An Austrian brings classical Western philosophy into Chinese universities

By Zhang Yu Source:Global Times Published: 2014-11-21 5:03:02

Leopold Leeb writes on the blackboard during a Latin lesson at the Renmin University of China. Photo: Li Hao/GT



Whether it's in class, in the documentary his students shot about him, or when he is featured in newspapers, Leopold Leeb always wears one of the two black t-shirts that he designed for himself. On the first t-shirt, the initial few letters of the Latin, Hebrew and Greek alphabets are printed above a Chinese version of a phrase from the biblical book of Corinthians, "The Spirit Gives Life." On the second t-shirt, the sentence "God is Love" is printed in Latin, Hebrew, Greek, English and Chinese.

Leeb is a teacher of Latin, Greek and classical Hebrew at the Renmin University of China. This is the 20th year that the Austrian, aged 47, has lived in China, and he has no plans to go back to his homeland.

He was wearing the second t-shirt - the one with "God is Love" printed on it - when he was teaching a lesson on classical Hebrew on Tuesday afternoon. Giving the lecture in fluent, German-accented Chinese, he only occasionally used English to explain the Hebrew terms.

Initially there were five students in the class. Another five or so entered the classroom 30 minutes after the class started. "The course is open to all students in the university, but only five students signed up for the course and only two or three of them come regularly," Leeb told the Global Times after the class, with disappointment in his voice. "I wished more students would come to my class."

The other students who attended the class that day came from a variety of universities and walks of life, purely out of a passion for learning the language. They included a Chinese couple, both Christians, who drove over 40 minutes to be there and said that they wanted to learn classical Hebrew to gain a better understanding of the Old Testament. There was an Israeli woman currently studying at Peking University named Sharon, who Leeb invited to the lesson so she could answer students' questions about classical Hebrew. And there was a woman called Mei Ping, who said she goes to the same church as Leeb, the Xuanwumen Church, on Sundays.

Journey to the east

In 1988, when Leeb was 21, he went to Taiwan on an exchange program prompted by his interest in Chinese culture, philosophy and language. The length of the program was two years, but he stayed there for three, simply because he wanted to learn more. "People told me that Chinese is one of the most difficult languages in the world, but I wasn't afraid, and six months later I bought my first reader on Confucius. My experience in Taiwan pretty much determined what I wanted to do with my whole life," he said.

His life's goal was to help bridge the gap between Chinese and Western cultures. In 1995, after finishing a master's degree in Austria, Leeb came to China as one of the doctoral students of philosopher Tang Yijie at Peking University, focusing his studies on how Christianity first came to China. In the following 20 years, he has published and translated around 50 books and dictionaries and has given thousands of lectures on classical languages.

"A few years ago, a professor at Peking University told me that Chinese academics are only familiar with Western philosophy after the French revolution, rather than the classical Western philosophy represented by Plato, Cicero and the Bible. I was shocked. If they didn't understand ancient Western philosophy, they wouldn't be able to understand where the revolution came from, and from that point on I decided I wanted to teach classical Western culture."

Outside of his academic life, Leeb said he rarely socializes with others and likes to spend most of his spare time doing research and writing alone in his dorm room on the campus. "Sometimes I feel like a typist - I'm always typing in my room," he said. He is unmarried, and says he doesn't plan to wed or become a father. "I have my students and my books. They're like my children," he said.

Building a foundation

For Leeb, mastering Latin, Greek and ancient Hebrew are the entry point for those who want to understand Western law, literature and philosophy. "Every Chinese university should have one semester's Latin for every freshman," he said, taking a piece of paper out of his bag. On it was a one-page article he wrote entitled "Ten reasons why Chinese students should learn Latin," which he distributes to his students during his Latin classes.

The reasons he gives include an improved ability to understand and analyze English words, arriving at clear concepts and logical thinking, and gaining a better grasp of the Western way of thinking, as exemplified in Latin proverbs. The most important reason, he wrote, is that if more Chinese people learn Latin, new areas of knowledge would be opened to Chinese scholars, such as comparative literature, classical philology, Roman law, and ecclesiastical law.

"There are probably more people learning about oracle bone scripts in China. But there aren't any classics written in oracle bone scripts - they're just signs," he said. "There are so many laws, philosophies, epics and dramas written in Greek, and yet they are ignored in China."

He has just finished compiling a textbook on the Greek language, and is now compiling a Greek-Chinese dictionary. "Compiling a dictionary is laborious work, but if I don't do it, no one will probably be doing it over the next 20 years. I put a lot of pressure on myself," he said.


Newspaper headline: Bridging the thought gap


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