China's top philosophy scholar and 'Sinology master' Tang Yijie dies at 87

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 September, 2014, 11:42am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 September, 2014, 7:08pm

The country’s top scholar on Chinese studies and philosophy, Tang Yijie, passed away on Tuesday night in Beijing at the age of 87.

Tang, a professor at Peking University, had been undergoing treatment for a serious illness since last year, his family told local media.

Tang dedicated his life to exploring traditional Chinese philosophies – including Confucianism and Taoism – and promoting the preservation of Chinese culture.

Tang was born in Tianjin to a family of academics. His father, Tang Yongtong, was also a famous scholar on traditional Chinese philosophy.

The younger Tang enrolled at Peking University in 1946, where he produced a body of scholarly work that made him one of its most well-known and respected thinkers in China.

Tang Yijie authored two dozen books and other litreary works on various schools of Chinese philosophy. He keenly promoted the idea that various cultures can seek harmony despite their differences.

In the past decade, he spearheaded a monumental project, enlisting the help of 400 academics, to compile all the known classics about Confucianism, a core pillar of thought that has defined Chinese society and culture.

The project, called the “Confucian Canon”, was due to be completed in 2025.

The team is estimated to have a massive collection of more than 5,000 classics – amounting to about a billion characters – the largest of its kind in the country’s history.

President Xi Jinping, who visited Tang at Peking University in May, praised him for his “exceptional contribution of inheriting and promoting the essence traditional Chinese culture”.

Tang, however, rejected being labelled the “master of Sinology” by academic circles, preferring to regard himself a humble thinker.

Tang is also applauded for his role in the pro-reform movement in 1989. He joined a group of prestigious intellectuals shortly before the government’s crackdown to plead leniency for Wei Jingsheng, one of China’s most notable political dissidents who had been jailed for ten years for promoting democracy.

In the petitioning letter he signed with other scholars and writers to the central government, he said releasing political prisoners helps to create a concordant environment that facilitates reform, and that it is in line with international norm that values human rights.

Tang is survived by his wife, Le Daiyun, a renowned comparative litreature scholar, a son and a daughter who are both living in the United States.