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LRCCS Mourns the Passing of Donald J. Munro
Donald J. Munro, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy and Chinese in the U-M departments of Philosophy and Asian Languages and Cultures, passed away in Salt Lake City, UT on Sunday, June 4, 2023 at the age of 92. He will be missed.
Professor Munro joined the faculty of the University of Michigan in 1964 and retired in 1996 after 32 years of teaching. A native of Cleveland, OH, Professor Munro completed his BA at Harvard University, and his PhD in Philosophy at Columbia University.
A classicist in Chinese studies, Professor Munro also wrote and taught on modern China, following those threads of teachings from imperial dynasties that endured in the present. He was trained in Western philosophy and sinology and minimized disciplinary boundaries in his work on Chinese philosophy. His publications include The Concept of Man in Early China (1969), The Concept of Man in Contemporary China (1977), Images of Human Nature: A Sung Portrait (1988) and Ethics in Action : Workable Guidelines for Private and Public Choices (2008). His writings and lectures typically involved close textual readings, examples drawn from art and literature, the use of historical background materials, and comparative illustrations from Western philosophy. He was beloved by his students and cared deeply about them. He formed lifelong friendships with many of his students and had a deep impact on the next generation of China scholars.
Along with teaching, Professor Munro also served the scholarly community at the national level through the National Academy of Science Committee on Scholarly Communication with the People's Republic of China and the American Council of Learned Societies. He took pride in establishing and maintaining close personal and scholarly ties with colleagues at Beijing University and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, ties that were beneficial to student and faculty exchanges. He served as interim chair (1993-94) and chair (1994-95) of the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures and on the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts Executive Committee (1986-89). He received an LS&A Excellence in Teaching Award in 1992 and the Warner G. Rice Humanities Award in 1994.
After he retired from teaching, Professor Munro and his wife Ann endowed the Tang Junyi Fellowship in Chinese Philosophy, followed by the Tang Junyi Lecture Series, and the Tang Junyi Professorship at the University of Michigan to bridge Philosophy and Chinese Studies. The professorship facilitated the establishment of a tenure-track position in Chinese philosophy at Michigan. The position, which will be housed jointly in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures and the Department of Philosophy in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, will make Chinese philosophy an important element of the programs of the two departments.
He is survived by his wife of 67 years, Ann P. Munro, and his daughter Sarah Munro Holzner, both of Salt Lake City, UT.
Festschrift Volume: In 2019, Professor Munro’s former students and scholars who were influenced by him put together a festschrift volume to honor him. Titled New Life for Old Ideas: Chinese Philosophy in the Contemporary World: A Festschrift in Honour of Donald J. Munro, it was edited by Yanming An and Brian Bruya. It celebrates Professor Munro’s body of work in essays that extend his legacy, exploring their topics as varied as the ethics of Zhuangzi’s auto telicity, the teleology of nature in Zhu Xi, and family love in Confucianism and Christianity. More information on this commemorative work can be found on the Columbia University Press website.
More information on Professor Munro’s life and work can be found from an obituary which was published in the Ann Arbor News in June 2023:
Remembrances: Former colleagues and students of Professor Munro share their heartfelt remembrances:
Former colleagues and students of Professor Munro share their heartfelt remembrances:
My first encounter with Don came as I was applying to graduate school in the spring of 1987. I was pretty sure that I wanted to get a PhD and go on to teach and write about Confucianism, but had been wavering on which discipline to pursue. History? Philosophy? Religious Studies? My interdisciplinary studies at Yale had been centered more in history than anything else, but I’d felt frustrated that such classes did not engage with Chinese ideas in the same ways that the Western philosophy classes I’d also been taking dug into Plato or Kant. In the end I had submitted an application to the Department of Philosophy at the University of Michigan, among a few other places, and of course included a writing sample in my application. As great as it was to learn that spring that I had been accepted to Michigan, what really thrilled me was a letter from Don coupled with detailed, marginal comments on my application essay. I immediately saw that this was the right fit for me: Don’s thoughtful, charitable approach to my efforts to engage with late-Ming Confucianism pointed toward just the approach (and just the kind of mentor) that I’d been seeking.
Don’s open-minded, probing curiosity shaped how I came to approach Confucian philosophy. I learned that while it was possible, albeit with considerable effort, for us moderns (and Americans) to access the thousand year-old teachings of Neo-Confucianism, we must be careful to note the ways in which their concerns and methods are not identical to our own. I also learned to take seriously both the scholarship and the creative philosophizing of modern Chinese thinkers like Tang Junyi, who of course was one of Don’s own teachers. Don was fascinated by the enduring, distinctive ways that early Chinese ideas continued to play important — sometimes compelling though sometimes troubling — roles in subsequent Chinese societies. He cared deeply that contemporary scholars take Chinese philosophy seriously as live philosophy; even beyond the seminar room and conference hall, he supported this goal through advocacy and personal generosity, leading to the establishment of the Tang Junyi Lecture Series.
