South Korea, Japan and several other countries designate special individuals as "Living Human Treasures" for mastering certain traditional arts and embodying central, intangible, national, cultural values - while alive.
China does not have this tradition, but if it did, Zhou Ruchang would have qualified.
Zhou, China's leading scholar of the classic novel, A Dream of Red Mansions, died in May at age 95.
Zhou had written more than 50 books on A Dream of the Red Mansions by Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) writer, Cao Xueqin. He was best known for his first book, Hongloumeng Xinzheng (New Evidence on A Dream of Red Mansions), which was published in 1953 and revolutionized the study of this novel.
The distinguished Yale University Sinologist Jonathan Spence has called this study "a work of such subtlety and meticulous scholarship that it is hard to fault".
Zhou also wrote books on traditional Chinese poetry and fiction, the history of Beijing, and was an accomplished calligrapher.
I first met Zhou in 2002 when he gave several lectures on A Dream of Red Mansions to foreigners. The lectures were fascinating.
Zhou spoke without notes, and his passion and excitement about the novel was spellbinding and infectious.
We established a friendship that endured until his death. Zhou's strong egalitarian sense has been frequently mentioned in obituaries, a quality I can personally attest to.
When I first met him, I was a lowly lecturer in English at a Beijing university with no background in Chinese literature. But I had a deep, abiding interest, even obsession, with A Dream of Red Mansions. To Zhou, that was a necessary starting point.
Zhou, in many ways, exemplified the best traits of an old school Confucian scholar and gentleman. According to Confucius, being educated was not just knowing a certain body of knowledge, but also of being a certain type of person. That was Zhou.
Zhou didn't like small talk, so our conversations were like a tutorial.
I would show up at his apartment armed with questions or comments, and he would patiently give insightful, mini lectures on each point. Sometimes his excitement became so pronounced that his daughter, Zhou Lunling, who took care of him, had to tell him to calm down.
Few know that Zhou was also committed to introducing A Dream of Red Mansions to English speaking audiences and had an avid interest in the English translation of the novel.
A few years ago, he wrote articles about the novel, which appeared in English publications. In February, he penned a preface arguing for the importance of understanding Cao Xueqin's family background for a biography I am currently writing about Cao.
Zhou's death is significant because it represents the passing of a rare, traditional but skeptical, literary sensibility that was relentlessly curious and open to new interpretations.
His passing marks the disappearance of a historically earlier, informed Chinese sensibility that prized a literary text as a work of art and intensely respected the author who composed it.
Zhou, on numerous occasions, admitted that he would never fully understand the classic novel. This awareness is present in a very clever book He Jia Baoyu Dui Hua (A Dialogue with Jia Baoyu), published in 2005.
In the book, Zhou and Jia Baoyu, the protagonist of A Dream of Red Mansions, have an extended conversation about the novel. Jia angrily informs Zhou that he is wrong in some of his interpretations, a sly allusion to the fact that we will never know everything about this wonderful work of fiction and the mysteries of literary creation.
Cao Xueqin would have liked that.
The author is a US scholar.