In a cosmopolitan society, be free to be myself

Articulating subtle human experiences is still possible


Yi-Fu Tuan, a famous Chinese geographer, passed away on the morning of August 10, Central Time, at the age of 92. Yifu Duan is the founder of Humanist Geography. He has written many works in his life: “Love Complex”, “Space and Place”, “Escapeism”, “Homecoming”, “Shenzhou”, “Boundless Fear”, “Humanist Geography” “”Romantic Geography”…
Wu Qi is also one of the thousands of readers influenced by Duan Yifu, he wrote: “Mr. Duan’s writing is very wonderful, the material is subtle, his arms are wide, he respects basic intuition, and then he surrounds big problems and does geography. Pioneering work in the humanities. He used experience to explain experience, creating a narrative of experience. He said, ‘It is still possible to articulate the subtleties of human experience’.”
In addition to being a geographer, Yifu Duan is also an excellent essay writer. During the period from 1985 to 2012, he shared his thoughts and feelings in the form of letters and short essays under the theme of “Dear Colleague” (To Colleagues). This aspect of his writing can also be seen in the book Humanist Geography. Reread the first two chapters in a single read today in honor of this important scholar. Duan Yifu recalled his childhood spent in Chongqing and Sydney, and pondered the formation of humanistic thoughts from the education he received at that time.

Humanist Geography (excerpt)

Written by: Duan Yifu

Chapter 1 Chongqing

For three years (1938-1941) from the age of seven to ten, I went to school in war-torn Chongqing, where I attended a school with only one classroom, which my father and his friends founded in 1938. They do this because there is no primary school nearby, and we kids are too young to go to the famous Nankai Middle School. The principal of Nankai Middle School encouraged them to do the same. The principal not only allowed them to use the school name of Nankai, but also provided a classroom next to the Nankai Power Plant. What have I learned in this classroom? Arithmetic, no doubt, but I don’t remember how, maybe because the teacher taught it the traditional way. I remember learning to read and write, especially reading. We kids read stories from China and the West.

The traditional Chinese story of encouraging people to be humble and studious, to be filial to their parents, and to love their motherland, I can still remember a little bit today, 70 years later.

Among them is the story of Nang Ying Ye Reading, about a boy in a mountain village who farms in the fields during the day and can only study at night. The problem is that the boy’s family is too poor to buy even a candle, so he caught a lot of fireflies, put them in the gauze, and then read by the light of the fireflies. This story inspired us not only to admire the boy’s eagerness to learn, but also to be impressed by the ingenuity of his approach to learning. Don’t make poverty an insurmountable obstacle.

The second story is about filial piety, which is the core value of the Chinese people. An extremely poor mother is dying from nutritional deficiencies (note this recurring theme of poverty). Her son cuts off a piece of meat from his arm to nourish his mother’s soup. A non-Chinese reader might be shocked by the violence, but as a Chinese child deeply immersed in a culture of filial piety, I took it in stride.

The third story I remember was about patriotism. The Song Dynasty general Yue Fei (1103-1142) was a national hero in the hearts of all Chinese. He led the army to resist the invasion of the Song Dynasty by the Northern Jin Dynasty. There is a picture in the book that depicts Yue Fei kneeling beside his mother, topless, on his knees, and his mother engraved on his back the big characters “Serve the country with allegiance”. Although childhood China was surrounded by Japanese invaders and struggled for national salvation, it is strange that we did not read more patriotic stories like this. Probably because our parents and teachers knew that nationalist fervor could get out of hand, leaving an indelible mark on our impressionable age, and they restricted us from reading these kinds of stories.


Dad went to college with his friends. After graduation, they left China for graduate studies in Europe and the United States. After returning home, they neither taught nor served in government agencies, but formed a small group of cosmopolitans. Here, people meet and discuss lively. Sitting in the yard on a quiet summer night, one of them would point out the constellation Orion while looking up at the night sky, prompting a lively exchange of astronomy—not just science, but Greek mythology. And this leads to the question: “Why don’t we Chinese have myths about stars?” Another friend will mention a new Hollywood movie showing in town, and a casual mention could spark a scene Discussion on Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) opera and whether Yuan opera is suitable for filming. Regarding educational policy, a Confucian scholar and an advocate of the educational philosophy of John Dewey (1859-1952) would discuss the advantages and disadvantages of rote memorization. And for a nine-year-old, sitting under the stars and listening to these interesting conversations is an unforgettable experience.

Because my father and his friends were educated at the master’s level in the West, we read some Western stories as a matter of course. We read about the apple falling on Isaac Newton (1642-1727), Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) using a kite to collect electricity in a storm, and James Watt (James Watts, 1736-1819). But I think there is a more explicit purpose of parents, which is to make our minds brave, and it seems that they cannot enlighten us with the right Chinese stories to achieve that. With the help of the story of the apple falling on Newton’s head, the teacher introduced us to the principles of gravity and the solar system; Franklin’s kite in the sky opened up the topic of electricity. But in the long run, what’s important to us is that these stories encourage our innovative thinking and behavior. We get the idea that fantasizing under an apple tree might be better than doing addition and subtraction at home, and that doing science experiments at the risk of electrocution in a storm is worth it.

