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【By Ruo Hai 】A Philosopher across the Time and Space: An Interview with Professor Zhai Zhenming from Department of Philosophy

Last updated : 2015-12-04
Written by: Song Yaokai, Niu Lu
Translated by: Li Yixia, Li Yang

Speaking of the hacker empire, what come into people’s mind must be the wonderful shots in the movie people may also reflect on whether human beings will enter “The Hacker Era.” However, no one will have expected that long before the release of this movie, an Chinese American professor had already proposed this idea in his book; moreover, no one will have expected that after only a dozen years, he built a laboratory to bring his idea alive in people’s life; furthermore, no one will believe that he is a professor of philosophy! He is Professor Zhai Zhenming, who convinces us with his actions and achievements that a philosopher is also able to build the most cutting-edge science laboratory.

Building “The Hacker Empire” on His Own

Honestly, like most people, we actually also found it hard to believe that a professor of philosophy successfully built a laboratory. However, after entering the office and wearing the cumbersome visual equipment, you will definitely be amazed at what appear.


The interviewer was experiencing the marvels of virtual technology under the guidance of Professor Zhai

With the omnidirectional stereo and the 360-degree virtual scenes, a life-like virtual experience brought us into the miraculous world of the exploration of cosmic evolution, from the Big Bang, the meteor shower and the violent eruption of volcanoes to the appearance of vegetation and life on the earth. The experience in the miraculous virtual world was similar to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. We unconsciously become a part of that world, so when the dinosaur appeared suddenly, we subconsciously felt frightened and escaped in a hurry.

If you think that is all, you just undervalue the talent of Professor Zhai. After the unique visual experience, we followed Professor Zhai to his proudest place, namely the human-machine interaction laboratory built by him.

A 40 square meter room was scattered with various instruments, among which a model car and some green curtains around were most attracting. “With this model car, the green curtains, the computer and the visual equipment you wore just now, you can enter into the virtual space. In addition, with technological means, the scenes can be transferred seamlessly between the real one and the virtual one without the notice of anyone. Moreover, two people in reality can also meet in the virtual space, not knowing whether they are in the virtual world or the real one.” Professor Zhai showed us his achievements excitedly. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the chance to experience the miraculous “transferring”, due to the upgrading of laboratory funded by Tecent with three million yuan.

It is unbelievable that such high-end technology and delicate design are from a professor of philosophy. The newly listed Tianya Club has already employed Professor Zhai as the chief scientist of the joint laboratory.

Professor Zhai was showing his works and journals on which his research was published to the interviewer

“In fact, when I first mentioned the idea of building this laboratory, no one supported me. It was simply because no one believed that a professor of philosophy could successfully conduct an experiment of “transferring” between the virtual and real world. Therefore, without funds, I failed to carry out this project. Later on, the president read my book Get Real: A Philosophical Adventure in Virtual Reality by chance, and thus believed that a professor of philosophy also had the ability to build a laboratory alone. Therefore, he funded me to carry out this project.” Professor Zhai smiled when he recalled his memory. However, it was unexpected that Professor Zhai built this laboratory on his own within just one year. During the process of designing the sandbox for “transferring,” he accomplished all on his own, from proving the concept to designing the process, all of which were the bases for the technology company to construct the sandbox. Professor Zhai , a professor of philosophy, has succeeded in realizing a seemingly unrealistic idea.

Being Smart when Young, Abandoning Engineering for Philosophy

People may ask, “How can a professor of philosophy solve all the problems related to science and engineering occurring in the laboratory?” In actual, Professor Zhai not only gained great achievement in philosophy, but also had legendary experiences of studying science and engineering. Five years after Professor Zhai went to the countryside (educated youth working in the countryside during China’s Cultural Revolution), the national college entrance exam was resumed, through which he was admitted to Beijing Steel and Iron Institute. With correct learning methods and a smart brain, he could handle the study of engineering easily and finish the coursework within a short time, at the same time obtaining a satisfying grade. However, he gradually found that he was not interested in engineering but in the reasonable thoughts and the criticism toward prejudice. Therefore, he skipped the engineering courses and read books about philosophy in English,which were borrowed from Capital Library of China. After that, his life was totally changed.

