Xu Fancheng (Chinese: 徐梵澄) was born in Changsha, Hunan province, on 26th October 1909. As a child he studied classical Chinese. In 1929 he went to Germany to study the History of Art at Heidelberg University. He also practiced wood engraving there and became the first Chinese artist of the new style wood engraving. He came back to China in 1932, and encouraged by Luxun (one of the most famous writers of modern China), he started to translate the works of Nietzsche from German into Chinese, and became the first expert of Nietzsche’s philosophy in China.
At the end of 1945, he joined the cultural exchange program between India and China, taught in Rabindranath Tagore International University. But the exchange program was cut short after the fall of the Nationalist Government in China, and so he went to Varanasi, the Indian holy city to relearn Sanskrit.
In 1951, he arrived at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry, in the south of India. He lived there for 27 years and plunged himself into teaching, translating, writing, and the practice of yoga. He translated several Indian classics, as also the major works of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. He thus became the only person in China who had studied thoroughly the ancient Vedantic, and the modern philosophy of India. He returned to mainland China in 1978 and worked as a researcher in the Department of Religion in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing, until passed away on 6th March, 2000,at Beijing itself.
Xu Fancheng is a master of classical Chinese poetry, calligraphy, sculpture, and painting, had also mastered 8 ancient and modern languages, and was a great scholar of Chinese, Western, and Indian cultures. For 33 years, Xu Fancheng led a peaceful, humble life in India. He studied and translated classical and modern Indian texts, including the Bhagavad Gita, 50 verses of the Upanishads and the major works of Sri Aurobindo, including Life Divine, and The Mother, who was a close personal friend. And the Mother, who was one of Xu Fancheng’s masters, wrote thus about him “… a scholar who is at once an artist and a yogi.”
An article in the “China Daily” newspaper on Xu Fancheng
(In an unending search for spirituality)
Wars, famine, state failure, revolutions, reform, economic boom. Most people in the world cannot think of much else when it comes to 20th-century China. To be honest, even most Chinese cannot think beyond them. They cannot imagine that a scholar from a society of constant upheavals could find a place to immerse himself in his quest for spirituality and life’s meaning. But that is exactly what Xu Fancheng (1903-2000), a leading researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), did in India.
In ancient times, Chinese scholars used to travel to India to study Buddhism and to bring back Buddhist scriptures, some of which have been well documented in history. But Xu spent a much longer time there than any of them, although he did not have to walk or ride horses and camels across deserts and snow-capped mountains to reach his “dreamland”.
For 33 quiet and, for most part, penniless years, Xu worked as hard as the ancient pilgrims, studying and translating India’s classical and modern writings. He was unaffected even by the loss of family members and the change of the national government back home. He spent most of those years in Sri Aurobindo Ashram, an education center founded by Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950) and led by Mirra Alfassa (known as the Mother, 1878-1973), in Pondicherry, southern India, where he started translating some of Sri Aurobindo’s key philosophical works.
It was not until 1978, when a friend from Hong Kong convinced him that China was beginning to reform and open up and might make room for his intellectual quest, did he think of returning home.
When he arrived in Beijing, as his former CASS assistant Sun Bo recalls while talking to China Daily, “the old scholar had nothing except a little money from his Hong Kong friend, no company and no personal belongings other than his manuscripts”. Nor was there a homecoming ceremony, like the one presided over by the emperor when the famous Tang Dynasty monk Xuanzang (602-664) returned from his 17-year study tour to India. After the long absence, the motherland seemed a strange place to Xu in many ways. Very few people could remember who he was unless they went through the Chinese editions of Nietzsche, some of which Xu had translated while studying in Germany in the 1930s. Or, they could find his name in the research on Lu Xun (1881-1936). Lu Xun had a large following among young intellectuals who, angry at the state of the country, went to him for inspiration and to get their articles published in his magazine. Xu was one of them.
But like Sri Aurobindo, his Indian inspiration, Xu turned from being a radical young intellectual into a thinker, making Eastern philosophy his source of spirituality, something China shared with India in ancient times and could still be valuable for modern man’s existence. And it will be more than being valuable, as we can know from Xu’s writings and, more importantly, derive from his entire body of research. He re-emphasizes that man’s inevitable journey from the industrial and bureaucratic systems of the modern times will be toward moral independence and spiritual well-being.
As Xu has said: “In a way, the destiny of mankind has been determined by the philosophies of ancient Greece, India and China, each with its genuine and independent roots. Without those, neither the Eastern civilizations nor that of the West can be thinkable If there is any meaning of academic research, and if it is to provide any useful service to mankind, then it must be to prepare for the coming of a great future – by revisiting the profound lessons of the past.”
Xu was one of the scholars who, after being educated in the Chinese and Greek classics at home, had the luxury of spending a long time to focus on Indian philosophy and teachings. He had the longevity, too, which allowed him another 20-odd years to write about his experiences and thoughts without much interference. As his former CASS colleagues recall, Xu was exempted by leaders in his research institute from attending most of the staff meetings.
Among the huge number of Xu’s translations in Chinese are the Bhagavad-Gita, 50 of the Upanishads, and the major works of Sri Aurobindo (such as The Life Devine and Essays on the Gita) and the Mother, who incidentally was also his close friend. Xu lived alone in an apartment in a six-story building without an elevator in eastern Beijing till his death in 2000.
Xu Fancheng’s collected works, published in 16 volumes by the Shanghai Joint Publishing Company in 2006, show that he was not only a translator of Indian philosophical works. He was also an original writer, and even though most of his own creations are relatively short, they cover an extensive range, reflecting deeply on Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, as well as classical Grecian philosophy.
