FACES from Chinese history look down on the rooms of No. 9 the Square, Huntly. Reformers and politicians, ideas men and rebel leaders. Out in the street below, morning shoppers pass to and fro, unaware of the connections being made with a little-known chapter of its history.
No. 9 the Square was the family home of James Legge, a Huntly man who left Scotland in the 1830s to become a missionary in China. He would return decades later, a renowned scholar and translator, to become the first Professor of Chinese Language and Literature at Oxford, and credited with helping to bring Western ideas to a largely closed nation.
For the last three months, artists Deng Dafei and He Hai – who work together as the Utopia Group – have swapped Beijing for Huntly to make work exploring James Legge and his legacy. Claudia Zeiske, director of Huntly-based Deveron Arts, travelled to Beijing to find artists suitable for the project.
In the last five years, Deveron Arts has built up a reputation for attracting world-class artists to Huntly on residency programmes. There is no gallery; the aim is that the work will engage the local community directly. In the last three months, the good folk of Huntly have been learning rudimentary Chinese and taking part in Oriental cookery classes.
Tomorrow, an eclectic parade fusing East and West will progress through the town, with bagpipes and Highland dancers as well as local people in traditional Chinese costumes. After visiting key Legge sites in the town, they will launch a specially constructed boat on the River Deveron and set fire to it. Later in the day, there will a tea ceremony and symposium bringing together Legge experts from around the world.
I find Deng Dafei and He Hai at the local high school making a boat out of newspaper. Pages of local papers are being applied, layer by layer, to a light bamboo frame. The newsprint is significant: Legge's student Wang Tao went on to publish one of China's first daily newspapers, and, as a columnist and reformer, helped move forward modern ideas in China.
"It is like destiny," says Deng Dafei. "Even though James Legge is not very famous in China, the newspaper his student made influenced the first president of China. Wang Tao's articles influenced the Chinese modernising process. At that time China was under the Qing dynasty, but it gradually becoming a modern country. As their thinking changed, the policy changed and the country changed also."
Legge went to the Far East in 1839, going first to Malacca in Malaysia where he ran an Anglo-Chinese school. In 1843, he moved the school to Hong Kong where he would stay for the next 30 years. He realised early on the importance of understanding Chinese culture and beliefs and embarked on a translation of Chinese classics texts, including Confucius, Mencius and key texts of Taosim. It became his life-work, and his books are still regarded as masterpieces of translation today.
Ideas of translation, mistranslation and fragments of understanding are key to Deng Dafei and He Hai's work. One of the first things they did on their arrival in Huntly was to distribute pieces of a large-scale drawing to key sites: the police station, the fish and chip shop, the bowling green, the hospital.
The local weekly newspaper, the Huntly Express, published a "treasure map" encouraging local people to return the pieces. The picture will be reassembled on Saturday, though when I visited only 13 of the 24 had been returned. "Some pieces might disappear, that's no problem," says Deng Dafei philosophically.
Their project, called Palace of Puzzles, explores the challenges inherent in understanding another culture with images of mazes, puzzles and labyrinths. "Misunderstandings always happen between two sides, but in art it's a very interesting thing," says He Hai. "It inspires people to create new things. And this," he grins, as he shows me out of the school through a maze of corridors, "is also a labyrinth!"
Zeiske, who is German, says she has long been fascinated by the subtleties of translation. "When you learn a language, you don't just pick up the language, you learn a way of understanding. But the meaning can change, even depending on the tone you take. In Germany, if you say 'please' a lot, it sounds like nagging, but in English, it is impolite to leave it out. It takes a long time to find the balance. I think James Legge was very aware of that, otherwise he wouldn't have written his books in the way that he did."
She shows me his translation of Mencius, which is still widely used by scholars today. Each page is divided into three, the Chinese text at the top, then English, and the final third of the page is taken up with Legge's meticulous footnotes explaining the subtleties and difficulties of translation.
It was Mencius who provided Legge with what he regarded as his credo as a translator: "Therefore those who explain the Odes may not insist on one term so as to do violence to a sentence, nor on a sentence so as to do violence to the general scope. They must try with their thoughts to meet that scope, and then we shall apprehend it."
Pan Lin is writing her PhD on James Legge at Beijing's Foreign Studies University (as well as briefly teaching Chinese calligraphy to the citizens of Huntly). She says: "His work is so huge, no person can exceed him in this field even now. He translated 12 volumes of Chinese classics, some of them are still the only version in the world. If Western people now want to know in detail about the classics, they must read James Legge.
"His perspective was both traditional and modern. He respected Chinese tradition very much, but he had his own perspective as a Scot and a Christian."
Engaging with elements of Huntly's past is just one strand of Deveron Arts' work, which seeks always to engage with relevant local issues. In past years, sculptor Kenny Hunter created a memorial to Huntly writer, George MacDonald, who influenced Tolkien and C S Lewis, and musician Emily White explored the legacy of composer Ronald Center.
Claudia Zeiske says: "I'm not really interested in interpreting the heritage of Huntly, but what I find interesting is that if you look at Huntly you find interesting people who went out to the world from this very small town to do something amazing. James Legge is a real gem."
Local historian Ewen MacDonald has researched Legge's life in Huntly. Legge's father, Ebenezer Legge, a successful draper, built the granite house at No. 9 the Square in 1832. His shop was on the ground floor – what is now No. 8. "The family were members of the congregational church, so this attachment aroused his interest in missionary work. A previous man from Huntly, William Milne, had gone to China as a missionary and linguist, I suspect that turned Legge's mind in that direction.
"If you asked Legge what his main work was, he might well say his missionary work, but the current feeling is that it's his translating. Thirty years ago, nobody had heard of Legge, but now we are hearing more and more because of the growing importance of China in the world. I think he'll get more and more famous."
One of the most remarkable parts of Legge's story is that in 1846, he and his wife returned to Huntly for a two-year break, bringing with them three Chinese students. They attended the local high school and the congregational church, and were taken to London to meet Queen Victoria.
Then, in the 1860s, Legge returned for another visit, bringing Wang Tao. The young Chinese man took the opportunity to travel widely in Europe and in Britain, and became the first person to give a lecture at Oxford University in Chinese. He spoke of the importance of cultural understanding between East and West, and how he believed the world was moving towards a common "datong" – the Confucian idea for "great unity".
One hundred and fifty years later, though dialogue with China has never been more important, a gap of understanding remains. But cultural exchange between East and West goes on, all the way from Beijing to Huntly. Even accepting that some ideas are easily lost in translation, if we try – as James Legge might say – with our thought, to meet the general scope, we might still apprehend them.
• Palace of Puzzles, a day of events celebrating the legacy of James Legge, will take place in Huntly tomorrow. For more information see www.deveron-arts.com