During the 2015 spring festival, many students paying new year visit to their teacher, Prof. You Xilin, found he became thinner and grew more grey hairs. Although in his seventies and diagnosed with diabetes before the new year, he still worked tirelessly, as could be seen from the heaps of books, manuscripts and letters on his desk. Anyone who is familiar with Prof. You knows there is not any holiday or vacation in his life, for he would rather retain a reasonable distance with this crowded world, in order to preserve a state of serenity for his academic pursuit.
You Xilin is a professor and doctoral advisor of aesthetics and literary theory at School of Chinese Language and Literature of Shaanxi Normal University. Since 2009, Prof. You has been working as the leading expert in the compilation of the textbook "Principle of Aesthetics", a key textbook developed under the Project of Research and Construction in Marxist Theory of the Ministry of Education. For six years, he worked on seven major revisions with other compilers, and even travelled between Xi'an and Beijing several times in a month. He says that textbooks, different than other academic works, must be accurate to every concept and every detail, able to withstand the test of time and responsible to readers of different generations. Before its publication in November 2015, he had proofread the manuscript multiple times. He noted foreign origins of every key concept in the textbook. This seemingly simple job proves to be painstaking and time-consuming. His students offered to do some of the work for him but they were declined, because he laid down a rule not to outsource his work to his students, no matter how busy he is. Quite the opposite, he would go through every trouble to help them when they were in need.
When visited by students, he rarely allows himself to be engaged in trivialities or small talk. Instead, he loves to talk about academic research, sharing his experience selflessly, which is often highly inspirational to students. Once he told a story about writing a paper concerning computer and artificial intelligence. He not only searched and read a lot about artificial intelligence, but also had a doctor in mathematics from Northwest Polytechnic University teach him advanced mathematics. Achieving creativity amid familiarity in doing research and writing articles is what Prof. You has been doing for years. He once wrote about the two principles of his essay writing: one is no writing without creativity and another is focusing on fundamental issues instead of following the fads. Many of his articles are the results of years of revision, yet he is ready to give them up for publication once he finds publication of similar research and wait till he has had substantial new findings after further work. He asked his students to stay patient and resist worldly temptations and warned them against obsession with publication, for "Academic research is a tool for public service."
German educator Wilhelm von Humboldt was once referred to by German philosopher Martin Heidegger as a man "pondering lonely by the side of grave before dying". Prof. You is very fond of this reference and regards it as his motto of life and academic pursuit. There is a big cupboard with many drawers full of cards in his study. People who have seen the cards know the materials collected in each drawers can be turned into a thick book. Immanuel Kant, Karl Marx and Martin Heidegger are his favorite philosophers. Before computers were available, he made index cards for their numerous works manually all by himself, which testifies his familiarity with these classics. However, readers can hardly find direct studies of these classic works, but rather the presentation of "History of Questions" through decades of his exploration and analysis into the depths of humanist theories. The update and development of Marxist view of labor has become the core theme of his research in aesthetics and humanities, which turned into his research in theory of literature and art, aesthetics and religious studies integrated with humanistic principles. In his aesthetic studies, Prof. You, as a representative of contemporary practical aesthetics, has developed the idea of "substituting religion with aesthetic education" which has been in existence since the late Qing Dynasty. He reconstructed the humanistic belief of contemporary Chinese aesthetics on the basis of stressing the social existence and modernity of aesthetics. Reflecting on the humanistic features of aesthetics, he wrote his classic works such as Humanistic Discipline and Its Modern Significance and Introduction to Humanistic Discipline, which have been regarded as pioneers in developing the theories of modern Chinese humanistic discipline.
For SNNU students, Prof. You is not only a erudite scholar, but also a great teacher they love and respect. In his acceptance speech, he wrote, "Podium is a sacred place. It is where the lifelong wisdom of generations of teachers resides. Teachers will pass away but their impressions are here forever. It is where generations of brilliant young people look on to. Society has trusted teachers with the noble task of imparting knowledge and teaching skills to these young people, as well as entering their spiritual world. Society has also asked these young people to inherit these most valuable thoughts and knowledge."
During his thirty years career, Prof. You has taught aesthetics and truth on the sacred podium with his sincerity and reverence. He is not only one of the most popular teachers on SNNU campus, but also a teacher with numerous auditor fans from various universities in Xi'an. Apart from his general introduction courses for undergraduate students at the School of Chinese Language and Literature, he began to offer the course of Readings of Classic Works to the Base Class of Chinese Language and Literature since middle 1990s. This mode of teaching through reading classics has become an important way of spiritual communication among students of liberal arts majors at the university, and its influence has extended to many other universities as well. Since 1997, his general education course of the General Introduction to Humanities and Liberal Arts has had an attendance of more than 3,000 students from undergraduate to graduate students in about a dozen majors of humanities, social sciences, and science and engineering. He also gave speeches at more than 20 Chinese and overseas universities, such as Qsinghua University, Beijing Normal University, the Chinese University of Hongkong, University of London and University of Hamburg.
Peaches and plums do not talk, yet the world beats a path to them. During the last five years, five of the eight doctoral candidates supervised by Prof. You have been granted China's National Social Science Fund or MOE's Humanities and Social Science Fund, two of them awarded the Baosteel Educational Prizes, and one was the nominee of the Top 100 Doctoral Dissertations.
Speaking of the spiritual inheritance behind these achievements, Prof. Wang Hong, the instructor of Ancient Chinese Poetry - one of the first national level open courses, wrote on her microblog: "We were his first students. More than twenty years on, we have long outgrown the age of worshiping somebody easily, but my husband - and my classmate - and I still believe that Prof. You is our spiritual leader in our youth, and his influence on us is still active."
Prof. Nie Mingli, an expert of ancient Greek philosopher at Renmin University of China, was an undergraduate student of Prof. You. He paid visits to his mentor and said, "Some people regard academic pursuit as their career, but you treat it as your life. Some analyze truth with concepts, but you pursue truth with your life."
Text by Yang Guoqing
Photo by Zhang Li