My favorite story about James Watt as a kid, he grew up inventing the steam engine. It is said that he often sits alone, thinking in the air in a daze. His mother wanted him to be pragmatic, so she gave him a task to watch the time cook the eggs. She said to Watt, “Here’s the egg, you put it in the boiling water, look at the watch, be sure to take the egg out in two minutes.” Two minutes later, Watt’s mother came back and she looked at the boiling water , was horrified to find that her watch was actually in the water. At the same time, Watt was staring suspiciously at the egg in his hand. Are adults telling us that if the steam engine can be invented in the future, it doesn’t matter if you boil your mother’s watch?

Chinese stories tend to emphasize morality, while Western stories focus more on people’s curiosity and imagination. The Happy Prince (1888) written by the British writer Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) has the characteristics of both Eastern and Western stories at the same time. Once again I admire the sharpness of the parents and teachers. They chose this story for us to read because they felt that Chinese stories tend to lead people to be kind to their family and neighbors, that is, to treat only those who can benefit each other and ignore strangers who have no interest. Most Western stories are also flawed, ending with unrealistic marriages and a happy life for the married couple. The “Happy Prince” has a higher moral standard and advocates universalism, which not only integrates the Buddhist thought of compassion and the Christian salvation theory, but also transcends the limited contacts and simple optimism. The story ends with the tragic passing of the prince and the little swallow, a realism that will likely be appreciated by a perceptive young reader. This might convince them that the prince and the little swallow were absolutely right to die willingly for a stranger in need. It is these absolutely true, very rare but possibly real things in life that make us happy.


Movie “The Happy Prince”

As for education on aesthetics, I don’t recall that we had the kind of painting classes that are common in Western schools. Perhaps in China, painting classes are not necessary, because calligraphy has the same effect. Practicing calligraphy is trivial for children, but it is fun when doing preparatory work (such as researching ink). I remember that during this process, it was necessary to take out the ink pad and inkstone from the school bag, then pour some water on the inkstone table, and then grind the ink pad to produce a thick black ink. Writing with a brush is also very fun. The thickness of the brush and the inclination of the strokes are full of magic. A complete character, whether compact or loose, enriches the meaning of the character itself.

Young children need exercise. We can’t play competitive sports, but it’s because there are so few people that we can’t form teams. I don’t recall playing a sport that is popular in contemporary China. As children, we played various games like skipping rope, peekaboo, treasure hunt or playful fights between boys.

There is a game that stuck in my memory, called Eagle Catches Chickens. I think kids all over the world play similar games. In the game, a child plays the role of the mother chicken, and the line behind the mother chicken is the chick, and the eagle tries to catch the chick. The mother chicken spreads her wings and changes direction in an effort to protect the chicks, while the chicks swing wildly behind her.

When I played Chickie, I felt very vulnerable and vulnerable, screaming and dodging when I was caught by an eagle. In the next round of the game, I might play the mother chicken, and in another round, I might play the eagle of prey. The game teaches children that their moods and behaviors are not like robots, sometimes feeling vulnerable and scared, sometimes protective and nurturing, sometimes aggressive and predatory.

Another game, invented by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), is equally fun and educational. I can imagine using this game when learning about the solar system. The usual method is for the teacher to stand behind a model and tell the students that it is the gravitational force that makes the moon, the earth and the sun revolve around the other. For Wittgenstein, this approach was too passive. Because after the teacher’s demonstration, the children still have no sense of gravity. In order to give children a first-hand experience, Wittgenstein recommends a game that is absolutely attractive to children. In the playground, let the boys play the role of the sun and move slowly in one direction; let one girl play the role of the earth, and her task is to run around the boys who play the role of the sun; the other girl plays the role of the moon, and her task is the heaviest because she has to be on the earth Running around the sun is also running around the earth, while the sun itself is moving outward in the expanding universe. After a while, the boys and girls switch roles so that everyone can understand how certain celestial bodies work.


“The Theory of Everything” movie

Both games deal with the objective world, one with social rules and the other with the solar system. Games that don’t involve anything like that are unattractive to me. I don’t play those games because they all seem to start with an established set of rules that those who want to play can only accept such rules. I want to know why negative is positive and the teacher never explained it. Children who like math also like games. They don’t object to the rules of the game, because under certain constraints, they can find unique ways to beat their opponents. The satisfaction comes from finding these ways and winning the game, not from being exposed to the real world outside the rules.

