Erenlai - Benoit Vermander (魏明德)
Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander lives in Shanghai. He teaches philosophy and religious anthropology at the University of Fudan.

Friday, 22 June 2012 00:00

Celebrating 450 years of Xu Guangqi

Interview first published in Xuhui News (Vol.2, N.9, April 2012), by Guan Xin

What does it mean to commemorate the 450th anniversary of the birth of Xu Guangqi? What values should it lead us to promote?

Xu Guangqi was a man of extraordinary stature: a statesman thoroughly familiar with the Chinese philosophical and cultural tradition; a man of practical abilities fascinated by technical and scientific progress; an agriculturist who embarked on this field out of philanthropic concerns; a patriot endowed with military skills… but he was also someone who, in the person of Matteo Ricci and other Jesuit missionaries, discovered Otherness. He was able to challenge himself, to enter into a new understanding of existence, while remaining deeply faithful to the best of his culture and his personality. From the start, he realized a synthesis between different traditions and worldviews. So, when we commemorate his life, we are reminded that a healthy sense of identity goes with a strong capacity to understand and empathize with the other, to put oneself into question, and to creatively invent news ways of thinking and acting.

What has been the contribution of Xu Guangqi in the field of religion?

He is traditionally called “one the three great pillars of the Chinese Catholic Church”, together with the scholars Yang Tingyun and Li Zizhao. These scholars embraced the new faith and were actively promoting the participation of the Western missionaries in fields such as the reform of the Imperial calendar. At the same time, they were deeply anchored into the Confucian tradition, which they wanted to reform and purify, and they found in Catholicism the completion of what they thought was the original moral and theistic Confucian original worldview. Though their relationship with Buddhism was an uneasy and complex one, one can also find elements of Buddhist philosophy in their formation. In that sense, their contribution is also interreligious: in their written works they were offering a new expression of the Chinese religious psyche. Suring the last decade, these works have been republished, and they are object of intense interest for scholars. The complete works of Xu Guangqi have just been published in Shanghai.

The friendship and cooperation between Xu Guangqi and Matteo Ricci was great and profound. We are now facing a “smaller” planet due to globalization and intense cross culture communication. Doe their ideal and the model they offer keep some significance for us today?

When Xu Guangqi and Ricci were alive, communication among civilizations was minimal. Now, we have sometimes “too much’ of it, in the sense that clichés, superficial communication and conflicts of interests are often perverting our exchanges. Still, Ricci and Xu Guangqi remind us that in-depth communication is always to be grounded into patience, friendship and humility. Patience: it takes time to truly enter into a language and a new system of thought and perception, as there are no shortcuts for being truly “conversant’ with the other; Friendship; empathy and curiosity are the virtues that makes communication among human beings valuable and creative; humility: being able to critically evaluate one’s culture and personality is indispensable for a grateful appreciation of what the cultures and people we encounter may offer to us. In this respect, one can almost say that Xu Guangqi and Matteo Ricci are still the two pillars on which to build a positive model of globalization!

Photo by Roberto Ribeiro. Xu Guangqi Park, Shanghai.
Bronze statue of Matteo Ricci and Paul Xu Guangxi.
Together, Ricci and Paul Xu Guangxi translated and published some essential works of western science.


Friday, 29 June 2012 00:00

Beyond the digital trash bin

There are as many ways to take a photograph as to look at the world. Some pictures show an empathy with the subject, some others create a sense of distance or even repulsion. Some are bathed with light and tenderness, and some with anger or despair. Some concentrate on everyday life, with a sense of patience, a kind of meditative undertone, while others try to capture the spark of the moment, the transformative event that changes the mood of a crowd or the look on a face. Some impact a meaning on the world and on human life, and others speak of meaningless wanderings Some pictures seem to be the product of a leisurely walk, and some of a feverish quest into both the city’s and one’s own soul…

I am teaching a course of religious anthropology, and have found that initiating students to “visual anthropology” was one of the best possible ways to make them enter the subject matter. I show them documentaries and photographs, and they slowly become conscious of the fact that the best and most informative documents are not the ones that try to objectively record data but rather those that testify to the engagement of the director of photographer with the people he meets with. A sense of risk, of bewilderment, the account of how one’s own perspective has changed, the courage to position oneself within the environment one explores are the qualities we look for: at its best, visual anthropology gives us an unparalleled account of the way people live and express their beliefs, engage into rituals, how they understand and shape the world they dwell in.

Photographs are rich with information, but not only with information. They are relational objects: they express how we engage or did not engage into a relation with the object of our interest, how our exchanges created the opportunity through which a rich and striking photograph could be taken, how we become part of the scene we document (landscape, ritual or street scene), how frontiers have been blurred till the point that we do not know whether we shot the picture or were shot into the heart by what we saw and experienced.

