Roger Ames on the University of Redlands and Other Intellectual Influences on His Distinguished Career in Chinese Studies
Roger Ames, distinguished scholar of Chinese philosophy and Professor at the University of Hawaii, credits the University of Redlands with launching him in the direction of China:

Preface to 和而不同:比较哲学与中西会通 (Peking University Press, 2002)

This morning I look out the window at Weiminghu, and I watch the students and faculty walking past, laughing and talking, and enjoying the fine spring day. The publication of this small book in celebration of the Cai Yuanpei and Tang Yongtong lecture series gives me the occasion to stop for a moment to reflect on these passing days, and to reminisce on how, through the twists and turn of a lifetime, I came to be sitting at this window.

My narrative as a student of Chinese philosophy and culture began many years ago. My father writes mystery stories; my older brother teaches English literature. Writing was always a part of our life at home. As a young man, I wrote a lot of poetry, and in order to find and study with the best of my generation, I left the comfortable nest of our Vancouver home and went to a liberal arts college in southern California, the University of Redlands. Redlands was a wonderful experience, and I am grateful to that school for sending me to Hong Kong on their student exchange program. I arrived in Hong Kong one evening in the summer of 1966. I was 18 years old and alone in a world of strange sights, colors, and smells. Indeed, I remember looking out from the window of the small Nathan Road hotel on that first evening in China, fully aware that my young life had taken an irreversible turn.

I had been studying Western philosophy at Redlands, and as a young man in search of the intensity and high adventure necessary to write poetry filled with life. Like so many students over the centuries, I was immediately inspired by the honesty of Socrates and his philosophical quest to “know thyself.” In Hong Kong, I was introduced to Confucian philosophy, and in contrast to Socrates’s journey of self-discovery, I became fascinated by its aesthetic project of “cultivating oneself (xiushen),” “broadening the way (hongdao),” and ultimately, “transforming the cosmos.” During the summer at New Asia College I had the opportunity to meet and listen to several prominent philosophers—in particular, Tang Junyi and Mou Zongsan—who were asserting the enduring strength of a Chinese tradition after a long night in which China had suffered humiliation at the hands of Western imperialism. When, at the end of the summer, I moved out to Chongji College in Shatian, I had the chance to study Mencius with Professor Lao Siguang, an engaged intellectual who impressed many young minds including my own with his own deep philosophical passion.

Hong Kong at this time was poor—very poor. For us students, there were stones in the rice and not much at all in the soup. But there was an exciting curriculum taught by young professors, and I developed important friendships with my classmates that have lasted these several decades. As the year progressed, there were anti-foreign riots in Hong Kong, and on more than one occasion, my classmates and I were stranded overnight at someone’s home, afraid to go out on the streets. But they took good care of me. If I learned something of Chinese philosophy from my lectures and books, I certainly learned much more from a community of people who were remarkably different from the world I had known until then—a community of people who in their caring relationships brought to life the wisdom of the Chinese tradition.

The following summer, with a copy of D.C. Lau’s Daodejing in my hand, and as a much older “young” man, I sailed out of Hong Kong harbor aboard the President Cleveland liner on a journey back to Canada. I was now a student of Chinese philosophy.

From those beginning at Redlands, it took me 13 years at university to complete my PhD. Why? Because Chinese philosophy was not taught then, and for the most part, is not taught now in Western philosophy departments. Western philosophy as a professional discipline has to this day been able to invoke geographical rather than philosophical criteria to persuade itself and the world that philosophy is an Anglo-European enterprise. The usually tacit assumption is that cultures beyond this Anglo-European sphere are not interested in the pursuit of wisdom. Having lived and studied in Hong Kong, I found this premise parochial and unworthy, and with the passage of the years, I became increasingly committed to challenging a Western philosophical tradition guilty of a profound ethnocentrism.

