CHING, JULIA (1934–2001), a scholar of comparative religion, was one of the major contributors in the last three decades of the twentieth century to the Western world's understanding of Chinese religions, especially Confucianism, and their dialogue with Christianity.
Julia Ching was born on October 15, 1934, in Shanghai, and completed her high school education in Hong Kong before she studied at the College of New Rochelle in New York, majoring in history, philosophy, and theology. She completed a master's degree in European History at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Ching's intellectual curiosity and spiritual openness led her to a progressively deeper knowledge of Western culture and Christianity, culminating in her service as an Ursuline nun for two decades.
In 1971, Ching obtained her Ph.D. degree in Asian studies at the Australian National University in Canberra with a thesis later published in 1976 as To Acquire Wisdom: The Way of Wang Yang-ming. She started her academic career first as a lecturer at Australian National University (1969–1974), then as visiting associate professor at Columbia University (1974–1975), and later as associate professor of philosophy at Yale University (1975–1979). Finally she moved to the University of Toronto (1978–2000), first as visiting associate professor in 1978. Ching was tenured in 1979 and promoted to a professorship in 1981 in the Department of Religion; she was cross-appointed to the Department of East Asian Studies in 1979 and the Department of Philosophy in 1990. For her eminent scholarly achievement, she was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1990, named University Professor of the University of Toronto in 1994, selected to be the inaugural holder of the R. C. and E. Y. Lee Chair of Chinese Thought and Culture at the University of Toronto in 1998, and finally named a member of the Order of Canada in July 2000. She died on October 26, 2001, in Toronto, after a long battle with cancer.
Through her intellectual work Ching attempted to bridge China and the West on the level of philosophy and religion by her unceasing quest of wisdom. For her, when interpreting Wang Yangming, wisdom is,
the harmony and purity of the mind-and-heart, perfect in its spontaneity, true to its pristine nature. Wisdom is also the proven ability of dealing with a variety of human situations according to an inborn moral intuition, developed and realized to its fullest by earnest self-cultivation, unchanging in its constant attachment to goodness and virtue, and yet flexible in its judgment of variables and in its freedom of decision. (1976, p. 73)
More effort was made by Ching to launch scholarly religious dialogue between representatives of Chinese religions and Christianity. Her Confucianism and Christianity: A Comparative Study (1977) is a great contribution to the dialogue between Confucianism and Christianity. Christianity and Chinese Religion (1989), a major work she coauthored with Hans Küng, provided some fundamental perspectives for the dialogue of the three major Chinese religions—Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism—with Christianity. For her, these traditions challenge all of us to redefine "religion," not only as something related to God, but also and especially "as a striving for self-transcendence that remains open to Heaven, to the Great Ultimate, to the True Self and to the Pure Land" (1989, p. 229).
Apart from these scholarly works in religious dialogue, Ching was an expert in Confucianism, especially neo-Confucianism. She began by studying Wang Yangming (1472–1529), a neo-Confucian of idealist orientation in the Ming dynasty. She edited with her own major contribution the English translation of the Records of Ming Scholars by Huang Zongxi (1610–1695). In 2000, she published The Religious Thought of Chu Hsi, focusing on the great neo-Confucian of realist orientation in the Song dynasty, Zhu Xi (1130–1200). This book was her last major work, and it gave an excellent interpretation and reconstruction of the religious thought of Zhu Xi, focusing on issues such as the Great Ultimate, spiritual beings, rituals, personal cultivation, and Zhu Xi's relation with Daoism and Buddhism.
Instead of clinging to either the idealist or the realist neo-Confucianists, Ching made an effort to draw out the best of their wisdom. She paid special attention to the religious dimension of human experience, though she always equilibrated it with humanistic philosophical reflections. She had a humanist concern for religion, with a hope that the human person could transcend himself or herself up to a better world by self-cultivation, a holistic world vision, and good governance.
The "sage" was one of her focuses in studying Chinese religions. In Mysticism and Kingship in China (1997), she mediated religion, philosophy, and politics by working on the myth of the sage and its relation to kingship in China. She examined shamanic kingship and kingship as cosmic paradigm, and the sage both as moral teacher and as metaphysician. The idea of the sage-king had deeply influenced not only Chinese political philosophy but also self-cultivation and family life. She explored all these with a sense of critique, showing that the idea of the sage had, like benevolent despotism in the West, hindered the development of democracy in China, which was also one of her major concerns. Nevertheless, the "sage" is, more essential for her, an invitation to find our own identity "in a continuous effort of self-transcendence."
Approaching the end of her life, Ching showed in her autobiography The Butterfly Healing (1998) a comprehensive and altruistic understanding of wisdom, in saying that, "Meaning is also called wisdom, even compassion—loving others as we do ourselves, or at least trying to do so. Call it Buddhism, Taoism, or Christianity. The labels don't matter. Meaning is found in living and loving, in giving and receiving, and hopefully, also in dying when the time comes" (p. 218).
Ching, Julia, trans. and ed. The Philosophical Letters of Wang Yang-ming. Canberra, 1972. An excellent English translation of selected letters of Wang Yangming, which are indispensable sources for understanding his philosophy.
Ching, Julia. To Acquire Wisdom: The Way of Wang Yang-min g. New York, 1976. The first full-length study of the philosophical and religious thoughts of Wang Yangming, developed from the author's Ph.D. thesis completed in 1971.
Ching, Julia. Confucianism and Christianity: A Comparative Study. Tokyo, 1977. Lays the historical and philosophical foundations of dialogue between Confucianism and Christianity, focusing especially on problems of Man, God and self-transcendence.
Ching, Julia, trans. and ed. The Records of Ming Scholars. By Huang Zongxi; a selected translation, edited with the collaboration of Chaoying Fang. Honolulu, 1987. A selective translation of historical documentation and some essential works of famous Confucians in the Ming dynasty, edited by Huang Zongxi.
Ching, Julia. Probing China's Soul: Religion, Politics, and Protest in the People's Republic. San Francisco, 1990. Deals with problems of politics, culture, and religion related to the student movement and Tiananmen massacre of June 1989.
Ching, Julia. Chinese Religions. Maryknoll, N.Y., 1993. A general survey of major religious traditions in China.
Ching, Julia. Mysticism and Kingship in China: The Heart of Chinese Wisdom. Cambridge, U.K., 1997. Examines the sage-king myth and ideal and their historical transformation in China.
Ching, Julia. The Butterfly Healing: A Life between East and West. Maryknoll, N.Y., 1998. An intellectual autobiography focusing on Ching's life experiences between East and West.
Ching, Julia. The Religious Thought of Chu Hsi. New York, 2000. Gives the most updated interpretation and reconstruction of the religious thought of Zhu Xi, focusing on issues such as the Great Ultimate, spiritual beings, rituals, personal cultivation, and Zhu Xi's relation with Daoism and Buddhism.
Küng, Hans, and Julia Ching. Christentum und Chinesische Religion. Munich, 1988. Translated into English as Christianity and Chinese Religion (New York, 1989). An excellent survey and analysis of problems involved in the potential dialogue of Christianity with the three major Chinese religious traditions.
Shen, Vincent, and Willard Oxtoby, eds. Wisdom in China and the West. Washington, D.C., 2004. Contains twenty papers presented for the international conference held at the University of Toronto on November 21–22, 2002, in memory of Julia Ching. Includes contributions from authors such as Hans Küng, Robert Neville, Alan Segal, John Berthrong, and Livia Kohn, some specifically on Julia Ching's thought.
Vincent Shen (2005)