Professor Fang Dongmei, officially Fang Xun, was born on February 9, 1899 in Tongcheng County, Anhui Province, China. He was the sixteenth generation descendant of Fang Bao, a famous scholar and the founder of the Tongcheng School early in the Qing dynasty. Born into a family of scholars, Fang Dongmei began his formal studies at the age of three when his family introduced him to collections of Chinese poetry. These provided him with a solid foundation in Confucianism.
In 1917, Fang Dongmei passed the entrance test for Jinling University, Nanjing and was accepted as a student. He went to the university to study the prerequisite courses. In the following year, he began a formal program to study philosophy. During his school days, he held numerous roles including President for the Student Union, Chief Editor for Jinling University’s Newsletter, and Chairman of a student fine art group known as “Chinese Philosophical Society”. Prof. Fang took part in the May Fourth Movement in 1919 and was elected Chief Editor in 1920 for two journals, “The Young World” and “Young China”.
In 1921, he went to the United States to further his philosophical studies at the University of Wisconsin and was awarded a Master Degree after two years. He then studied at Ohio University. One year later, he began his PhD studies at the University of Wisconsin and passed the doctorate debate. (However, he had to urgently return to China so was not awarded his PhD as his dissertation was not published.) In 1924, after his return to China, he took up the post of associate professor at Wuchang Normal University (now called Wuhan University) and taught Western Philosophy. In 1925 he transferred to Dongnan University to accept a full professorship position in the philosophy department. Dongnan University was renamed Central University in 1928 and became Nanjing University in 1949. Prof. Fang taught philosophy there for twenty years. During those years, he also held other posts in the university including Chairman of the Philosophy Department and Dean of the Institutional Philosophy Research Center.
Prof. Fang married Miss Gao Fuchu in 1928. They had with three sons and a daughter.
In 1947, Prof. Fang went to Taiwan to teach. He remained there and in 1948 became a professor of philosophy and Dean at Taiwan University but he resigned as Dean in 1950. In 1973, he resigned from his professorship to retire after twenty-five years of service. However, he continued his teaching at the request of Fu Jen Catholic University. Between 1959 and 1966, Prof. Fang went to the United States three times to lecture at universities. He also participated in both the 1964 and 1969 East-West Philosophy Conferences in Hawaii.
In 1953, Prof. Fang Dongmei accepted the twenty-six year old Hsu Yae Hong, who later became Ven. Master Chin Kung, as a student. When introducing the philosophy of the Buddhist sutras, Prof. Fang said, “The Buddha was a great philosopher, a great sage. Buddhist sutras contain a higher degree of philosophy, and learning Buddhism is the greatest enjoyment in life.” Master Chin Kun was attracted by Professor Fang’s comments and began his Buddhist studies.
In his later years, with profound knowledge in philosophy of the East and the West, Prof. Fang formed new thoughts on Confucianism and was highly praised as the originator of Modern Confucianism. Prof. Fang did not keep a diary, write an autobiography, or make notes, but he wrote many works: Virtue of Life, Philosophy of Huayen Buddhism, Philosophy of Mahayana Buddhism, Three Aspects of Wisdom in Philosophy, The Spirit of Chinese Philosophy and its Development, and Scientific Philosophy and Life. There is also Collected Lectures of Mr. Fang Dongmei and Mr. Yang Shiyi compiled Commemorative Collected Works of Mr. Fang Dongmei.
When talking about his experience in his philosophy studies, Prof. Fang said:
My virtue of philosophy is derived from the tradition of Confucianism.
My boldness of vision is incubated from the spirit of Taoism.
My wisdom of philosophy is obtained through the learning of Buddhism.
And my approach to philosophy is refined from the philosophies of the West.
Professor Fang had a profound knowledge of both the East and the West, as he studied various books on Chinese, Western, and Indian philosophy, and other schools of thoughts. He was well-received by international academia.
