A Scientist’s Passion on Chinese Philosophy and Poetry: Interview with Professor Jan B.F.N. Engberts

Professor Jan Engberts is a retired professor of Physical Organic Chemistry, who has been working for the University of Groningen since 1967. Officially retired in 2004, followed by an honorary position until 2009, he still remains highly active in the academic community, occasionally teaching and publishing papers (so far he has published about 500 papers in peer-reviewed journals). He is a member of various committees, referee for international journals, guest lecturer, he develops teaching programmes, and he also studies scientific process philosophy. He has lectured extensively all over the world, including Europe, USA, China, Japan and South America. In addition to his interest in physical organic chemistry, he has a deep-rooted interest in process philosophy, Chinese philosophy and Chinese poetry, which he has researched thoroughly, and on which he has written several papers.

GCI: Professor Engberts, people in the University of Groningen probably associate you mainly with physical organic chemistry, but from your other publications we recognize you have great interest and numerous insightful ideas in Chinese philosophy and Chinese poetry. How did this interest get started?

Engberts: My father had an interest in philosophy, and he had quite an extensive book collection on philosophy. The first book I read on philosophy was My Way to Self-Knowledge by the Russian thinker, Nicholaj Berdjajew, but my father also had books like Tao Te Ching (《道德经》dào dé jīng) on the bookshelf. My father’s book collection sparked my interest and fuelled my youthful curiosity, and I started reading them. From that moment on, I liked philosophy in general, Chinese philosophy in particular, and I continued to study it. Then, when I was a student in Groningen, I was also very interested in Indian philosophy, Hinduism, Buddhism, and I took lectures on these subjects. I am no longer pursuing this, although I am still very much interested in Buddhism, my interest in Chinese philosophy took over.

GCI: What do you find special about Chinese philosophy?

Engberts: One of the reasons I am drawn to Chinese philosophy is that I find it very beautiful, particularly relationships to nature. As it says in the Book of Changes (《易经》yì jīng), your behaviour and your ethics should be in relation with nature and natural behaviour, and I like those ideas very much. Another reason is, and this has really been developing over the last fifteen years, that ancient Chinese philosophy is not in contrast with modern scientific views. It is metaphysics, what I like to call scientific metaphysics. In natural science, there are a number of questions that cannot be answered by scientific methods, and those questions are, in fact, answered or discussed in Chinese philosophy, which I find fascinating. I am following the latest developments in physics, quantum mechanics, but also in bigger systems. How did life originate on this planet for instance? And there are new ideas now on how life derived and these are, again, not in contrast with traditional classical Chinese philosophical views.

GCI: Is that related to your interest in Chinese poetry?

Engberts: As for poetry, my grandfather was a poet, and my grandmother was a translator, who sometimes wrote poetry too, so perhaps it is programmed somewhere in my genes. Also, I think Chinese poetry is the most beautiful music in the world. I like Chinese poetry very much also because it is so closely related with Chinese philosophy.

What’s more, I was born and raised in Leiden, which is a real ‘sinologist-town’. Leiden has been home to quite many famous sinologists, one of the most famous being the late Professor Duyvendak. Currently, there are several professors in Leiden who are well known all over the world for their translations of Chinese poetry and articles on Chinese philosophy. Many years ago, I have had the pleasure of meeting one of them, Professor Hulsewé. I spent some time at the Institute of Sinology in Leiden, and Professor Hulsewé invited me to his room. He showed me his Chinese dictionary, which consisted of around hundred books. He was very proud of it. Every morning, this professor came to the Institute on his bicycle, completely dressed in tropical clothing: white hat, completely white jacket and trousers. He was a very traditional person. So I have had the opportunity to see some interesting books and meet some interesting sinologists.

GCI: Reading interesting books and meeting interesting people is a great way to learn and experience different countries and different cultures, and so is travelling around the world. Have you ever travelled to China?

Engberts: Yes, I have been to many parts of China and Wuhan (武汉) is one of them, where I visited the Yellow Crane Tower (黄鹤楼). There is one legend, about a little brook close to the Yellow Crane Tower, where the famous Chinese poet Libai (李白) wanted to write a poem, but he was so impressed by a poem he saw already written on the wall, which was composed by somebody else that he said I would not write a dedicated poem. Then he washed his brush in the brook, and the water turned black. And ever since that time, the water is black. So when I was in Wuhan, I wanted to check if this little brook was actually black. I found it with the help of a local friend, and indeed the water is still black. The poem Libai saw was about the legend of the Yellow Crane.

GCI: Yes, it’s a great poem. In China, many people can even recite it. Have you also heard the story of the Yellow Crane?

