On the 30th of March, two students from NTU’s Philosophy Programme, Ngiam Li Yi and Zulhaqem Zulkifli, sat down with Dr. Park So Jeong. They spoke about Chinese Philosophy, art, and goats.
Li Yi (L): What are the main areas of philosophy that you are working in?
Dr. Park (P): If I simply provide a very brief introduction to the areas I’m working in, then they are Chinese philosophy, comparative philosophy, and philosophy of music. But if you want to know more, I need to talk about the fundamental motivation.
L: So what’s the origin story?
P: The main reason why I decided to do Chinese Philosophy was my interest in Korean Philosophy. I was interested in how Koreans think. Although I was doing well in Logic and Formal Logic etc. in my undergraduate years, I wasn’t very moved by them. Western Philosophy is cool, but it did not really attract me. On the other hand, I was not very satisfied with how things were done in so-called Korean Philosophy, though the landscape has changed quite a lot. While people talked about German philosophy, European philosophy, ancient or medieval philosophy, they are always translating rather than thinking in their framework. There were also people who looked at what our ancestors in Joseon dynasty have done as their main subject matter. For example, Toegye Yi Hwang (李滉1501–1570, aka 退溪) or Yulgok Yi I (李珥1537–1584, aka 栗谷) etc. However, their works were written in Classical Chinese. One or two hundred years ago, the Korean intellectuals did their work in written Chinese. Although there were tendencies to focus on certain matters which were not well-discussed in China, the grammar and way of thinking followed that of the Chinese. So I thought that to deeply understand how Koreans think, I needed to do Chinese philosophy first. That was the main reason why I jumped into a masters in Chinese Philosophy.
L: What about your interest in music and comparative philosophy?
P: The formation of my career is not linear at all. After I decided to do Chinese Philosophy, my plan was just to do a 2 to 3 years Masters course. I thought that if I paid all my energy to Chinese Philosophy, then I could get at least a basic framework of Chinese philosophy, and using that, I thought I could do what I really wanted to do, which was Korean philosophy. But when I just started my Masters’ course, I was really attracted to Zhuangzi. I never thought that I could be attracted to Zhuangzi, because I shared the same misconceptions about Daoism.
L: Why did you think that you would not be attracted to Zhuangzi?
P: It was the era of student movements, so even though I wasn’t really a professional activist, we were very much sympathetic to their claims. As my knowledge and understanding of Daoism was not that deep then, I shared the misconception about Daoism with many people at that time — that Daoism is escapism. But very fortunately, in the first semester of my masters course, the teacher who became my supervisor later offered a course on the reading of Zhuangzi. The reading was very intensive. We were required to read all the things: Zhuangzi original text, the basic commentary works like Guo Xiang (郭象252-312), Cheng Xuanying (成玄英fl. 631-655), other philological works like Wang Shu-min (王叔岷1914-2008), and much more. When we read the original text of Zhuangzi, we were supposed to understand all these commentary works behind it.
I recall some students didn’t fulfil the homework and just entertained the learning by ear, but I was too earnest or didn’t have that kind of flexibility, so I read all the required readings. After a while, I understood that only when you read all these things, could you truly understand what the teacher wanted to say. Until you have that kind of wide range of reading, you would not be able to access the much layered meanings of the Zhuangzi text. I learned that once you had read all the potential interpretations you could exploit from the readings then you could see how much room you have to read between the lines of the Zhuangzi. Gradually, I realised that Zhuangzi is not an escapist at all, but very much a radical thinker. And rather than turning his face away from social matters, he wanted to seek out more fundamental solutions. That’s why I fell in love with Zhuangzi, and in a sense, I forgot what my original goal was [laughs]. After I wrote my masters thesis on Zhuangzi, I decided to seek more Zhuangzi, because there were too many things I hoped to figure out.
L: What led you to your interest in music?
