Mr Chancellor, Pro-Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, distinguished guests, fellow graduands, ladies and gentlemen:
I feel enormously honoured to receive an honorary degree from this outstanding University on the happy occasion when this great institution celebrates its eightieth Anniversary. The Vice-Chancellor has given me a double honour by asking me to address this distinguished Congregation. However, much as I prize both honours, I must confess that deep in my heart lurks a sense of undeservedness. Unlike my fellow graduands who, each in his own way, have made enduring contributions to the extraordinary success of Hong Kong as an economy of world importance, I alone have been a mere beneficiary of the intellectual freedom and openness inherent in the unique system of Hong Kong as a society.
I lived in Hong Kong during the formative years of my intellectual life but I have not been able to repay by debt in any significance way to this intellectual homeland of mine ever since. Today I can only justify my presence here by thinking that the University of Hong Kong has chosen to honour Chinese learning through me. It is Chinese learning as developed in Hong Kong and elsewhere in the world during the past four decades, not I, that deserves to be honoured so royally. For this reason I would like to beg the indulgence of this distinguished audience to allow me to choose as the main theme of my speech: Hong Kong and Chinese learning.
I can think of no better case to make my point than that of James Legge, a great Sinologist of the nineteenth century. Legge was born in northern Scotland in 1815. After completing his college education and theological training, he joined the London Missionary Society in 1838. The Society had originally planned to place him in Canton. However, since the Opium War broke out in 1839, he was instead sent to Malacca and put in charge of the Anglo-American College established by the Society to train Chinese preachers. After the Treaty of Nanking was signed in 1842, the London Missionary Society decided to move their Mission from Malacca to Hong Kong. So in July 1843 James Legge and his family arrived in Hong Kong where he lived and worked until 1873.
Legge was linguistically gifted and his memory photographic. He started to learn Chinese in 1837 or 1838 while still in London and in 1840 he was already able to commence his study of the Confucian Analect. Once settled in Hong Kong he embarked on the Herculean task of translating into English "The entire books of Confucius" in his spare time. By 1873 when he left Hong Kong for the last time he had already published all five volumes of The Chinese Classics. Today, after 120 years having passed since the publication of the first edition of Volume V of The Chinese Classics, Legge's translations are still indispensable to Sinologists everywhere. In 1961 a third edition of The Chinese Classics was reissued by the Hong Kong University Press.
There can be no question that Legge, the missionary, came to Hong Kong primarily for the purpose of preaching the Western Way to the Chinese. But in the end it is the cunning of history that his true immortality lies in his transmitting of the Chinese Way back to the West. There is evidence that having observed the Chinese way of living at first hand he became truly appreciative of Chinese civilisation. His visit to the Examination Hall in Canton in 1858 made him realise for the first time how learning and education had been always cherished by the Chinese. He remarked,
"It is true that their civilisation is very different from ours, but they are far removed from barbarism. When we bear in mind that for 4000 years the people have been living and flourishing here, growing and increasing, that nations with some attributes of perhaps a higher character - the Assyrian, the Persian, the Grecian, the Roman, and more empires - have all risen and culminated and decayed, and yet that the Chinese empire is still there with its 400 millions of inhabitants, why, it is clear that there must be amongst the people certain moral and social principles of the greatest virtue of power...In no country is the admiration of scholastic excellence so developed as in China, no kingdom is the world where learning is so highly reverenced."
Legge lived a long and productive life. After his return to England he began a second career, this time wholly academic. He was appointed the first Professor of Chinese at Oxford in 1876 and then translated more Chinese classics into English including Taoist and Buddhist texts. At the time of his death in 1897 he was at work on the Ch'u-tzu or Songs of the South. Here he reminds us of Chu Hsi (1130-1200), the great Neo-Confucian scholar of the twelfth century. Having devoted all of his lifetime to the study of Confucian classics Chu His also spent his last hour revising his commentary on the Ch'u-tzu or Songs of the South.
No account of Legge's translation is complete without a mention of Wang T'ao (1828-97). Wang was a native of Soochow and in 1849 he was employed by the London Missionary Society in Shanghai as a Chinese editor at its press. However, in 1862, he made a trip to his native village near Soochow then under the occupation of the T'aip'ings. Soon after he returned to Shanghai he was suspected of treason by the Chinese authorities, and attempts were made to have him arrested. He was given refuge in the British Consulate for five months and finally, on October 4, he secretly took passage to Hong Kong on a British steamer where arrangements had already been made for him to work for Legge. Thus began a most fruitful decade of scholarly collaboration between a Chinese and a Westerner. From 1862 on his extensive researches into the Confucian texts proved to be of fundamental importance to Legge's later translations including not only the last three volumes of The Chinese Classics but also the Li-chih or Records of Ritual, which was completed long after Legge had left Hong Kong. Legge gave full recognition to Wang's contribution as he frequently referred to Wang's textual interpretations in the footnotes to these volumes.
