Xu Fancheng (徐梵澄) : a Chinese disciple of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother

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

http://motherandsriaurobindo.org/Contents.aspx?ParentCategoryName=_StaticContent\SriAurobindoAshram\-09+E-Library\-03+Disciples\Hu+Hsu

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

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21 thoughts on “Xu Fancheng (徐梵澄) : a Chinese disciple of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother

  1. Tony Mail

    Nice article. Funny caption though. “Observing his artwork”? To me it looks like he is paying homage to Mother and Sri Aurobindo.

    Reply
  2. Ian James

    I have a real poser for you Sandeep.


    The Chinese have a lunar origin and they don’t have a psychic being (there are exceptions, but I mean in general), and so one can expect ANYTHING from them – every possible horror. I’ve seen them – all, everywhere… horrible!

    You see, there are limits to the horrors men can commit because, in spite of everything, there is a psychic being behind that curbs them – but the Chinese don’t have one. And they are VERY intelligent.
    ~ The Mother, 12 May 1971.

    If the Chinese have no psychic being, how are they to achieve the Supramental?

    I realise this may be a little above your pay-grade. 🙂

    Reply
    1. jn

      wow! this is interesting. can i copy this question and ask it on my own terms to the contact and next in line to Karmayogi? I would like to know his answer, if they would honour my question, that is. this is an interesting question.
      you know the answer, sandeep?

      Reply
    2. Sandeep Post author

      It is certainly above my pay-grade 🙂

      The question also crossed my mind when I was editing this blog post. I suppose we can reconcile these contradictions by observing that specific individuals may defy the characteristics of the general race, and in doing so, may alter the race itself over a few centuries. Along the same lines, we can see that not all Indians are “spiritual” even though the majority seem to instinctually bow to the Divine due to a legacy created by sages over the centuries. Note that she herself says above “there are exceptions” to her general remark.

      We should also check the original French audiotape to verify if her remarks were as emphatic as they appear in the English translation above.

      Lastly, the Mother also said once that that races are gradually losing their unique characteristics:

      Mother: With regard to the evolution upwards, it is more correct to speak of the psychic presence than the psychic being. For it is the psychic presence which little by little becomes the psychic being. In each evolving form there is this presence, but it is not individualised. It is something which is capable of growth and follows the movement of the evolution. It is not a descent of the involution from above. It is formed progressively round the spark of Divine Consciousness which is meant to be the centre of a growing being which becomes the psychic being when it is at last individualised. It is this spark that is permanent and gathers round itself all sorts of elements for the formation of that individuality; the true psychic being is formed only when the psychic personality is fully grown, fully built up, round the eternal divine spark; it attains its culmination, its total fulfilment if and when it unites with a being or personality from above.

      Below the human level there is, ordinarily, hardly any individual formation – there is only this presence, more or less. But when, by the growth of the body round the spark of Divine Consciousness, humanity began upon the earth, certain human organisms became in the course of this progressive growth sufficiently perfected, and by their opening and receptivity allowed a junction with certain beings descending from above. This gave rise to a kind of divine humanity, what may be called a race of the élite. If only they had remained by themselves, these people would have continued as a race unique and superhuman. Indeed many races have made claims to be that: the Aryan, the Semitic and the Japanese have all in turn considered themselves the chosen race. But in fact there has been a general levelling of humanity, a lot of intermixture. For there arose the necessity of prolongation of the superior race, which drove it to intermix with the rest of humanity – with animal humanity, that is to say.

      Thus its value was degraded and led to that great Fall which is spoken of in the world’s scriptures, the coming out of Paradise, the end of the Golden Age. Indeed it was a loss from the point of view of consciousness, but not from that of material strength, since it was a tremendous gain to ordinary humanity. There were, certainly, some beings who had a very strong will not to mix, who resented losing their superiority; and it is just this that is the real origin of race-pride, race-exclusiveness, and a special caste distinction like that cherished by the Brahmins in India. But at present it cannot be said that there is any portion of mankind which is purely animal: all the races have been touched by the descent from above, and owing to the extensive intermixture the result of the Involution was more widely spread.

