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Ren Fuxing and Fred Drake


Ren Fuxing clearly takes great delight in ceremonies, especially the gift-giving and picture-taking parts of them. When he stopped by our office last summer with his friend and colleague, UMass history professor Fred Drake, he came bearing a gift copy of Xu Jiyu and the International Communication Between East and West, a compendium of essays to which both he and Drake had contributed, charmingly inscribed to "Mrs. Patricia Wright, Editor."

A few weeks earlier, at the Washington Monument, on a breezy, beautiful May afternoon in our nation's capital, Mr. Ren was lugging a nylon carry-all containing, among other gifts, a suppy of small silver coins struck in China in 1995 to commemorate the bicentenary of Xu Jiyu, the historical figure who has been the object of both Drake's scholarship and his own. These commemorative coins and their accompanying certificates he distributed with evident pleasure and pleasant ceremony to the little group of people gathered under a tent on the south side of the obelisk: several distinguished Asia scholars; three or four junior ones; a gracious young Monument staffer in her mountie hat; the Director of Chinese and Mongolian Affairs for the U.S. State Department; friends and family of Fred Drake; a reporter for Asia Watch, and ourselves. (Our coin, which sits on our desk in its little plastic case as we write, is certified as #1774 of 2000, and we treasure it.)

A compact fifty-year old with a longish buzz-cut of bottle-brush-stiff black hair, Ren Fuxing has a dramatic history. His formal education was brought to a premature halt by the Cultural Revolution, and he spent eight years of his young adulthood working in a coal mine. ("Very black," he told us with a good-natured smile as Drake conveyed this background fact.) Ren is now a journalist, scholar, and secretary-general of the Xu Jiyu Research Society in Xinzhou, Sanxi Province, northwest China. He made his first trip outside China this year to spend three months in our country (mostly in Amherst and Cambridge, with side trips to Washington, the Grand Canyon, and Las Vegas) to further his research and to raise awareness of the epochal figure Xu (pronounced Shoo) Jiyu (1795-1873).

It was the scholar-statesman Xu who, in the aftermath of his country's defeat in the Opium War of 1839-42, researched and published China's first modern geography of the world. As extraordinary as it seems today, the inwardness and isolation of Chinese civilization were then as profound as its sophistication and antiquity. Even the governing elite of Xu's day had only a dim and dismissive conception of Europe and Africa, let alone the western hemisphere. In his book Xu expressed, among other astonishments, his surprise at learning of the existence of a frozen northern sea.

Xu titled his geography A Short history of the Maritime Routes, and the nomenclature is revealing. "Short" is Confucian self-effacement; the book ran to ten volumes. "Maritime routes" is revealing in a different way; Xu saw clearly that it was Europe's questing, ocean-crossing proclivity for trade and colonization that had connected and mapped the world. While Chinese civilization was hardly less imperial in its ambition, something in it was more consolidating than questing: Chinese sea routes, notes Drake, had historically been coastal, confining themselves to the edges of Asia and East Africa.

Drake based his dissertation at Harvard and his first book, China Charts the World: Hsu Chi-yu and His Geography of 1848, on this extraordinary figure, whom he describe as "China's foremost pioneer in creating a modern, global world view for imperial statesman and scholars." Ren, in eloquent remarks read in English in Washington by a young Asian scholar currently at Harvard, spoke of his sense of privilege at representing the Xu Jiyu Society "at one of the world's magnificent structures, to pay tribute to Governor Xu and his support for amicable relations between China and the United States."

Indeed, we were gathered beside this mammoth marble obelisk precisely because Xu had paid special attention not only to our country ­ which had, he wrote, "created a new political situation unknown from ancient times down to the present" ­ but to its first president. Xu, Ren said, "attached great significance to George Washington, whom he regarded as the West's greatest statesman." Xu's openness to the virtues (especially Confucian ones) that he found in the West placed him in official disfavor for much of his later life and much of this century. He never entirely disappeared from historical memory, however; even during the period of his disrepute, American missionaries impressed with his tribute to Washington were able to gain the cooperation of Chinese provincial officials in presenting to the Washington Monument a granite memorial on which was inscribed, in Chinese, his characterization of the man Ren calls "the American hero."

We would later be taken by elevator to the top of the obelisk and escorted down multiple flights of stairs, past multiple commemorative panels ­ there are 192 of them, representing states, nations, and organizations from the Philadelphia Fire Department to the W.C.T.U. ­ to the 200-foot level, where the imposing granite tablet from Zhejian Province is mounted on the west wall. Photos were snapped, congratulations exchanged. It was a peak moment for Ren and perhaps not much less touching for Drake, whose book Ren discovered in the National Library in Beijing and has translated into Chinese.

Another monument, a world away, links these two men, such obviously good friends despite differences of culture, generation, and style. Ren is possessed, in person, of a beaming smile and affable manner that instantly bridges the gap created by his limited conversational English. (Drake says Ren adored his time at Prince House at UMass, where he stayed while consulting the collections of the Du Bois Library; he became especially good friends with a young R.A. from Haiti.) In the formality with which Ren presents himself to a camera, however, one senses the seriousness of his interests and of his dedication to cross-cultural exchange. Drake's demeanor is more seamless, his affability more courtly; he uses the word "gentleman" more often and easily than any man we've ever met; one imagines that a Chinese person might find him quite Confucian, in a jovial way.

This second monument, which Ren and Drake saw raised in Shanxi Province in 1995, we can imagine both from the marvelous rubbing , and from those ubiquitous, moment-recording snapshots. The monument to Xu Jiyu stands in front of his tomb in Wutai. Diminutive in comparison to the 555-foot shaft commemorating Washington, it is equally majestic in its very different way, and it took even longer to achieve. The cornerstone of the Washington Monument was laid in 1848, the year Xu published his geography, and the capstone thirty-six years later. The monument to Xu was raised exactly two centuries after his death. On the polished face of the monument are inscribed his name, dates, and station; on the obverse, in Chinese and English, is an inscription by Fred Drake describing his significance.

Indeed the final lines of the panel are "Fred W. Drake, University of Massachusetts-Amherst, United States of America, 1995." It was the rubbing from this panel that Drake brought by our office and unfolded, last spring, in hopes of interesting us in the forthcoming visit of his friend and colleague Mr. Ren, the person most responsible for the restoration of Xu's tomb and raising of a monument.

"It seems to me quite something," said Drake, and we agreed. "Out there on the plains of northwest China, this monument with the name of UMass on it."