In order to study Chinese philosophy at the University of British Columbia, I had to do two bachelors degrees, one in Chinese and one in philosophy. In pursuing a masters degree, it was the same. I went to National Taiwan University for two years, doing my course work in the philosophy department and having the opportunity to study with Fang Dongmei. In 1972 I returned to the University of British Columbia from Taiwan to finish my masters degree in the Asian Studies department, not philosophy.

While at National Taiwan University I came to a realization about the status of philosophy in the world that astounded me. For a long time now, in the world’s seats of higher learning, Western philosophy—that is, almost exclusively European philosophy—has constituted the mainstream curriculum worldwide. This is a fact as true in Taipei, Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing, and Delhi as it is in Boston, Oxford, Frankfurt, and Paris. If indigenous Asian and American philosophies have been ignored abroad, they have also been significantly marginalized within their home cultures. William James had it almost right when he prefaced his Gifford lectures by admitting that “it seems the natural thing for us [Americans] to listen whilst the Europeans talk,” except that he might have included the Asians along with the Americans as the natural audience for European philosophy. And little has changed in almost a century since 1901.

After studying Chinese philosophy again in an Asian Studies department in Japan for two years, I was finally able to enter a program at the University of London in which I could study Chinese philosophy with philosophers. It was at the University of London that I had the opportunity to study with D.C. Lau, probably the most highly respected translator of Chinese philosophical classics. Professor Lau, in insisting that we must go back and engage the original texts, has had the greatest influence on my thinking about studying Chinese philosophy. From the beginning, Professor Lau had little patience with secondary academic discussion that floated high above the philosophical literature. His first question on my first day as his student was: “How many times have you read the Huainanzi?” And he was chagrined at my most inadequate answer, “All of it?” Years after finishing my PhD with Professor Lau, I would spend months during the summer with him in his study piled high with books reading the Huainanzi together. I learned from Professor Lau what it means to be a student’s teacher.

At London and in subsequent years when Angus Graham was a visiting professor at the University of Hawaii, I had the opportunity to learn a lot from him, and became particularly intrigued by his efforts to continue the work of Marcel Granet on “correlative thinking” as a signature of Chinese philosophy.

Having finished at the University of London, I was most fortunate on the recommendation of D.C. Lau to receive an appointment in a philosophy department at the University of Hawaii, the only philosophy program in the Western world that offers the PhD in Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Buddhist, and Islamic philosophies.

The philosophy department at the University of Hawaii is unique. The first chair of the department in the 1930’s was Wing-tsit Chan, and he together with Charles Moore established an integrated program in comparative philosophy. The premise of the program is that students who study non-Western philosophy are stronger with a Western philosophical background. Students who have Western philosophical training bring new, often analytic, tools and fresh perspectives to the understanding and extension of the Chinese tradition. This training is an advantage not because Western philosophy has a “rigor” lacking in the Chinese tradition that is “necessary” or “essential” to good philosophizing. Rather it is useful because it provides an alternative vantage point: “I cannot see the true face of Mount Lu because I am standing on top of it. (bujian lushan zhenmianmu, zhiyuan zhanzai ce shanzhong).” Tang Junyi, Mou Zongsan, and Fang Dongmei all knew this well.

But the benefits are mutual, a fact lost on most Western philosophers. That is, our study of Western philosophy can be much enhanced by reflecting on perennial problems with different languages and with alternative sets of categories found in non-Western traditions. As a specific example, while process thinking is relatively new within the context of Western philosophy in figures such as A.N. Whitehead, William James, and John Dewey, the qi-cosmology of the long Chinese tradition entails a process world view that begins historically as early as the Book of Changes. That is, our recent Western interest in process philosophy might be much enhanced by a closer look at a developed Chinese process sensibility. What are often construed as “alternative” traditions might better be seen as “complementary.” Both worlds remain less to the extent that they remain exclusive.

