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Ji Xianlin: A Gentle Academic Giant

On August 6, as Ji Xianlin, an outstanding scholar in academic circles, celebrated his 94th birthday, the Ji Xianlin Research Institute, launched by the China Confucius Foundation, was opened in Beijing, signifying the establishment of a special institution for the research on "The Studies of Ji Xianlin."


As a prominent academician, Ji Xianlin is highly praised both at home and abroad for his moral quality, his articles, and his scientific achievements as well as his good personality. The Ji Xianlin Research Institute is based in Shandong University, with some famous scholars, such as Tang Yijie, Le Daiyun, and Liu Mengxi, as senior consultants. Any teacher or research personnel interested in the research on Ji Xianlin can be part-time researchers of the institute.


Brief Biography of Ji Xianlin


Ji Xianlin, a renowned paleographer (one who studies the writing and documents from the past), historian, and writer, was born in 1911 in Qingping County (today's Linqing City) of East China's Shandong Province.




Ji Xianlin studied in Sanhejie Primary School and the No.1 Middle School in Jinan City before entering Shandong University. In 1930, Ji was admitted to Tsinghua University as a major in Western literature.

In 1935, he went to Germany as an exchange student to study ancient languages such as Sanskrit, Pali, Tocharian, and so on, receiving his PhD degree in 1941.


Ji returned to China in 1946, and in the autumn of the same year, became a professor in Peking University under the recommendation of Chen Yanluo. Ji founded the Department of Eastern Languages soon after, acting as dean of the department and blazing a trail in the field of Eastern studies in China.


In 1956, Ji was elected commissioner of the Chinese Academy of Science's Department of Social Science.


Two years after the Culture Revolution (1966-1976), in 1978, he became vice president of Peking University and director of the Chinese Academy of Science's Research Institute on South Asia.


He once served as chairman of various professional organizations, such as the Chinese Foreign Literature Association, the Chinese South Asian Association, and the Chinese Language Society. His Ji Xianlin Collection consists of 24 volumes, including articles on ancient Indian languages, Sino-Indian cultural relations, Buddhism, comparative and folk literature, essays, translations of literary works, and so on.



Ji Xianlin believes, "Cultural exchange is the main drive for humankind's progress. Only by learning from each other's strong points to make up for shortcomings can people constantly progress, the ultimate target of which is to achieve a kind of Great Harmony." Over the past ten years, Ji has actively participated in discussions on the cultural problems between the East and West, based on the same ideology.


According to him, human culture is divided into four parts: Chinese culture, Indian culture, Arabic-Islamic culture, and European-American culture, with the former three constituting the Eastern cultural system and the last the Western one.


Ji Xianlin has been crying for the rejuvenation of the Eastern nations and the rehabilitation of their respective cultures, claiming both the Eastern and Western cultures have experienced enormous ups and downs, which has caused a sensation among the Chinese society. Ji's opinion is of great significance in the understanding of history in China, signalizing an active refute against the predominant "European Centralism" view that prevails in the country.


With his achievements in the history of Sino-Indian cultural relations, Buddhism history, Indian literature, and comparative literature, Ji Xianlin is acclaimed as a master of Eastern studies both at home and abroad.


Ji Xianlin's Personal Charm


Though a reputable professor of Peking University, Ji Xianlin seems to fall short of all his titles in the eyes of common people, as he is always dressed in a bleached khaki suit and a pair of cloth shoes, with an old leathery schoolbag in hand. He is always inconspicuous whenever he is in a crowd. As some people have said, Ji Xianlin, who is always modest and easily accessible, looks like an ordinary worker or an old farmer, without a bit of the air of a "big figure." However, it is this unassuming old man who has won widespread admiration and respect.



Whenever Ji Xianlin walks on the campus, such a thing often occurs: a bicycle stops suddenly in front of him and off jumps a student, who asks, "Are you Professor Ji Xianlin?" Following Ji's nod, the student usually says, "Mr. Ji, I just want to say 'I really admire you!'" Then, the student will bow to Ji Xianlin before turning around to ride away on his or her bicycle.


There are times when young people driving a car may get out the car just to bow to him, which is a sign of their admiration of him. It is the charm of Ji's personality that has won him enormous esteem.


A philosopher once said, "Greatness lies in commonness." Ji Xianlin personifies this truism. He is a common human being, and his greatness lies in one character, ""truthfulness, which makes up his unique personality charm.