P: In the earlier stage of my PhD course, I took two courses, and both were kind of related to my interest in musical thought eventually. One was on Alfred North Whitehead, and the other is Philosophy of Art. Philosophy of Art was divided into two parts – Ontology of artworks, and Pragmatic Aesthetics by Richard Shusterman. I thought that if I turn to philosophy of art, I can show another aspect of Chinese philosophy. What I’ve learnt from my experience of reading and understanding Chinese and Korean Philosophy, is that there is much emotional quality. I thought ー it turns out to be a naïve thought, because the subject matter of aesthetics is very complex ー but at that time, I thought that because philosophy of art and aesthetics care about the emotional factor and our experience, if I turn to this angle, then I could show the unexplored aspects of Chinese Philosophy.
I read both Western and Chinese aesthetics, and I found that something is going wrong, especially with regards to the significant theme in Chinese aesthetics. They ask ‘what is 美 (mei, beauty)’, ‘what is beauty’… I don’t know how much improvement there is nowadays, but in a lot of introductory books to Chinese aesthetics, the first chapter always starts with “What is 美 (mei)?” And then the following argument is, okay, 美 (mei) is the ‘big goat’, because big goat is delicious, something like that. So the Chinese concept of beauty is somewhat related to taste. This approach is ridiculous, because early Chinese philosophers were not concerned about this question of “What is 美 (mei)?”
L: What kind of ‘goat’?
P: 羊 (yang, goat).
L: Oh, so 羊大 (yang da, ‘goat’ ‘big’), they [broke up the character for ‘beauty’].
P: Character analysis is a popular methodology to approach certain words. Some people say, 羊之大 (yang zhi da, bigness of goat?) doesn’t look or sound good, so they suggested, 羊之人 (yang zhi ren, goat person?) [laughs]. They describe a kind of ‘goat’s mask’, or that whoever plays the goat has a goat crown or something like this. This is silly. So my suspicion was growing, and I couldn’t find a reliable framework to understand Chinese aesthetics. I started to re-read original texts to see whether they are all really concerned about 美 (mei) or not. And then after all these scattered reading, I found that the real concern was not 美 (mei) but 乐 (yue, music) and 乐 (le, joy) [*Note: The same character is used for both music and joy in the Chinese language]. That was my first finding, though it’s nothing special. Everyone might know that, but not everyone reconstruct Chinese aesthetics with their findings. I found that the Western framework doesn’t fit to the Chinese thinking, at least. So I don’t know what explains this, but that was the main motivation to write on Philosophy of Music as my PhD thesis.
L: Have you gone back to your interest in Korean Philosophy?
P: I haven’t really dropped out of my concern with Korean Philosophy. I believe I always come back to my original concern. But at that time, when I started my career with the masters course, I didn’t have a really satisfactory methodology so I didn’t know how to do Korean Philosophy. That’s why, as a second best, I chose Chinese Philosophy. After that, similar things happened in my academic career. I found an intriguing task which I had not aimed at and wrestled with it – and it kept happening even till now. When I realised that music and emotions, or music related to emotions, are significant subjects if I want to talk about Chinese Aesthetics, I came back to some Korean views and scholarship on Chinese music, because Chinese music influenced Korean music in Joseon Korea.
L: You know four languages: Chinese, English, Korean and Japanese. How did you come to learn Chinese, Japanese and English?
P: I hated English when I was a schoolgirl, because at that time, the teachers were not fluent in English, so what we always did in English class in middle school and high school was memorising all the given vocabulary, and then we had to sit for tests, and exercise some silly kind of dialogue — “This is a desk. I am Jane.” I’m not Jane, but we just said it as written in the textbook. So there wasn’t any meaning, or any kind of conversation that is going on. I was not really interested in those classes at all. I didn’t study at all. You need to go through grammar to take the university entrance exam, but I skipped all the courses, all the grammar books. So I was a very rebellious girl, even though nobody really noticed that, because I was very shy. For the English exam, which had a high weightage, I just skipped one-fourth of the exam questions, because they were grammar questions.
L: Did you just leave the questions blank?
P: No, no, no, no, I guessed! Sometimes if I was lucky, then I can get 3 out of 10. If I was unlucky, then 2 out of 10, something like that. So I just skipped that part, so one-fourth was gone, but fortunately three-fourth was about comprehension. Even though I didn’t study English, but I — [someone is knocking at the door] Please come in!
Zul (Z): I think I will stand because I was drenched in the rain.
P: It’s okay!
