Firm grip on culture not wearied by age | South China Morning Post
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Firm grip on culture not wearied by age

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 June, 2012, 12:00am

If you ever have a chance to meet Professor Jao Tsung-I, be prepared for a handshake so firm that your palm might feel a little numb afterwards.

Conversation might not be easy because of his deteriorating hearing. But that very firm handshake - the result of daily wielding a brush for calligraphy and painting - tells you that the 95-year-old scholar is still in great spirits and full of energy. He spends much of that energy on scholarship, through which he communicates with his admirers and lovers of Chinese culture around the world.

'Despite his age, Professor Jao still lives with the pure heart of a newborn baby. He focuses on his studies, in which he finds true happiness. If you ask him a question, he would do his research and find out the answer for you,' says Professor Lee Chack-fan, director of the Jao Tsung-I Petite Ecole at the University of Hong Kong.

Jao, the master of sinology or 'Hua studies' - the term he prefers - yesterday attended the opening of the first phase of the Jao Tsung-I Academy, at the former Lai Chi Kok Hospital complex. 'The facility will be used for the promotion of Chinese art and cultural activities, for the benefit and enjoyment of our community at large,' Lee said.

'There will be a permanent exhibition of Professor Jao's calligraphy, paintings and scholarly achievements. The facility will feature a variety of cultural programmes and cultural courses, all offered in a very nice and tranquil Chinese garden setting.'

The academy, together with the Jao Tsung-I Petite Ecole - a scholarly research centre dedicated to Chinese art and culture that was founded in 2003 - would be 'complementary partners in the advancement of Chinese art and culture', Lee said.

Apart from the two centres bearing his name, Jao is widely recognised with many achievements and honours, including receiving the Prix Stanislas Julien, a French award for outstanding achievements in Chinese studies, in 1962. He was made a fellow of the mainland's Central Research Institute of Culture and History in 2009 - the first Hong Kong scholar to be awarded the title.

His many artistic creations range from paintings to calligraphy, and includes the Wisdom Path on the Lantau Trail near Ngong Ping, where the ancient Buddhist prayer, the Heart Sutra , is displayed on 38 gigantic timber columns. But his work in rejuvenating Chinese culture is what will matter in the years to come. In a 2001 speech, Jao called for the renewed study of Chinese classical texts to create a 'bible' for the new era.

'The 21st century should be an era to revisit and reorganise classical texts ... With great confidence, I foresee that in the 21st century, our country will be moved to a renaissance period,' Jao said. 'The renaissance that I foresee is not something that belongs to just one or two people. It is a matter that concerns the entire [Chinese] race.'

Lee said: 'Professor Jao believes that we are currently going through a period of Chinese cultural rejuvenation. He therefore hopes that the academy will become a useful platform for promoting Chinese culture and art, thus contributing to this rejuvenation process.'

The Petite Ecole will continue to push ahead on the academic front. In March, the centre organised its first Jao Tsung-I Lecture, featuring prominent sinologists from around the world. The first speaker was French scholar Professor Leon Vandermeersch, a former student of Jao's.

Born in 1917 to a wealthy family in Chaozhou , Jao inherited a love of Chinese literature and history from his father, a banker and scholar. In 1949, he moved to Hong Kong. He began teaching at HKU in 1952, continuing until 1968 when he became the University of Singapore's first chair professor and head of the Chinese studies department.

Five years later, he became chair professor and head of the Chinese language and literature department at Chinese University. He lectured in many parts of the world, including France, Japan and the mainland, Taiwan and Macau, before officially retiring in 1979.

During his years at HKU, Jao studied a range of subjects from poetry to oracle bone inscriptions. His varied interests in research took him to many parts of the world, from India to England and France.

Jao was an inspiring teacher, said Peter Cheng Wai-ming, the leader of a research team at the Petite Ecole, which houses about 40,000 books used by Jao over the years. 'Students these days would probably complain about the way he taught. He did not follow textbooks,' Cheng said.

Jao's teaching involved a lot of discussion about research, Cheng said. 'We learned about what was at the forefront of the academic world. His questions would guide our thinking in a certain direction,' he said. 'There didn't seem to be a system to it, but we matured quickly and began taking part in scholarly research.'

Such teaching fostered scholars who had a sense of innovation, not just a solid grounding in learning, Cheng said, revealing a secret as to why Jao was so loved by his students: 'He only gave two grades, A or B, to encourage us to learn.'

Jao now lives a simple, disciplined life, his daughter Angeline Yiu said, rising every day about 7.30am and going to bed at 10pm.

Yiu said her father exercised three times a day, in bed - in the morning before he got up, in the afternoon before or after his nap, and at night before he slept. In between, he focused on reading and working.

'He still has to work because many people like his calligraphy and paintings. He writes practically every day. He reads a lot,' Yiu said.

Jao's works are exhibited outside Hong Kong regularly, and his age has not stopped him from travelling abroad. In April, he officiated at the opening of his Buddhist art exhibition at the Ginkakuji temple in Kyoto.

As for future travel plans, Cheng smiles and says: 'he has told us that he wants to go to Europe next year.'

The first phase of the Jao Tsung-I Academy is home to about 60 of his works. The humidity and temperature in the gallery are controlled to prevent any damage to the pieces.

The main attractions are expected to be Jao's Four Screen Lotus Set and Avalokitesvara, a painting which is said to embody Jao's vast academic knowledge. It is open every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday from 10am to 6pm.

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