Remembering Wing-tsit Chan
By Bloom, Irene

Philosophy East & West
Vol. 45, No. 4 (October 1995)
p. 466

Copyright 1995 by University of Hawaii Press
Hawaii, USA



    Wing-tsit Chan, for all of those who were privileged to work with him, and especially for those of us who recognize ourselves as direct disciples, was not only the consummate scholar, teacher, mentor, and friend, but, in addition, a living exemplar of the Chinese philosophical tradition. He was a participant in and contributor to the ongoing career of Chinese philosophy, and there can be no doubt that his active participation in that tradition over the course of many years deepened his effectiveness in his many other roles. Among the leading figures in the field of twentieth-century Chinese philosophy -- including T'ang Chun-i, Mou Tsung-san, Fung Yu-lan, and Ch'ien Mu -- Wing-tsit Chan was the one who came to the West. He was the one who made his personal life and his scholarly life here, teaching and publishing in English as well as in Chinese. He was -- and remains in the minds of all of us -- a link between generations, our connection with the early years of this century and with the late Ch'ing period in China. He was -- and remains for all of us -- a link between cultures, our connection with the best of the Chinese tradition as expressed in an altogether remarkable lifetime lived largely in the West, but always in active touch with Asia, and with his roots.

    There is also another sense in which Wing-tsit Chan served as a link between cultures: as a link between the culture of China's past and the culture of its future. During a prolonged period when much of the Confucian tradition was under assault in China itself, Wing-tsit Chan played a crucial role in transplanting it to the West. In a variety of ways he encouraged its life and growth here until, with the thawing of the philosophical ground in China in recent years, it once again became possible for him to play a part in encouraging its renewed growth in the place of its birth. Through correspondence, visits, conferences, and the active encouragement of younger scholars, Professor Chan carried on the work associated with this transmission and retransmission. Those steeped in the Neo-Confucian tradition will be familiar with the term tao-t'ung, meaning the transmission of the Way -- the transmission of the Way from one Confucian master to another, sometimes across a long gap in time. In the life of Wing-tsit Chan we have seen one of the most extraordinary examples of a modern-day, cross-cultural "transmission of the Way." Wing-tsit Chan, having done more than any scholar in the world to foster that remarkable "transmission of the Way" to the West, was in the closing years of his life engaged in its retransmission back to China, an achievement that made him an altogether worthy successor to his own master, the great twelfth-century Neo-Confucian Chu Hsi. He was a creator and also a transmitter.

    I got some insight into this extraordinary lifetime when, between June of 1981 and June of 1983, Professor Chan and I did an oral history project together that resulted in an oral autobiography in which he described his life, from his childhood in China in the early years of the twentieth-century through his education at Lingnan and later at Harvard, to his teaching career at the University of Hawai'i, Dartmouth, Chatham College, and Columbia, and into the early 1980s. A transcript of that autobiography is now part of the archives of the Oral History Project at Columbia University. All of it is fascinating, but I have been particularly moved by Professor Chan's accounts of his childhood in K'ai p'ing, in the rural Toysan area of southern China at the dawn of the twentieth century.

    In one of the memorable stories that figure in his autobiography, he recounted a chapter of his childhood in which he became a "spirit child." It is a touching story, and one I particularly treasure because it seems to prefigure what he was to be and to explain something about him. Wing-tsit Chan was the son of a man who worked extraordinarily hard -- harder than most of us here can imagine working. In his early years he worked at pounding rice, and later he worked as a carpenter -- in Hong Kong, in Saigon, and in Bangkok. After that, he came to America and worked for many years as a laundryman in Ohio. All of this was to earn enough money to support his family and to educate the most precocious of his children, Wing-tsit. This father was himself the second of four brothers, one of whom -- Wing-tsit Chan's third uncle -- had died in childhood. As Professor Chan put it in his autobiography:

According to Chinese custom... when this dead boy would have become ... fifteen or sixteen, he should become married spiritually. And so when the time came, my mother, being a very religious person, and my father by that time earning enough money in Ravenna [to send money home], my mother went around to find a girl who had died at the age of two or three at the same time as my dead uncle. And that was found, and the two spirits were married in a kind of ceremony, so my uncle as a spirit was finally married. But once the couple got married in spirit they ought to have a child. And it happened that I was born -- I was born in 1901 -- and that spiritual marriage took place in 1902 or 1903... so I was adopted to be their son. And I was told to call my mother aunt... And all this time my father was in Ohio.

    Wing-tsit Chan first saw his father when the latter came back to China in 1911, when the young Wing-tsit was ten years old. And he recalled:

The first time I saw him I was told to call him uncle. I... just revolted. I felt somehow that this was my father. I remember when he came in with a straw hat, you know, Chinese dress, and carrying some figs. That was very popular. And I ran to meet him. I called him father. And my mother thought I was nasty, but I just revolted. And then I began to call my mother, mother, too, and no longer aunt.

