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.

Thursday, 29 April 2010 02:50



Wednesday, 21 April 2010 15:56

Cities in winter: a wanderer in Europe

December 2009 has been cold in Europe, and snow has been falling everywhere, something that is not seen every year. When I was a child, the spectacle of snow piling into the streets was rather common. It became more rare as the years passed by.

I had to travel this winter, going to Paris and Toulouse in France, Munich and Aachen in Germany, before crossing Holland to go back to France. I had to go to offices and universities, I had to hasten through the streets and the underground, but I had also time to wander through the parks and the squares, to dream when looking through the windows of trains slowed by the weather, and to let recollections come back to my mind. I was thinking of all the cities I had lived in, of their minds and structures, of the way they have become engraved into my soul, as is a novel to which you often come back, as also are a movie, a piece of music or a voice that is dear to you. It was so hard to me to separate the core of my being and of my memory from these places in which I had lived and wandered: Paris, as a succession of villages, the Seine river separating the city as does a sudden twist in the plot of a novel, the capricious streets turning around and making you suddenly lose your way, like the disorderly dreams of my student days have been doing to me; Brussels, tragic and gray, where my first job and the first apartment of my own were awaiting me, and that sounded to my ears so melancholic and disenchanted; Toulouse, where I worked afterwards, with its pink melody of bricks, coffeehouses and spacious riverbanks; Lyons, as an elegant elegy that tunes down emotions and passions to the level of a quiet, discreet melody; and the contrasted cities of Holland, Spain and Italy like symphonies resonating with wind instruments and percussions; for two years, I had known New Haven, New York and Boston, and they had sounded to me like a poem in prose or like the lyrics of a song by Ella Fitzgerald…

And then I went to Asia – and different music and poems filled my mind. The walls of Tokyo had been to me like neat lines that separate chapters in a Japanese novel, the unity and plot of which you are unable to discern; Taipei had slowly become like an old-worn poetry anthology, which you know so well that you automatically go the page you wish to reread; Hong Kong has been like a surrealistic poem of which you renounce to penetrate the meaning, just letting you be drawn away by its rhythm and associations; Chengdu was like ancient poems that you do not understand very well but that you turn page by page, just letting the atmosphere enter like smoke into your body and your mind…

flavie_kersante_bristol1I was back in Europe, and it was like finding again the poetic anthologies I was reading as a child, words, turns of sentences and rhymes that sounded familiar like the noises of the street where you are living and that awaken you every morning.

There is something in the fallen snow in the streets of a city that make nature and culture meet suddenly, and culture then shows its basic frailty, how it can be engulfed by a sudden surge of nature’s hidden energies. It is also as if the intense poetry of the city’s lines, memories and trajectories become incarnate, unveil their essence to the eye of the wanderer, suddenly able to penetrate the secret that makes this conglomerate of buildings, empty spaces and people hold together as a whole. Snow always speaks of the invisible.

And, through these leisurely train trips, cities in Europe were extending a kind of fraternity across hundreds of kilometres. Scattered on the map, they were gathering in the palm of my hand, composing a dense, intense community of desires, fears and sounds that was transcending its material form. In the course of my winter travel, the cities of my youth were gathering into one, becoming smaller and smaller, denser and denser – a short and eternal poem that will float around you on your deathbed.


(Photos by B.V. and Flavie Kersante)

Wednesday, 21 April 2010 15:54

City and Poetry

Can city inspire poetry? Traditionally, Nature is the first source of poetic inspiration: lakes, mountains and trees move the heart and the lips, and the music of the Earth becomes the one of our soul. However, city has become like a “second nature” to us, and its streets, its moods, its people and its scenery work on our emotions and our aesthetic sensibility as do waterfalls, pine trees and rocks.

When thinking about the poetic nature of cities, there is something that can strike even more our imagination: a city looks actually like an immense poems; its avenues, buildings or underground can be read as a giant network of rhymes, metaphors and verses. The city is like an elegy that men write, carve and erect on the surface of the earth. And these poems of glass, iron and cement inspire to them artworks of words, images and stories. The city is poetry itself - the poetic work erected by men to the face of the sky.

