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In Fleeting Years: Zhang Zhongxing

Zhang Zhongxing (1909-2006) is a master of Chinese language, literature and culture studies. He devoted his life to compiling textbooks and literary works on Chinese language, literature and traditional culture, as well as logic and philosophy. He became one of the very few scholars who had deep insights into both Chinese and Western philosophical thought.


Born in a farmhouse in Xianghe, Hebei Province, Zhang Zhongxing studied hard in his childhood and finally was admitted to the renowned Peking University. After graduating in 1935, Zhang taught in junior high schools and universities, before finally settling down in People's Education Press as an editor.


As a professional editor, Zhang dedicated himself to the study of Chinese classics, Chinese language, literature and traditional culture. Throughout his life Zhang read literature, history, Buddhism, and philosophy extensively. Zhang excelled in Chinese, Chinese classics and philosophy. He not only drew nourishment from the thoughts of Confucius, Mencius, Taoist philosophy and Buddhism, but also studied Russell and Bacon to form his own philosophical system, becoming one of the very few scholars with insights into both Chinese and Western philosophies.



Graduating from Peking University in 1935


Known as one of "the three aged masters" in Peking University (with the other two being Ji Xianlin and Jin Kemu), Zhang is revered for his wisdom and knowledge, his character and morals and his abundant literary works.


Zhang Zhongxing the scholar


Born in the late Qing Dynasty and raised in the Republic period, Zhang experienced several political movements after the founding of People's Republic of China, and endured many hardships throughout his life. Without seeking fame or wealth, Zhang concentrated on his studies achieving great success in his later years. He is believed to be the most successful prose writer in contemporary China and the Chinese textbook he compiled has educated students for several generations.



Since the 80s, Zhang has published more than ten books, either memoirs or academic efforts. His writing is classically elegant and many of his books have been reprinted several times. The philosophical text On Accordance with Nature is Zhang's most important work.


Wicker gate in metropolis


Because of unstable social conditions, Zhang Zhongxing spent most of his life without an apartment to call his own. It was not until 1995 that Zhang was allotted an apartment in a northern suburban area of Beijing. Zhang decided to move in with only the barest of necessities. According to accounts from his friends Zhang insisted that making his home more comfortable and visually pleasing would detract from his work in the day and his sleep at night.



Zhang soon got used to his new environment and immersed himself in writing. The continuous publication of new books is a miracle for a man of 90.


Zhang would go for a walk downstairs at his spare time. About one mile south from where he lived was the relics of the Yuan Dynasty Capital city wall. Sometimes Zhang lingered about the relics. More often, he strolled through the lanes near his home, buying foods, or daily commodities at the stalls. Under such circumstances, he was of no differences with other elders: in plain blue or grey, with a cloth handbag. Usually he didn't talk to others - perhaps still considering about his writings, occasionally he would have a chat with others, also about domestic trivia.



Lover and husband


In China there is a saying that men of letters are full of emotions. Zhang is no exception. In an interview Zhang admitted that "everybody makes his or her own choices. The emperor is most reluctant to give up his empire. For me, life is the most valuable thing. Among lovers, friends and family, I think it is the love between a man and a woman that is the most precious."


Zhang wrote in a poem that "Asked my old wife whether to put on more clothes." He later explained that "when my old wife gives me no more food, I know I must be full. When my old wife doesn't ask me to put on more clothes, I know it must be warm enough." He usually wore a cotton-padded jacket in the winter handmade by his "old wife". When others asked him if he felt cold, he always answered proudly he was "still wearing the cotton-padded jacket."



He once had an affair with The Song of Youth author Yang Mo but Zhang stayed with his wife Li Zhiluan for more than a half century. Li, the only daughter of an old and well-known family, was one month older than Zhang, who called her "elder sister" to show respect and intimacy.


Before marrying Li, Zhang lived with Yang for five years. The two finally separated because they were "following different paths." The selfish intellectual Yu Yongze in Yang's The Song of Youth is believed to find its inspiration from Zhang. Zhang never argued for himself. Yang once told Zhang that her novel was fiction and not reality, Zhang agreed with her, yet thought if he wrote the novel, he'd not do so.


A Jack of all trades


Zhang had many hobbies and was especially interested in calligraphy and collecting inkslabs. When he was young, Zhang spent a lot of time reading books on calligraphy and imitating masterpieces. His works were exhibited alongside masters such as Qi Gong and Ouyang Zhongshi in the China National Museum of Fine Arts.



Zhang Zhongxing and Qi Gong


Zhang also had a history of collecting inkslabs for more than half a century. In a prose he published on Beijing Daily, Zhang described that, when judging an inkslab, he often "used the index finder of left hand to feel the inkslabs" to determine the quality of stone, the shape of the inkslab, and the date of manufacture…


(chinaculture March 31, 2006)

Acclaimed Prose Writer Dies at 97
Master of Chinese Culture Zhang Zhongxing Passed Away
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