The friendships between the two men was such that when Legge returned home because of poor health in 1867 he invited Wang to join him in Scotland. Wang lived for two years with Legge and his family in Scotland and also traveled in Europe to meet Sinologists on the continent. They returned to Hong Kong in March 1870. Wang's trip to England and Europe had a profound impact on his world outlook; he was forever freed from the Sino-centric bias common to all Chinese scholars in the nineteenth century. Just as Legge had discovered in 1857 that the Chinese are "far removed from barbarism", Wang T'ao after 1870 also found it impossible to view the Westerners as "barbarians". He was most deeply impressed by what we call "democracy" and "human rights" as practiced in the West. In an essay on British government, he wrote:
"The real strength of England lies in the fact that there is no barrier between the governing and the governed; and that this relationship between the government and the people forms the basis of national stability and solidarity. My observation is that the political life of England embodies the best ideals of our classical antiquity."
He noted with great admiration that under the English legal system even a criminal, suspected or convicted, was treated as a human being. In sharp contrast to the Chinese legal practice, no torture was used to force a confession from the suspected criminal in the British law court. He described the British prison system as follows:
When a convicted criminal is confined in a prison, he is supplied with food an clothing, and taught to work. He is visited every week by preachers and is never maltreated by those in charge of the prison. The prison system of this country, I must admit, is what China has never had since the days of the Golden Age.
Thus, as a result of his happy association with Legge, Wang T'ao became one of the earliest advocates of reform in China.
Now, what does this happy association between Legge and Wang tell us about Hong Kong and Chinese learning? I can immediately draw three implications from it. First, Hong Kong has always been an ideal meeting ground between China and the West where the best of both can be brought together in a new synthesis. James Legge became acquainted at first hand with Confucian scholarship through the assistance of Wang T'ao. Whereas Wang was able to make the first scientific determination of the calendar and eclipses of the Ch'un-ch'iu period (722-481 BC) with the aid of Western astronomical and mathematical knowledge while staying at Legge's home in Scotland. Second, with intellectual freedom protected by law, Hong Kong has always been hospitable to the Chinese scholar who, for one reason or another, has become persona non grata in his homeland. Wang T'ao was one of the earliest examples. Third, generally speaking, the spirit of openness has from the very beginning disposed the mind of Hong Kong to moderation, especially in cultural matters. Extremely radical ideas seeking to displace tradition completely often find the soil of Hong Kong less than receptive. In fact, innovation and tradition have rarely been, if ever, perceived in diametrically antithetical terms in Hong Kong. For all his admiration for the Western system of government and law and for all his advocacy of reform and technological change, Wang T'ao remained convinced in the end that the essence of Chinese civilisation was indestructible. Even the great revolutionary leader, Sun Yat-sen, who graduated from the Hong Kong College of Medicine exactly 100 years ago, never wavered in his commitment to the core values of the Chinese tradition throughout his life. This explains to a great extent why in the past four decades Chinese learning has been growing and flourishing in Hong Kong with ever-increasing rapidity while, in the very same period, it has been contemptuously dismissed as "poisonous remains of a feudal past" in its land of origin.
However, my choice of the historical example of Legge and Wang for the purpose of illustration must not leave you with the wrong impression that I am completely blind to the vast changes that have been continuously taking place in Hong Kong since the time of James Legge. No historian can afford to be so insensitive. Perhaps I may be permitted to mention on more fact about the Legge-Wang case to show the differences between their time and ours. Legge was able to finance the publication of The Chinese Classics and secure the research assistance of Wang T'ao only through the generosity of a private donor, in this case, Mr Joseph Jardine. When the Jardine fund ran out Legge has to keep Wang on his own payroll. But today Chinese learning in Hong Kong is amply supported by public grants as well as private foundations. Such a change occurred very recently, perhaps only thirty years ago. For I remember vividly that when I was a student at New Asia College in the early 50s, the late Dr Ch'ien Mu, founder of the College and also a former honorary graduand of this University, was daily troubled by the insufficiency of funds.
But changes in Hong Kong during the past three or four decades must not be measured only in monetary terms. It is not a simple case that Hong Kong has grown from poverty to affluence. It is my considered opinion that the very nature of society in Hong Kong has undergone a fundamental transformation. In essence, Hong Kong has metamorphosed itself from a traditional society into a civil society. However, what we see in Hong Kong today is a Chinese civil society because it has evolved from a Chinese traditional society untouched, for reasons to obvious to be stated, by the violence of revolution. Slowly, quietly, but unmistakably, civil society is becoming a reality in Hong Kong: traditional private associations are developing into public and autonomous ones, public opinion is expanding, political associations are coming into existence, not to mention numerous other features. In the realm of values and ideas, the Chinese tradition is also being subject to constant changes and modification without, however, losing its identity altogether. In this Chinese civil society, the importance of Chinese learning is self-evident. For Chinese learning has never been an exclusive concern of the elite in the ivory tower. Taking re-interpretation of the Chinese cultural tradition as its central task Chinese learning today can relate itself to the living faith of every Chinese wherever his or her station in life may be.
In closing I cannot help thinking of the year 1997, a year the mere mention of which will surely cause anxiety in everybody's mind here in Hong Kong. But I am not thinking of 1997 in the way you are these days. Five years from now will be the centenary of James Legge's death as well as Wang T'ao's. it is a most unusual coincidence that both men died in 1897. It is my sincere hope that in 1997 the people of Hong Kong will be in such a mood as to find it meaningful to remember Legge and Wang in a way worthy of these two great champions of Chinese learning.