Jao Tsung-I on 通 tōng — 饒宗頤與通人

In the 1920s, Chinese teachers of the liberal arts were at pains to oppose what was known as the ‘partification’ 黨化 of education. The imposition of partisan ideology through the promotion of political songs, nationalist narratives and party propaganda (in this case of the Nationalist Party 國民黨) would, they feared, inculcate a new orthodoxy as well as a slavish mentality among the young making them thereby easy targets for political manipulation in the future.

Within the May Fourth generation of intellectuals and teachers a century ago there was a fear that China, having only with great difficulty sloughed off the orthodoxy of statist Confucianism, that is a system that used Confucian texts, ideas and behaviour to train young men for service to the ruling dynasty, would thus fall prey to new, and equally stifling orthodoxies. They feared that, in the process, generations of young people would be trained who were handicapped, incapable of free thought or creativity.


The character 通 tōng.

In little over two years, the People’s Republic of China will celebrate the seventieth year since its founding on 1 October 1949. By that time, no scholars or learned individuals educated in a China unsullied by the Communist Party’s ideological taint will still be alive and active. Revived traditions of scholarship and broader modern, global education thrives on the mainland, but all who might believe themselves to be unencumbered by Party strictures have nonetheless gone through a childhood and adolescence in the shadow of the Party, its ideas, language and practices.

In the following interview, Jao Tsung-I (饒宗頤, 1917-2018), the Grand Old Man of Chinese Letters in Hong Kong, discusses New Chinese Classics and the concept of the Complete Scholar, or Comprehensive Scholar, the 通人, one whose learning is grounded in the diverse fields of Chinese as well as universal intellectual and cultural pursuit.

Elsewhere in China Heritage we have extolled the strengths and virtues of 修養 xiūyǎng, or formation, part of our long-term advocacy of New Sinology 後漢學.

Tōng 通 means to gain access, pierce, to wear, to traverse, to bring together through thorough understanding, connect, complete, comprehensive, to be insightful, to master, penetrating and so on. To be a tōngrén 通人 is to be nurtured by intellectual and cultural xiūyǎng.

Students of China will recognise 通 tōng from the expression 中國通, ‘China Expert’. It is a heavily laden term: Chinese interlocutors use it equally to praise and ridicule those who they think are familiar enough with Chinese culture to make them feel uncomfortable. It is also employed as a vacuous courtesy, deployed with gay abandon. Only the insensitive foreigner with a cultural cloth ear will fall for the jibe, or be so foolhardy as to use it as a self-description. I recall one delicious occasion on which a noted specialist in Chinese international relations, a European with a well-honed sense of self worth, introduced themselves to the head of the History Department of the Communist Central Party School with the words: 你好,我是中國通. This could be freely translated as, ‘Allow me to introduce myself: I’m a gullible fuckwit’. (For more on this, see Simon Leys’ 1981 essay, The China Expert.)


Our friend Richard Rigby is a dogged reader of the People’s Daily which, as only true connoisseurs appreciate, in its arts pages occasionally publishes material of cultural value and interest. Some time ago, Richard circulated the following interview. At my suggestion, students studying in John Minford’s translation programme at the University of Melbourne worked on the text under the supervision of Carol Ong, Annie Ren helped coordinate the project. I am grateful for that draft translation, it forms the basis for the following text. For the original, see here.

We have retained the style of questioning used by the journalists in the People’s Daily ‘central reporting hub’ or 人民日報中央廚房, but have deleted the New China Newspeak-style introduction (that can be read in the original online). In this Q&A we find another example of what we frequently refer to as ‘Two Chinas’: Official China and Other China. Only the uninitiated, or cloth-eared Old China Hands 中國通 of the kind mentioned above, might fail to appreciate the difference.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
23 June 2017

An Interview with Jao Tsung-I:
It’s so hard to nurture comprehensive talent!


Q: You’ve once said that to experience a true ‘renaissance’ in the twenty-first century China needed to New Classical Studies. It’s an idea that has attracted a lot of attention. In promoting New Classical Studies, what issues are you addressing? And what does this have to do with the Grand Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation [promoted by the Communist Party]? 思享者:您曾指出,二十一世紀將是中國踏上一個“文藝複興”的時代,我們要建立新經學。您這個提法引起廣泛關注,您提出的新經學是為了解決什麽問題?與中華民族偉大複興有何關聯?