Lastly, cities are not always good poems – they can become dry, repetitive, uninspiring… For sure, no builder or developer can fully control the poetic impact of a city, for a city is first and foremost the creation of its inhabitants. Still, planners, artists and elected officials can nurture the poetic soul of a city though well thought public arts projects, humane city development and encouragement to citizens’ initiative. Ultimately, the more a city truly belongs to the ones who inhabit it, the more it will become the trigger and repository of the emotions, thoughts and inspirations of the people who will wander through its streets, its parks and its labyrinths.

This issue of eRenlai explores these three dimensions: what kind of poetic feelings will a city arise within our hearts? How can the city proper be read as a giant poetic work? And how can we foster the poetic soul of the cities we inhabit? Let us hope that this issue will inspire all of us, and that it may reach the ones who are responsible for city planning. Our future will not depend only on their technical ability but rather on the way they will be able to respect and foster our dreams, our fantasies and our creativity…

(Drawing by Bendu)

Wednesday, 31 March 2010 00:00




Wednesday, 31 March 2010 00:00




Tuesday, 30 March 2010 20:32

Is the Internet the Bedrock of Civil Society in China?

In China, the importance of the internet exceeds even that which we attach to it in the rest of the world. It has become the only available public space where everyone's dreams, ambitions and fantasies lie. To see the extent of the internet's omnipresence, it suffices to take notice of some recent debates in the Chinese and international press.

The revelations by Google and other corporations of highly sophisticated cyber spying attacks against them have pointed the spotlight on the more than dubious methods possibly being employed by the Chinese state to maximise her political and industrial advantages. However this is not the essential point and furthermore, the participation of the Chinese state has yet to be proved. What is clear for all to see is the proliferation of Chinese hackers; their sophistication, their active cooperation and their ability to share the work in order to reach their pre-designated target. Some of these networks could be linked to prestigious universities and others could merely be random cells. What's for sure is that there is an alliance between a highly lucrative new market and the coming of a generation who have grown up in, and been raised by, the internet. This generation is caught inside this web, with no other professional or personal way out other than by marauding at the web's boundaries. In other words, the proliferation of Chinese hackers is a manifestation of what we could call the 'desocialisation' of China - the impoverishment of their traditional social networks and their reconstruction on fraudulent and clandestine foundations.

On that note, I was recently witness to a very typical case. In Shanxi province entrepreneurs have formed well-protected hoax networks on the internet (e.g. the selling of nonexistent wares). To 'bait' the naive clients, they recruit youths from the most underprivileged provinces. Then, following brainwashing and training in the techniques of baiting they spend their days and nights glued to the screen in search of their prey. They are paid nothing, instead being deluded by promises of riches to come; a type of enslavement. One of them has recently managed to escape from the network, but since his name has been compromised as one of the participants in the fraudulence, he dares not expose the group.

Another worrying trait of the internet's proliferation is the 'hunt for human flesh' as it's known in Chinese (人肉搜索). The revealing of real or imaginary abuses has become a national sport. For example someone shows a video of another who had tortured an animal or committed an act that goes against public civility. The netizens get asked to help identify this person. As soon as his name gets out, the accusations multiply and, almost automatically the person is laid off and most of the time forced to move to a different town. This type of 'mobbing' of which we have seen examples in Korea, can be considered as the collective letting off steam or even a new game of pirates.

These points are important in understanding that the internet is not only an instrument for the 'liberation' of China, as some have dreamt. It's also a milieu for dependency, exploitation and persecution. This should not obscure the great role it plays in the formation of civil society in China. Opinions can be expressed, exchanged, discussed; and news can travel more freely than by any other method. Scandals committed by party cadres were denounced fairly and successfully, and the netizens consistently managed to make the government fall back. The censorship of most 'social networking' sites and Youtube videos means nothing; the Chinese just 'jump the wall', using proxies to view banned sites and learning how to decrypt all the latest news. The netizens are showing themselves to be more and more sophisticated in their employment of this unique source of information and opinions.