      Of course one cannot say that every man has got a psychic being, just as one cannot refuse to grant it to every animal. Many animals that have lived near man have some beginnings of it, while so often one comes across people who do not seem to be anything else than brutes. Here, too, there has been a good deal of levelling. But on the whole, the psychic in the true sense starts at the human stage: that is also why the Catholic religion declares that only man has a soul. In man alone there is the possibility of the psychic being growing to its full stature even so far as to be able in the end to join and unite with a descending being, a godhead from above.

      (Collected Works of the Mother, vol. 3, p 150)

      Reply
      1. Ian James

        So it’s not necessarily all doom & gloom then.
        I had the disturbing idea of 2 billion Chinese with ‘nowhere to go’.

        I’m sure they don’t pay you enough, whoever ‘they’ are!
        Thanks, Sandeep.

    3. Tony Mail

      The Mother said this at the height of the Cultural Revolution – history will tell you it’s a time when the psychic element was simply absent in the Chinese collective…. I don’t believe this is a general remark.

      Reply
  3. romi jain

    In particular I liked: “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.” I’m perfectly in agreement with it! And it is equally painful that some are not troubled by moral and spiritual erosion though they themselves by some account are moral and spiritual! Some would say they are calm and tranquil, and are therefore not bothered. But to me this silence is dangerous—I stand for spiritual activism so that spiritual forces may get the upper hand eventually, regardless of the viewpoint that it is “kalyug” and crude materialism is inevitable! What has really moved me to write this comment is my recent argument with some people on a social media site; they were defending prostitution on the ground that prostitution and all other “professions” are equal and there is no distinction between physical and sexual labor. One of the ladies went to the extent of proclaiming her support to prostitution by saying that if her daughter decided to become a prostitute, she would ask her to become a highly sought after prostitute, and that “coitus is also spiritual”! My intent behind mentioning such views is to convey the fact that materialism, completely robbed of sensual restraint, is fiercely claiming the space of spirituality by calling itself spiritual!

    Reply
    1. Sandeep Post author

      Romi: What has really moved me to write this comment is my recent argument with some people on a social media site; they were defending prostitution on the ground that prostitution and all other “professions” are equal and there is no distinction between physical and sexual labor. One of the ladies went to the extent of proclaiming her support to prostitution by saying that if her daughter decided to become a prostitute, she would ask her to become a highly sought after prostitute, and that “coitus is also spiritual”

      You have to understand where these views are coming from. Such opinions are a natural reaction to the condemnation that has been heaped on women over the centuries. They have been called sluts and whores by men and denied their place in society, even while the men themselves freely engage in promiscuous activities without any condemnation.

      There is a large section of society whose happiness comes from being free to do what they like without being marginalized by society. They want to be accepted as equals regardless of who they are. In human evolutionary terms, these people correspond to the “individualization phase” where people free themselves from collectively-imposed social norms and learn to think for themselves. Their actions are driven by social defiance rather than any spiritual insight.

      This is a necessary but transient phase. One grows beyond this phase when one starts living in the Higher Consciousness. Then one understands that
      (1) one must not act recklessly out of social defiance or politely out of social conformance.
      (2) that sex with multiple people leaves harmful subconscious residues and
      (3) that coitus is an avoidable dissipation of precious energy.

      Reply
      1. romi jain

        Most likely they were not prostitutes, which I assume seeing their profiles. Anyway, it would not be appropriate if I talk about them in their absence and moreover, this is not the right forum! My allusion to the views on prostitution was in the context of ‘spiritualism versus materialism’.

        As for my personal views, I don’t consider victory of prostitution as the victory of women or something that would make them equal! It will only glorify men’s money power, their lust, and disrespect for women. And I do not view prostitution or promiscuity as an issue of “social conformity” versus “defiance”. It is a matter of conviction versus unconscientious choice! How many individuals become prostitutes out of conviction? To say that people refrain from prostitution or promiscuity because of “social conformity” would be to detract from their laudable moral choices!

