Scholarship and education

Remembering Ji Xianlin

Ji Xianlin in his study

Ji Xianlin (季羡林), a renowned linguist, historian, and translator, died on Saturday at the age of 98.

Ji was a specialist in ancient Indian languages and Sino-Indian cultural exchange, and as a translator, he rendered major works, including the Ramayana, into Chinese from the original Sanskrit.

Although he spent much of the past decade in the hospital, he remained active, and this past June sat for an interview with CCTV program host Wang Xiaoya.

Ji's integrity, accomplishments, and longevity made him a "national treasure" (国宝). However, in his essay collection Notes From a Sickbed (病榻杂记, 2007), Ji rejected the honor:

Is it because China has but one Ji Xianlin that he has become a "treasure"? Yet there is but one of Zhao A, Qian B, Sun C, Li D, and so on and so forth in China, so does China have 1.3 billion "national treasures"?

Such a thing is a pointless illusion and is completely unnecessary. Let me put the brakes on it.

Therefore, I declare to the world: Please remove the "national treasure" crown from off my head.

In the same volume he also declined the titles "leading scholar" (学界泰斗) and "guoxue master" (国学大师), and concluded, "Removing these three laurels has returned me my freedom. Cleansing the froth from my body reveals my true appearance, and everyone is happy."

A China Daily article marking Ji's passing quoted Zhang Guanglin, an expert in East Asian languages, on the titles:

"Most of the public does not understand what Ji has been studying over the years, but they know that he is a symbol of intellectual integrity and therefore a 'national treasure'," said Zhang, who had studied under Ji.

Ji, however, never liked the idea of being glorified as the savior of the nation's intelligentsia. "Please remove the national treasure crown off my head," Ji used to say. But the media, eager to find leaders of Chinese intellectuals, never found it easy to get new answers from others.

In a blog post, author Wu Yan suggests that calling Ji a master of national learning (guoxue) misses what his scholarship was really about:

A great scholar, even if he is not a guoxue master, still commands respect, particularly someone of Ji's learning, which spanned a dozen fields....ancient Chinese history was only one small part of his research. Therefore it is fully justified to say that Ji was a great international scholar and not a master of national learning. Indeed, guoxue and its core of Chinese culture cannot contain the entirety of Ji's academic accomplishments.

The astonishing implications of this are particularly interesting. If a scholar whose major contributions take as their subject all of Asia, or Europe, or global history and culture, is granted the title "guoxue master," then China's territory is at least ten times larger than it is now, and Chinese history is thousands of years longer than it is today!

Ji Xianlin, Wu concludes, ought to be known as a great scholar of world culture instead of merely a "guoxue master."

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There are currently 2 Comments for Remembering Ji Xianlin.

Comments on Remembering Ji Xianlin

I was deeply saddened to hear about the death of Ji Xianlin on Saturday morning.

Ji Xianlin was a kind and gentle soul, and an academic giant.

He is known to every student in China and well respected all over the world and in particular in Germany where he spent 10 years of his student life.

I was very furtunate to be able to study under his star and his pupils at Beida, but this day almost broke my heart.

China lost a great idol and Germany a true friend, and we know how much you will miss Ji Xianlin.

May the Gods bless you and your families during this time and always.

Thorsten Pattberg (Pei Desi)

There are also voices opposing to regard Ji as an intellectual idol. Ran Yunfei, for example, argues that although Ji's expertise in Sanskrit is undeniable, his works have been largely inaccessible (unintelligible) for wider readers since it is an area unfamiliar to most of the reading public. His fame is more likely granted by the government and taken-for-granted by people. Intentionally or not, he has been incorporated into the upsurging nationalist campaign of guoxue.

I agree with Ran that Ji himself is a memorable figure in his field, but the lack of discussions on how he becomes a public idol is somewhat worrying.

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