Jao Tsung-i leaves a lifetime of work that we must learn from
As academia and the Chinese community mourn the revered sinologist, it would be well to bear in mind his motto: seek the truth, seek the standard and seek the justness
The death of Professor Jao Tsung-i is a great loss to academia and the Chinese community around the world. Revered as one of the most erudite sinologists of our era, the centenarian has left behind a lifetime of influence in a wide range of academic and artistic fields.
The outpouring of tributes underlines his contributions to humanities, in particular the study of Chinese history and culture.
His illustrious career and long list of achievements span East and West, including France’s prestigious Stanislas Julien award for sinology and the University of Hong Kong’s highest academic honour, the University Laureate.
Equally expansive were his areas of expertise. From oracle inscriptions to the manuscripts of Dunhuang, the Unesco-listed ancient Chinese grottos; from traditional Chinese paintings to calligraphies; musicology to literature, the breadth and depth of his knowledge in Chinese culture is probably unrivalled by anyone.
In recognition of his stature and contributions, there are various institutes named after the Chaozhou-born scholar on the mainland and in the city. His decision to make Hong Kong his home is not just testimony to our roots in Chinese culture, but also our ability to help connect one of the greatest civilisations with the world.
What set the versatile scholar apart from others is the fact that he had received no formal university education. Driven by a quest for knowledge, a younger Jao immersed himself in books of different kinds. He began with the study of the county records of his hometown, before widening to archaeology, literature, opera, ceramics and so on. His advice on learning was simple and yet practical. It was important to pursue a wide range of interests without any limits from the start. By making a modest start, one could move on to other relevant fields; make connections and develop insights.
Jao’s success was guided by his motto – seek the truth, seek the standard and seek the justness. Sadly, such principles may not resonate with Chinese souls today, who tend to care more about instant fame and success rather than holistic knowledge and commitment.
Few youngsters, he said, were willing to pursue knowledge the way he did; and the specialist approach towards scientific studies and other disciplines had produced many so-called experts who were phoney and vacuous.
Jao’s influence extended to the political sphere, as seen in the private visits made by state leaders. As he rightly observed in a media interview last year, rejuvenating the Chinese nation is more than the pursuit of scientific and material success.
Amid growing distortion in values and behaviour nowadays, the renaissance of legitimate traditional values and morals is just as important. His words of wisdom are food for thought for our generation and those to come.