Tuesday, September 29, 2015

China and Mr Russell

 'Viewing Fish at Flower Pool': A souvenir of Russell's visit to the Western Lake, Hangzhou

Bertrand Russell is hugely influential in China, and has been for almost a century. He is recommended reading for high school and university students. The General Manager of The Commercial Press, which has published Russell in translation in China since his nine-month visit in 1920-21, quotes him in speeches. Russell’s statement towards the end of his life, ‘What I have lived for', seems to have made a powerful and lasting impact.

Russell's story in China is closely interwoven with that of The Commercial Press, which is itself an institution of some durability in the ups and downs of China’s recent history. 

The Commercial Press Head Office, built in the 1950s, is on Wangfujing Street in the centre of Beijing.  

Apparently, one of the founders of Commercial Press suggested that Russell be invited to China, and CP put up a considerable sum to pay for the visit. In 2015, their generous invitation to Tony Simpson of the Russell Foundation to visit Commercial Press in Beijing afforded a unique opportunity to explore this shared history. As well as making a presentation at Commercial Press' headquarters in Beijing, he was able to follow Russell’s journey south to the Western Lake in Hangzhou. This not only afforded an opportunity to understand why this beautiful landscape made a lasting impression on Russell, but also to debate with teachers at Zhejiang University about Russell’s lasting influence on China’s intellectuals. A topic which continues to arouse some controversy.

On the steps of Commercial Press head office in Beijing: Tony Simpson of the Russell Foundation with (from left) Ms Guo Chaofeng (Vice Head of Copyright and Legal Department), Ms Wang Qi (Vice General Manager), Mr Yu Danli (General Manager), Mr Chen Xiaowen (Vice Editor-in-Chief), Ms Du Maoli (interpreter).


     Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a deep ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.

     I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy -- ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness -- that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it, finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what -- at last -- I have found.

     With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.

     Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a hated burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate the evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.

     This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.

This is the prologue to the Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, written on 25 July 1956 in his own hand.

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