Don’s approach to philosophy and his values as a person have been imprinted on so many students over the decades; we are all very lucky to have had him as our teacher.
Stephen C. Angle
Mansfield Freeman Professor of East Asian Studies and Professor of Philosophy
When I arrived in the area in 2004 as a new professor at EMU, Don Munro was one of a handful of superlative scholars in my field, internationally known and respected. Despite our distance in age and stature, he welcomed me like an old friend, and over the years I came to treasure long conversations with him. He was untiringly inquisitive, always open to new ideas and perspectives, generous, meticulous, and modest. In 2012, he honored me with an invitation to give the Tang Junyi lecture series at U-M. In 2015, he contributed a book chapter to a volume I edited, and in 2019, I had the privilege of co-editing his festschrift volume. In all of these academic interactions, at friendly lunches near campus, and at family dinners at his house and mine, I always came away enriched and enlivened by my encounters with him. One of Don's last academic pursuits was the Confucian topic of "the special worth of family and close friends." Looking back, I now realize how deeply his expertise ran on this topic. He was a giant in the field and will always be a giant in my heart.
Professor of Philosophy
Eastern Michigan University
In Loving Memory of Professor Donald Munro
“Being one’s teacher for a day, being one’s father for a whole life.” (一日為師终身為父)
My father is 92 years old this year, the same as Professor Munro. Hence, the above-quoted Chinese idiom always speaks to me very personally whenever I think of Professor Munro. He is indeed a father to my professional identity. He introduced me to Chinese Philosophy, which I never explored nor was interested in though I grew up in the Chinese culture of Hong Kong. His way of interpreting Chinese philosophy with the eyes of a humanitarian and the insights of a perceptive philosopher opened a new horizon of my culture and an important area of universal humanities to me. He provided the light for me to find my career home base.
And like my father, Professor Munro is my role model to whom I am immensely grateful for the many life lessons he taught me explicitly and implicitly. First and foremost is his respect and dedication towards his students. While he always guided his students with solid scholarship and stimulated them with challenging questions, he had immense respect for their intellectual autonomy and never meant to clone them after himself. Hence his students’ specializations covered a wide spectrum, ranging from the topics of ethics, and political philosophy, to religion and the history of philosophy, spanning between the periods of early, Medieval, late, and modern Chinese philosophy. I distinctly remembered this question from him when I last met with him in Michigan in 2018, “What have you learned from your students recently?” He admirably reminded me to be humble towards my students as he always was towards his. He never failed to complement his students’ work by saying how much he had learned from it.
And he was a caring teacher who developed personal relationships with his students. He shared his personal anecdotes with us and religiously sent us Xmas cards and updates every year. He helped me explore financial resources when I was a student. When I had a family emergency in Thailand, he compassionately shared my worries and exhausted his personal and professional network to try to give me assistance. I am much indebted to his kindness!
His dedication to learning and Chinese philosophy has been and will continue to inspire me even though I can never catch up to his. As he explained to me, his retirement in 1996 (while still at an intellectually vibrant age) was not intended to be a retirement from intellectual pursuits. On the contrary, it was done to enable a more focused devotion to studying the new and exciting field of evolutionary ethics. Indeed, a new book by him that came out a few years later was the testimony to that endeavor! And the significance and indelible marks he has left for the study of Chinese philosophy in this country just can’t be overstated. Besides his influential and widely studied trilogy of work on the concept of man and human nature in China and his contribution to the nurturing of generations of very active Chinese philosophy scholars in the field, I can never thank him enough for his incredibly generous endowment of the Tang Junyi Professorship in Chinese Philosophy at the University of Michigan (and again, note his humility—the endowment is in the name of his teacher, not himself!) This endowment does not only ensure the continuous teaching of Chinese philosophy to some of the brightest minds at both graduate and undergraduate levels at one of the nation’s flagship universities but more importantly, it will help to solidify the status of Chinese Philosophy as an important philosophical tradition by having it taught in a world-class Western philosophy department.
Every year when I received his Xmas card, his gentle love for his family (including his cats) shone through and warmed my heart! And he was truly a Confucian junzi. His love and benevolence radiated outward from him and his family. He was still actively fighting for the democracy of his country with his involvement in the campaign to end Citizens United in his 80s. He had a humane concern for the whole world (tianxia), especially for China, and he personally helped to facilitate the connecting of the Republic of China with the outside world in the 1970s.
As he has taught me, a Chinese junzi often seeks spiritual respite in Daoism. The engagement with worldly affairs should be intertwined with a perspective that transcends human concern by grounding us in nature. Professor Munro has his Daoist hermitage too. It’s his cabin where his ashes will rest. His kindness and dedication though will have a place in my heart!!