Z: No, no —
P: You can sit here, then. [pointing to a foldable chair] You didn’t have an umbrella?
Z: Oh, because I was riding my bike, then halfway it rained.
P: So sorry.
Z: There’s nothing to be sorry about, this is… life.
P: All my classmates knew what the different kinds of verbs are, transitive verbs… I didn’t know anything about them, I didn’t know there is that kind of distinction, so I was really bad in English, but I was hired as a private English teacher.
L & Z: Wow!
P: [laughs] That was very wrong, because they thought that since I’m from the Yonsei University and in the Philosophy major I should be very good in English. That’s why I studied very hard to teach my students. I was quite an independent student, my parents already paid for my school fees, so I thought it’s not good to ask them for living fees. So starting from Year 1, I was working as a tutor. Then for those years, I found that the methodology that we were educated in for English was totally wrong, and there’s no right motivation. Anyway, I grasped the grammar, at least in the Korean way. But I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t make any conversations with foreigners or English-speaking persons, because my training was not there. So rather than saying that I have a pure interest in language, I was pushed by some needs.
L: How did you come to learn Chinese?
P: When I read Chinese classics, basically the four books, the Analects, Mencius, Book of Mean and The Great Learning, they quoted a lot of passages from The Book of Odes. While I was quite confident in the other parts, whenever I bumped into those lines from ancient poems, I cannot read them out, because all the words or terms were not used in the same way as ours. Of course, since the works were from a different stage, and these are poetic works, sometimes the writers just fill the gap or put certain meaningful words with meaningless words. I couldn’t really access the right meaning and understanding of those works. So I found that I need to learn all about The Book of Odes. I found that the Chinese division offered a course about The Book of Odes, etc. I consulted the General Office of the Chinese division, and they asked, “Do you speak Chinese?” “No, I don’t speak Chinese.” They said, “Then you cannot enrol in this course, because this course is done in Chinese.” I was shocked. I didn’t know whether I should withdraw from this course or try it out. So I spent three months of my summer holiday learning Chinese. And then, in the course, I found out that nobody can really speak Chinese, they just read some lines in Chinese and discuss in Korean.
L & Z: Ooohhh.
L: So you over-prepared.
P: Yes, over-prepared. My knowledge about Chinese was really enough for that course. I continued to take several more courses in Chinese and I got a minor degree in Chinese. That was my first experience and encounter with the Chinese language. After I graduated from university, as I said previously, I decided to do Chinese Philosophy in a masters course. At that time, as there was no chance to go to mainland China, because there was no national relationship between Korea and mainland China, I decided to go to Taiwan to take my masters course, because I thought that it’s better to study Chinese Philosophy in Chinese.
L: Which university did you go to in Taiwan?
P: I enrolled in 師範大學（师范大学, shi fan da xue, National Taiwan Normal University)’s language centre first. I was already of an advanced level, so I didn’t have to enrol in the language courses. Instead, we read Hanfeizi, Laozi and Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian) etc., with the lessons delivered in Chinese. I applied for National Taiwan University, but that year, no Taiwanese national university accepted Korean students, because the national relations between Korea and Taiwan were broken up. So I went back to Korea. Because I was quite motivated, and already moved towards studying, I continued studying. And then I encountered Zhuangzi. English came quite late, it was only after I got my PhD. [laughs] This story is not very ordinary, and it’s not standard at all.
After I got my PhD, at that time in Korea, certain needs and requirements were gradually formed. You need to attach an English abstract to your paper. Some people might think this is easy, just ask your friend to translate. But I thought, this is my writing, and if someone helped me write my abstract, although I could read and understand it, I don’t know which vocabulary words are the right ones, I don’t know which is a better way to express and communicate my ideas with other people. So I thought, “Okay, I need to learn this.” [laughs] I enrolled in the British Council, and I found a new way to learn the English language. I used to always justify why I’m very bad in English with something like, “Because I have no talent in language.” I believed so. At the British Council, I found a totally different methodology — practicing and improving your language through communication. We didn’t have to memorise vocabulary, we learn new vocabulary through communication. Whether you are very fluent or not, at least we learn new knowledge, new information. It was very fun, I liked learning, and after one year, I could manage to speak English. It was 2004. But at that time, my English was very elementary, I could speak and I could order some food, but I could do nothing that has to do with teaching.
