Renowned Chinese artist gets highest honour

(Edmonton) One of China’s most renowned calligraphers, poets and painters has been recognized with the University of Alberta’s highest honour. Professor Fan Zeng, a prolific artist and author, received an honorary Doctor of Letters degree May 26 during a ceremony in Beijing.

Among those who witnessed the conferral at the Great Hall of the People were Meiying Zhang, vice-chair of China National People's Political Consultative Council; Wenzhang Wang, vice-minister of culture; Qifeng Zhou, president of Peking University; Jinghui Liu, secretary general of China Scholarship Council; Guang Naujia, vice-president of Nankai University; and David Mulroney, Canada's ambassador to China, who remarked that it was one of the finest events of its kind he had ever attended.

Carl Amrhein, U of A provost and vice-president (academic), who served as university president during the ceremony, noted that it was an extraordinary event to which the Chinese government sent greetings that were read during the ceremony.

“The fact that we held the event at The Great Hall of the People is probably the loudest statement on the part of our partners in China,” said Amrhein. It was also a noteworthy event because it was the first time the university conferred an honorary degree outside of Canada, since it started bestowing the laurel more than a century ago. Amrhein says that shows the depth of the university’s commitment to engaging with the rest of the world.

“It demonstrates that our definition of internationalizing the institution includes our full range of ceremonies taking place where the academic imperative of the institution makes sense. In other words, we would go, as an institution—not just our staff, faculty and students, but also our ceremonies and our traditions—where it makes sense for us to go.”

Professor Fan, who is also dean of the Chinese Painting Institute of Peking University, gave what Amrhein described as a spectacular intellectual tour of Eastern and Western philosophy and science, during a lecture in which he drew also from ancient Chinese philosophers such as Laozi, scientists such as Stephen Hawking and western philosophers such as Immanuel Kant.

For 40 minutes, Fan held captive an audience that included alumni, Chinese business and cultural leaders, and a large number of Chinese media. During his lecture, which focused on ways of improving mankind, he urged for a return to more wholesome life that is quiet, peaceful and consistent with laws of nature.

Noting the disquiet that characterizes the world today, Fan pointed out that 2,500 years ago, the Chinese philosopher Laozi said, “Quietness is the master of restless activity.”

“The restless jitters of the people will lead to disturbance of the great order and disintegration of the world,” Fan said. “It is complete foolishness to insist that the six or seven billion people of the world follow one social system, adopt one belief and practise one religion. However, the individuals of the human race all wish for peace and happiness. This is the fundamental desire of life.”

Fan’s comments indicated that we are moving away from that collective desire—that ultimate quiet and calm universe, as stated in the great philosophical work of Zhuangzi. By looking to nature, he added, we would be coming closer to creating a more harmonious world. The celebrated Chinese poet led the audience to imagine a world of possibility that could come from harmonizing with nature.

“The universe follows its own laws of operations, which is a symphony that comforts man with a tranquillizing and enjoyable effect, peaceful melodies of poetic movement,” he said. “Mankind will not be threatened by flames of war, but surrounded by flowers of peace. Their eyes will not be hurt by the debris and smoke of war, but soothed by the beds of fragrant flowers of a peaceful and prosperous world.”

“If mankind cannot realize their ideal in conforming with ontological analysis,” Fan warned, “modern materialism will get the upper hand and mankind’s future will be filled with darkness.”

The U of A, in conferring a degree on Fan Zeng, has joined a list of other internationally recognized intuitions and governments—such as UNESCO and France, where Fan was named a Knight of the National Order of the Legion of Honour—that have seen the import of Fan’s extensive contributions to the arts, in China and around the world.

These contributions include his devotion to producing creative works and education for more than five decades, particularly his contributions to the development of Chinese painting and financing the Oriental Arts Building of Nankai University, where he was a former professor. Toward the end of the century, Fan, an author of more than 150 works, wrote “The Warning Bell,” in which he observed that in the 20th century, peoples of the world would embrace the world whose name is “harmony.”

That embrace is yet to happen, noted Fan, who has accepted an invitation to teach a master class in poetry and painting at the U of A. He will be joined by other leading Chinese artists. The U of A is at the forefront of togetherness between China and Canada, by promoting cultural understanding that ferments peace. The university has more than 100 exchange and co-operation programs with more than 50 Chinese institutions of higher learning and research institutes, including Peking, Tsinghua, Zhejiang, Nanjing and Nankai universities.

Amrhein says honouring Fan further strengthens those relationships with China.

“We define as our cultural presence a cultural attitude that we’re wide open, in ways that I think few universities are open, to embracing all that is China, culturally, economically and socially,” he said. “We’ve made a statement that we recognize, as the U of A, the contribution of leading figures in the arts and humanities from around the world to the uplifting of our institution in the faculty, staff and students in Edmonton. And we hope, by recognizing, in this case, a leading cultural figure in China, that we improve the relationships that we can have with Chinese universities.”