Jao Tsung-I: My concept of New Classical Studies is something that could contribute to people’s sense pride and self-confidence in Chinese culture. It would help re-establish legitimate traditional values and moral worth among Chinese, and to have some influence on decent mainstream behaviour. In the process, I believe that both society and the world in which we live would both benefit. Rejuvenating the Chinese nation is not just a matter of scientific or material development. We’ve already made rapid and extensive advancements in both of those things, so much so that we now enjoy a surfeit of material wealth. However, in the process people’s values are distorted, even perverse. 饒宗頤:我所提的“新經學” 有助于建立民族文化自尊心和自信心,有助于重新樹立中國人傳統的、正確的道德價值觀,使之成為中國人做人做事的常道,以達到天人互益的境界。中華民族的偉大複興現在已不是科學或物質的問題了,近年我們這方面突飛猛進,物質生活甚至已有過猶不及的態勢,有些人開始價值觀混亂或扭曲了。

Q: What exactly is new about your ‘New Classical Studies’? 思享者:“新經學”新在何處?

Jao Tsung-I: In my formulation New Classical Studies 新經學 refers to a range of classical texts 經書. It is not that dissimilar from Western Classical Studies and anthroposophy. My approach, however, is ‘new’ in three respects: 饒宗頤: “新經學”的“經”是經典的意思,接近于西方的古典學和人智學(anthroposophy)。“新”主要“新”在三個方面:

  • In the first place, it addresses the need to order meaningfully and undertake research into newly unearthed materials. 一是重新整理和研究,因為現在新出土了不少材料,要求我們做這個工作。
  • Secondly, it calls for a new definition of what we mean by ‘a classic’. The canon of traditional works shouldn’t be limited to the Thirteen Classics 十三經 [of dynastic Confucianism]; some texts regarded as ‘canonical’ should be removed from the list. Erya 爾雅, for example, should be excised because it’s actually a reference work and not a ‘classic’ in its own right. 二是重新界定傳統的經的範圍,不應只限于十三經,而十三經裏有些書要調整出去,如《爾雅》是訓诂類,可不列于經。
  • Thirdly, the canon would be extended to include important longer bronze inscriptions and some parts of the Lost Book of Zhou 逸周書. Such texts would supplement the Book of Documents 尚書. Discourses of the States 國語, which is a compilation of speeches, should be embraced, along with other recently unearthed ancient works of intellectual worth. Taoist texts such as the The Way and the Power 道德經 / 老子 and Zhuangzi 莊子, along with other works by the pre-Qing masters 子 should, of course, also be included. Even the Chinese Buddhist Platform Sutra 壇經 should have a place. 三是可擴大經的範圍至一些長篇而重要的銅器銘文、部分《逸周書》等,可以補充《尚書》,包括記言類的《國語》也可以入經,思想性的出土文獻可選一些入經,道家的書如《老子》《莊子》等,一些子書更自當列入新經書體系之內,甚至釋家的書如《壇經》等亦可列入。

Q: A significant aspect of Chinese culture is that the individual is encouraged to develop an eclectic attitude towards learning and culture. How can such an approach be nurtured when academic disciplines demand ever greater specialisation? How can the wealth of the traditional approach be retained while integrating with global academic practice? 思享者:會通精神是中華文化的一個重要特點。在分科之學越來越細的大背景下,我們應當如何繼承會通傳統?如何立足傳統學術資源、整合國際學術資源?

Jao Tsung-I: A core principle in traditional Chinese scholarship is to ‘pursue a thorough-going understanding of the permutations of time and to develop insights into the ineffable relationship between the human 人 and the numinous 天’. The scholar-adept is expected to gain such overall mastery rather than pursuing mere narrow specialisation. Truly to ‘connect’ 通 and ‘delve deep’ 究 requires immense devotion and considerable personal sacrifice. 饒宗頤:中國的傳統學問本就重視“通古今之變,究天人之際”,要求學者做通人,並非做專家。這個“通”“究”之道要付出極大心力和極多現實上的自我犧性。

The character 通 tōng in the hand of Wang Duo 王鐸 of the Ming.

What I’ve come to realise is that from the very start it is important not to limit oneself; you can only slake an insatiable thirst for knowledge by pursuing wide-ranging interests. One can make a modest start. In my younger years, for example, I began with the study of the county records and regional history of my hometown, Chaozhou. In pursuit of this over time I studied archaeology, literature, opera, ceramics and so on, paying attention to the skein of relationships between these different fields. The more I studied the greater my insight and mastery. This is the approach I encourage among my students. Sadly, very few are willing to study like this over the long-term. These days, it’s extremely difficult to cultivate truly perceptive and widely knowledgeable people 我的心得是,首先不要自我設限,保持廣泛的興趣和強烈的求知欲。可先從一個小範圍內的方面做起,如我年輕時先做方志學和地方史,以家鄉潮州為研究對象。從考古一直到文學、戲曲、陶瓷等都做,特別注重不同領域間的關聯性問題,這樣慢慢就越做越通了。我也是這樣教學生的,但願意這樣跟著我長期做的人極少。現在要培養通人很難!