But Sun Bo, Xu’s assistant in his later years, says the collected volumes do not contain all of his works. Some manuscripts, particularly the last book he was writing on Buddhism, went missing after his death. Xu’s death, incidentally, was a non-event like his return from India. But now, almost a decade later, his standing as a scholar of very high repute has grown across the country. His translation of the Upanishads has been reprinted twice, according to its editor Huang Yansheng, of the Chinese Social Sciences Publishing. The Upanishads primarily discuss philosophy, meditation and the nature of God, and form the core spiritual thought of and mystic contemplations of the four Vedas. In Indian philosophy terms, they are known as Vedanta (or the culmination of the Vedas). “We have orders not just from universities and libraries,” Huang says. “There have been individuals, too, from various backgrounds (who have ordered Xu’s translations). They call us either to ask where they can buy it, or to request us to buy a copy for them.”
Thanks primarily to Xu’s efforts some Chinese universities have started teaching Sri Aurobindo’s works, Sun Bo says. Indeed, on popular Chinese online search site Baidu.com (on the web as well as the news search) Xu Fancheng is no longer an obscure name. At least two biographies of Xu have been published as his life story and his translations of Indian classical text attract widespread intellectual attention.
But why? Why are an old, lonely scholar born a century ago and the stuff that used to be called “Oriental mysticism” and spirituality drawing people’s attention today when most students in China and India, as well the entire developing world, are being taught Western rationalism?
When Xu was pursuing his vocation single-mindedly, Chinese youths were flocking to Western countries’ embassies or consul offices to apply for student visas. It was a time when science and technology were considered the best formula to change China. Who would think of going to India to study philosophy in a dead language called Sanskrit when GDP is considered the best measurement of progress? says Yang Xusheng, a philosopher and professor of Sinology in the Renmin University of China.
“As it has turned out, it is not a road (the GDP road) on which you can travel very far,” Yang says. “It is also getting very crowded, especially because Chinese and Indians have started joining in. So we have a crisis.
We have come to realize that seeing some of us become morally and spiritually hollow is as much painful an experience as seeing other people inadequately nourished and sheltered.”
Xu’s research is unique, Yang says, for it reminds people that in order to seek a balanced life and economy, we have to go back to the questions raised by the first thinkers of our civilizations – the Chinese, Indian, and Greek – and to integrate all their inspirations.
“Haven’t you heard what Xu said he wanted to do but could not find the time for?” Yang says. “He had plans to translate the Bible and the Koran again to give Chinese readers a better translation of the holy books. And do you know why he wanted to do that?”
By -You Nuo (China Daily) 2009-12-17
For the original “China Daily” article, click here (China Daily 12/17/2009 page 9)
The Mother’s remarks on Xu Fancheng
Hu.Hsu. [A Chinese disciple who translates Sri Aurobindo into Chinese.] has written to me, and there was a sentence in his letter that brought a certain problem to my attention. He said, “I have done so many hours of translation – it’s a mechanical task.” I wondered what he meant by “mechanical task” because, as far as I am concerned, you can’t translate unless you have the experience – if you start translating word for word, it no longer means anything at all. Unless you have the experience of what you translate, you can’t translate it. Then I suddenly realized that the Chinese can’t translate the way we do! In Chinese, each character represents an idea rather than a separate word; the basis is ideas, not words and their meanings, so translation must be a completely different kind of work for them. So I started identifying with H.S., to understand how he is translating Sri Aurobindo’s Synthesis of Yoga into Chinese characters – he’s had to find new characters! It was very interesting. He must have invented characters. Chinese characters are made up of root-signs, and the meaning changes according to the positions of the root-signs. Each root-sign can be simplified, depending on where it’s placed in combination with other root-signs – at the top of the character, at the bottom, or to one side or the other. And so, finding the right combination for new ideas must be a fascinating task! (I don’t know how many root-signs can be put in one character, but some characters are quite large and must contain a lot of them; as a matter of fact, I have been shown characters expressing new scientific discoveries, and they were very big.) But how interesting it must be to work with new ideas that way! And H.S. calls it a “mechanical task.”
The man’s a genius!
And he has experiences, too. We’ve hardly ever spoken together, but I have seen some letters he wrote. To one person he said, “If you want the Taoist experience, all you have to do is come here and live at the Ashram – you will have the REALIZATION of Lao-Tse’s philosophy.”
He’s a sage!
(Mother’s Agenda, Oct 30, 1962)
All material seen above was posted originally at
You can also read an article on Xu Fancheng (Hu Hsu) which appeared in “Auroville Today” at http://www.auroville.org/journals&media/avtoday/archive/2010-2011/2010-11/Page%208.pdf
- How an Egyptian discovered Sri Aurobindo
- Silviu Craciunas has a dream of Sri Aurobindo
- Reminiscences of the Mother’s physician, Dr. Bisht
- The first meeting of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother Mirra Alfassa
- An autobiographical short story by the Mother Mirra Alfassa
- Sri Ramakrishna’s occult contact with Sri Aurobindo
- Conversations with Sri Aurobindo recorded by Anilbaran Roy
- Anilbaran Roy’s Interviews with Sri Aurobindo
- The first meeting of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother Mirra Alfassa
- Sri Aurobindo’s interaction with an American soldier during World War II
- Some disciples of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother
- Subhas Chandra Bose on Sri Aurobindo
- Mahatma Gandhi’s aborted 1934 attempt to meet Sri Aurobindo
- Sri Aurobindo’s prose style – by Goutam Ghosal
- Comparing Roger Penrose and Sri Aurobindo on the Mind
- Sri Aurobindo’s 1947 meeting with two French visitors