A real showdown has begun between the government and people. The authorities want to install pirate software on all new computers; they now prohibit the registering of sites by a person not acting on behalf of an organisation; and they are employing an army of mercenaries to intervene in the forums. For the moment however, these manoeuvres still fail to bring full ideological control over the population as the number, ingenuity and determination of netizens grows by the day. The Chinese middle class have found in the internet what the rising classes of past Europe used to find in cafes, newspapers and pamphlets: an irreplaceable instrument for education and democratisation.

The internet contributes greatly in making the Chinese middle classes conscious of their identity and power. It remains to be seen with which values the middle classes will shape and determine the internet: if it's the spirit of resentment, egotism and greed that prevails, then the internet will never be a  force for true civility. It's up to the social, religious and cultural organisations to make the internet the vehicle of a China which can debate peacefully with herself and the world.

Translated from French by N. Coulson

(Photo copyright of eRenlai)

Monday, 22 March 2010 00:00

















圖片提供/笨篤  翻譯/林天寶












Thursday, 04 March 2010 00:00

What is 'dialogue'?

The use of the word 'dialogue' is remarkably elastic. Does this mean that it should be abandoned in favour of a more rigorous concept? Actually, the flexibility of the term might stem from the variety of our experiences of exchange and communication, while finding within them some commonalities.

The very term dialogue introduces us into the field of verbal exchanges. Exchanges test knowledge; they check the agreement of stakeholders on the content of the knowledge they are supposed to share and in some cases they are testing the validity of knowledge itself. Knowledge may be of two kinds - either it refers to a given science such as physics, or else it refers to human beings considered in their nature and their social setting. In the first case, dialogical exchanges are at the same level of reality as those induced by mathematical formulas by which the progress of knowledge on the material world is ensured. In the second case, the truth is not primarily mathematical. The locus of truth is set into histories and cultures, a setting to which only dialogue gives access. Thus, dialogical exchange is no more a mechanical process, it centres on establishing relationships between "Others": verbal exchanges imply experiencing listening as a transformative process that cannot be separated from the one through which truth is reached.

[dropcap cap="I"]n other words, the determination of 'categories of truth' is intrinsically linked to that of dialogical styles. Let me suggest the way through which categories of truth may be associated with an array of dialogical styles:[/dropcap]- Dialogue understood as a logical exercise will generate propositions that are meant to be universally valid and part of a truth system based on the principle of non-contradiction. It does not differ fundamentally from the soliloquy that a scientist would lead with himself in order to determine the truth of a scientific demonstration.

- Dialogues within philosophical or theological schools work along similar principles except that the reference to 'universal' principles grounded on the natural light is replaced by a reference text - the one accepted by the school. The principle of non-contradiction is exercised within the reading of these texts.

- In contrast, the type of dialogue initiated and exemplified by Confucius’ Analects is first a dialogue of life which seeks to ensure that the disciple’s deeds coincide with his system of moral and cosmological beliefs. Dialogue is the gateway through which to match truth and life.

- The Gospel’s dialogical style is somehow similar to the preceding category, with the difference that the stress is put less on acquired wisdom than on the transformative process through which a decision is to be reached by the one who enters into a dialogue of life.

- We can group together several cultural and literary settings in which dialogue is meant to lead to enlightenment, as shown in the peculiar dialogical styles found in Zhuangzi, in Zen writings and in some Indian schools: the dialogue is pushed to a breaking point that challenges the principle of non-contradiction, bringing one of the participants to a sudden transformation of his consciousness or worldview.

- And there is of course the broad category that gathers variants of 'democratic dialogue', which applies not only to politics but to some models of inter-religious dialogue for example: the point here is that the process of listening is supposed to be mutually transformative for the partners once they enter an empathic understanding of the argument and experiences vis-à-vis the other, this in order to find a position on the basis of which to allow a common decision or, at the very least, ensure continued coexistence.