L: But now you’re teaching in English, that’s a very big achievement.
P: I know, I’m still learning like a child. I’m improving, I hope.
L: What about Japanese?
P: Japanese was my second language in my high school.
Z: What is your advice to students who do not come from a Chinese background but they wish to pursue something in Chinese Philosophy?
P: I’m not the right person to give a very balanced view, because I’ve only followed my interests. So the suggestion or recommendation I can give you is, follow your interests. But how can you keep following your interests, right? Okay, for language, to me, you can explore the various ways of attaining the language, and you should find the right way to learn a language for yourself. That might be a better suggestion, because “follow your interests” is too vague and you cannot get any real lessons from that. For me, if your learning of language lacks communication, then you need to reconsider.
Z: Okay, so you need to practice the language as much as you learn from the texts.
P: Yes. I’m always dealing with some Chinese texts, which I think is helpful for me in keeping my Chinese language skills. Even though I learnt Chinese a long time ago, twenty years, I didn’t really practice speaking Chinese, but I could maintain some skills because I was always within the context. I also had some experience immersing in a Chinese-speaking society for 8 months. It depends on how you utilise that time, I think. For the case of English, I didn’t have any chance to speak or use English every day, except for conferences or workshops, but those are for short periods, 2 to 3 days, 4 to 5 days maximum.
Z: You mentioned that your encounter with English was very late in your life. After going through that experience, do you think it’s possible for people to pick up a language later on in their lives?
P: Yes, yes, that might be the best lesson I can give you! [laughs] It is possible. [laughs] I only used English properly or intensively when I was approaching my forties, and at that time, people surrounding me said, “This is not possible, you better give up, you need to accept your condition,” something like that. “It’s better to find another way”, or “You need to get some help.” For example, for writing, many people advised me, “You need to find a good editor, you should spend money.” I’m not saying that I don’t want to spend money [laughs]. I’m not sure what is the right way to say this, because I’m not insisting that everyone stick to that kind of polishing of one’s own language, but rather I just want to describe how I’ve been improving my language, and I still didn’t abandon my hope. I’m actually writing a book, and maybe I might seek some professional editor to edit my book in the end, because this is quite a volume of writing rather than just one paper. What I wanted to say is, language is communication. Maybe I’m not able to pick out the best words to communicate with you, but by trying to find the right word, some communication is going on here. I hope to make more direct and honest communication with you. Someone might want to correct my vocabulary or my phrasing, and I will be very happy and welcome those kinds of comments. By getting such comments, I can understand what was wrong, and what would be a better word. By doing so, I can improve on my communication too, rather than just my language.
Z: You mentioned your book, what is the topic that you are addressing in that book?
P: I started this project a long time ago, the title is “Landscape of Sound: Aesthetic Philosophy in the Musical Theory in Early China.”
L: Are you writing the entire book?
P: Yes, I believe only the introduction is left. This is kind of a rewriting of the early Chinese thought from the concern with philosophy of music. It’s a reconstruction of Confucius through — including Lüshi Chunqiu (The Spring and Autumn Annals of Master Lü), through Mencius, Zhuangzi, Xunzi, and even Mozi.
L: Is there anything you want to say to your students?
P: How should I start? Ok, most candid one first. I think more students in Singapore need to study philosophy.
Z: Don’t agree readily Li Yi, you’re interviewing her!
P: Please include her immediate response! I was very, very happy to be able to meet the philosophy students. Whether the philosophy degree is helpful for you career-wise — I believe it depends on your choice and how you live your life — I hope you can find this to be the most valuable thing you’ve chosen. And just one thing, if I may add, from my point of view, I think we need to have a deeper concern about our real-life experience. If you neglect what is happening around you, then philosophy will be isolated. That is not good for philosophy. This is a bit sensitive, I’m not sure, but I hope to bring in more concern about the complexity behind certain well-argued argument or statement.
L & Z: Thank you so much for sharing your story with us!
Dr. Park is a scholar of Confucian and Daoist thought. Her current projects include a comparative study on musical thought in Early China and Ancient Greece, as well as a revision of Zhuangzian musical thought.