Shortly after arriving at the University of Hawaii, I began a professional relationship with David Hall that would produce six books. This happy Hall and Ames collaboration has, over nearly a quarter of a century, been an attempt, however imperfect, to bring together both sinological and philosophical skills in our interpretive studies of classical Chinese philosophy, and more recently, in our new translations of seminal texts.

Our collaboration was motivated by what we regarded as a profound weakness in the way in which Chinese philosophy has been introduced into the Western academy. The Chinese corpus is constituted by profoundly “philosophical” texts—the Analects, the Zhongyong, the Daodejing, the Sunzi bingfa—and yet this body of literature has not been treated as such. These texts have been translated and interpreted initially by missionaries, and more recently by sinologists. That is to say that, to date the Chinese philosophical corpus has only incidentally and tangentially been engaged by philosophers. This assertion is meant neither to impugn the usually good intentions of the missionaries nor to pretend that there is any substitute for the sophisticated philological, historical, literary, and cultural sensibilities that we associate with good sinology. In fact, if there is an indictment to be made, it is to be directed against professional philosophy in our Western seats of learning that, in its own self-understanding, continues to insist that philosophy is exclusively an Anglo-European enterprise.

Given this marginalization of other philosophical traditions, philosophy as a discipline has an unfulfilled responsibility to our academy. An essential occupation of philosophers is to identify and describe the generic traits of the human experience in order to locate problems within the broadest possible context. And these defining generic characteristics are importantly different as we move from one cultural and epochal site to another. Philosophers have the responsibility to seek out and to understand the uncommon assumptions that distinguish cultures as a preventative against cultural reductionism and the misconceptions such ethnocentrism entails. Thus, the absence of philosophers in the interpretation of Chinese philosophy to a Western audience has come at a cost. It has become a commonplace to acknowledge that, in the process of Western humanists attempting to make sense of the classical Chinese philosophical literature, many Western assumptions have inadvertently been insinuated into the understanding of these texts, and have colored the vocabulary through which this understanding has been articulated. Chinese philosophy has been made familiar to Western readers by first "Christianizing" it, and then more recently, by locating it within a poetical-mystical-occult worldview. To the extent that Chinese philosophy has become the subject of Western philosophical interest at all, it has usually been analyzed within the framework of categories and philosophical problems not its own.

The recent recovery in archaeological finds of new versions of existing texts and the further discovery of many documents that have been long lost, has in the English-speaking world occasioned the retranslation of many of the philosophical classics, and has provided both a pretext and an opportunity for philosophers to step up and rethink our standard readings. Most importantly, it has presented us with the challenge of trying, with imagination, to take these texts on their own terms by locating and interpreting them within their own world view.

In developing a strategy for our new philosophical translations, we have worked out a structure that includes an introduction that provides an interpretive context, an evolving glossary of key philosophical terms, a self-consciously interpretive translation, and the inclusion of a critical Chinese text. In describing our translations as “self-consciously interpretive,” we are not allowing that we are given to license, and that we are any less “literal” than other translations. On the contrary, we would insist that any pretense to a literal translation is not only naïve, but is itself a cultural prejudice of the first order. To begin with, we would assert that English as the target language carries with it such an overlay of interpretation that, in the absence of reference to an extensive introduction and glossary, the philosophical import of the Chinese text is seriously compromised. Further, a failure of translators to be self-conscious and to take fair account of their own Gadamarian “prejudices” with the excuse that they are relying on some “objective” lexicon that, were the truth be known, is itself heavily colored with cultural biases, is to betray their readers not once, but twice.

Just as each generation selects and carries over earlier thinkers to reshape them in their own image, each generation reconfigures the classical canons of world philosophy to its own needs. We too are inescapably people of a time and place. And a most cursory understanding of the classical Chinese philosophical literature itself—always genealogical and historicist—would require that we acknowledge ourselves as such. This self-consciousness is not to distort the literary corpus, but to endorse its premises.

