Chinese-English No.6 2017 2018-05-02
It has been 81 years since Zhang Taiyan passed away.
These 81 years can be roughly divided into two stages, each comprising about 40 years. In the first half, the Chinese people went through the war of resistance against Japanese aggression, the War of Liberation, and the founding of the People’s Republic of China, experiencing all kinds of setbacks and obstacles while exploring a way out for a new China. The great changes during this period reminded one of what Zhouyi (The Book of Changes) described as something one could never imagine—sky-upending and earth-overturning changes. That was an age without social stability, and therefore there was the faintest possibility to compile Zhang Taiyan’s works. The latter 40 years saw a different story, in which a clearer development path of the country took form. Despite difficulties, the huge compilation project eventually bore fruit with the completion of The Complete Works of Zhang Taiyan. Among all the favorable objective and subjective factors for its success, the most crucial one lies in the fact that some of Zhang’s disciples and the disciples of his disciples were still alive. If the compilation had begun ten years later, there would have been a lot more challenges. The remarkable efforts by those senior scholars shall never be forgotten.
The publication of The Complete Works of Zhang Taiyan, to a certain extent, signifies a new stage for introducing the fine traditional Chinese culture by the Chinese people.
In recent years, publishing houses at all levels have attached great importance to recompiling, retranslating and reprinting traditional classics as well as works by local sages in ancient times. The trend has then spread over to include works by great modern scholars and revolutionaries. One of them was Zhang Taiyan, whose works, if not included, would leave the learning about modern revolutions, the Republic of China and the Chinese Communist Party an incomplete one. In this sense, the publication of The Complete Works of Zhang Taiyan is not only a great breakthrough but also a signal of a more comprehensive understanding of Chinese learning in recent and modern times.
The absence of The Complete Works of Zhang Taiyan would mean a loss for the academic world and more consequentially, a serious gap in the knowledge of the revolutions, social conditions and academic progress in the late Qing Dynasty and the early Republic of China. Fortunately, the gap was filled with the birth of The Complete Works of Zhang Taiyan.
It took 40 years to collect and compile The Complete Works of Zhang Taiyan. These 40 years have seen steady economic growth accompanied by improved living standards in both urban and rural areas of China. Meanwhile, the folk customs, political environment, social structure and people’s mindsets have been undergoing constant and drastic changes, moving forward among twists and turns. All of these suggest a transition period as it seems inevitable that any country in a transition period would suffer the same fate, that is, emphasizing material comforts and technological convenience while ignoring and forgetting culture and spirit. The compilation and publication of The Complete Works of Zhang Taiyan therefore required extraordinary perseverance and unwavering dedication. The great deal of concentration the publishing house showed in examining every single word, sentence, punctuation and note, and in revising every detail time after time demonstrated the Chinese spirit of peace pursuit, self-reflection and long-term vision.
The newly published The Complete Works of Zhang Taiyan is a much greater compilation than the eight volumes compiled in the 1980s because we did not merely repeat what had been previously done but kept pursuing new things day by day. That one must be innovative in a constantly changing society is also an essential core of the Taiyan spirit, which occupied a place in the heart of everyone engaged at every stage of the compilation of the collection.
The Complete Works of Zhang Taiyan came out at the right time. Early this year, the government required more attention to and efforts in protecting and developing nearly lost knowledge and non-mainstream disciplines of great cultural value. Works of Zhang are definitely a part of the nearly lost knowledge of the Chinese nation. In the 1930s, Zhang gave regular lectures to the public at the Lingering Garden in Suzhou, which attracted lots of young people from Suzhou and even Shanghai. Unfortunately, today this kind of scene is nowhere to find, but this great scholar who has been marginalized and even forgotten for so many years should be brought back into sight and become popular again. Zhang Hengqu, a Chinese moral philosopher, is most known for laying out four ontological goals for intellectuals: to build up the manifestations of Heaven and Earth’s spirit, to secure good life for the populace, to develop past sages’ endangered learning, and to establish eternal peace. Intellectuals of today, therefore, should carry forward the nearly lost knowledge of Zhang Taiyan in order to fulfill their mission of developing past sages’ endangered learning. It must be noted that the four goals for intellectuals have to be understood as an organic whole with “to develop past sages’ endangered learning” as an essential linkage between “to build up the manifestations of Heaven and Earth’s spirit” and “to establish eternal peace”. Of all the lost and nearly lost knowledge, past sages’ endangered learning is where the national wisdom and spirit partly lie in. Zhang Taiyan was a learned revolutionary, and knowledge and revolution were the national spirit running through the 19th and 20th centuries of China. Sages at different historical stages all showed great concern about the people and the country and then established their academic status. Zhang Taiyan dedicated his life to protecting and developing the national roots, and he was undoubtedly a torch bearer passing on the Chinese spirit.
As an old Chinese saying goes, “It takes around 500 years to have a great emperor.” This also applies to the emergence of great scholars or thinkers. From the pre-Qin period to the two Han dynasties, then to the Tang Dynasty, followed by South Song and later middle Ming, and also from Wang Yangming to Zhang Taiyan, the intervals were always about 500 to 600 years. But I believe that since the Chinese nation is of such great vitality and the world is becoming smaller and developing faster, it will take less than 500 years to have another iconic scholar and innovator. That can be an individual or a group. In either way, it hinges on whether scholars of today will succeed in passing on the national spirit and develop the nearly lost knowledge.
We have started related discussions but they are not enough. If we failed to spread the idea to the public and take action, the knowledge and potential influence of Zhang would be lost on the way. Knowledge that is neither mainstream nor popular is usually known by few, let alone thorough study and development of it. Today’s young people are faced with temptations of money and social status while suffering from incredible stress. How many of them are willing to do the same as those listening to Zhang’s lectures at the Lingering Garden?
The road to reignite Zhang’s popularity will be a tough one taken this transition period we are in and the fact that our culture has been put aside for so long. However, Chinese culture is great in that it is full of vigor and it renews itself every day. Having achieved so much in the past 80 years, we have every reason to be more confident when facing today’s world order. We should exert every effort to revitalize and carry forward tradition Chinese culture and spirit, including the spirit of Zhang Taiyan. I look forward to the day when traditional Chinese culture becomes ever more prosperous because of its being carried forward by one generation after another.
Note: Zhang Taiyan (1869-1936), also known as Zhang Binglin, was a sinology master and democratic revolutionary and thinker in modern China. Zhang was born in Yuhang, Zhejiang Province with the given name Xuecheng (学乘), and his courtesy name was Meishu (枚叔). Later he changed his given name into Jiang (绛) with the literary name or pen-name Taiyan (太炎). In his early years, he participated in the Reform Movement. He was an expert in Chinese traditional classics and a linguist since he systematically studied traditional Chinese etymology, phonology and exegesis. He is generally acknowledged to be the master of traditional Chinese linguistics for his great contributions to Chinese literature, history and linguistics. He completed a lot of works in his lifetime, which were later complied into Zhang’s Collected Works, Sequel to Zhang’s Collected Works and Zhang’s Collected Works III.