Scholarship and education

What makes a master?

Ji Xianlin and Li Ao

Ji Xianlin, a renowned linguist and translator, just published a book of essays that he wrote during the course of a lengthy convalescence. In one of the pieces in Notes from a Sickbed (病榻杂记), Ji rejects the appellations he has recently been given - "guoxue master" and "national treasure," among others - saying that his scholarship does not deserve them.

If the 95-year-old Ji is not a national treasure, then who inherited the mantle from Ba Jin? Here are a few attempts to address the issue.

In January, Southern Metropolis Weekly spoke with Li Ao, who had some typically pointed remarks about the quality of culture on the mainland:

Southern Metropolis Weekly: You've previously said that you are the best writer of vernacular Chinese in the last five hundred years. Do you still hold this view?
Li Ao: It could be a bit more modest - not 500 years, but 490 years is OK. (laughs)

SMW: Does your comparative range encompass mainland authors and scholars?
Li: Mainland scholars can be divided into two groups. One, those that follow a scientific route. They're relatively pure, relatively in accord with the world standard. The other, those that follow the road of literature, philosophy, history, and social science. This group of people, apart from some of those in archeology, are not very bright. After the Cultural Revolution, so-called "scar literature" appeared on the mainland - "crying won't get you anywhere." So as soon as they approached that area, things got progressively worse because they still had a Cultural Revolution complex.

SMW: Do you think that there are any cultural elite (文化名流) remaining in Chinese circles?
Li: Yes! They appear when I look into a mirror!

SMW: Could you give an appraisal of mainland cultural elite?
Li: There are no cultural elite on the mainland. Sometimes they hide from reality! Writers of some popular books, maybe, but in my eyes they don't count. Perhaps it's made them some money, but they don't rate as [cultural elite]. Like Yu Qiuyu, it's escapism - is he able to touch on critical issues, or does he simply travel widely and write a few travel essays? In my eyes, mainland literati are insignificant.

SMW: In his recently published Notes from a Sickbed (病榻杂记), the mainland's Mr. Ji Xianlin refused the titles "Guoxue master," "greatest living scholar" and "national treasure." Do you think Mr. Li counts as a cultural master?
Li: He's no guoxue master! He is a weak, weak professor, only his language skills aren't too bad. Everyone else is dead; he's not dead yet, so he's become a guoxue master! He's unqualified for these three titles; it'll never be his turn! There's an old Chinese saying: "Shu has no general, let [the brigand] Liao Hua lead the charge." But what eventually happened to Liao Hua? He surrendered! Read Records of the Three Kingdoms: when Liao was older than 70, A Dou surrendered, and then the vanguard surrendered. Ji Xianlin is just a competent old person; it'll never be his turn to be master.

Reacting to this, Zhang Guoqing, a professor in the philosophy department at Zhejiang University, came up with six conditions that a scholar should fulfill to deserve the "great master" title. Summarized from his opinion piece in The Beijing News, they are:

  1. Original ideas, or a master-work that appears when they are between 30 and 50 years old (though there are outliers);
  2. A clear opponent. "Surpassing his academic rivals is a major sign of the birth of a great master";
  3. Frequent citation or quotation by others in the field. "Regardless of whether the great master is right or wrong, people will not fail to think of him when discussing a particular issue";
  4. An influence that crosses academic boundaries: "Influence solely in one's own field only rates as a minor master";
  5. Work in a critical field: "Naturally, someone who does research in unpopular fields can easily achieve results that others cannot, not because the results are particularly important, but because whether or not this scholarship is pursued, the effect on society is basically the same";
  6. Be influential outside of his own language and culture: "True great masters belong not only to a particular country or people, but to the entire world as well. Their scholarly accomplishments belong to all humanity."

Southern Metropolis Daily has collected a number of interviews from its cultural supplement into a new book titled The Last of the Cultural Nobility (最后的文化贵族). The average age of the scholars interviewed is 84; in a review of the book for The Beijing News, Liu Zhongyuan was inspired by this number to muse about why great masters are typically fairly old:

The reader is inevitably led to ask: does living long accord the title master? Do great masters only exist among the elderly?

It is true that the when the masters' interview series was planned, those selected were all older than 80. This age was chosen not only with a thought to "rescue" the personal narratives of these great individuals as early as possible, while they are still with us, but more importantly, because the scars left by the epochal turbulence during the 20th century are gradually succumbing to the passage of time. What reason have we to brush aside the living memories that still exist among the older generation of literati?

Rather than say that age that leads us to look up to them, why not say that they have been tempered by time, giving their lives sufficient strength - does this not provide for their cultural heirs another kind of treasure? We can view in the narratives of the eight decades of these dear, respected masters of culture their explanation of life wisdom for the younger generation, but more than that, they are the embodiment of culture as passed on by traditional Chinese literati. When we read their narratives, we are actually reading a fascinating, vivid history book.

We find that the sixteen masters of culture included in The Last of the Cultural Nobility (book I) have their own outstanding points, each is unique among the rest. Some, like Zhou Youguang and Yang Xianyi, studied overseas before returning to China; some, like Wang Shixiang and Zhong Shuhe, spent their entire lives attached to a single city; some, like Luo Fu, roamed about, making their way from the mainland to Hong Kong; some, like Zhou Ruchang, focused their whole life on one love; some, like Huang Miaozi and Yu Feng, lived rich, exciting lives; some, like Huang Yongyu, Ding Cong, Wang Zhonghan, Shen Changwen, and Zhu Jian, were bright and humorous; some, like Wen Jieruo, Chen Zhifan, Zheng Min, and Peng Yanjiao, were more quiet in temperment....

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There are currently 6 Comments for What makes a master?.

Comments on What makes a master?

Li Ao is the 爆发虎's idol: clever, uncouth, and self-aggrandizing

based on beijing new's sixth condition, one would have to agree with Mr Li Ao (although he himself also falls at this hurdle)

I like both Li Ao and Ji Xianlin. Ji Xianlin is a modest, funny, and wise writer. One would not call Li Ao modest, but he is a funny, sharp, and no-nonsense guy that dares to say what's true and what's on his mind.

BTW, I've heard that anybody with the last name Ji is automatically granted Master status :)

I would say that Li Ao is more prone to saying what's on his mind that what is necessarily true.



He's adorable.

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