There is no doubt that arithmetic and geometry are connected to the real world. The ability to add, subtract, multiply and divide makes a person feel directly in control of something, be it an apple or a coin. Geometry grew out of the need for accurate measurements of the shape and size of farmland, so farmers and landowners were very interested in it. Elementary schools around the world are right to see arithmetic and geometry as practical subjects, just as they are right to see reading and writing as the keys to success in the high-level competition of civil society. But my childhood education isn’t worth mentioning if it’s just these lessons and skills. I attribute more near-magical things to what those stories brought me. Most of the story is just informative; to be clear, I don’t remember any of it at all. There were other stories that were so funny and inspiring that when I look back on them, I still feel the same way about them. That story told in The Happy Prince opened up before me another world of transcendent philanthropy that still inspires me to this day.

Chapter 2 Sydney

I spent my junior high school and most of my high school years (1942-1946) in Sydney, Australia. Cranbrook, where I went to, was a very good school. It was a frustrating experience when our brothers didn’t know a single word of English when we started school, the sturdy Australian boys danced around us and sang racist ballads that didn’t affect us in the slightest. Were we fearful, ashamed, and depressed? No, maybe I’m a little scared, but not ashamed or depressed at all. How is this possible? It’s right that we don’t accept racist abuse today, but I suspect racist abuse will delay the academic progress of victims, as we believe today.

Our brothers are immune to racist abuse for two reasons. For one, we learned in childhood that China was a civilized society surrounded by savages. The Australian boys dance and bark, inadvertently taking on the role. Not only did this not depress us, but it confirmed the superiority of our civilization. Second, we were educated in cosmopolitanism in a one-room school. Without explicit instruction, young children only distinguish between good and bad people, not foreigners and locals. As an eight-year-old, I knew Yue Fei was Chinese, but it never occurred to me that Newton, Franklin and Watt were foreigners. In my opinion, they all radiate extraordinary talent, which makes me want to emulate them. Using these celebrities as role models and never questioning whether I was doing the right thing has given me a tremendous amount of confidence.


The movie “Radioactive Materials”

Why can’t children start with a universal or cosmopolitan education? We seem to forget that children are naturally drawn to things around the world and outside. When American children go to elementary school, they may be more excited by the pyramids of Egypt and the Great Wall of China than by the local town hall and water tower; they may be more excited by dinosaurs than by cows. Adults try to ensure that children develop extreme patriotism because they see it as a way to develop a strong sense of community. There is no doubt that a strong sense of community is essential to our livelihoods and survival, but these have little to do with children. They are at this age, maybe only at this age in their life, they can be real intellectuals, and they should be encouraged to become real intellectuals, just like when I was in that one-room school.

I was exposed to cosmopolitanism as a child, so what experiences and inspirations did my childhood in Australia have? There are three points worth mentioning. One is the awareness of the beauty of nature. When I was young in Chongqing, I didn’t see nature as a separate category, maybe because we lived in the countryside. I climbed and played step by step among the terraced fields, focusing only on games and running around, without stopping to pay attention to the surrounding environment. My parents would occasionally take my older siblings and me to a temple on a nearby hilltop. I like this kind of outing, the air is fresh and it can consume my excess physical strength, and the vegetarian food in the temple has become sacred, but I ignore the mountain itself. A trip to the Three Sisters Mountains in Australia – three rock formations carved into the cliffs about fifty miles from Sydney – made me stop and watch, believe and marvel at the scale and scale of nature for the first time. Unfathomable uniqueness.


three sisters mountains australia

The second is a new understanding of social hierarchy. What I had taken for granted by the rules became uncertain at that point. From 1942 to 1946, my father served as the Chinese Consul General in Sydney. His job is to manage the Chinese community, mainly small businessmen, to ensure they are treated fairly by Australians. It didn’t take long for me to notice the respect these businessmen had for their father and family. As a resident Chinese official, my father had a large number of visitors—both local Chinese who needed his help as well as important people from China. From time to time, the local Chinese would give their father some gifts, and I think they were there to thank him for helping them beyond his duties. The father will also send gifts to those powerful people, and the value of the gift depends on the rank of the recipient. I regard these gifts as flattery. When I asked my father about this, his answer was purely a set of modern social doctrines, whose core is ultimately based on power relations. The first real contact with nature gave me reason to look forward to more contact with nature. In stark contrast, the first understanding of the nature of society made me disgust to enter society in the future.

The third is the understanding of religion. For the first time, I didn’t take another worldview seriously, one that coexisted in my head and occasionally violated previous ones. Cranbrook School has an Anglican foundation. We worship here every week. Since we are not Christians and our English is not good, my brothers and I felt a bit baffled. One day, the head teacher called us to his office and asked us to stand in a line in front of him, and then told us about Jesus the Son of God and his miracles, as well as the hadith of Jesus on the mountain (“Bible, New Testament, Gospel of Matthew”). “Chapters 5-7). I am amazed that an authority figure like him can tell us in all seriousness that someone walked on water, healed the blind, and raised the dead. Even more shocking, I was told that the usual norms in heaven would be reversed, such as the first would become last, the last would become first, the rich would be limited by their wealth, The poor are blessed by poverty. An ignorant child has a better chance of entering heaven than a learned adult.

(Excerpted from Humanist Geography: The Individual Search for Meaning,

Provided by Shanghai Translation Publishing House)


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