Professor, Philosophy Department
University of Vermont
In the early ‘70s, Don was recruited by another university and went to teach there for a year. He surprised us by returning to U-M and I asked him why he had. He replied that when he attended faculty talks during his year away, the interest of colleagues there seemed to be in finding errors in speakers’ ideas and demonstrating their own knowledge. At U-M, colleagues listened for new ideas of value that they could learn. Anyone who took a grad seminar with Don would know that this was what made him such a terrific teacher and mentor, and his thirst for new ideas and approaches is why his books were so fresh and different, even when the topics overlapped.
When I first enrolled in Don’s Chinese philosophy course as a junior in 1968, little expecting to pursue the topic past that year, I bought the course texts second hand from a student who had enrolled the year before. I went over to her place on Division Street and after paying for the books, I asked her what she thought of the course. “Professor Munro is an unusual man,” she said. “It seems like he lives what he teaches.” I never saw her again, but I have thought of her words hundreds of times over the years.
Associate Professor, Retired
East Asia Languages and Cultures
Indiana University, Bloomington
Memories of Don (supplement to Chad Hansen’s entries in the 2019 festschrift):
First meeting in his class Fall 1966. I asked him to include characters when he discussed Chinese concepts, since I spoke Cantonese, not Mandarin. He graciously agreed and accommodated me.
Jogging together in the Arboretum and many times in many other places (Hong Kong, Hawaii, Beijing and many conferences).
Don’s gently remonstrating with me to temper my philosopher’s enthusiasm in argument.
His joy and pride in Sarah and his thoughtful gifts to my sons. Ann’s kindness and hospitality in inviting me to stay with them in Ann Arbor.
His insistence that I call him "Don," not “Professor Munro.”
Our mutual expression of love and gratitude when we last visited in 2021 at their home in Utah. We talked about Chinese philosophy....
Chair Professor of Chinese Philosophy, Emeritus
University of Hong Kong
I first met Don Munro at a conference in Cuernavaca, Mexico in 1969. The conference pulled together leading China specialists from around the US with the goal of producing an edited volume of multidisciplinary perspectives on China. Jane and I, graduate students at the time, served as rapporteurs at that conference. I was amazed to hear Don, the only Philosophy professor at this conclave, analyze Mao Zedong Thought in terms that drew from his deep understanding of traditional Chinese philosophy. His contribution was one of the most impactful of that meeting.
I got to know Don far better after I joined the U-M faculty in 1983. “Getting to know him” was in fact a process, during which I gradually learned of his military experience in the US Navy, his ongoing insights into intelligence and national security, joy of travel, love of nature, and boundless enthusiasm for building a log cabin on the Leelanau Peninsula.
I cannot recall any conversation with Don that did not conclude with his recommendation of a book or article for me to read and some key issue for me to delve into. He found true joy in teaching, discussing, exploring, and doing. It was a privilege to know someone who always expanded my own boundaries.
Kenneth G. Lieberthal
Senior Fellow Emeritus in Foreign Policy, Brookings Institution
Professor Emeritus of Political Science, University of Michigan
In Fond Memory of Donald Munro
On November 4, 1992, I found a large yellow envelope in my mailbox in the office of the Department of Far Eastern Languages and Literatures (later changed to the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures) in the now non-existent Frieze Building. Inside the envelope was a gift from Don Munro, a copy of the book Zhuangzi Speaks: The Music of Nature, a translation by Brian Bruya of a book by the master cartoon illustrator of Chinese classics Tsai Chih Chung, published by Princeton University Press in July that year. It contained Don’s signed and dated inscription with the note: “For my friend Shuen-fu Lin, who embodies some of the best of the Zhuangzi as well as the fine teachings of the Ru (a term commonly understood as ‘the Confucians’ in scholarly works written in English on China).” He also wrote a seventeen-page “Afterword” to this delightful book. I begin my remembrance with this incident not so much because of Don’s effusive praise of me as because of its indication of some of my friend’s rare qualities that I admire.
It is important for people to take note of the fact that Don held the appointment of “Professor of Philosophy and Chinese,” rather than “Professor of Chinese Intellectual History,” at the University of Michigan. To qualify for that appointment, Don had to have the dual competence in teaching and conducting research in both the disciplines of philosophy and of sinology. For most of his career, Don was on the faculty of the Department of Philosophy, and transferred to the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures only a few years before his retirement in 1996. Indeed, I cannot think of another person of Don’s generation who had the ability and training to meet the demands of two diverse disciplines.