[dropcap cap="I"]n conclusion, true dialogue is always 'performative'. It does not merely determine one true position among all the ones championed; other procedures might lead to this result better than dialogue does. Instead, dialogue leads to a change in worldviews, practices and situations - and the depth of the change that dialogue generates is the real measure of the 'truth' it contributes in bringing to light.[/dropcap]




Wednesday, 03 March 2010 05:49


2008年11月,人籟推出杜睿的小說《聖徒節與謀殺案》特刊,故事發生在作者的出生地──科西嘉的小村落。杜睿(Jean-Louis Tourné)是小說創作者也是銀行家,他居住過世界上的眾多島嶼,在台灣住過兩回,每次都是好幾年的時間。在科西嘉的特刊中,他描寫的科西嘉事實上很多 地方讓人想起傳統的台灣社會──倚賴高山的生活環境,村落中女性的堅韌角色、長串的家族史以及其中隱藏著令人著迷的祕密……


感謝沈秀臻翻譯這兩本小說,同時為我們 拍攝出台灣續集的氛圍。在推出許多探討嚴肅主題的專輯之後,人籟這個期號像是邀請讀者來到一個異想的呼吸空間。期盼讀者能在這個期號中找到閱讀的樂趣。


攝影、翻譯/ 沈秀臻

No69_small 想知道這本小說的完整內容嗎?請購買本期雜誌!



Friday, 26 February 2010 00:00

Religions as languages

The remarkable diversity of religious expressions typical of South-East Asia has led to a focus on the interaction between the various faiths operating in the region. Such attention has been also fostered by the various ethno-religious conflicts that have developed, especially in the Philippines and Indonesia. If religious communities had to be agents of peace, the narratives on which they rely would play a role: creative interpretation of canonical narratives can stress peace and reconciliation; in the pluralistic situation of the Philippines’ southern island of Mindanao, some narratives play a mediating role by incorporating elements from different religious traditions; the sharing of stories (especially role-model stories) at the local grassroots level is by itself a factor of reconciliation.

At the theological level, some thinkers nowadays see hermeneutics not as a tool for redefining religious identities in the region but rather as a resource for challenging them. R.S Sugirtharajah says that “the task is seen not as adapting the Christian Gospel in Asian idioms, but as re-conceptualizing the basic tenets of the Christian faith in the light of Asian realities. … There is a willingness to integrate, synthesize and interconnect.” The need to connect with other believers in order to implement justice, peace and environmental concerns also plays a role in the “communication and interconnection” paradigm, which is strongly influenced by theologians such as Michael Amaladoss, Raimundo Panikkar, Paul Knitter and Aloysius Pieris. Of special relevance might be the concept of intra-religious dialogue as championed by Panikkar: one’s religion is very akin to a native tongue, and any religion is as complete as a language is. The discovery of the Other draws us out of our language and leads us to understand what its “words” mean to our religious partner. To enter another's world is a religious experience that engages a dialogue not only with the Other but also within our self.

In this approach, and other similar, the hermeneutics of inter-religious dialogue is not seen as a theological task among others but as the one that determines the future of Christianity in Asia and even the shaping of religious forms, identities and experiences in the world. South-East Asia is a place in which the intermingling and communicability of religious faiths is especially visible, which gives it a prominent role in the continuation of this global endeavour.

Photo courtesy of James Russell



Thursday, 25 February 2010 00:00

A world of distrust

Global economic indicators are mixed at best; the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake has been the occasion of much generosity but has also been marred by painful polemics; war is still raging in Afghanistan; Iran’s nuclear program remains one of the main worries of the Western world; and - more generally - commercial rivalries, disputes on currencies levels, sharing of global duties or internet piracy nurture a new climate of distrust among the nations of the globe. Rising tension between the US and China is the most obvious example of this state of affairs. But distrust is gaining ground in all areas and on every level. The quarrel brewing between Northern and Southern Europe on public debt or increased tensions on the Indian subcontinent constitute other examples.
This is just a ‘feeling’ of course, but the rise of distrust is also a logical consequence of a number of factors: the failure of the Copenhagen summit to agree on goals and duties and current polemics on global warming; uncertainties linked to economic imbalances; the continuous shift in the balance of power between the US, China and Japan; the failure of Europe to convert its political achievements into economic impetus; the near impossibility to answer adequately the twin challenges of fundamentalism and terrorism; finally, the lack of willingness shown by developed nations to challenge effectively their way of life and the subsequent resentment felt in the rest of the world. We could hope at some point that the very magnitude of the crisis, the presidency of Barak Obama or even the entry into a new decade would generate a new spirit of cooperation. Rather, it seems that governments and public opinions have entrenched themselves into a new world of distrust.
Public mood is versatile, and new developments may well generate a new spirit of cooperation and confidence. A gradual shift in our growth model fostered by a steady urge in green industries and renewable energies would certainly prove to be the most auspicious factor for heading in such a direction. But, in the short term, the rise of distrust might well be the main characteristic of international relations in 2010. If this is indeed the case, the changing trends must be monitored carefully, for distrust is a cause for irrational behaviours and unexpected crises. Political and spiritual leaders would be well inspired to find the words that will ignite accrued goodwill and confidence among national opinions. Today, more than ever, faith in the Other as well as plain ‘good faith’ when dealing with partners and competitors remain the main virtues to rely upon for building up positive interactions among the various nations, regions and interest groups. For the time being, relying on faith and good faith certainly means to go resolutely against the tide of distrust...
Saturday, 23 January 2010 03:28

