Essay
Yu Ying-shih

by Lik Hang Tsui

Whither Sinology? Yu Ying-shih sums up a lifetime of research on China

During his visit to Taiwan last month to receive a prestigious award in Sinology, the Princeton emeritus professor Yu Ying-shih speaks from his over 60 years of research on Chinese history and shares his views about greater China today.

In a speech he gave in Taipei on 18 September, 84-year-old American Chinese historian Yu Ying-shih 余英時, proclaimed that Sinology has already transcended national boundaries and has become a single, globalized field of study. According to him, the situation has completely changed compared to the first half of the twentieth century, when the Sinological traditions of different countries could still be easily distinguished.

Yu Ying-shih was awarded the Tang Prize 唐獎 in recognition of his achievements in Sinology. The prize itself was established in 2012 by Taiwanese entrepreneur Samuel Yin to complement the Nobel prizes and honour leaders in four major fields: sustainable development, bio-pharmaceutical science, Sinology, and the rule of law. Winners of the awards are selected by panels of judges convened by Academia Sinica, Taiwan’s top research institute. Yu is the first to receive the prize in Sinology.

Yu first learned about the field of Sinology when he began to read Western and Japanese works on China while studying for a doctorate at Harvard in the late 1950s. Sinologists’ views of China’s past have also changed, according to Yu. Scholars have increasingly recognized that the roots of Chinese civilization are indigenous, and that Chinese culture has followed a long and independent path in its development.

To account for its uniqueness, efforts to reconstruct its history should not only rely on Western models, even though such models are sometimes useful in providing a frame of reference. However, Yu reminded his audience that this does not mean that the study of China should be isolated from the understanding of other cultures. “If China is studied in isolation, the risk of falling into the archaic trap of Sino-centrism would become unavoidable.” Only by adopting a comparative approach can the uniqueness of Chinese culture be elucidated and generalized, he argues.

Author of 59 books and some 400 papers, Yu Ying-shih is regarded by many as the greatest Chinese historian of his generation. In his research, Yu is most interested in the transformations in various stages of China’s history. For example, he wrote about Axial Age thinking in China, intellectual changes in the Song (960-1279) period, commercialization during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) periods, and the fate of modern Chinese intellectuals such as Hu Shih 胡適 (1891-1962). All of these topics reflected the “unique processes and ways” the tremendous social and intellectual change have taken place in their respective eras.

As Yu asserts, “Compared to other civilizations, China’s is particularly marked by its long historical continuity before, during and since the Axial Age. But continuity and change went hand-in-hand in Chinese history…. Only by focusing on the unique course and shape of Chinese historical changes, I am convinced, can we hope to see more clearly how that great cultural tradition moved from stage to stage driven, mainly if not entirely, by its internal dynamics.”

Despite his prominent role in Sinology and the fact he is admired by many Chinese students and scholars, Yu Ying-shih is often critical of the Chinese government, and has refused to visit mainland China because of the authoritarian rule of the CCP. He is known particularly for his research on the tradition of public intellectuals and their evolution in Chinese history; he himself also follows socio-political events closely and is an outspoken commentator and a supporter of the protesters who left China after the Tiananmen incident in 1989.

On the fate of traditional culture today, Yu sees the CCP’s efforts in reviving Confucianism, such as Xi Jinping’s backing of traditional culture and values and the establishment of state-funded Confucius Institutes overseas, as self-contradictory and politically motivated. He thinks that the Confucius Institutes will not have a big role in culture and will not be able to replace the teaching of Chinese in overseas universities. He even went further to argue that the CCP should not be seen to represent Chinese culture at all, and the US-China conflict is in essence not a clash of civilizations.

Yu is an expert on the history of Confucianism. When he was named by the US Library of Congress as a winner of the John W. Kluge Prize for the Study of Humanity in 2006, the selection committee praised his work in rescuing “the Confucian heritage from caricature and neglect” and for stimulating scholars to rediscover the “richness and variety of Chinese culture after the ravages of Mao’s ‘cultural revolution’”.

A supporter of Hong Kong’s Occupy Central Movement, Yu believes that the CCP would rather sacrifice China’s economy than “compromise its authoritarian rule” when dealing with the democratic movement in Hong Kong. Beijing was only tolerant towards Hong Kong because it intended to convince Taiwan that the Hong Kong “one country, two systems” model is acceptable. If the CCP’s one-party rule is threatened, it would not hesitate to adopt heavy-handed measures in Hong Kong, which is a scenario that concerns Yu.

He nonetheless thinks that it is necessary for Hong Kong to resist CCP control. According to him, there is a tradition for Chinese intellectuals to “stand out” and be critical of the government, and the Occupy movement speaks to a general civility in Hong Kong. It was allegedly due to these remarks that the new edition of Yu’s scholarly works is no longer allowed to be sold online in China.

In Yu’s opinion, the current situation in Hong Kong is very telling, and is something to which people in Taiwan should be alert. In facing political pressures from Beijing, the Taiwanese people should not throw away the freedom that they have earned. Yu also praised the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan, saying that citizens in a democratic society should be able to protest and express their dissatisfaction with the government.

He holds that there is no fundamental contradiction between Chinese culture and democratic values that originated from the West. In fact, the first Chinese intellectuals who introduced the concept of democracy to the country were Confucian scholars like Kang Youwei 康有為 (1858-1927). To Yu, the democratic experience of Taiwan marks a landmark achievement for Chinese civilization; Taiwan broke the pattern in which China’s dynastic changes and power shifts were always compelled by military force.

About the author:
Lik Hang Tsui is a Departmental Lecturer in Chinese at the University of Oxford. He has studied in Hong Kong, Beijing, and Oxford. He enjoys teaching Chinese history and writing about culture and education in both English and Chinese. His website can be found here.

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