Don had the gift for explaining complex philosophical ideas or issues in clear and simple language, fully accessible to the general listener or reader. I say this from my experiences in reading his scholarly writings, in having conversations with him about intellectual subjects, as well as in listening to his public lectures and to his teaching Daoist philosophy to undergraduate students in the course “Arts and Letters of China.” Don’s “Afterword” to Bruya’s book mentioned above is another good example of his usual shen ru qian chu 深入浅出 approach (i.e., explaining the profound in a simple way) in writing and teaching. In this short essay, Don covers the cultural and intellectual contexts in which Zhuangzi (circa 369-286 BCE) lived and wrote and the main contents of the ancient Chinese text Zhuangzi. Although placed at the end of the book, Don’s “Afterword” could well serve as an excellent introduction to the Tsai/Bruya book.
I would like to close this remembrance with a true story that can explain why Don the philosopher would even write an afterword to a translation of a cartoon illustration of an ancient Chinese text. In the “Introduction” to his The Complete Works of Zhuangzi (Columbia, 1968 & 2013, xi), Burton Watson says, “Zhuangzi uses throughout his writings that deadliest of weapons against all that is pompous, staid, and holy: humor.” Humor is undoubtedly one of the things that drew Don to the Zhuangzi and to Bruya’s translation of Tsai’s extraordinary illustration. Don’s appreciation of humor was well known to people who had come into contact with him. But perhaps not many people know about this story. One evening in the winter term of 1988, several faculty members (including Don Munro, Ken Lieberthal and myself) met in the cafeteria in Michigan League to discuss some affairs of the Center for Chinese Studies. Don was a bit late to arrive for the meeting. When Don finally showed up, he was grinning from ear to ear. He told us that he had just come from a fascinating lecture given by Tong Enzheng 童恩正 (1935-1997) who was a visiting scholar at the university in 1987-1988. He told us that Tong had related a legend about a Jinniu Dao 金牛道 (Gold Ox Road) in Sichuan Province, the site of the ancient Shu 蜀Kingdom. The road is so named because a legend has it that King Hui of Qin 秦惠王 (r. 356-311 BCE) gave the avaricious Marquis of Shu a stone ox that defecates gold as a gift in exchange for the permission to build a road through the precipitous mountainous area between Qin and Shu. With the road built, Qin was able to conquer Shu without any difficulties. Don could not control himself from laughing as he related the legend. Known to have a quick wit, Ken Lieberthal quipped, “This must be the origin of the English expression ‘bullshit’!”
Professor Emeritus of Chinese Literature
Asian Languages and Cultures
University of Michigan
University Place, WA
June 19, 2023
I am grateful to Don for many things, but will just mention two: When he was chair of ALC and I was approaching my tenure decision, he gave me a pretty strong direction (he was once a Navy officer) to finish my book manuscript (like my graduate advisor, David Roy. I was giving, to all and sundry, the impression that I was going to work on it forever), and I did. The second is, that when I was a young parent, he confided in me that once, when his daughter was fussing without end in her high chair, he threw a glass of milk in her face. The effect of hearing this from a philosopher and a man who was the very voice of reason for me, and always seemed in control, was great on me.
Professor of Chinese Language and Literature
Asian Languages and Cultures
University of Michigan
Don Munro was a mentor, an exemplar, an inspiration, and a friend--to me personally, but also I think to everyone who had the good fortune to get to know and work with him over his long and illustrious career.
When I first met him as a prospective graduate student in Ann Arbor, back in the 1980s, unsure about whether it was even possible to study Chinese philosophy in an American academic institution in the way I was hoping to do so--carrying on the eccentric explorations that had begun to occupy me over the previous few years of unaffiliated intellectual rambles in Taiwan--the direction of my future life was changed not only by his warm personal welcome and the example of his own work, but by his broad-minded willingness to entertain my own unschooled ruminations with what can only be described as a grandmaster level of charitableness. It was the example of his own wholly sui generis manner of doing comparative philosophy--outside of any box, unconstrained by allegiance to any presupposed methodological dogmas, endowed with a preternatural openmindedness and freedom from prejudice, trusting his own intellectual instincts and standing only on the strength of his own formidable intellectual gifts--that opened up the way for me to imagine there was a possible place for me at this table. It is no exaggeration to say that I would not have had a career if he had not somehow been able to see something worth taming and teaching in me—and I doubt there would have been anyone else who would have done so if he had not. It has become almost a cliché among Don’s former students that he is one of the rare instances of someone who not only was doing deeply learned and insightful work in the field of philosophical ethics, but who was also—mirabile dictu!-- a genuinely admirable human being.
I remember him best, on the one hand, walking in the woods, the frost-breath chugging out wisdom both personal and philosophical, and on the other hand reclining amiably for the long haul in the reading chair in his office as he led his students through another hour of a long reading group session. It’s astonishing that all that was now almost 40 years ago. But my debt to Donald Munro, and my admiration and affection for him, remain undiminished.
Mircea Eliade Professor of Chinese Religion, Philosophy and Comparative Thought
University of Chicago