity of nature and human” (ibid, p. iv-v, back cover). Kong and Chen do not depart much from the image of Thoreau painted by his first translator, Xu Chi 徐迟: he is primarily seen as a spiritual mentor, then as a literary artist, and more specifically as a nature writer.

Translators in the twenty-first century portray Thoreau in a more diverse manner, seeing him as a precursor of environmental concerns. The highly annotated version of Li Jihong 李继宏, published in 2013, announces Walden as a masterpiece by “a pioneer of the American Environmental Movement”, “a philosopher meditating on human existence”, “a founder of essays on nature”, an advocate of “a simple, true-hearted, nature-oriented life”. Li still acknowledges Thoreau as a spiritual mentor whose vision has made an impact on many well-known literary and political figures like Ernest Hemingway, Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., etc. (Li, 2013, cover page). In addition, other tags for Walden as a book of “poetic dwelling”, or “a hermit life”, “a green bible” or “a masterpiece of American Naturalism”, are widely seen either on the cover pages or in the prefaces of current versions, including the versions by Pan Qingling 潘庆舲 in 2007, Zeng Guanghui 曾光辉 in 2012 and Du Xianju 杜先菊 in 2017, to name but a few.

The evolution in the portrayal of Thoreau in the Chinese translations of Walden, then, generally parallels its development in the United States as summarised by Harding (1962, pp. 149–162; 1995, pp. 1–11): in brief, in the different versions in Chinese for different audiences, we still see the spiritual visionary transforming, in the present century, into a prophet of environmental causes. Thoreau is also portrayed as a pioneer of nature writing who rejects urban life in favour of a simpler, meditative pastoral idyll, or what in Chinese is called “poetic dwelling”. While, on the surface, these images of Thoreau seem simply to mirror those generated by American commentators over the same period of time, the scholarly literature in China suggests that the relationship is much more complex.

Thoreau/Walden for Chinese literary scholars

Over two decades before the first translation of Walden appeared in 1949, Thoreau and his work had already been introduced, studied and commented on by Chinese literary critics and scholars. The earliest academic interest in Thoreau/Walden in a Chinese context can be dated to the 1920s.

The early scholarly reception of Thoreau as a fellow traveller

The earliest critical discussion of Thoreau by a Chinese scholar appeared in 1926, sixty years after the American’s death. Zheng Zhenduo 郑振铎 (1898-1958) introduced Thoreau’s writing in a journal article entitled “American literature”. Zheng was a prominent Chinese writer, literary historian and critic, and a prime exponent of revolutionary realism. He, and several of his contemporaries, perceived Thoreau and his works largely through a socio-political lens. Zheng (1926, pp. 14-15) focused on Walden in his portrayal of the American as a “radical or revolutionary” activist of “beautiful and fluent” words. For Zheng, the value in Thoreau’s life and work lay in his political advocacy, his willingness to be jailed for refusing to pay taxes, and his rejection of “passive resistance” as a political strategy. Zeng Xubai 曾虚白 (1985–1994) also studied Thoreau and Walden, alongside fourteen other writers in his book Meiguo Wenxue ABC 美国文学ABC (or American Literature ABC) published in 1929. In his chapter on Thoreau, Zeng labelled him “a diligent writer” who had protested against the prevailing American politics of his day (Zeng, 1929, pp. 35–38).

The scholarly view of Thoreau/Walden in China as primarily illustrative of political activism can be seen until the 1970s. It appears, for example, in Meiguo Wenxue Jianzhi 美国文学简史 (or A Short History of American Literature, Vol.1) edited by four scholars headed by Dong Hengxun 董衡巽 (1934-) (1978, p. 75), which presents Thoreau as an example of individual resistance to American capitalism.

The spiritual affinity of Thoreau with ancient Chinese philosophers

As well as being presented as a kind of fellow traveller in anti-capitalist rebellion, Thoreau was seen by some Chinese scholars as a version of a Chinese philosopher. As early as the 1930s, the interrelation between humanity and nature described in Walden was discussed by Yu Dafu 郁达夫 (1896–1945), a Chinese short story writer and essayist, and Lin Yutang 林语堂 (1895–1976), a Chinese linguist and novelist. To Yu and Lin, the humour and directness of Thoreau’s writing nevertheless expressed a complex but familiar philosophy. These two Chinese scholars initiated a series of investigations into the spiritual or ideological affinity between Thoreau’s philosophy in Walden and various Chinese ideologies, such as Confucianism focusing on the importance of personal ethics and morality, and Taoism emphasising a life of harmony. These investigations have spanned the past century. Specifically, Chinese scholars saw parallels in Walden of the thoughts of Tao Yuanming 陶渊明 (c.365–427), a Chinese poet and politician who advocated “returning to nature”, and privileged a Chinese philosophy based on Tianrenheyi 天人合一 (or “harmony between Nature and man”).

