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Yü Ying-shih: The Pursuit of Historical Inquiry

The following is a guest post by Dongfang Shao, Chief of the Asian Division of the Library of Congress.

The 2014 Tang Prize in Sinology was awarded to Yü Ying-shih. The Tang Prize Committee hailed Yü for “his mastery of and insight into Chinese intellectual, political, and cultural history with an emphasis on his profound research into the history of public intellectuals in China”. As the first Tang Prize laureate in Sinology, Yü received NT $40 million (US$1.33 million) and a research grant of up to NT $10 million (US$330,000) to be used within five years, as well as a medal and a certificate. He received the award on September 18, 2014, in a ceremony in Taipei.

Born in Tianjin, China, the eldest son of a historian of Western history, Yü Hsieh-chung (1899-1980), Yü Ying-shih is arguably the most important living Chinese historian who has made innovative and influential contributions in a wide range of fields within Chinese history. Being also the 2006 Kluge Prize-winner, Yü’s works have been mostly written in the Chinese language, and have been a staple of Chinese history classes in universities and research institutes for the past two decades. His works have opened up considerable areas for scholars to learn how Chinese history has been understood differently across cultures, and have explored the implications of these differences with much insight. Yü is also considered by many Chinese scholars to be the finest living scholarly writer. Yü’s highly respected writings in Chinese language combine contemporary terminology with traditional phrases, revealing considerable thoughtfulness and intuition, and so have understandably joined the canon of top scholarship and great writing in Chinese. His essays have enabled Chinese readers to better understand complexities and subtleties of Chinese language that are found embedded in historical texts and reveal deep forces of beauty, savagery and creative enlightenment.

I drove to Princeton to visit Yü Ying-shih one afternoon in the fall of 2008, it had been more than nine years since I had last seen Yü Ying-shih in the early summer of 1999, when Professor David Nivison of Stanford University and I met Yü in his Princeton University office. As a “sishu” disciple (one who has learned from a master without taking lessons directly under the master himself), I conducted an interview with Yü on October 3, 2008. Yü spent much time preparing for this interview, despite his poor health at that time, and the interview ended up lasting more than four hours. During that unusual interview, Yü talked in detail about the ways he approached scholarly studies and some of the most significant experiences he had gained in academic research. This interview was later published by Shanghai Literature Press in 2010, entitled “My Experience in the Study of History.” Most of the following discussion about Yü’s research methodology on historical studies comes from this interview.

In the interview, Yü expressed his deep appreciation for his mentors, Ch’ien Mu (1895-1990) of New Asia College, William Hung (1893-1981) and Yang Lien-sheng (1914-1990) of Harvard University, as well as those who taught him briefly in the department of history at Yenching University, such as Nie Chongqi (1903-1962), Weng Dujian (1906 -1986) and Qi Sihe (1907-1980). These prominent scholars had formed a foundation for Yü’s own academic enterprise. Yü has built the core of his scholarship on Chinese intellectual history around the idea of the “inner logic” of Confucian learning, a concept first articulated in his pioneering book “On Dai Zhen and Zhang Xuecheng: A Study of Mid-Qing Intellectual History.” There he argues that an analytical framework of “inner logic” had operated to influence a complex process involving the rise, shift and confluence of the movement of Confucian classical learning. In the wake of the upheavals in historiography triggered by post-modernism, Yü Ying-shih moved on to a more positive phase with arguments in defense of a pragmatic notion of historical inquiry. He warned young Chinese historians in the interview that historical inquiry cannot be served by short-cuts, but grows in quality through enduring training and continued exploration throughout one’s life time. He convincingly demonstrated that the study of Chinese history has maintained a complicated relationship with traditional classical, religious, philosophical and literary studies. One of the dangers of some current trends in Chinese historical studies is that many young scholars devote so much time and attention to “new” historical theories promoted by Western scholars, so that their research risks becoming irrelevant in revealing the uniqueness of Chinese history. Relentless in his pursuit of original research rooted in Chinese historical realities, Yü’s profound insights are remarkable, and make a strong case for the disciplined study of the past to be at the center of our quest for historical truth.

Yu Ying-shih

The author with historian Yu Ying-shih in Princeton, New Jersey, April 21, 2015. Photo by Monica Yu.

Yü Ying-shih has pursued a course of fundamental exploration and discovery in the field of history for over sixty years. His humble personality is well known and his intellectual accomplishments are widely acknowledged in academic circles within China as well as the wider Chinese speaking world. As one of the most famous and charismatic scholars with epochal significance in Chinese intellectual history, the rise of Yü Ying-shih certainly can also be attributed to some positive political and cultural factors at work in the 20th century.

In recent years, there has been a great development in various fields of the humanities, and so there are now many excellent scholars of Chinese history both inside and outside of China. Yet the Confucian Sage Mencius said, “Every five hundred years a true King will emerge.”This suggests that the development of intellectual history, just as with human society in general, cannot be simply characterized as an accumulative evolution. We need innovations as well as creative and suggestive breakthroughs of previous patterns of thought and life to open our lives to new levels of human flourishing. We should recognize that there would never have been such a vital academic environment in our current age without the most distinguished contributions of scholars like Yü. Building on great masters of Chinese studies, Yü has developed his own style of scholarship and is widely recognized as a leading Sinologist in American and European academic circles. Yü has reached the apex of Chinese historical studies in the best senses of both the Confucian and Western historical traditions. In doing so, he contributes significantly to a larger historical discussion, challenging the fashion of applying post-modernism for historical studies. “Not only is Yü Ying-shih the best Chinese scholar overseas, but also even in China, it is unimaginable if there is anyone to equal him ,” wrote Qian Zhongshu (1910-1998), arguably contemporary China’s foremost man of letters. By these words, Qian also describes Yü’s impact within and beyond the Chinese speaking community. Nevertheless, it should be known that Yü’s significance includes a moral integrity that is even more honored than his outstanding scholarly contributions. Never a narrowly professional historian for the academy alone, Yü has continued to be an advocate for human rights and human dignity as basic values in both Chinese and Western civilizations.

Eighteen years ago, Yü Ying-shih inscribed the following combined saying of Mencius and Hu Shih (1891-1962), and asked me to pass it on to my friend, Dr. Chen Ning: “Neither riches nor honors can corrupt him; neither poverty nor abasement can make him swerve from principle; neither threats nor force can subdue him, nor can he be corrupted by splendor; nor can fashionable trends shake him.” I believe that those phrases should also be an appropriate depiction of Yü himself, both in his academic brilliance and in his bold engagement in contemporary social issues.

This post is the fourth in a series on past recipients of the Library of Congress John W. Kluge Prize for Achievement in the Study of Humanity. The Kluge Prize will be bestowed again in September 2015 with an accompanying $1.5 million award. #KlugePrize.

The author wishes to thank Professor Lauren F. Pfister and Professor Matthew Sommer for their generous and precious comments on previous versions of this essay.

Correction: May 27, 2015: An earlier version of this article misstated the year of Yü Hsieh-chung’s death. It was 1980, not 1983.

One Comment

  1. Alexander
    May 23, 2015 at 7:04 am

    It’s very interesting. I want to add: USA on Chinese is Mei Go – the beautiful land or “Casta diva”.

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