After graduation, he was assigned to Shaoguan Iron and Steel Plant. Because of his increasing interest in philosophy, he persisted in reading books about philosophy in his spare time. Since Professor Zhai has gave up studying engineering , it was thought that he wouldn’t make any progress in the plant; however, within just one year, he published a groundbreaking academic thesis on a top metallurgical engineering journal in China and received rewards accordingly.As a result, he was promoted to workshop leader next year. “It was the second year since I began working, but I was already responsible for a workshop with three to four hundred workers just in my twenties. I was possibly, at that time or now, the youngest leader.” Professor Zhai seemed to be excited when recalling his memory.

Nevertheless, it was out of surprise that instead of making further progress as a workshop leader, Professor Zhai gave up decisively his job in the steel and iron plant and was admitted to Department of Philosophy, Sun Yat-sen university (SYSU), pursuing his master’s degree there. “Being a leader left only a negative effect on me. I think I should pursue what I have a passion for and would regard it as my career.” After that, with his profound philosophical knowledge and excellent English proficiency, he took the opportunity to pursue master’s degree in America in 1986. During that period, he taught the undergraduate logics and introduction to philosophy, when he began his 7-year career of teaching in America. Within just a few years, he successfully transformed from studying engineering to philosophy, and his life was then firmly connected with philosophy. After gaining the doctor’s degree, he became a full-time professor in departments of philosophy in American universities and published two famous works on philosophy. The second one is Get Real: A Philosophical Adventure in Virtual Reality published in 1998, from which his theory basis of “the human-machine interaction laboratory” comes. Fifteen years later, the sandbox of “the hacker empire” was derived from the thought experiment in his book.

Attachment to SYSU, Returning to teach

Up to 2000, he has been a full-time professor in the departments of philosophy in several American universities for seven years. He was then invited to teach in SYSU, offered the same salary as that of Changjiang scholars. Accepting the invitation delightedly, he went back to teach in his alma mater and began his teaching career in SYSU. As the first Chinese professor of philosophy with full-time teaching experiences abroad, he was constantly receiving job offers from the departments of philosophy in many universities. However, he decided to stay in SYSU. Nowadays, with his “human-machine interaction laboratory,” Professor Zhai becomes a prominent cross-disciplinary professor in philosophy and science. “The excellent academic atmosphere in SYSU is suitable for my creative cross-disciplinary research. I am assigned with few tasks, teaching courses t as well as other projects, so I am quite free to conduct my own research. It is also the main reason why I am able to build a laboratory in such a short time.” Undoubtedly, Professor Zhai’s returning home not only offers him a chance to pursue his own interest, but also contributes to strengthening the faculty and enhancing the reputation of SYSU. The connection between Professor Zhai and SYSU is therefore deeper.

After studying and teaching in the United States for 14 years, Professor Zhai possesses a deep understanding of American higher education. When asked about the differences in higher education between China and the United States, Professor Zhai pointed out emotionally, “Chinese students are facing much less academic pressure compared to American students. In America, students have to study diligently due to the heavy learning tasks of every subject. They are required to write several-hundred-page papers and read substantial materials related to the subject. In contrast, most Chinese students start to ease up after the arduous entry into university through college entrance exams, considering themselves already in a comfortable nest. Consequently, they would waste the most precious period of youth.” Although Professor Zhai is no longer involved in the undergraduate education, he, as always, shows much concern for the current situation of Chinese university students.

The First Objective in Education

“My daughter is eight years old. I always tell her teacher that the first objective in educating my daughter is to train her to be an independent learner.” When young, Professor Zhai learned to read music himself and taught the adults to sing. Then after he entered university, with an English dictionary on hand, he spent considerable time digging into English philosophy books, and ultimately became one of the most excellent professors of philosophy in China. Additionally, he worked on technologies such as virtual reality, Internet of Things, robots and computers, and established a human-machine interaction laboratory through his own efforts. His practices have manifested his pursuit to be an independent learner. “The spirit of independence and freedom of thought is the essence of university education that we are pursuing. More than occupational skills, what students should learn in university is the independent thinking. They should also learn how to make independent judgments and choices, so as to determine their future directions.”