Engberts: Yes, there are several versions of the Yellow Crane story. This is one as told to me by my friend in Wuhan.
About 1600 years ago, a young man named Xin (辛) opened an inn near the old bridge over the Yangtze River (长江) close to the city of Wuhan. Business was slow; the inn did not get many visitors. One day, an old Taoist priest came by and asked for wine, but the sage did not have any money. Xin gave him the wine anyway as a token of his respect and reverence for the wise old man. Everyday the sage returned, and to show his gratitude, he painted a beautiful yellow crane on the wall of the inn. Then something very special happened: every night the crane came to life and danced the most wonderful dance for the visitors of the inn. After an hour, the crane would return to its spot on the wall and change back into a painting. Everyone enjoyed the crane’s dancing, and more and more people came to visit the inn. Business was booming. This continued for ten years, during which time the sage was not seen again.
But then one afternoon, the sage returned playing on his flute. The sounds of the flute brought the crane to life, and the old sage climbed on its back. Xin wanted to thank the old priest, but before he got the chance the crane went up in the air and with the sage on his back flew eastward over the waves of the Yangtze. Everyone present was deeply moved by these events, and this story has been passed on from generation to generation ever since.
To commemorate these events, the Yellow Crane Tower was built.

GCI: Beautiful story! It is really a typical Chinese story as it always encourages people to do good deeds to others. In stories, people who help others usually get well rewarded, although he or she did not expect it when he was doing the good deed. As you have been to China a number of times, what are your observations and reflections on the Chinese people based on your own experience in the country?

Engberts: I have a very good friend in China, Professor Yajiang Yang (杨亚江). He is a chemist and he came to my group here after his doctoral degree for more than a year and we became very good friends. His granddaughter is our Chinese granddaughter, because in China if you have a good friend, then their child is also your child. My wife and I visited him quite a few times, and he took us on a trip through China. So we have been to many different parts of China. Having my friend as guide was not only very pleasant, but also very handy, because my wife and I do not speak the language.

Based on my experience with China and Chinese people, I think the Chinese are hardworking, very clever people, and they cherish friendship. Friendship in China, also in the old philosophy, is highly favoured, and I have seen that at first hand. If you have a nice conversation with someone, very rapidly a friendship develops from that. I have developed some very good relationships with Chinese colleagues from working together on various projects. So, I not only like the country and the countryside, but I also like the people.

GCI: You do research in Chemistry and Chinese philosophy. The two fields seem so different from each other. Have you found any connection or interaction between the two fields?

Engberts: Yes, I have. Traditional organic chemistry focuses on making new compounds, to be used as, for example, a medicine or as a material. So you put two compounds together and you hope that they react, and then you get a reaction product which is purified and characterised, etc. I am a physical organic chemist, which means I operate in a field between physics and chemistry. So I look at the reaction, but I look in detail at how the reaction runs its course to find out the exact reaction mechanisms. What are the rules for reactions to take place? I try to understand why one reaction is very fast and another one is much slower. And my particular interest for many years has been chemistry in water. Water is a wonderful liquid that is not very well understood, yet all life processes depend on water. Water is necessary for all reactions in biological systems. Everything that occurs in living entities must occur in the presence of water. There is a desert in South America that is completely dry. There are places in this desert where there has been no rain for perhaps ten thousand years. There is absolutely no life because there is no water. So water is important. In Chinese philosophy, water is also extremely important as a metaphor. I have written an article about that: The Earth, Life and Water (水哉! 水哉! Shui Zai! Shui Zai!). Traditional Chinese philosophers all mentioned water somewhere. Confucius (孔子 kŏngzĭ) used water, when he stood at a river and said everything is flowing, Lao-Tze (老子lăozĭ) used water as a metaphor in his book, Chinese poets used water many times. Water is fluid; it is never the same, just as life. This overlap between chemistry and philosophy really stimulated my interest and research in both areas.

GCI: Do you have any future research plans for Chinese philosophy and poetry?

Engberts: I have so many ideas that I would like to research. One of them is to do research on tolerance in the future. I was so impressed by the way that traditional religions––Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism–– are accepted in China. People do not fight each other because their world views differ, unlike in other parts of the world. This struck me most when we, my wife and I, visited Taishan (泰山). Taishan is a very high and holy mountain in Shandong province (山东). You can go to the top of this mountain, where there is a beautiful gate. Here you will find 22 temples, among which there are Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist temples. We were accompanied by a lady who very much wanted to have a baby, and when we reached the top of the mountain, she went to a Taoist (道家, dàojia), Confucian, and Buddhist temple to pray. To see her going to each of these temples was very impressive. She told me that she appreciates the ideas of all the different religions and philosophies, so why not pray to them all. That is impossible in the Western world. And I really appreciate this kind of tolerance, so I would like to do some more research on the concept of tolerance in Chinese history.

Interviewed by Liu Jingyi(刘婧一)
Written by Ingrid Fischer