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LIU Ts'un Yan




LIU Ts'un Yan

Doctor of Letters
honoris causa

Your Excellency Mr Chancellor, Mr Vice-Chancellor, Honourable and Distinguished Members of the Congregation, Ladies and Gentlemen:

Having listened attentively to the several citations which have just been read, it's my honest belief that the one concerning me indulges in a certain amount of licence in misplacing me among the intellectual giants. Not daring to query the wisdom of those who have bestowed upon me the honour to address the assembly this evening, I cannot but suspect that something like the American Act of non-discrimination against the aged might have been discussed by people on the Basic Law Committee, thought I cannot be sure. However, may I take the opportunity, on behalf of my fellow graduates who have distinguished themselves in such diverse fields, to offer the University our thanks. 

Last January, the First International Conference of Nobel Prize-Winners was held for over four days in Paris of the theme "Facing the Twenty-First Century". One of the high points of the Conference's final press briefing was its declaration that if mankind was to survive it must go back twenty-five centuries in time to tap the wisdom of Confucius. Being an ethnic Chinese and a student of the humanities, I would not question the findings of the Conference participants, who were mainly natural scientists. I have been content to restrict myself to the study of human affairs, for, as Confucius remarked, "The Path is not far from man".  (The Doctrine of the Mean, Ch. 13)

Philosophers and scholars are sometimes pompous in language and given to tall talk. The only thing, perhaps, that they see themselves as having in common with the man in the street is that they also drink and eat. Having lived abroad for over a quarter of a century, I cannot help but reflect from time to time on the Western habits of eating and drinking, particularly during social or ceremonial functions, with great fascination. For they have given me much more intellectual food than many printed works for an understanding of the Western way of thinking and the Western mode of life.

Xue Fucheng, who flourished during the second half of the last century, in 1889 was made Qing China's Minister to England, France, Italy and Belgium, a diplomatic post which kept him in Europe for more than four years. In his well-known Diaries published in 1892, he recorded casually that the third day after he presented his credentials at Brussels on June 13, 1890, he and two other members of the delegation were entertained by King Leopold II of the Belgians at a banquet. After a splendid meal, the King and his younger brother led the company "to withdraw to an adjacent chamber where coffee and beer were served. Guests and hosts all stood, two or three in a group, talking, drinking and moving freely for quite a long time [before the party broke off]". (Chushi yingfayibi siguo riji, juan 2, p. 22)

Although Xue was observant and shrewd, I regret that he didn't notice, or at least didn't put down in writing, the different kinds of wine and alcoholic drinks, the aperitifs and liqueurs which play such an important part on such occasions in Western life. In my own experience which, I hasten to add, has not included being entertained by a king, the striking thing to notice is the different sizes and shapes of the glasses set on the table to be used for different kinds of drinks to go with various dishes or courses. Again, in a Western-style dinner, people use a range of cutlery which can leave a user of the all purpose chopsticks bemused and confused.

I wouldn't go so far as to suggest that this habit of precise differentiation is the historical root of the Declaration of Independence or female suffrage, but I would not hesitate to say that Westerners have ingrained in their culture and milieu a very strong analytical ability. As if created by God for a contrast, the Asians, and in particular the Chinese, seem to have a high sense of synthesis. This is not to say that the Chinese cannot appreciate analytical thought, nor that China has never produced great men of science and technology in a given historical context, but I merely wish to point out that the Chinese, even at the time described by modern writers as the dawn of human civilisation, have derived a kind of mellow wisdom from myriad elements and built them up into a unified whole. Let us take language as an example. In ancient China, there used to exist different written characters for a horse one year old, two years old and three years old, and even a special one for a horse eight years of age. (Shouwen, Ch.10, I) This was even more analytical than the word "colt" or "filly" as used in the English language. However, in later times these have all been synthesised to become ma, and for greater precision one simply adds an adjective as required.