Keinstein and Dreistein’s Non-Unified Theories

There is no need to recall here the unceasing scientific rivalry that opposed Keinstein and Dreistein during their whole career till the time of their almost simultaneous death. It is also of public knowledge that this professional rivalry, joined to a deep and mutual personal dislike, stimulated the stamina and creativity displayed by both of them for so any years. And all observers agree that the rivalry was left unresolved, with none of them winning the match, or, more aptly, both of them winning it – though, till the end, Keinstein and Dreistein could not console themselves of not having taken a decisive advantage on their rival. When Keinstein announced a major discovery, another one followed that Dreistein could claim as his own. When Dreistein won the Nobel Prize for Physics, Keinstein reciprocated by claiming the same distinction in Chemistry the next year. Earlier in their career, they were jointly awarded the Fields Medal (for utterly different achievements), which annihilated the pleasure they could have felt at receiving such an honor. When one became MIT’s most revered scientist, the other was becoming Stanford’s acclaimed luminary. And so it went on, for fifty years…[/dropcap]

After they left this world, most of their colleagues used to avoid speaking of their latter years: the steep decline of an exceptional intellect is always a painful spectacle, and this is even truer when it comes to one of two towering figures of science seemingly lost in a battle, the stakes of which are understood only by them. But stakes there were, stakes that were giving a meaning – a frightening one – to the rivalry that had opposed them since their common youth in Mittel Europa. As he was slowly drowning into the innocuous insignificance usually attached to old age’s unchallenged glory, Keinstein claimed to have found the decisive proof that there was and could not be any unified theory of the universe. Around the same time, Dreistein was repeating that he was able to demonstrate that there were no less that three unified theories of the universe, that the three of them were true, and that they were mutually incompatible. Both claims could have been reconciled if Keinstein’s Ultimate Non-Unified Theory (UNUT) could have been counted as one of Dreistein’s Three Incompatible Unified Theories (TIUT), but both were adamant that UNUT was not and could not be a subdivision of TIUT. None of them never revealed the full extent of his reasoning, each one promising that the proof would be found among the papers he would leave to his disciples. The two competing schools did thoroughly examine what their respective masters had left behind them, without making much sense of the writings they could gather – while observing that these writings contained no obvious mistake or any other sign of senility. On the whole, the latter theories of Keinstein and Dreistein were seen more as a psychological drama than as a scientific duel.

However, the latest theoretical developments have given a new and unexpected meaning to the last episodes of Keinstein’s and Dreistein’s rivalry. Nobody could have predicted the intellectual earthquake triggered by Professor Uberstein’s “Theory that Goes Beyond Everything” (TGBE), which does seem to lead us towards a truth even more disturbing than were already the competing claims of Keinstein and Dreistein – namely, that both of them might have been right. According to Uberstein, the laws of the universe cannot be expressed in a unified theory and they can be gathered into three antagonistic sets of principles. This very fact (which of course remains utterly incomprehensible for our normal intellects) might also explain why Keinstein and Dreistein never revealed the full extent of their proofs: both might have inferred from their evidences that the other was detaining the other half of the truth they had so painstakingly searched for. Ultimately, there could be no winner between the two, and such painful revelation was better to be left to the care of future generations. What would have they made of the fact that Keinstein’s and Dreistein’s combined intellects would be so swiftly outsmarted by the miraculous surge of an Uberstein?




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