    2. Arpan

      I completely agree with you..except with a shade of difference over your “spiritual activism” point. I believe in such activism too..but provided that:
      1. one doesn’t merely turn into an intellectual gymnast trying to defeat material skepticism..with no personal realizations..coz that would really have no effect
      2. One’s activism arises out of keen insightful calmness ..rather than agitated arrogance..coz ppl with true spiritual seeds in their consciousness would always judge your weight by your poise

      Reply
  4. j

    To feel and love the God of beauty and good in the ugly and the evil, and still yearn in utter love to heal it of its ugliness and its evil, this is real virtue and morality. – Sri Aurobindo

    Reply
  5. hari

    I am inclined to agree with Sandeep. Being moral is fine, but being self-righteous is not. Most of these liberal views are understandable reactions to self-righteous, Pharisee-like attitude.

    Reply
  6. j

    To respond to Hari’s statement,
    To go a little higher in thought, we must realize that an act by itself is neutral. The same act done as a consummation of a great love is labelled celestial. What gives the act its moral or immoral status is the opinion and judgement of Man. We will put that aside for now.
    Self-righteousness most often rests with the virtuous. Even when the ‘licentious’ claim they are above these sentiments and rules and advocate a liberated lifestyle, they are unconsciously following the norm, and the society. It is actually a fettered freedom and they don’t realize it but this too is the working of the soul towards its designated Truth. The breaking away from the rules and regulations. Morality is man made. Society is the conscience of the collective. It is necessary up to a point of our growth but not beyond that, when it is the rule of the Divine that binds us and not those made by Man. And to have that vision, we need to rise in our consciousness.
    For, liberation is of the soul. When you are thus free in God’s bondage, everything appears like ‘His rippling laughter’ as Sri Aurobindo says.
    The Divine is above virtue or vice. And that is where we have to strive to be – where you don’t need this so called freedom of protest to do anything and everything. For when you put attitudes such as those of that mother who would encourage her daughter to go ahead and shine in her so called liberation she is actually protesting against the rules of the society and nothing more. She hopes that by such an attitude, she has risen above, but she does not realize she is trying to fly high with chains on her feet. Real freedom is freedom of the soul.
    When the soul is free, it does not need to be free among men as Man interprets freedom to be. But it will have the benevolence to look upon those who indulge in such activities and see His workings there too. In the same context, if we can begin to accept even the most heinous acts of crime too as His handiwork, we become liberated in our thought. There is a rhyme and reason for even the slant of a blade of grass. Nothing is random or wanton. It is said that the Divine sometimes sacrifices an individual for the collective progress. Only He knows why He does what He does.
    Morality reins in Man into refining himself which is very essential for evolutionary progress, for Man is sense bound and morality imposes certain restrictions, certain regulations to make sure he does not stray too much from the permissible. For those who thirst for perfection, this imposition from outside is not necessary after sometime because they have already risen above desires to an extent.
    It is important to perfect ourselves in our individual personalities first before we make of ourselves an offering to the Divine. We must make His work easier and chisel away at our own faults so that He does not have to use a sledge hammer on us to break us first and then lovingly remould us. For if He is interested in our evolution, break us He will, if we resist. Or, I have heard it said, if He is disinterested, He may leave us unsupramentalised, like how the residual ape corresponds to Man in the present stage of evolution. 😉

    Here are some quotes from the Mother on this topic –
    “You have no right to dispense with morality unless you submit yourself to a law that is higher and much more rigorous than any moral law.”
    “You can break the moral rules only when you observe the Divine law.”
    “Never judge on appearances, still less on gossip. What is moral in one country is immoral in another. Service to the Divine exacts a sincerity of self sacrifice unknown to any morality.”

    Reply
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  8. PM

    Sri Aurobindo on the Chinese Race:
    China has cities from most ancient times. It is a peculiar race always disturbed and always the same. If you study Chinese history one thousand years back, you will find they were in disturbance and yet they had their culture.
    The Tartar king who tried to destroy their culture by burning their books did not succeed. I would not be surprised if, after the present turmoil, two thousand years hence, you find them what they are today. That is the character of the race.
    – Sri Aurobindo
    – From Reminiscences and Anecdotes of Sri Aurobindo

    Reply
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