In the long course of Chinese history on which the Vice-Chancellor here is a great expert, the exercise of demanding strict correctness based upon careful analysis and an understanding of the importance of being part of a synthetically composed whole have developed to become two integral parts of political art. Collecting revenue definitely belonged to the ground level of government administration, so did the everyday routines of public affairs. But at a higher level, the function was very different. In the former Han times there was a prime minister of China named Bing Ji. His biography in the Hanshu records that:

"One day when he went out...he witnessed a fierce street fight in which several were killed and others injured. His attendant-clerks thought he would stop and intervene, but to their surprise he passed on without taking any action. Later when they reached the countryside, they saw a cow which was gasping and sticking its tongue out. On seeing this Bing Ji immediately stopped, and sent a cavalryman to inquire how many li the cow had run. The people around him asked why he responded so differently on the two occasions. He said, "Street-fighting is the business of the municipal government and the police. I should check at the end of the year to see whether they perform their duties well, but shouldn't interfere with their work. However, the job of the prime minister is to regulate the yin and the yang. Now the weather is not very hot, but the cow is already breathing hard, which is unnatural. Change in climate and weather will have far-reaching influences on many aspects of the environment. How can I not be worried about it?" (Hanshu, juan 74)

Ecologists of our time should be pleased to hear these authentic words from a Chinese prime minister who lived in 72 BC! Human ecological studies in modern times have of course surpassed the ancient expressions of social philosophy and have long aspired to the status of a systematic discipline. But they nevertheless need scientific synthesis. Were Bing Ji prime minister today, he would say that the survival of mankind lies in the harmony of the yin and the yang on a grand scale, the integration of those who have and those who have not.

Your Excellency, the University of Hong Kong has a long history of approaching eighty years and it has enjoyed a very high reputation for academic distinction throughout the world since its inception in 1911. Each having been trained systematically and ardently in a specialised field of knowledge, I am sure your graduates have a good deal of analytical understanding. However, having lived in Hong Kong long enough to obtain a university degree, it is also their privilege to share with others, the large multitude of the Chinese, the very precious synthetic understanding too. In fact these two modes of understanding are complementary and not mutually excusive. Synthetical understanding does not come from woolliness, nor it is the product of an underdeveloped indigenous whimsy, nor even intuition, but is akin to something like sublimination from careful analysis and empirical proof. If one is in accord with the theory of modern physicists that the several hundred sub-atomic particles are made of only three or four types of quarks, one understands the essence of the synthetic way. Let me take food and drink again for another illustration. In my private collection there is a copy of the printed menu for a party given by some Qing dignitaries, to which Lady Jordan, wife of Sir John Jordan who was the British Minister in Beijing from 1906 to 1920, was also invited. In fact Lady Jordan was the original owner of this beautiful historical souvenir. The date of this party was Wednesday,  June 5, 1907. All the courses found on the menu were Chinese delicacies of the season. It was interesting for me to find that at the party, the Chinese Shaoxing and meiguilu (scented with rose petals) wines were set in juxtaposition with the normal table wines without discrimination. It is difficult to speculate what kind of vessels these Chinese wines were contained in. Common sense tells us that they might simply have been porcelain cups, with one cup for both wines. A set of cups of different sizes, one fitting into another, has been a novelty for connoisseurs (the best sample of this is a set of five of ivory white from the Peng ware of the Yuan dynasty, with decoration of taotie monsters incised in the paste, now kept in the Palace Museum), but not for practical use. Perhaps good diplomacy begins not with interfusion of ideas, but of drinks.

Your Excellency, the motto of this University is Sapientia et Virtus (wisdom and virtue) and is mingde gewu in Chinese. The possession of knowledge, experience, good judgement and common sense needs to be analytical, but "to demonstrate illustrious virtue so as to renovate the people", as is said in the Confucian classic Daxue (The Great Learning), requires a synthetical mind. The great poet of Rome Horace once said:

Rursus quid virtus et quid sapientia posit, utile proposuit nobis exemplar Ulixen.

(Again, of the power of virtue and of wisdom he [Homer] has given us a profitable example in Ulysses)

(Epistularum, Liber primus, II, 17-18)

Let's earnestly hope that many a future leader for Hong Kong, and for China, who loves the people, the men in the street, as deeply and enthusiastically as Bing Ji did, will arise from your graduates today and hereafter. The continuing prosperity of Hong Kong, the nurture of a free, civilised and cultured society in the twenty-first century, will depend on their success.

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