It is a pity that the act of photographing has been trivialized to the extreme. Pictures are taken all the time with cell phones and other devices – pictures of ourselves mostly -, we look at themselves a few seconds before forgetting them forever, and putting them into a digital trash bin. When it comes to me, I like to sense the weight of a real camera resting on my shoulder, and to make this weigh the symbol of what it costs to take real photograph, photographs in which I have engaged my powers to relate, to feel and to create. At the end of the day, there always will be the pictures meant to go into the trash bin from the moment they were taken and the ones that will speak for a very long time of the tears and the laughs that together compose what can really be called “the salt of life.”



Thursday, 31 May 2012 21:40








撰文∣魏明德 翻譯∣謝靜雯 繪圖∣笨篤






Tuesday, 01 May 2012 18:02



長久以來,對西方人來說,利瑪竇(Matteo Ricci)的名聲比徐光啟響亮:西方人士易於知曉同樣來自西方世界利瑪竇的旅程與歷險,卻鮮少聽聞來自中國世界徐光啟的人物與經歷,後者是義大利兼具傳教士身分與博學者雋譽利瑪竇的摯友。然而,近二十年來,西方漢學家重新發現十六世紀末及十七世紀初掀起波瀾壯闊智識運動中的一位重要行動者──徐光啟:在那個年代的歷史洪流中,士者多次透過新的眼光重新詮釋中國的儒學傳統,並開創綜論,企圖迎接該年代的挑戰。





撰文∣魏明德 翻譯∣沈秀臻





五月─ 向天爭一口飯─布袋小鎮的百年追尋



Tuesday, 03 April 2012 20:58



Wednesday, 28 March 2012 15:57

The Oceanic Feeling

All marine ecosystems are in constant flux, affected by external influences and short-term disruptions as well as by seasonal cycles. Those who live within an oceanic environment necessarily see the world in a different way from those who dwell in the plains, highlands or mountains. Sudden and unexpected changes foster the representation of distant divine beings whose behavior is unpredictable; the sense of uncertainty generated by the environment encourages flexible strategies, rather than linear thinking. Nowhere is this truer than in the Pacific Ocean, which covers a surface larger than the one occupied by all land areas, and which accounts for eighty percent of the islands of the globe.

In the Pacific world, the ocean is the continent: the sea constitutes the natural environment for all forms of life, it is also the vector of communication... A writer from Tonga, Epeli Hau'ofa (1939-2009) has spoken of a "sea of islands', a sea that unites rather than divides, a sea that is a lived story: for the ocean moves and breathes in those born on its banks like the salt in the sea and the blood within the body. The immense ocean also dwells within the narrow limits of a human body, allowing man to travel into himself in the same way he embarks for finding other islanders.

All this may remind us of what the writer Romain Rolland called, in his correspondence with Freud, the"Oceanic feeling.” Through this expression he was trying to encapsulate a feeling of infinity that goes beyond all structured religious belief. Nowadays, Romain Rolland’s “Oceanic feeling” has become little more than a footnote in the history of religious psychology. Freud was not very appreciative:  "How foreign to me are the worlds in which you move! Mystique is as closed to me as music” he wrote to Rolland – who replied, "I can hardly believe that mysticism and music are foreign to you. I rather think that you are afraid of them, as you wish to keep the instrument of critical reason unblemished.”

Going a step beyond Romain Rolland, one may say that the presence of God in the soul is like the triumphant sound of the waves - and this “like” means two things at once: first, it speaks of the universal nature of spiritual experience; and second, it recognizes the fact that no comparison can account for the way God makes himself present within the depths of man. What the Oceanic feeling helps us understand is that joy arises in our soul always as something nascent. The joy that comes like the light of the day within the darkness of our depths is sung and evoked by the movement of an ocean everlasting and yet nascent, by the rhythm of the waves engraving and erasing their writings on the sand with a finger trembling and yet assured. Eventually, the Oceanic feeling lets us glimpse the mystery of the birth of God within the soul: a gift eternally offered – and always new.

Illustration by Bendu

Friday, 02 March 2012 19:17



撰文│魏明德  翻譯│楊子頡








三月 - 青年 創造 台灣新時代



Friday, 24 February 2012 15:20

Between progress and regression

We have a clear-cut idea of what the words “progress” and “regression” point to: a student’s marks are showing academic progress, or they indicate that he is regressing in his class ranking; economic indexes measure how much a country is growing or if it is entering recession; after a certain age, our physical and intellectual abilities are regressing… And so, we grade ourselves as we move up or down the ladder, and we measure accordingly other people, institutions and societies.