In 1933, in Jingde Wenyi Zuopin 静的文艺作品 (or The Silent Literary Works) a short literary critical essay, Yu (in Wang and Chen, 1995, pp. 304–306) regarded Walden for the first time in Chinese literary history as an example of “recluse literature”. In China, this literary genre is rooted in Taoism and favours a life free from the regulations and pressures of the urban world. To Yu, when Thoreau adopts the roles of a hermit and essayist at Walden Pond, he assumes the role, familiar to readers of Chinese philosophy, of the literary recluse. In 1937, in The Importance of Living, Lin expressed his admiration for Thoreau and Walden, emphasizing the spiritual affinity of this great American writer with Chinese literary philosophers:

Thoreau is the most Chinese of all American authors in his entire view of life, and being a Chinese, I feel much akin to him in spirit. I discovered him only a few months ago, and the delight of the discovery is still fresh in my mind. I could translate passages of Thoreau into my own language and pass them off as original writing by a Chinese poet without raising any suspicion. (Lin, 1937, p. 128)

This affinity is, by no means, a product of coincidence, but a fruit of Thoreau’s reading across cultures: the American was attracted by many of the ideas he found in his own reading of the great Chinese thinkers, such as Confucius and Mencius, the founders and principal advocates of Confucianism. As the section editor of a column entitled “Ethical Scriptures” for the 1843 issues of The Dial, an American magazine published intermittently between 1840 and 1929, Thoreau sought to introduce Confucianism to its readers. He selected a number of “Sayings of Confucius” and excerpted over 40 quotations from the “Chinese Four Books”.

In Walden, Thoreau also cited ten quotations from the Chinese classics to formulate and support his arguments for “understanding life through introspection”, “simplicity of lifestyle” and the “pursuit of learning”. Even so, the impact of Chinese thinking on Thoreau has long been disputed (see Cady 1961, pp. 20–32). Christy (1932, pp. 275–321) went so far as to assert that “no Confucius would have gone to Walden”. More recently, the impact of Chinese philosophy on Thoreau has been affirmed by scholars such as Scott (2007, pp. 14–39), Weir (2011, p. 64; 2019, pp. 202–218) and Altman (2018, pp. 1–17). These scholars have argued in detail that Thoreau adapted into his writings and life the literature and elements of the East, including the Chinese classics and thoughts, to construct his “American Orientalism”, as kind of “contemplation in contrast to American materialism and reason” (Altman, 2018, p. 1).

It is hardly surprising that this affinity has attracted the attention of a large group of Chinese scholars. There was indeed a substantial gap of time between Yu and Lin’s discussions of Thoreau in the 1930s and the revival of interest in comparative studies of Walden and Chinese thinking in the 1980s, which presaged the phenomenal surge of translators’ interest in Thoreau, beginning in the 1990s and continuing today. The gap can be explained by the long-term social and political instability in China from the 1940s to the 1970s, which was accompanied by an official anti-Western stance. The thawing of attitudes towards the West since the 1990s has been marked by the exponential increase in the number of versions of Walden published, shown in Fig. 1.

To Chinese scholars with expertise in their native culture, the ideological, spiritual or cultural affinity between Thoreau’s ideas, as expressed in Walden, and Chinese ideologies like Confucianism are realised in the 10 quotations from the most important Confucian books, Great Learning, Doctrine of the Mean, Analects and Mencius, collectively known as “the Four Books” and in the other “Chinese” elements in Walden. For instance, in the first detailed comparative study of its type published in China, Chang Yaoxin 常耀信 (1985, pp. 46–52) traced the influence of Confucianism and Taoism on American writers. In Suolu yu Zhongguo 梭罗与中国 (or Thoreau and China, 1991), the first comprehensive study of the writer’s relationship to the country, Chen Changfang 陈长房, a Taiwanese scholar, combed Thoreau’s works for images of Confucius, dissecting the writer’s references to Confucian aphorisms in Walden, and exploring his English translation of the Four Books of Confucianism in The Dial. Other scholars have explored the affinity between Thoreau/Walden and Taoism or Taoism-based recluse literature. Based on a thorough comparison of their life, works and thoughts, Cui Changqing 崔长青 (1994, pp. 34–40) argued for the ideological or spiritual affinity between the American transcendentalist and the Eastern philosopher Laozi (老子, 571-471BC), the founder of Taoism.

