At the beginning of my research on T'ang, I had spotted an "old Chinese man" who, according to the keeper of T'ang's building at 43 rue Liancourt in Paris, "often came to see him" and "admired the trees in the courtyard". Then the mention by several friends of T'ang of "another inspiration" that had led him to adopt a Taoist way of life, and in T'ang's address book, a mention "Cheng" and the phrase "my mother and I through the first Chinese revolution" which turned out to be the title of a book written by Cheng Tcheng.
Then my meeting with Caroline Puel, a sinologist, correspondent of the French newspaper Libération in Beijing, to whom I told this part of my research. Sometime later she discovered that her Chinese assistant had a certain Cheng Tcheng as her professor. An appointment was set and I went to Beijing in September 1995.
The meeting was very meaningful, I would even say enlightening. We had spoken on the phone and Tcheng asked me to bring him a bottle of Bordeaux that he was missing. The Beijing airport was populated by women from all over the world who had come to participate in the World Women's Conference where Hillary Clinton was going to give a speech. The Chinese authorities had organized everything and many young, athletic and tanned men wearing "Volunteer Student" t-shirts, carried the luggage of the delegates.
I was not participating in the women's conference, but the day after my arrival, I was surprised to find the cab driver who had brought me from the airport as I left the hotel. I gave him the address of Professor Tcheng who lived in the Haidian district. On the way, after turning on the Chinese radio in English, my "Volunteer Student" started the conversation in approximate English: "why are you going to Haidian to visit a retired professor?", I answered "Professor Tcheng is my grandfather" then, amused by his look in the rear-view mirror, I added, holding my chin, "can't you see that I am a quarter Chinese?”. He fell silent and remained silent.
Tcheng found the anecdote very funny and congratulated me on the way I turned the situation around: "You forced him not to make you lose face. As he is there to watch you, he has no right". I spent the afternoon with the teacher, we drank wine and talked a lot, his French was perfect. He told me about Paul Valéry who had written the preface to "Ma mère et moi... (my mother and I)", about Ataturk, the Turkish leader, whom he had known well; about General de Gaulle of whom he showed me a letter; about Dumézil and his concept of the three functions; about painting and of course about T'ang.
Tcheng told me that he was "a master of chiaroscuro, chiaro for water, oscuro for ink" and that "the color of his mountains exists between being and non-being". Tcheng spoke seven or eight languages and told me that Sanskrit which has "a grammar similar to European languages" had "enabled him to understand Buddhism".
Tcheng told me that he wanted "to see and understand the sometime disturbing correspondences that unite, rather than the differences that separate the peoples of the Euro-Asian continent". He even told me about one of his theories on Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, Santa Claus for the Anglo-Saxons which according to him corresponded to a Chinese vernacular myth... I did not retain the theory, but his conviction was great. To my question concerning his return to China, he was almost a hundred years old, and his refusal of a materially easier retreat that was offered to him in France, he replied "Yahweh means he is, it is definitive and obligatory, the European is worried, he doubts, I do not doubt for a second that I am Chinese" I did not see him again, but spoke to him on the phone two or three times. He did not doubt that my projects would be realized because "one day T'ang will touch people in depth".
A few years later, thanks to Zao Wou-Ki and his wife Françoise, My wife Margaret and I spent an afternoon in Sète, with Pierre Soulages in his house, just above the Graveyard by the Sea, so dear to Paul Valéry :
This quiet roof, where dove-sails saunter by,
Between the pines, the tombs, throbs visibly.
Impartial noon patterns the sea in flame --
That sea forever starting and re-starting.
When thought has had its hour, oh how rewarding
Are the long vistas of celestial calm!
Tcheng had been the secretary of Paul Valéry who had prefaced his book "my mother and I...". He had written: "Rare are the delicious books, and rare are the books of real importance.... It can happen that a charming work is the sign of an epoch of the world... Mr. Tcheng's work makes me think of the dawn, of the pink phenomenon, which, by its tender nuances, insinuates and announces the immense event of the birth of a day".
11 December 2020
Cheng Tcheng in 1995