Then, how could we make independent judgments and choices? Professor Zhai has provided an answer—questioning. In his opinion, students in our generation are affected substantially by the examination-oriented education. They regard learning as a competition and grades the sole criteria. As a result, they receive the rigid knowledge without thinking, lacking the spirit of questioning and the ability to solve unexpected problems. “University students should cultivate their professional thinking through learning and understanding the knowledge of their own fields, and develop their own thought patterns accordingly. During this process, the spirit and ability of questioning are indispensable.” The earnest instructions from Professor Zhai are worth every university student’s thinking.

Legendary experiences, novel perspectives and great achievements—That is Professor Zhai Zhenming, but what he possesses is more than those . Through him, you may not detect your past, but will definitely see through your future!


We did not begin to write the draft until several days after the interview, because we were contemplating how to display Professor Zhai’s unique and debonair characteristics. It seems to us that he is a wise man hiding in the world, or a man standing on the top of the mountain, overlooking far places. He is among the people who first identify the complex world with a clear mind. We are lucky to acquaint this composed while passionate master and discover the mystery of crossing the time and space under his guidance.

Our knowledge of Professor Zhai originated from a school singing contest. Out of curiosity about him, we arranged this interview. However, it was unexpected that we could encounter his philosophical world and discover his precious integrity. Honestly, we do not know much about philosophy and even hardly understand it, but through the professor’s words, we can still perceive his reverence for philosophy and the responsibility to help human with his knowledge. We believe he is endowed with sensibility towards philosophy. It seems that he is destined to be exposed to and keen on philosophy, and then to realize a seemingly unrealistic dream through it. In fact, bizarre ideas have occurred to each of us, some of which are even buried in our heart. Some people will overlook or abandon those ideas, while others, with great efforts, will transform them into reality. What is precious in Professor Zhai’s philosophical world is not only his mind, but also his deep concern towards the well-being of humans and his insight into future development of civilization.

We have learned a lot from professor Zhai .Through the discussion with him, we are more aware of our responsibilities and challenges. Professor Zhai advocates the spirit of independence and the freedom of thought, and he has already set an example for us. His experiences have shown us that people deprived of the right to receive education will not be deprived of the passion for learning. People surrounded by criticism can still go forward with great perseverance. People at the height of a career can turn their focus to other fields. Hardships can also be a favorable turn and potential opportunities. Independence and freedom are adequately demonstrated by Professor Zhai’s eternal passion for philosophy and experimentation.

He is as simple as a scholar and a philosopher who is busy with experimenting and teaching. People may even pay no attention to him while he was walking on the campus. However, he keeps a low profile and devotes himself to this great career, exploring the virtual and real world and breaking through the limits of time and space, so as to lead all to step towards future.

Person Introduction
Zhai Zhenming, born in December 1957, is 58 years old. He graduated from Beijing Steel and Iron Institute in July 1982 and received his bachelor’s degree in engineering. In 1984, he was admitted into SYSU for his master degree in philosophy. In 1986, he headed to the United States for further education and at the same time began teaching part-time. He received his PhD in philosophy from University of Kentucky in May 1993, and taught philosophy at several universities in the United States from August 1993 to May 2000. In 2000, he accepted the offer from SYSU and came back China, teaching at the Department of Philosophy in SYSU. He is now a professor as well as a doctoral supervisor in philosophy. His main research interests include the British and American ethics, philosophy of mind, political philosophy and metaphysics. During his 14 years in the United States, he published two monographs and contributed considerably to moral metaphysics, metaphysical ontology, phenomenology and other research fields. His second monograph, Get real A Philosophical Adventure in Virtual Reality, was translated into Chinese in 2007. In this monograph, he used the thought experiment, logical analysis and phenomenological methods to demonstrate the symmetry of virtual-or-real judgments between the extreme forms of the natural and virtual reality. He believed that natural reality wasn’t based more on ontology than virtual reality was. When he came back China, he published papers on Philosophical Researches, Modern Philosophy, World Philosophy, Open Times etc. All of these have combined insight in phenomenology with logical and systematical analyses, seeking prior evidences of related issues. Recently, he has worked with business community to explore and promote the virtual world. At the same time, he has embarked on the theoretical and practical research in creation ethics in the virtual world. He puts great emphasis on originality as well as the problem-focused exploration, and extends his research to other areas. He once discussed philosophical issues with netizens on the forums of Tianya Club and Philosophy Commune. In order to better communicate with netizens, He registered a blog on Tianya Club named “desert oasis” and a Sina Microblog called “Zhai Zhenming’s oasis of freedom.”

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