In 1964, Prof. Fang participated in the Fourth East-West Philosophers' Conference, organized by Hawaii University. His thesis “The Cosmos and the Individual in Chinese Metaphysics” drew overwhelming attention from all the countries representatives. Professor Charles A. Moore, professor of philosophy at the University of Hawaii and chair of the University's Philosophy Dept. said to Mr. Fang, “Today, I have come to realize who is truly the greatest philosopher in China.”
Professor Michael Mullan, from Oxford University, England, who was an expert in researching the ideological history in Ming dynasty, China, said, “Never have I seen a Chinese man, nor any scholar from Great Britain or the United States, who could better deliver his speech on Chinese philosophy so fluently and beautifully in English.”
The Japanese Zen Master Dr. Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, then in his nineties, commented, “The work is unique and a tour de force. It is the most outstanding work at this conference.”
In 1966, when Prof. Fang was departing from his guest professor post at Michigan University, the dean hosted a farewell dinner and awarded him with an honorable title of “The Most Outstanding Guest Professor”.
On March 26, 1977, Prof. Fang took the Three Refuges and became a Buddhist in the presence of Master Guang Qin in Chengtian Temple, Tucheng. His Dharma name was Chuan Sheng, “to carry on [the deeds of] saints”. In 1977 when Mr. Fang was on the verge of death, he cried out “Chinese people are a great people!” On July 13, 1977, Prof. Fang passed away in Taipei of lung cancer.
Mr. Wu Chinghsiung, also known as John C. H. Wu, a lawyer and juristic philosopher, praised Mr. Fang as a patriotic citizen, also a person who loved culture zealously, rationally, and compassionately. It accorded with philosophical wisdom. Mr. Fang’s life was inspiring, honorable, innocent, and sincere, worth cherishing and commemorating. All his talks, beginning with Three Aspects of Wisdom in Philosophy and concluding with Chinese Spirit and Development, are of such value that they are worthy of the next generation’s enhancement and glorification.
Master Chin Kung’s accounts of Professor Fang Dongmei
Learning Buddhism is the greatest enjoyment in life
When I was twenty-six years old, Professor Fang Dongmei told me, “The Buddha was a great philosopher, a great sage. Buddhist sutras contain a higher degree of philosophy, and learning Buddhism is the greatest enjoyment in life.” It was then that I began studying Buddhist sutras.
Reviving the Chinese culture by stopping all media distribution
In the 1970s, I was with Prof. Fang when two officers from the educational department came to visit him. At the time, the government was promoting a campaign to revive Chinese culture. One of the officers asked, “How can we effectively revive Chinese culture?” Prof. Fang was silent for a few minutes, and then he became stern. He said, “Yes! No magazines or newspapers, no televisions or radios in Taiwan.” The officers shook their heads and said, “Impossible!” We know that daily exposure to the media will only bring harm to human nature and damage Chinese culture. Hence I extol all cultivators, all Buddhist students, to not read newspapers and magazines or to watch television. Why? It is to protect their pure hearts. If you do not abstain from it, your hearts will definitely be contaminated!
Confident Ancient Chinese
What gives rise to the disasters that cause the Chinese people to suffer? The disasters are due to the loss of faith and confidence by the Chinese people. Many of our people denied the achievements of ancient Chinese sages and regarded the West as better. If we hold on to these views, we will never be better than others.
When I was learning Buddhism with Prof. Fang, I asked, “Why did all the Indian Sanskrit sutras that had been translated into Chinese vanish. Why were none of the original copies were kept?” Prof. Fang explained that the Chinese people at that time were very confident. After translation, they discarded the original sutras because they knew that they had rendered the Buddha’s teachings perfectly, without errors. The Chinese translations expressed the meanings so well, the original copies were discarded. The ancient Chinese people had such strong confidence that China became the greatest country in the world. Today, the Chinese have completely lost their confidence. I agreed with Prof. Fang’s comments and was moved by them.
Confidence and self-esteem are the roots for one’s achievement and necessary to sustain peace and harmony for a family and a country.