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Kristofer Schipper: In Search of Taoism

Peking University, April 18, 2015: On April 16, renowned French sinologist Professor Kristofer Schipper (also known as Professor Shi Zhouren in China) landed in Beijing at daybreak and, at the age of 81, shook off the jetlag in the evening to stand before a packed classroom to give his lecture on In Search of Taoism: The Past and Future of European Sinology Research Tradition.


A ceremony involving a sponsorship program of Taoism research at Peking University was held before the lecture. Professor Zheng Kai from the Department of Philosophy at Peking University hosted the ceremony, during which several students doing research in Taoism were granted scholarships. Chair Professor Chen Guying, member of Peking University’s Faculty of Humanities, also talked emotionally of Professor Schipper’s support of Taoist researches at Peking University, a cooperation stretching back to many decades ago.


After this lengthy prelude, Professor Schipper cut an energized figure -- which certainly did not match his advanced age -- and started delivering his lecture in fluent Chinese few would expect from a foreigner. The audience may be diversified — there were international students interested in Sinology, there were Chinese academics, there were Chinese students pursuing studies in Taoism, and whoever takes an interest in Sinology and Taoism from the general public — but all of them listened attentively, because they knew Professor Schipper is probably “the most erudite foreign scholar in Sinology” according to Professor Chen Guying.


The lecture was split into three parts. Professor Schipper spoke about how European missionaries initiated interactions between Chinese and Western philosophies, how European scholars became fascinated by Chinese philosophies and came to China to study up-close and some of the promising projects in Sinology these days.


European interest in Chinese philosophy first began with Matteo Ricci’s visit to China. Being a missionary, Ricci was more interested in spreading Christian ideals rather than understanding the Chinese culture, and that is the primary reason why Professor Schipper dislikes the man. The ultimate consequence of interactions between Christian missionaries and the feudal government is the rites controversy that caused a stir regarding whether the Church should tolerate the Chinese practice of worshipping their ancestors. Nevertheless, they still contributed to the rise of Sinology as they Latinized the name Kong Zi and Confucius gained fame in Europe.

Europe’s fascination with Chinese philosophy grew rapidly, and some famous names such as Leibniz and Spinoza. There was a heated debate on Chinese meritocracy, Chinese art, Chinese architecture, and so on.


This eventually resulted in Western thinkers coming to China to study what became Sinology. During this time many European scholars looked deeper into Chinese philosophies by translating classic Confucian and Taoist works.


Philosophical studies stopped being a one-way traffic and Chinese scholars started to actively participate in projects studying and spreading Chinese cultural ideas. Based on the Chinese traditional notion of natural conservation, there is a project called “Aishan”, or literally “loving the mountains” currently underway to protect biodiversity around the globe. In order to understand the Taoist ideals, the European Daozang Project, led by Professor Van Der Loon, is now aiming at translating Daozang — the basis of Taoism. There are also several Chinese and Western scholars working on the inscriptions around the city of Beijing, hoping that the ancient capital can provide useful information for the understanding of Chinese culture.


Professor Schipper concluded his lecture by calling on more people to take an interest in Sinology. He spoke worryingly that at his former academic institution, University of Leiden, there are no people teaching the ancient Chinese language anymore. He supports the idea of the Confucius Institutions, but he thinks they should teach more than “hello” and “goodbye”. He believes ancient Chinese culture, especially the ancient language, should be integrated into its curriculums as well.


The two-hour lecture ended with an ovation for Professor Schipper’s wonderful speech, and his lifelong work for Sinology. The immensely respected scholar may have now retired, but it is his sincere wish that there will be more young talents, Chinese or foreign, ready to engage themselves in the study of the fascinating Chinese culture.


Reported by: Xu Liangdi