Ji Xianlin has always treated all kinds of people with sincerity. He is a caring person who loves his families, relatives, friends, teachers, and students dearly. He still remembers those illiterate farmers who played with him during his childhood and especially respects anybody who, like him, are kind and honest.


Ji Xianlin is also well known for telling the truth. As early as in 1986, he wrote an article titled "A Few Words for Hu Shi (a famous but very controversial scholar)" which shocked the literary circles. At that time, Hu Shi was seen as a "negative example," and no one dared to touch this "forbidden area."


Though some of his friends try to persuade him from doing such a risky thing, Ji Xianlin, thinking the evaluation of Hu Shi was not only a problem of personal appraisal, but also a big event of significant academic implications, felt it necessary to tell the truth about Hu Shi. In other words, Ji's view is that even if Hu Shi did make unforgivable mistakes, his contributions in modern Chinese literature should not be ignored. His article won the affirmation and support of a great many scholars, breaking a path for the re-evaluation of the nearly century-old development of modern Chinese literature.



Ji Xianlin is a firm and faithful patriot who show enormous love for the magnificent mountains and rivers, the long history, and rich culture of his motherland. He once said, "Even when I am burned down to ashes, my love for China will not change."


When he was studying in Tsinghua University, he joined the ranks in petitioning Chiang Kai-shek to fight against the Japanese invaders in Nanjing (of East China's Jiangsu Province), and went to the countryside to promote patriotism.


Even in the dark times during the fascist reign, Ji, with an empty stomach, still continued to work hard in subjects such as Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit. When he got an "A" in all his PhD subjects, Ji said, "I haven't disgraced my country; my scores are the only comfort that I can give to my motherland."


Soon after returning to China, Ji Xianlin began to work in Peking University and since then has engaged himself in applying his patriotism into the teaching and research profession to pay back to his country, starting numerous new research topics and devoting himself to academic research, proudly finishing 40 articles and 13 academic papers within three years.


Setting his heart on serving the country with his academic achievements, Ji started to translate the world famous Indian epic Ramayana in secret. After five years of strenuous work, he finally finished translating the 80,000-line epic into Chinese, erecting a monument in the history of China's translation and Sino-Indian cultural exchange.


Once the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) ended, Ji, feeling completely refreshed and revitalized, again committed himself to academic writing. During his later academic years, Ji published 11 academic books and over 200 papers, accomplishing brilliant achievements in more than ten academic fields, including Chinese cultural research, comparative literature, and Sanskrit.


Ji Xianlin's Philosophy


Preoccupied with research and writing, Ji has paid little attention to his health and daily life over the recent years. As a result, he is plagued with many health problems, and was once threatened with eyesight loss. In the summer of 2002, he was hospitalized for a complicated skin disease. However, throughout all these problems, he has remained focused on his writing.



On how to stay healthy, Ji believes in his "three nos": no waste of time, no choosing of food, no nagging. As he often says, the meaning of life lies in working, which requires a healthy body; in order to stay healthy, one needs to do exercise.


As a prolific language experts and translator, Ji has never slacked his efforts in his 70-year-long academic career. He gets up at 4:30has breakfast at 5:00, and then begins to write. By the time the office workers begin their work, he has already finished a day's worth of academic research and writing. Once he was asked whether he feels sleepy when he gets up so early in the morning. His answer was yes, but that he often felt compelled to get up.


Apart from cherishing time, Ji's efficiency and speed at writing is also surprising. One of his famous essays - Forever Regret, was composed within several hours.


A Lotus in Weiming Lake


Anyone acquainted with Ji Xianlin knows he is an affectionate man with a mild temperament. Ji, however, often says he is a withered and dull tree, which is left with only the trunk and branches but no flowers or green leaves. This is due to his research subject being often considered by others as "astronomic" and his books, as "mysterious." He strongly expresses his desire for flowers and leaves to grow on the tree!


In fact, none of the people who have contacts with Ji have ever thought him dull or uninteresting, whether in science or behaviors. In real life, Ji is warmly and sincerely attached to all living things.


As Min Weifang, the Secretary of the CPC Committee of Peking University, said, "Ji's heart is not only filled with China, but also the East, and even the whole world. All his life, he has been committed to the spreading of humankind's culture and spirit. His life is like a book that can enlighten mankind's wisdom and purify people's hearts."


(chinaculture.org August 19, 2005)

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