Today the system, be it in China or internationally, is in the thrall of the sciences and as such it favours specialisation above all else. The upshot is that true humanities talents are increasingly degraded. As humanities scholars are required to pursue a utilitarian approach, they might appear to have some expertise but their knowledge is actually quite narrow. And they are not the worse; I’ve encountered all too many phoney and vacuous ‘so-called experts’. Perhaps the way ahead is for students first to attain professional status, and then, over time, to work on developing into properly knowledgeable and perceptive scholars. 中外學界制度上都重視專家,這是受理工科的影響。所以人文素質越發低下了,因為我們用了理工科的應用主義方法去培養文科的人才,結果是貌似專精而實際狹小,這還已是好的了,我還知道有不少粗疏而虛空的“專家”呢!學者可以先成專家,再追慕會通,終成通人,大概這樣一個過程是可以的。

Q: What do you think about what seems to be a trend of ‘Eastern learning permeating the West’? Where do you situate Eastern culture in the new global context? Moreover, how can Chinese culture ‘go global’? 思享者:您如何看待近來漸成風氣的”學西漸”?在世界大格局中,東方文化應當如何自我定位?中國文化應當如何”走出去”?

Jao Tsung-I: Foreign Sinologists are very interested in our traditions. Chinese culture can definitely join global civilisation but only so long as cultural exchange is sincere. The globalisation of Sinology is a recent trend and foreign Sinologists have made considerable contributions. But faced with such engagement scholars in China tend either to be either excessively fawning and self-deprecating in the face of the West, or readily give in to crude xenophobia. What’s lacking is a measured, modest, confident and equitable approach. I would hope that the young can do better in this regard. 饒宗頤:外國漢學家對我們的傳統,興趣大著呢!只要肯真誠地交流,就一定可以整合。最近的趨勢是漢學全球化。西方漢學家們其實是有功于中華文化全球化傳播的。但我們的學者面對交流,或是崇外自卑,或是武斷排外,缺少持平地、謙虛地、自信地與外國學者平等交流的態度。希望年輕一輩這方面會做得更加好。

The dissemination of Eastern knowledge in the West is hardly just a recent phenomenon; it has been going on since ancient times. Chinese culture influenced some prominent European thinkers, especially the French. Eastern culture is an ancient and indispensable part of human cultural history. Chinese culture has always been a major source for cultural dissemination and exchange; it has also been enriched in turn. I’ve always said that cultures are not disparate phenomena; they are mutually imbricated. Chinese people can be found in every corner of the globe; our task is to find ways to enhance cultural communication. That’s why I advocate that favours determining which works belong in the Chinese canon; only then can we embark on deeper and more meaningful exchanges with other cultures. “東學西漸”也不是今天才開始的,古代就有。我們還影響過歐洲的一些思想家,特別是法國的。東方文化是世界人類文化的重要一環,源遠流長、不可或缺。中華文化是一種傳播交流型的大文化,它早就走出去了,還帶回來過不少好東西。我一直說文化是我中有你、你中有我的東西,中華文化從上古至今就是如此。現在全球幾乎每個角落都有華人,現在的關鍵是如何傳播得更好。我主張我們要先確定自己的經典,然後以這些精萃為基礎與世界進行高端的、深度的人文精神層面交流。

Q: Knowledge has no geographical boundaries. National Culture Studies or guoxue 國學 [a term used today to describe something akin to a ‘unique Chinese national academic practice and culture’] is not a traditional concept, and it may well not survive into the future, but it’s been in popular use for years. Since the time of Ch’ien Mu, many people have felt that guoxue is a concept without a particular strong underpinnings. What do you think? 思享者:學術本無國界,國學一名,前既無承,將來亦恐不立,特為一時代的名詞。對于”國學”這個名稱,從錢穆先生開始至今,一直有不少人認為是不成立的一個概念,您怎麽看?

Jao Tsung-I: I’m not in favour of using the term guoxue. Every country has its own guoxue or National Studies, and we shouldn’t monopolise the term since doing so encouraged unnecessary controversy. Rather I advocate the expression Huaxue 華學 — the study of Chinese or Sinitic culture. Huaxue transcends geographic boundaries yet specifically refers to a particular cultural content. Future scholars can therefore use such a category to incorporate the Chinese culture found around the world in their own work. 饒宗頤:我是不太贊成用“國學”這詞的,每個國家都有自己的“國學”,我們不應獨占這詞而專有化。再用“國學”爭議性只會更大。我主張用“華學”,中華文化之學也。華人已遍布全球,所以“華學”較合適,它超越國度,直指文化內涵,這樣將來我們新一代的學者可把已存在于外國的中華文化納入研究範圍。