Wars, famine, state failure, revolutions, reform, economic boom. Most people in the world cannot think of much else when it comes to 20th-century China. To be honest, even most Chinese cannot think beyond them. They cannot imagine that a scholar from a society of constant upheavals could find a place to immerse himself in his quest for spirituality and life's meaning. But that is exactly what Xu Fancheng (1903-2000), a leading researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), did in India.
In ancient times, Chinese scholars used to travel to India to study Buddhism and to bring back Buddhist scriptures, some of which have been well documented in history. But Xu spent a much longer time there than any of them, although he did not have to walk or ride horses and camels across deserts and snow-capped mountains to reach his "dreamland".
For 33 quiet and, for most part, penniless years, Xu worked as hard as the ancient pilgrims, studying and translating India's classical and modern writings. He was unaffected even by the loss of family members and the change of the national government back home. He spent most of those years in Sri Aurobindo Ashram, an education center founded by Aurobindo Ghose (1872-1950) and led by Mirra Alfassa (known as the Mother, 1878-1973), in Pondicherry, southern India, where he started translating some of Ghose's key philosophical works.
It was not until 1978, when a friend from Hong Kong convinced him that China was beginning to reform and open up and might make room for his intellectual quest, did he think of returning home.
When he arrived in Beijing, as his former CASS assistant Sun Bo recalls while talking to China Daily, "the old scholar had nothing except a little money from his Hong Kong friend no company and no personal belongings other than his manuscripts". Nor was there a homecoming ceremony, like the one presided over by the emperor when the famous Tang Dynasty monk Xuanzang (602-664) returned from his 17-year study tour to India.
After the long absence, the motherland seemed a strange place to Xu in many ways. Very few people could remember who he was unless they went through the Chinese editions of Nietzsche, some of which Xu had translated while studying in Germany in the 1930s. Or, they could find his name in the research on Lu Xun (1881-1936). Lu Xun had a large following among young intellectuals who, angry at the state of the country, went to him for inspiration and to get their articles published in his magazine. Xu was one of them.
But like Sri Aurobindo, his Indian inspiration, Xu turned from being a radical young intellectual into a thinker, making Eastern philosophy his source of spirituality, something China shared with India in ancient times and could still be valuable for modern man's existence. And it will be more than being valuable, as we can know from Xu's writings and, more importantly, derive from his entire body of research. He re-emphasizes that man's inevitable journey from the industrial and bureaucratic systems of the modern times will be toward moral independence and spiritual well-being.
As Xu has said: "In a way, the destiny of mankind has been determined by the philosophies of ancient Greece, India and China, each with its genuine and independent roots. Without those, neither the Eastern civilizations nor that of the West can be thinkable If there is any meaning of academic research, and if it is to provide any useful service to mankind, then it must be to prepare for the coming of a great future - by revisiting the profound lessons of the past."
Xu was one of the scholars who, after being educated in the Chinese and Greek classics at home, had the luxury of spending a long time to focus on Indian philosophy and teachings. He had the longevity, too, which allowed him another 20-odd years to write about his experiences and thoughts without much interference. As his former CASS colleagues recall, Xu was exempted by leaders in his research institute from attending most of the staff meetings.
Among the huge number of Xu's translations in Chinese are the Bhagavadgita, 50 of the Upanishads, and the major works of Sri Aurobindo (such as The Life Devine and Essays on the Gita) and the Mother, who incidentally was also his close friend. Xu lived alone in an apartment in a six-story building without an elevator in eastern Beijing till his death in 2000.
Xu Fancheng's collected works, published in 16 volumes by the Shanghai Joint Publishing Company in 2006, show that he was not only a translator of Indian philosophical works. He was also an original writer, and even though most of his own creations are relatively short, they cover an extensive range, reflecting deeply on Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, as well as classical Grecian philosophy.
But Sun Bo, Xu's assistant in his later years, says the collected volumes do not contain all of his works. Some manuscripts, particularly the last book he was writing on Buddhism, went missing after his death.
Xu's death, incidentally, was a non-event like his return from India. But now, almost a decade later, his standing as a scholar of very high repute has grown across the country. His translation of the Upanishads has been reprinted twice, according to its editor Huang Yansheng, of the Chinese Social Sciences Publishing. The Upanishads primarily discuss philosophy, meditation and the nature of God, and form the core spiritual thought of and mystic contemplations of the four Vedas. In Indian philosophy terms, they are known as Vedanta(or the culmination of the Vedas).
"We have orders not just from universities and libraries," Huang says. "There have been individuals, too, from various backgrounds (who have ordered Xu's translations). They call us either to ask where they can buy it, or to request us to buy a copy for them."
Thanks primarily to Xu's efforts some Chinese universities have started teaching Sri Aurobindo's works, Sun Bo says. Indeed, on popular Chinese online search site Baidu.com (on the web as well as the news search) Xu Fancheng is no longer an obscure name. At least two biographies of Xu have been published as his life story and his translations of Indian classical text attract widespread intellectual attention.
But why? Why are an old, lonely scholar born a century ago and the stuff that used to be called "Oriental mysticism" and spirituality drawing people's attention today when most students in China and India, as well the entire developing world, are being taught Western rationalism?
When Xu was pursuing his vocation single-mindedly, Chinese youths were flocking to Western countries' embassies or consul offices to apply for student visas. It was a time when science and technology were considered the best formula to change China. Who would think of going to India to study philosophy in a dead language called Sanskrit when GDP is considered the best measurement of progress? says Yang Xusheng, a philosopher and professor of Sinology in the Renmin University of China.
"As it has turned out, it is not a road (the GDP road) on which you can travel very far," Yang says. "It is also getting very crowded, especially because Chinese and Indians have started joining in. So we have a crisis.
We have come to realize that seeing some of us become morally and spiritually hollow is as much painful an experience as seeing other people inadequately nourished and sheltered."
Xu's research is unique, Yang says, for it reminds people that in order to seek a balanced life and economy, we have to go back to the questions raised by the first thinkers of our civilizations - the Chinese, Indian, and Greek - and to integrate all their inspirations.
"Haven't you heard what Xu said he wanted to do but could not find the time for?" Yang says. "He had plans to translate the Bible and the Koran again to give Chinese readers a better translation of the holy books. And do you know why he wanted to do that?"
(China Daily 12/17/2009 page9)