Grades, indexes and measurements are certainly useful tools. Still, they cut into reality in ways that sometimes make us blind to the complexity of the phenomena we try to assess. The very fact that my abilities are regressing can actually be a factor of maturation, of reconciliation with my personal history, my limits and my achievements if I peacefully come to terms with the transformations that age or illness impose on me. A country’s economic growth often goes with cultural and humane regression when it destroys social structure and community values. Academic tests are rarely able to assess the whole process of intellectual, moral and emotional growth that a student is undergoing. Life mixes into a whole progress and regression, as the chaff and the wheat grow together on the field. Better not to try to separate them before the time of the harvest…

Progress and regression only make sense within dynamic processes that change the one into the other - and conversely. A short-time regression often triggers long-term progress. This is the case when it comes to affective and emotional maturation: an affective setback often comes with a period of regression - the mind closes on itself, closes on its wounds. However, when and if subsumed, setbacks become a force for greater self-understanding as well as for nurturing empathy. The one who ignores setbacks and does not experience regressions runs the risk of seeing one’s success end up as one’s ultimate failure, as he has most probably lived an existence estranged from his true self.

Does it mean that progress and regression just equate? No. Ultimately, we are meant to strive for success. But the texture of success is much richer and subtler than we usually imagine. It is interwoven with the threads of our setbacks, failures and regressions, which also serve to compose the shades and nuances of one’s personal achievement. When life seems to be going downhill, let us take solace in the fact that we progress towards the realization of our true self in a way that is uniquely ours – and our ultimate triumph is the uniqueness we achieve throughout the struggles that will have shaped our life.

Illustration by Bendu


Friday, 17 February 2012 00:00

China's Challenges in the Year of the Dragon

Benoît Vermander comments on challenges that China needs to face in 2012, the Year of the Dragon.

Tuesday, 31 January 2012 15:28


翻譯│瞿彥青  繪圖│笨篤



Tuesday, 17 January 2012 18:56

Studying or working: a choice always to be renewed

Is it better to further one’s study or to immerse oneself in a job? This question often haunts the new graduate. On the one hand, they are thrilled by the opportunities that their freshly acquired diploma brings with it: entering adulthood, earning an income, testing their skills at something concrete, exercising responsibilities, even if such responsibilities are modest in scope… On the other hand, they realize that they do not know much yet, that they may earn a bigger salary within a few years if they master extra knowledge and become more competent, that holding a job might soon appear to her more boring or stressful than remaining a student…  Deciding between Present and Future, between different kinds of gains and losses, and between different lifestyles is never easy, and can generate a lot of anxiety.

The new graduate may be comforted by a few thoughts:

-  First, this choice is much less final and binding than was the case in the past. Today, there are a variety of bridges that allow one to go from study to work and from work to throughout one’s professional path. Therefore, it is practical and beneficial to keep one’s intellectual curiosity always intact, and to remain ready to sacrifice one’s immediate interest at some point in order to re-enter the path of study and research.

- Work can reactivate one’s thirst for knowledge and investigation. Often, students lose interest in knowledge and research because of the way they were taught in high school or in university. Their drive towards practical and intellectual knowledge is reactivated through the problems and challenges they meet in real life: the very fact of being surrounded by technical wonders, complex social mechanisms, injustices and moral dilemmas makes one formulate anew questions that have been agitating the human mind since it undertook to both understand and master the world (while doing so through very diverse knowledge systems…).

-  New graduates may also be somehow comforted by the fact of knowing that finding the balance between study and work is a problem that plagues everyone until very late in life – till the end maybe: “Is it better for me to invest my energies into doing what I know I can do, and thus to be of immediate help to the people I care for and my family – or should I challenge myself to once again embark on the road of professional and intellectual improvement? And should I not chose to study and research just out of gratuitousness, whatever the advantages that come out of it?” Fortunately, the choice is not always so drastic, and professional life may offer time and resources for learning the trade and embarking on a progressive program of study.

So, finally, how is one to decide when confronted with such a choice? Basically, ask yourself how you feel about it. Is there in your heart a strong longing to go ahead on the road towards knowledge and research? Or does the idea of becoming someone active in society and receiving recognition for what you do reveal itself to be the most appealing choice for you right now?  If you can answer this question peacefully and without too much hesitation, just follow the desire of your heart. If not… let the answer formulate itself within your inner self. It will do so naturally, if you can avoid to be too overtly anguished by it. But always remember: when working, protect and nurture the flame of intellectual curiosity. When studying, do not close yourself in an ivory tower, and remain burnt by the desire to share with others what you are researching. And do remain aware that life will often renew the challenge, and will ask you again and again to come up with your own answer…

Illustration by Bendu

Thursday, 29 December 2011 19:46







在某些特殊的時刻,當夜晚的微風、線香的氣味、或突來的孤獨襲來,會瞬間將我們從忙碌中釋放,我們的社會自我(social self)將不再是我們的中心。我們將冷靜地潛入尚未探索的深處,辨識出平時難以覺察的,許多不同層次的感覺和存在。這也許只在某些特殊的時刻發生,但它其實已經過長期的醞釀──那些曾被難關、傷痛、與平靜註記的時期。許多事就在我們專注的時候發生了,即使我們可能沒有意識到我們正在專注。純粹的專注其實並非來自努力,它主要源自我們進入的一種狀態。生命的深淵在某些時刻會開啟,我們便能穿透內在的石窟,並思量那帶我們進入本源的活水。



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