Skip to content

<< All News

My Indissoluble Bond with Whitehead by Zhonghui Yan

My Indissoluble Bond with Whitehead



“Whitehead’s philosophy is perhaps the summit of the entire Western tradition,” claims Albert W. Levi, historian of philosophy, in his book Whitehead’s Philosophy, “Philosophy and the Contemporary World”. According to Zhang Junmai, “Among contemporary philosophers, Whitehead is the only one who can combine the principles of Plato, Einstein’s theory of relativity, and Planck’s quantum theory into a system that can be described as one of a kind. Qu Shiying once suggested that “Whitehead was the one who opened up new paths for philosophy, and a hundred years later, he would be like Kant to us now.” An ordinary person like I am can only gaze at Whitehead’s profundity and vastness far through time and space, and swim with an open mind. My connection with Whitehead?  I can’t say much more than that I was fortunate enough to be associated with his thought and to study his works intensively.


Studying Whitehead is as indispensable and natural to me as eating and sleeping. If I were to tell someone the story of Whitehead and me, it would be lacking in vivid twists and turns.  I can even describe my method as just “read his books.” Fortunately, I translated and published Whitehead’s The Ames of Education. When someone asks me, “Do you have any stories from the translation?” I can only answer honestly: what story can I have, but to sit in front of a computer, translate a few lines, delete a slice, translate a few more lines, and then delete a bigger slice. This is the story of Whitehead and me


In 2014, at the age of 35, I enrolled in a master’s degree in Curriculum and Instructional Theory at Harbin Normal University. Shortly after my grades were announced (before the school year began and before I was officially accepted), I received a call from my mentor, Ms. Yang Li, inviting me to read Whitehead’s “The Aims of Education” every Tuesday afternoon. At that time, I was obsessed with reading “The Drinking”, and if I had left it to the nature of my mind, I might have been studying Plato. This was how I was led to the path of Whitehead’s research.


At that time, I already had a certain reading pattern, and also had many years of teaching experience, and soon the book became “thick” with traces of my own experiences. Although I was reading The Purpose of Education at the time, I never imagined that I would spend so much time on this “White Sea” afterwards. It seems that I did not choose the Whitehead of my own accord, but rather the Whitehead philosophy chose me.


During that summer vacation, I went to Mudanjiang, Heilongjiang with my teachers to attend the 9th Sino-US Process Summer Academy, where I encountered Americanprocess thinkers Prof. Bob Mesle, Prof. Barbara Mesle, Dr. Kevin Clark, Ms. Angela Donnelly,Ph.D student John Becker as well as Chinese process philosophers Dr.Wang Zhihe  Wang andDr. Meijun Fan. Although it was only a weeklong academy, it was very rewarding. In some sense, it changed my life.


My education started from a college degree, and my English was very poor. I was not able to speak everyday English in class, but I was bravely speaking in English with my hands and feet when discussing educational topics and Whitehead’s philosophy. Speaking English may be a bit like drinking and getting drunk; once you’ve started you have nothing to worry about. If I had the opportunity to live in an English-speaking environment for a while, my English would probably be ok because I’m not afraid to speak.


By the way, I can translate The Purpose of Education not because of my good English. I can’t even compare with any of the translation software. My translation of The Purpose of Education is based on my understanding of Whitehead. It is possible to know every word a philosopher uses without understanding their meaning. But because I have studied Whithead’s concepts, I am more suitable to translate his words than someone who might have better general English skills.


One particularly noteworthy thing happened during the summer school. During a group discussion, an American teacher Kevin was talking. I didn’t understand English at all, but I felt in my heart that I understood what he meant. Then I repeated it in Chinese, and the teacher said I was right, even though he barely knew Chinese. Then Teacher Fan (who understood both Chinese and English) came to confirm that, yes, we understood each other. This wonderful experience dispelled all my concerns about learning English. Expression is based on emotions. Even if you don’t speak the language, understanding can still happen in a magical way.


I think the instructors at the two events I attended, Prof. Bob and Prof. Barbara, did a great job with the content of the course, the choice of the format, the timing of the course, and the art of navigating the classroom. I was transformed from a teacher to a student and was inspired by this teaching format.


After the summer school, students were required to write an English paper to submit to the teachers, and I received help from the teachers in many ways, such as a small note, a long-distance phone call, or an email. The teachers always responded to my letters, which made me feel very warm. Probably because of my relentless communication and hard work in revising, I won the third prize in the English essay competition of the summer school despite my poor English.


If the reading is informed by the literature, then communication with these excellent Whitehead scholars is also important literature. I am so grateful to the teachers for their enlightenment, encouragement, and sincere help in gaining real access to these Whitehead scholars and to the practice of Whitehead in really life.


Romantic interest inevitably drives one to go to precision, to want to really hold onto something.  If I only read Whitehead’s The Aims of Education, I would not be able to explain The Aims of Education at all – because it lacks a holistic understanding and a connected perspective. My goal is not to read one Whitehead book, but to study Whitehead’s ideology of Organic Education and so I will study each of Whitehead’s books, including his most profound writings.


Whitehead’s Process and Reality, which is comparable in difficulty to Kant’s three major critiques, is even more unattainable for me. I chose Professor Bob’s “Process-Relational Philosophy: A Brief Introduction to Alfred North Whitehead” as my introductory book.  A few of my classmates set up a Sophia book club to read it in both English and Chinese.


We persevered with this little book club with great courage. On those days when the weather was cold and we no heating, when it rained and snowed, I carried my computer on my back, traveled through bus stations from South to North of the Yangtze River, reading Bob’s book diligently in both English and Chinese – the book was literally falling to pieces.


