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Chinese Historian and Scholar Late Professor Ji Xianlin – A Tribute

China and rest of the world will always remember the ‘Master of Chinese Culture’, Professor Ji Xianlin, who passed away at Beijing on 11 July 2009 at the ripe age of 98. In Beijing University, he was Professor in the department of Oriental Studies (1946 – 83) and Vice-President, Beijing University (1978-84).

Born in the year 1911 in Shandong province, the highly reputed scholar chose Germany for undergoing studies in oriental history and learning languages like Sanskrit and Pali. His subsequent long-term role in Beijing University in guiding the students will always be cherished by the academic community in China. His published papers on Eastern civilisation, Sino-Indian relations, Buddhism and comparative linguistics, more than 200 in number, have become popular in China and outside, for their depth and scholarship. Notably, comments within China are associating the late scholar with the resurgence of ‘nationalism’ in China; compliments are being showered on the scholar for his having been able to awaken the Chinese minds, which came to be occupied with an attitude of ‘European centralism’ (www.chinaculture.org.cn 9 January 2008)

Indians will remember Professor Ji as an admirer of Indian civilisation and inheritor of the legacy of Chinese travellers to India – Fa Xian and Xuan Zang. In fact, the purpose of his secret translation during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) of the Indian epic ‘Ramayana’ from Sanskrit into Chinese language, was meant to convey to the Chinese about the cultural richness of India; for him, the civilisational contacts between India and China spreading over more than thousand years, had a special meaning. While this being so, he did not live in the past only; constantly dominating his thought had been the need for promotion of Sino-Indian ties in the modern era in order to ensure world peace and decide humanity’s future (Professor Ji’s preface to the book by Indian scholar Tan Chung on “In the Footsteps of Tan Yunshan”, 1999). Professor Ji immensely liked the Indian poet Ravindranath Tagore and when the latter came under some criticism in China, for e.g. by writer Mao Dun, he came to the defence of the poet (“ India and China in Colonisation period” 2005, by Madhavan Thampi). In all, it was only appropriate for India to confer on Professor Ji the country’s Republic Day 2008 award of ‘Padmabhushan’ in recognition of his contributions to bilateral cultural relations.

Professor Ji Xianlin joined the Chinese Communist Party in 1956. His book captioned “Memoirs from the Cowshed”, containing his experiences during the ten year Cultural Revolution period (1966-76), suggests that he may have been affected during the period. Despite his Party links, Ji always remained independent minded. An example in this regard is his defence of the Chinese philosopher Hu Shih in the fifties by asking for recognising the latter’s literary contribution, despite his mistakes- liberalist ideas inviting a call by the CCP for a purge through out the nation and opposition to the UN recognition of the People’s Republic of China. The late scholar has also been a symbol of simplicity; he refused to accept the “National Treasure” title conferred on him for his contributions by saying that it was not necessary as there are so many others deserving such laurels. The China Daily (13 July 2009) rightly described him as the ‘reluctant master’.

The decision to hold a national level cremation ceremony for the late Chinese scholar on 19 July 2009 reflects with out doubt the need being felt by the current leadership to spread the message to the public, that in its eyes, intellectuals can play important and useful roles for the country’s modernisation and that they would be honoured. The cremation was conducted in the Ba Bao Shan Cemetery, usually reserved for top revolutionaries who die. The body was draped in the national flag and Premier Wen Jiaobao along with two other members of the Politburo Standing Committee were present on the occasion. President Hu Jintao, his predecessor Jiang Zemin and the Politburo Standing Committee member Xi Jinping, the likely successor to Hu Jintao in 2012, conveyed their sympathies to the bereaved family. The national media gave front-page coverage to the event, as in cases when top-level leaders depart.

People like Prof. Ji are a bridge between China and India. He will certainly be missed in India.

(The writer, D.S.Rajan, is Director of the Chennai center for China Studies, Chennai, India. email:dsrajan@gmail.com)

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