A famous ancient Chinese text which offers guidance towards living a better life has been reborn as a Japanese manga-style novel. Sandra Dick finds how a Scottish writer has given the 400BC Tao Te Ching a very modern twist.

They are wise words that for 2400 years have inspired countless generations towards a peaceful path of mindfulness and understanding.

Rooted in ancient China, the 81 verses of Tao Te Ching offer sage advice on how to live a life of integrity and goodness, and encourage readers to take time to appreciate simple pleasures and exercise restraint rather than careering through life at full speed.

Written around 400BC, the often puzzling and thought-provoking texts were first translated into English by Scottish Protestant missionary John Chambers, in 1868 and then revised by another Scot, James Legge, whose 1891 interpretation was among the most popular of versions.

Now the famous passages – which provide the religious and philosophical foundations for Taoism and Buddhism - have been revisited by yet another Scot, only this time they take the form of a Japanese ‘manga’ style illustrated book.

Edinburgh-born writer Sean Michael Wilson, 48, who is based in Japan, worked alongside a Hong Kong illustrator to create a new interpretation of the ancient book which places its centuries-old words of wisdom into contemporary ‘comic-style’ settings.

In one, a thoughtful reflection on self-acceptance is depicted against the backdrop of a busy nightclub, while another which contemplates mankind’s place in the universe and the creation of life is illustrated with scenes of stargazing telescopes and atomic symbols.

Wilson, who left Scotland 14 years ago to achieve a childhood ambition to write graphic books in the home of manga, said that despite the cultural differences and enormous time lapse he had found curious parallels with the famous ancient text and the modern world.

“I read the English version and thought of what elements I could take from it that apply to now,” he said. “Funnily enough, there is a lot of modern stuff in it.

“The Tao seems to be connected to environmentalism and the struggle between left and right wing.

“Of course, the struggle between left and ring wing and for the environment are big now, so it wasn’t difficult to put it into a modern context.”

The Tao Te Ching – which roughly translates as ‘the way of integrity’ or ‘the book of the way’ – is typically attributed to philosopher Laozi, or Lao Tzu, meaning Old Master.

Written in ancient classic Chinese, the text has puzzled and challenged scores of translators down the years, leading to differences of interpretation and understanding of what it might mean.

However, it is widely accepted as the original “self help” book, offering gentle guidance towards how to live a better life, in peace and in harmony with nature.

Wilson, 48, studied sociology and psychology at Glasgow Caledonia University and Edinburgh University and was working in television documentaries in 2004 when he quit Britain to follow his ambition to write graphic comic books in Japan.

He is among a small handful of international writers and illustrators specialising in manga in its cultural home of Japan, and recently became the first British recipient of an International Manga Award from the Japanese government.

He is also the only British comic book writer to have four books published by Japanese publisher Kodansha - one of the biggest publishers in the world – and has collected a string of awards for his comic books, which avoid Marvel comic hero-style stories and instead focus on gritty social issues or re-telling traditional stories in graphic format.

His work has included a fictional trilogy based in Edinburgh, The Story of Lee, and the adaptation of classics into graphic form including Wuthering Heights, Sweeney Todd and A Christmas Carol. One recent publication, “Portraits of Violence”, delved into the sociology of terrorism and state-sponsored violence and has been translated into Korean, Turkish, Spanish and German.

His next book will explore the history of the British trade union movement in graphic novel format. Funded in part by the General Federation of Trade Unions, it is said to have been inspired by the Labour Party slogan “The many, not the few”. He is also working on a graphic novel that will be produced in Japanese and English to coincide with the run-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Wilson said the graphic novel approach offered a different way of telling a serious issue in a way that some studies have shown to be better at engaging readers’ attention with readers.

“Obviously I love it, but the question is whether it’s better to do illustrated books or just put it out in text only? And there’s not a clear answer.

“Some studies in various universities have indicated that the best way to take in information is a text visual mix. Somehow we take it in better and remember it better."

He added: "It might be you can go into less detail but people take it in better and remember it better.”