    How difficult it must have been for such a young child to be a "spirit child" and -- to a Western observer, lacking in that astonishing Chinese resilience and strength -- how psychologically threatening! But when I asked Professor Chan, in the course of the taping, if he had not felt some insecurity, some emotional deprivation in not having known -- or even seen -- his father until he was ten years old, he didn't really understand my question. His mother had taken good care of him, he said. He had been entirely secure. This was the young Wing-tsit Chan, and the resilience and strength were obviously already there, along with the sense of rootedness, belonging, conviction, dignity, worth, and humor that served him so well throughout his life and made him the vital and inspiring person he was. One cannot help but feel that it was a matter of biology and culture and education and, indeed, spirit that made him what he was as a person and that enabled him to be such a prodigious contributor to the field of Asian studies and to the lives of literally all who knew him.

    No doubt it was that same spirit, that same sense of commitment and determination coupled with the determination to make a contribution to others -- those close to him and to the world around him -- that got Wing-tsit Chan to Lingnan College in 1916, when it was still a secondary school known as Canton Christian College. He was the first person from his village to receive a modern Western-style education, and from there he went on to the United States to enroll as a graduate student at Harvard in 1924 and to earn his Ph.D. in 1929. At Harvard he studied with Irving Babbitt, William Ernest Hocking, and Alfred North Whitehead, and was advised by the kindly Professor James Woods, an eminent Sanskritist and translator of the Yoga Sutra.

    It was not easy for him. There was no one on the Harvard faculty at that time who was working in the area of Chinese philosophy, and even the library was still very limited. His thesis on Chuang Tzu was done entirely on his own, with no other source than a set of the Tao-tsang, the Taoist canon. Money was very scarce, and he worked extraordinarily hard at a variety of part-time jobs, including a position as a waiter in his uncle's restaurant in Akron, Ohio, during the summers and at the Symphony Restaurant across from Symphony Hall in Boston during the academic year. He had to stop studying for an entire year to earn enough money to finish. But that indomitable spirit -- that altogether remarkable blend of warmth, humor, generous acceptance, and utter determination -- saw him through, as it would in so many situations in his later life as well.

    On his return to China in 1929, Wing-tsit Chan received an appointment at Lingnan, which in 1927 had been reconstituted as Lingnan University, and he soon became academic dean there. By 1935 he was invited to come to the University of Hawai'i on a visiting appointment, and in 1937 he returned to Honolulu and taught here until 1942. This was the beginning of a long teaching career in the United States and also the beginning of the East-West Philosophers' Conferences, which were born in 1939 out of a collaboration between Professor Chan and his great friends, Charles Moore and Gregg Sinclair. One of Wing-tsit Chan's fondest memories was having been part of these conferences. It is profoundly appropriate that you are remembering him today at the beginning of your proceedings in 1995, and I am quite sure that he is with you now in spirit.

    There is one text above all that I will always associate with Professor Chan because it so thoroughly resonates with the spirit I found in him. It is by the eleventh-century Neo-Confucian scholar Chang Tsai and has become known as "The Western Inscription" because Chang Tsai inscribed it on the west wall of his study. Many of you will know it well -- both in the original Chinese and in Professor Chan's translation. It begins:

Heaven is my father and Earth is my mother, and even such a small creature as I find an intimate place in their midst.

Therefore that which fills the universe I regard as my body and that which directs the universe I consider as my nature.

All people are my brothers and sisters, and all things are my companions.

The great ruler is the eldest son of my parents, and the great ministers are his stewards. Respect the aged -- this is the way to treat them as elders should be treated. Show deep love toward the orphaned and the weak -- this is the way to treat them as the young should be treated. The sage identifies his character with that of Heaven and Earth, and the worthy is the most outstanding man. Even those who are tired, infirm, crippled, or sick; those who have no brothers or children, wives or husbands, are all my brothers who are in distress and have no one to turn to....

And at the end of the inscription:

Wealth, honor, blessing, and benefits are meant for the enrichment of my life, while poverty, humble station, and sorrow are meant to help me to fulfillment.

In life I follow and serve. In death I will be at peace.

    For me, the "Western Inscription" breathes the pure Neo-Confucian spirit. It also evokes the extraordinary spirit of Wing-tsit Chan -- his sense of naturalness, connectedness, belonging, being thoroughly at home everywhere in the world, as well as his warm and vital humanity. It is a spirit that he embodied, but that also survives him -- a spirit that knows no disjunction between the highest ideals and the most thoroughgoing practicality. It is a spirit that connects us, through the power of memory, to the past and prepares us, through a gentle gift of courage, for the future. I hope this generous spirit will inform your conference and that, in this same spirit, as in the quality of your scholarship and the seriousness of your interchange, you will memorialize him in the most fitting possible way.