Not all scholars have agreed on the nature of the influence, however. For example, while Liu Yuyu 刘玉宇 (2009, pp. 197–206) acknowledged an affinity between Thoreau and Chinese thinking, he indicated Thoreau’s “misinterpretation” or “misapplication” of the Confucian classics. Other scholars have been content to highlight the correspondences in worldview. Chen Xi 陈曦 (2014, pp. 183–186) expounded the views on nature of the two thinkers through their similar love of nature, in understanding of seclusion, and in their self-realisation. Cheng Aimin 程爱民 (2009) argued that Thoreau’s philosophy of nature, to a great extent, corresponded closely to the Chinese conception of the unity of Nature and man. It differed greatly from the kind of philosophy prevailing in the United States during the industrialisation of the nineteenth century that allowed the exploitation and waste of natural resources. Cheng (ibid, p. 62) believed that the American writer tried to “maintain a balance between Eastern and Western philosophies of nature by changing his perspectives and shifting his stance, without affecting his affinity with Chinese ancient philosophy and without altering his belief in humanity as ‘a part and parcel of nature’”.

Over the past 3 decades, there has been a nuanced development of perspectives on Thoreau and Walden among Chinese scholars. Whereas Western scholars have moved from a rejection to a confirmation of the impact of Eastern philosophy on Thoreau, their Chinese counterparts have moved from a recognition of affinity to a discovery of heterogeneity. Later articles by Chinese scholars have questioned their compatriots’ early enthusiastic appropriations of Thoreau as effectively a Chinese philosopher in Western clothing. For example, between 1996 and 1997, in Dushu (读书, or Reading Magazine), a highly regarded monthly Chinese literary magazine, an article by 程映红 Cheng Yinghong, titled “Wa’erdeng Hu de Shenhua” 瓦尔登湖的神话 (or “The Myth of Walden Pond”) prompted a heated discussion about whether or not Thoreau was an “authentic” hermit. Cheng (1996, pp. 140–144) maintained that Thoreau’s claims to be a hermit in the reclusive passages of Walden were inconsistent with his actual living conditions there: the period of isolation at Walden Pond was short-lived, his motivation was ambivalent, and he had constant contact with others. Several publications followed, challenging Cheng’s research methods and perspective. For example, He Huaihong 何怀宏 (1997, pp. 132–137) argued for a more extensive collection of biographical data and a more impartial understanding of those details in relation to the expression of Thoreau’s reclusive ideals in Walden.

The debate marked the onset of a more multifaceted perspective on Thoreau amongst Chinese scholars: rather than viewing him simply as an American exponent of indigenous Chinese ideas, interest shifted to how Thoreau adapted those ideas to his own cultural context. For example, Yang Jincai 杨金才 (2004, pp. 71–79) revisited the notion that Thoreau was an uncomplicated writer in the “recluse” tradition, and argued that, for Thoreau, withdrawal from the world does not entail passivity, but an active engagement with the social realities of mid-nineteenth century United States. Liu Luechang 刘略昌 (2016, pp. 74–83) also discussed the changes Thoreau made to aspects of Chinese thinking in order to adapt it to the tastes and interests of American readers.

In general, then, the reception of Thoreau amongst Chinese scholars over the past century has become increasingly multi-layered and complex. In the 1930s, praise for Thoreau was based on his perceived affinity with different aspects of Chinese thinking. After a lull, a number of comparative studies in the 1980s explored this affinity in greater detail, seeing Thoreau as an exponent of Chinese philosophy and literary tradition that praises the recluse. In the 1990s, this affinity was questioned and hotly debated; latterly, as a result, attention has been paid to the hybridity of Thoreau’s cultural position. Recent Chinese scholars have argued that, while Thoreau explicitly alluded to and incorporated Chinese elements in his work, he also reworked them to suit his own political project and to satisfy the expectations of his domestic audience.