In seeking to challenge the existing interpretations, we try to be at once deconstructive and programmatic. That is, we have begun from the concern that the popular translations of these philosophical terms often do not adequately respect the degree of difference between the existing Western world view and commonsense, and the ways of living and thinking in which these early Chinese texts were located and produced. What is the most comfortable choice of language and what at first blush makes the best sense to the translator within the target language might well be a signal that what is originally not familiar is, at a stroke, being made so. The conventional translation of dao as “the Way” or tian as “Heaven” or de as “virtue” are rather clear examples of overwriting the Chinese language with assumptions that are alien to it.

This existing formula of translations has been authorized as it has insinuated itself into the standard Chinese-English dictionaries and glosses, and, in encouraging those who would consult these reference works with the uncritical assumption that it is this set of translations that provides the student with a “literal” and thus “conservative” rendering of the terms, they have become complicit in an entrenched cultural equivocation. Our argument is that this formula is in fact radical in the interpretation it promotes. To our mind, to consciously or unconsciously transplant a text from its own historical and intellectual soil and replant it in one that has an importantly different philosophical landscape is taking liberties with the text and is radical in the sense of tampering with its roots. And it is a concerted effort, however imperfectly accomplished, to locate the text within its own conditions that is properly conservative.

But our goal has not to replace one inadequate formula for translating Chinese philosophical terms with another. Our translations of key terms have always been intended as no more than suggestive “placeholders” that refer readers back to the glossary to negotiate their own meaning, and hopefully appropriate the Chinese terms for themselves. If Wittgenstein is on the mark in suggesting that the limits of our language are the limits of our world, then perhaps in order to understand the Chinese philosophical tradition, the student is going to need more language. It will only be when students of Chinese philosophy are able to bring a sophisticated understanding of dao and tian and de to a reading of a Chinese text in the way that we have a sense of kosmos, logos, and nous in our reading of the classical Greek corpus that we will begin to take the Chinese world on its own terms.

This happy collaboration changed over the years. Tragically, the David Hall side of the project that burned most brightly, also burned most quickly, and in the company of his family and his friends, he died in his desert one spring day last year. David was a Yale University and Chicago Divinity School trained Western philosopher, and as such, he brought imagination to our work. What I brought to the collaboration was philological training in ancient Chinese philosophical texts that hopefully made our scholarship more responsible, and an anthropological sense of what seems right within a Chinese context from having spent many years living in Chinese academic communities. For me, the study of Chinese philosophy is, much more than academic; it is profoundly personal. It is wholly dependent upon the close personal relationships that I have enjoyed over the years with teachers and colleagues at Chinese universities.

You might imagine what a great honor it was for me to receive a letter from two of Beida’s most distinguished professors, my old friends Professors Tang Yijie and Yue Daiyun, inviting me to give the 2001 Cai Yuanpei and Tang Yongtong university lectures. With some sincere humility, I tried to address the Beida audience on topics that were consistent with Beida’s sense of itself as the catalyst for change in modern Chinese history, and I was overwhelmed by the passionate response of the mostly young audience. The students at Beida much more than students I have encountered anywhere else, have a sense of responsibility for the future of their culture and their country.

Following these lectures, I was able to stay on at Beida for the 2001-2 academic year teaching in the philosophy department at the kind invitation and arrangements of Professors Zhao Dunhua, Hu Jun, and Zhang Xianglong. And it has been a marvelous year, enjoying the bottomless hospitality and sharing in the rich philosophical life of old friends such as Chen Lai, Zhang Xuezhi, and Wang Bo. Certainly the generosity of vice-President Hao Ping and his staff at the Office of International Cooperation has made the year indelible for my family and I. Of all the memorable occasions of this China sojourn, undoubtedly the greatest joy has been in the hours spent with the students in my graduate seminars—every one of these unique young people so bright and promising as tomorrow’s philosophers. As I sit here by my window looking out on Weiminghu, I know for sure that I have learned so much more than I have taught here at Beida.

Roger T. Ames
Beijing University
May 2002

(Reprinted with Permission of the Author)

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