And so we read “The Aims of Education” along with the teacher while reading the introductory book. This book, which now seems fluid and easy, was at one time a difficult book for me to read. This reading was a gradual process that went from being incredibly difficult to sometimes going smoothly and sometimes feeling like we were gnawing hard bone. It took us more than six months to finish the book and lay a solid foundation for a better understanding of Whitehead. We are encouraged when we receive letters from Bob. The book was later brought to the United States by the teacher and given to Bob.  Looking back at the journey, it was difficult and hard, but it was beautiful and good.


With the support from Professor Yang Li, our book club has been moved to the teacher’s office, which was spacious, bright and warm. The members of the club were also expanded, and the content of readings was adjusted accordingly. At that time, we read Taylor also in the Chinese and English version. I don’t know where our confidence came from, but all of us could only speak Chinglish at the time, especially me, who didn’t even have a CET4 certificate, but we persevered. After reading Taylor, we read Dewey.


I read these books, but my main focus was still Whitehead, and because of the readings and comparisons, I became more determined to the Whitehead study. It is only in such comparative reading that I truly appreciate how good Whitehead is. It is like finding your own sail after a thousand sails, finding your own beauty in a pile of beauties.


If I started out reading Whitehead along with the flow, I am now actively engaged in Whitehead reading as time goes on here. Whitehead has lightened up my mind. I felt a sense of mission calling me to study Whitehead.


There were some teachers and students who questioned us for being “unprofessional” and felt that Whitehead had nothing to do with our major (curriculum and pedagogy). It was around this time that it became clear to me that Whitehead’s studies were not only related to our major, but also had a very direct and deep connection to it. I wanted to prove to people that there should be a place for Whitehead in the history of curriculum theory. This is one of the major motivations for me to do Whitehead studies.


Walking on the Way (Dao)

Like a diligent farmer plowing the earth, I read every Whitehead book I could get my hands on, day in and day out, gnawing on it, word for word, reading it over and over again. If I couldn’t get through a book, I had to work on it again and again. When I traveled far, I always took a box of Whiteheads with me, just like the ancient scholars. In the first year of my graduation, I did 160,000 words of basic writing and almost made the prototype of my thesis.


On the Internet (Classical QQ Reading group), I read “The Aims of Education” with friends from all over the world. Before that, I read Whitehead’s “The Aims of Education” time and time again on my own, and my teacher was also organizing students to read “The Aims of Education” together with her graduate class. This time around, the reach of the mind extended to deeper subtleties. The reading group was very important to me because of the length of time it took and the fact that it took up a larger part of my life. The only regret is that Mr. Yang Xiaohong, who was in the reading group and did not see my translation of “The Aims of Education” published, passed away. During reading together, the words, either complimentary or reassuring, made me feel that Mr. Xiao Hong had expectations of me and that I should try to be worthy of those expectations. Many of my reading buddies became my reading buddies for other books, and the relationship continued.


In 2016, our reading group as a whole was selected as the Person of the Year, and the editorial board of the “Monthly Teacher” magazine of East China Normal University awarded us a crystal clear trophy, which is kept here with me.


Reading is the least deceiving.  What you have read is what you have read, licked through is licked through, the deeper you read, the deeper you reflect. Even if you read the guideline or someone else’s second-hand information, someone else’s is always someone else’s.  Only what you have read belongs to you. I have a grounded understanding of the purpose of education, probably because I am not a stupid person, and have read it long enough and often enough. During my studies, if I read a sentence from The Purpose of Education, I would open the book and instantly find the page and the sentence. I don’t remember it as accurately now as I did then, and it’s better than a lot of people who just browsed through the book.


Reading is about a personalized aesthetic experience, and I had wanted to translate “The Aims of Education” when I first read it, during my reading group, this desire became even more intense.


In 2018, I happened to talk to Mr Ling Zongwei about my desire to translate “The Aims of Education,” fearing that no publisher would hire a little-known person like me. He recommended the East China Normal University Press for me, and President Peng Chengjun asked me to translate one chapter, and after reading it, he was willing to trust me and gave me a publishing contract. The dream that i had never dared to think about came true overnight. It was like a man making a wish and the whole world is helping him.



Since then, I have been working on this dream day after day, night after night. Sometimes all morning long, trying to figure out a sentence. Sometimes, I would think all morning in order to figure out one sentence. Sometimes I struggle with several translations, changing the word first and then replacing them all with another word. The progress of the translation was sometimes negative, in and out, and it was only drafted in 2019. It has been published, but there are still shortcomings and adjustments to be made. Hopefully I’ve been growing along the way and I will have the opportunity to do more to promote Whitehead research.


I’ve posted a couple of small articles related to Whitehead, but firstly, I was not yet ready, and secondly, I needed to focus on the selected topic, and there was a word limit, which was not ideal.  Then I stopped publishing them and just wrote them in silence, or typed them in silence, waiting for them to come to fruition. I was not in a hurry, because I want to think and live like Whitehead. Whitehead is also a man who is willing to mature in his later years, so that what he had already discussed in his twenties is not written until he is in his sixties, which is what makes him Whitehead. Life moves on. If you write later, you can expect it longer, and it will be more beautiful when you get what you want.


I, an insignificant person, because of my proximity to such a great philosopher as Whitehead, seem to have found the center of gravity in my life. Now I am calm and relaxed, just as a fully loaded pontoon will not be blown over by the wind and waves.


Life is like that, and that is the way Dao goes. Stay true to the Dao, live up to your fate, happily lead this life.


(Translator: Margaret Cheng and Barbara Mesle)

[1] Ms. Zhonghui Yang, a translator of The Ames of Education by Whitehead, now is a  middle school physics teacher. She got her master degree in education from Harbin Normal University.

사본 -严中慧