Thoreau/Walden and Chinese writers

Interest in Thoreau in China has not been confined to translators and scholars. The style or activist manner of writing has been highly valued among Chinese writers since the 1920s and his thematic focus on the relation between man and Nature was applauded in China and assimilated into the writings of many Chinese writers, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.

1920-1980: Thoreau as a pastoral writer and activist

Thoreau in China has functioned as a literary mentor whose work first influenced Chinese writers, in terms of content and style, at a transitional time, from the 1920s to the 1940s. For instance, both Zheng (1926, p. 14) and Zeng (1929, p. 35) described Thoreau as an influential American pastoral writer, arguing that he introduced into Chinese literary writing of the time the relatively novel themes of “solitude and self-reliance” or individualism. Zhang Yuerui 张越瑞 (1906-1972) conducted a critical analysis of Thoreau’s writing style in Walden (Zhang, 1933, p. 70).The manner of Thoreau’s writing continued to influence Chinese writing late into the twentieth century.

The political content of Thoreau’s Walden and the means of expressing it, observed by scholars in the 1920s, also remained important to Chinese writers and critics over the next decades. In 1958, in the preface to Meiguo Sanwen Xuan 美国散文选 (or Selected American Essays), Xia Ji’an 夏济安 (or Hsia Tsi-an) (Hsia, 2016, p. xv), a famous Chinese critic, described Thoreau approvingly as a “freak” who dispensed with the elegant writing style of his Massachusetts contemporaries, in order to start a new and more “typical” genre of American literature characterised by a “tough” writing style, that was suited to conveying the enlightening philosophies that emerged out of life in the wilderness.

In 1963, Zhang Ailing 张爱玲 (or Eileen Chang, 1920-1995), one of the greatest modern Chinese writers, gave a biographical and critical introduction to Thoreau, praising him as “a genius” of literary writing. With reference to Walden, she celebrated his excellence in depicting “the rich experience of studying nature” and his advocacy of “a return to the basics” (Chang, 2004, p. 121, p. 123). His adoption of a solitary existence at Walden Pond was, she wrote, a political experiment that would prove the value of his philosophy of life. In other words, Chang viewed Thoreau primarily as an activist, rather than as a meditative hermit or recluse.

1980s–2020s: Thoreau and Chinese eco-literature and ecocriticism

Since the 1980s, in China, as in the West, Walden has assumed the role of a “green bible” for a number of writers who have focused on environmental and ecological concerns. Although Walden was published fully fifteen years before Ernst Haeckel coined the term “ecology”, Thoreau remains a role model for ecocritical writers across territorial boundaries, the “Ecologist before Ecology” (Baym, 1965, p. 221). Chinese writers, in the 1980s, also began to confront environmental issues, and Walden took its place alongside other ecocritical classics, such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1963), influencing a wave of Chinese ecocritical writing that reached its peak in the 1990s.

The precepts and style of ecocriticism have been accepted, echoed and assimilated by Chinese writers like Hai Zi 海子, Wei An 苇岸, Hua Hai 华海 (1963-), among others. Hai Zi 海子 and Hua Hai 华海, both acclaimed modern Chinese poets, are avowed admirers of Thoreau and Walden. Hai Zi praised a retranslation of Walden (probably by Xu Chi 徐迟in 1982), as “the best book he had read in 1986” (Wei, 1998, p. 283). Hai’s poem, “Intelligent Thoreau”, relates to Chinese readers the poet’s appreciation of Thoreau’s experiment with living at Walden Pond. His poem, “Facing the Sea with Spring Blossoms”, also follows Walden in depicting an ideal way of life, free from urban problems and pressures. When recalling his route towards the adoption of eco-writing, another eco-poet and literary critic, and a prominent advocate of ecopoetry in China, Hua Hai 华海 (2008, p. 8), acknowledged that he had read Walden (presumably Xu’s retranslation) “for the first time in the early 1990s”. In his ecopoetry, Hua regards humankind as an integral part of nature and he incorporates warnings in his depictions of nature, society and man that are evidently influenced by Thoreau and Walden.

