IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 21 | Institutes


A Philosopher of Leisure
Professor Vincent Shen

The second occupant of the European Chair of Chinese Studies, Professor Vincent Shen, decided to come to the Netherlands only at the very last moment. His position as President of the International Association of Chinese Philosophy initially forced him to decline the offer of the Taiwanese Ministry of Education and the International Institute for Asian Studies. However, the intelligent approach adopted by the organizers, together with a sense of obligation towards his cultural background finally convinced him of the chair's importance: China's traditional 'Three Religions', Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, would be represented in the persons of the first three occupants of the chair (the third occupant being Lin Chen-kuo, an expert in the field of Buddhism). He explained the importance of individual freedom in Taoism, and illustrated his affinity with Taoism by inviting me for a beer.


It is quite unusual for a scholar from Taiwan to hang around in such immoral places as Dutch pubs where alcohol and tobacco are consumed in more than modest quantities. But Shen Tsing-song (his original Chinese name) is no stranger to The European way of life. After finishing his master's degree (comparative philosophy concerning transcendental values in the philosophies of China and the West) at Fu Jen Catholic University in Taiwan, he studied philosophy at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, where he obtained his PhD in 1977. When I asked him what the reasons were behind his choice for Leuven, he assured me that it is necessary to know more about his overal educational history in Taiwan, and he began to expound on this.

'I was born in 1949, the year that the communist regime in China was established. I grew up in a village where all the inhabitants bore the surname Shen, and where the sole ancestor temple in Taiwan that was dedicated to the clan of Shen is located. My family has lived on Taiwan for more than three hundred years -- I might be called an authentic Taiwanese. But by the time I was born, Taiwan had been flooded with nationalist immigrants from mainland China. They instigated an immediate change in the Taiwanese educational system, one that was adapted to the needs of the nationalist regime and did not necessarily stress the regional identity of the Taiwanese: the nationalists still hoped to beat the communists on the mainland and make a glorious return to Beijing.

During my time in primary school, both of my parents were converted to the Roman Catholic faith, and I was raised with Christian values. So, although my excellent grades in high school would have allowed me to enrol at National Taiwan University where most Taiwanese students hope to go, I chose to study philosophy at Fu Jen Catholic University. It was not only the Christian background though, the more international orientation of Fu Jen also appealed to me. In the end this actually turned out to be decisive for my future because my teacher at Fu Jen was a Belgian professor from Leuven, who encouraged me to pursue my academic career in Belgium. And I thought that the most appropriate way to study Western philosophy would indeed be to study it in Europe, in a place with philosophical traditions going back over six hundred years.'

He described how it has become a custom for most young Taiwanese scholars to go abroad for study and carry out research on Chinese topics outside of Taiwan. So, he complained, many Taiwanese study Chinese philosophy or literature in the United States. This development is not to Shen's liking at all. 'They are making a mistake. In my opinion, if you go to a foreign country, you should occupy yourself with indigenous problems, and take advantage of the local traditions. That's really one of my principles. So when I went to Leuven, it was clear to me that I was going to work in the Husserl archives, and that I would have to study phenomenology and hermeneutics. I became acquainted with the ideas of Blondel and Whitehead, philosophers who are hardly read in Asia. And as I occupy myself with the philosophy of science, I belong to an absolute minority in that respect.'

Shen believes that his combination of foreign experience together with a Roman Catholic background distinguishes him from most of his colleagues. 'I think this helps me understand the peculiarities of a Western discourse more easily. Let's not forget that many aspects of your culture are related to Christianity in some way or another. The Roman Catholic church in Taiwan is not the same as that in Holland or Belgium, but it still constitutes a great source of knowledge for me. It just helps, you know.'

Taoist Environmentalists

Upon returning to Taiwan in 1980, he realized that time had come to take up the study of his own philosophical traditions and he devoted himself to the study of Taoism and Confucianism. 'There is an obvious continuity between my Belgian studies of Whitehead, and my Taiwanese studies on Chinese thought. There are a lot of striking similarities between the two. Reflections on creativity, cosmology, and logic can be found in either one of them. Taoism actually is quite scientifically orientated in that it also takes nature and natural processes as the point of departure for all reasoning.

In Taiwan, we have seen something of a Taoist revival. The environmentalists have discovered Taoism as a solid ideological foundation for their movement, and the way in which they promote the Taoist philosophical heritage almost makes them a kind of neo-Taoists. In that respect, Taiwan is a very fascinating country. I use to regard it as a successful advanced laboratory of traditional Chinese culture in a modern context. In contemporary Taiwanese society there are many influences from Taoism. I do not mean religious Taoism, because that is obvious, but rather philosophical Taoism. Traditionally, Chinese society is patterned on Confucianist examples. Social intercourse, family relations, and ethical evaluations in general can be called Confucianist. They strongly emphasize social regulations and moral order, but in a modernizing world, this started to become a burden. And with the technological innovations of the 70s and 80s, people felt a strong sense of alienation in their more traditionally orientated society. So many of them adopted ideas that may be called Taoist: on the one hand there was a tendency towards naturalism, and the natural order of things that is so crucial to Taoism. On the other, in keeping with classic Taoist traditions, more and more voices became heard that were critical of governmental policies. Lao Zi, the legendary founder of Taoism, is famed for his critique of rulership. But not only the natural way of the world is rediscovered by modern Taiwanese, Taoism also has well-developed aesthetics. One side effect of a booming economy is that people are finding the money and the time to attach value to the beauty of things, they demand an aesthetic evaluation of things. Taoism has a lot to offer in that respect, as Chinese art is permeated with Taoist elements.'

Freedom and Leisure

Among students of sinology in Leiden, Vincent Shen is best known from his lectures on the structures of meaning and logics in the writings of the famous Taoist fourth-century BC philosopher Zhuang Zi. The ideas of Zhuang Zi seem to be in complete accordance with Shen's own view of the world, as they both advocate a natural course of life. 'Never go against your own nature' is a piece of advice that sounds as relevant today as it must have been more than two thousand years ago. The first chapter of Zhuang Zi's book is called 'Wandering Leisurely and Free', and according to Shen, a human being can only reach such a blissful state of freedom if he follows his own nature.

To a man as pragmatic as Vincent Shen, it is clear that his stay in the Netherlands does not mean a Chinese monologue directed towards the Dutch. 'The Dutch have made their contributions to Taiwan as well, starting in the period that Taiwan was still called Formosa. They occupied Taiwan for many years, and for their missionary work they needed to study the language in order to translate the Bible in Chinese. The earliest example of a romanization system for the Chinese language was developed by the Dutch. And at present some features of the Dutch public transport system have been adopted by the city of Taipei. I have come to the Netherlands also to learn from you.'

Shen praises Dutch philosophers such as the native-born Erasmus and the adopted Spinoza. The latter especially has interesting ideas on nature, that, according to Shen, have some similarities with Taoism. 'But in the Netherlands there has never been the need to develop ideas of visionary grandeur. Practitioners of Dutch philosophy and Dutch science have occupied themselves with meticulous discussions about particular details, and they have done that very well. But in Holland everything is very small, even science.' *

Professor Vincent Shen held the European Chair of Chinese Studies at the IIAS between 1 September 1998 and 1 September 1999.

Professor Vincent Shen held the European Chair for Chinese Studies at the IIAS between
1 September 1998 and 1 September 1999.

Mark Meulenbeld studies religious literature in the vernacular language of late-Ming China.
E-mail: Meulenbeld@hotmail.com

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 21 | Institutes