Wei An 苇岸 is yet another Chinese writer who has acknowledged that Thoreau and Walden transformed his approaches to theme and writing style. Wei acclaimed Thoreau as a great essayist, observing that Walden displayed such “an incomparable belletristic charm of prose” with “a style of simple and organic words” that he felt “a haematogenous affinity and response […] to the words of Thoreau” (Wei, 1998, p. 284). In brief, Wei declared that Thoreau was one of the writers and poets who had most helped to shape his life and writing style (Wei, 2009, p. 304). Wei’s major publications are commonly included in anthologies representative of Chinese ecoessays, and through them the influence of Thoreau and Walden continues to be assimilated into Chinese writing. Wei explicitly explains his debt to Thoreau in an article “Wo yu Suoluo” 我与梭罗 (or “Thoreau and Me”, which not only praises the American writer and his work but also demonstrates his own conversion into a Thoreau-style poet with a Thoreauvian “essay-oriented” poem—“Jieshi” 结实 (or “Fruits”)—which he compares with an excerpt from “The Bean-Field” section from Walden (Wei, 1998, pp. 284-285).

It should be noted that Wei does not simply imitate Thoreau, nor does he offer a pastiche or parody of Walden. Wei (2009, p. 306) states: “neither my ‘idol’ nor ‘god’, Thoreau is only part of me, though I have talked about him and his influences upon my writing many times”. Wei’s essays and poems can thus be seen as perhaps the prime examples of the way in which a new generation of Chinese eco-writers have absorbed the themes and style of Thoreau and reworked them for their own purposes.


Otterbert (2017) observed that Thoreau had “several more lives to live beyond his native Concord and America”. The purpose of studies of the reception and translation of Thoreau’s work is to trace the biography of these other lives. As Thoreau and his writing has migrated to different cultural contexts, it is reframed and reinterpreted in ways that are both familiar and unfamiliar.

The new lives given to Thoreau and Walden in China are, as we have seen, shaped over time by the differing receptions accorded the writer and his work by Chinese translators, scholars and fellow authors. Thoreau’s reception is thus multi-layered and evolving. The relationship between the meanings accorded to Walden and Thoreau in China and those in other countries also shifts, diverges and overlaps. This article has adopted a descriptive approach to translation and reception studies in order to track these changes.

Thoreau described himself in Walden as a thinker who withdrew from society as an experiment through which to reflect upon life. His earlier Chinese translators, from the 1940s to the 1980s, framed this retreat in terms of its apparent affinity to traditional Chinese philosophy, a connection encouraged by Thoreau’s explicit engagement with classical Chinese thinkers elsewhere in his work. The early Chinese translations of Walden pictured the author as a spiritual mentor who advocated a simple, meditative life. Later Chinese translations adapted the source text more loosely, targeting different groups of readers, from scholarly to juvenile. Some of these later translators interpreted the content and values of Walden in more nuanced ways, reframing Thoreau’s spiritual retreat more politically, as social activism. The presentation of Thoreau by translators differs in detail from those of Chinese scholars, who, from their earliest discussions of Thoreau, were more divided in their interpretation of his work and in their assessment of its relation to Chinese culture and politics. Some early discussions, such as those of Zheng Zhenduo 郑振铎, presented him as an anti-capitalist rebel and fellow political traveller. Others, like Yu Dafu 郁达夫 and Lin Yutang 林语堂, focused on Thoreau’s spirituality, seeing in him a Western exponent of the appreciation of nature that has permeated Chinese philosophy and literature from classical times. In Walden they saw an opportunity for Chinese readers to reconnect to values that they considered to have been neglected in modern Chinese society. As Thoreau scholarship in China matured, critical opinion began to assert the hybrid nature of Thoreau’s ideas, which was seen to represent a fusion of Asian and Western philosophies. The recent popularity of Walden amongst Chinese writers is not doubt due to its status as a precursor to eco-writing. The style and content of Thoreau’s work has directly influenced those of writers such as Hua Hai 华海, encouraging them to embrace a stance that is more realistic than romantic, more socially engaged than reclusive.

These strands of reception do not, of course, exist in isolation from each other. Translations of Walden mediate between source text and the scholarly literature in China; Chinese eco-writers also read both the translations and the scholarship. The interaction between translators, scholars and writers leads to further reshaping and reinterpretations of the source text.

Ultimately, however, the comparison of the different “lives” of Thoreau and his work return us to concerns shared by Thoreau, his original readers, and those who encounter his work through translation. These issues revolve around the relationship of the individual to society and the natural world. The way these issues are understood depends in large part on the re-imagining of Thoreau by different scholars, translators and writers across a range of cultures and times.