The study of the humanities is facing difficult challenges in both the United States and China, although the nature of these challenges differ.
Ping-chen Hsiung, director of the Research Institute for the Humanities, professor of history at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and former dean of the arts at the National Central University of Taiwan, is presently a visiting professor of history at UCLA and a scholar in residence at the Asia Institute.
Hsiung described alternating periods of expansion and contraction in the study of humanities in modern China. Starting in the early 20th century, new disciplines such as anthropology and “humanist” institutions were created alongside traditional academies devoted to the Chinese classics (which include, among other things, Confucian texts such as the Book of Poetry, Book of History, Book of Rites, Book of Changes, and the Spring and Autumn Annals).
But humanities faculties were cut and the critical social sciences eliminated in the first three decades of the People’s Republic of China (1950–1980) during an “ideological turn,” as engineering and science faculties were expanded on a grand scale.
In the 1980s, Chinese universities embarked on a period of reform and renewal in which funding for the humanities dramatically increased. In a curiosity of modern Chinese university bureaucracies, however, humanities funding remains part of government engineering “projects” and humanities faculties labor on projects with "engineering" labels.
In recent decades, said Hsiung, a number of universities in China have worked to recreate comprehensive universities, while others have restored centers in traditional humanities, created professional schools such as journalism and law, or added new social science departments.
Yet when Chinese university presidents speak of the humanities, said Hsiung, they are not referring to an analogue of the UCLA Division of Humanities, but to the study of the Chinese classics. Defining what exactly constitutes “Chinese humanities” is, she continued, further complicated by the fact that the term can be alternatively defined either as the “four treasures” of the Chinese classics, history, philosophy and belles-lettres, or as the "trinity" of literature, history and philosophy.
Hsiung pointed out that virtually all university presidents in China are from engineering disciplines. Yet most of these leaders have studied abroad and know something about the world outside of their own, she observed, something she said could not be said of most lab technicians in the west.
Today, noted the speaker, the transfer of knowledge between the East and West is imbalanced, with huge numbers of works translated into Chinese every year, sparking discussions of western topics by everyone from academics to cab drivers. In the West, however, Hsiung said she still encounters students who complain about having to memorize “funny” Chinese names.
Chinese and Western academies are today mirroring and testing one another
David Schaberg, UCLA dean of humanities and professor of Asian languages and cultures, claimed there was a growing engagement between the academies of the East and West on humanities topics.
According to him, there is an extensive process of mirroring, reaching out and testing one another now taking place between Chinese and western scholars. The comparative study of the ancient world (Greco-Roman and Chinese), for example, has become one of the most vital topics in academic humanities research in Western universities, a trend that is rapidly engaging many Chinese academics in collaborative research with their western peers.
At the same time, as the study of Chinese humanities, social sciences, and professions such as law and journalism have revived in China, Chinese academics have become intellectually curious about what their Western colleagues are writing on China.
In history, said Schaberg, Chinese scholars are as interested in interpreting their own early history in light of newly available materials and methodologies, as they are in what their Western colleagues have written about China for the past two centuries.
“Instead of an isolated, exceptional ancient China,” he continued, “the best Chinese scholars of early China are looking for a China that is connected in physical and historical senses to the China of today — especially in the methodological senses in which we understand the rest of the ancient world.”
Schaberg pointed out that the tradition of the humanities in China was closely aligned to the art of governing and training people in this art. Virtually all of the early classical Chinese texts deal not with supernatural or personal topics, he said, but with the setting up and running of complex human systems. In contrast, he said, the Western tradition depicts the classic humanist, such as Socrates, as a gadfly — an individual apart from and independent of institutions.
“So in a sense,” commented Schaberg, “you have the systematic association of human achievement with success in institutional terms, on one side, and their systematic separation, on the other side — as if the ideal role of the perfectly steeped humanist [in the West] was apart from institutions, isolated from the worldly and therefore somehow reflective.”
With respect to the crisis of the humanities in Western universities, Schaberg believes the crisis was beginning to improve. Humanists, he said, need to retreat from claims about the absolute value of the humanities for their own sake and instead adopt the kind of arguments used on other side of the world. That is, they need to argue that mastering a language and learning topics such as history are useful and relevant to running institutions in today’s world, to preparing people for their lives in a global world.
The challenge for academics today, Schaberg elaborated, is to figure out their role in relation to their students’ near-constant interaction with the humanities via modern technology. That technology, he emphasized, immerses everyone in the humanities via ready access to music, books, newspapers, etc.
“Fortunately,” he pointed out, “the big questions that have been attractive for many centuries continue to be attractive to students. I know that that's why UCLA philosophy classes here continue to be bursting at the seams. I suspect it's also the reason why [Harvard professor Michale J] Sandel's online course on justice
is compelling to many tens — maybe hundreds — of thousands of students in China.”
Perhaps one of the biggest differences in the humanities between West and East is how they relate the present to the past, said Bin Wong. He argued that unlike China, scholars in the West do not effectively connect their ancient past with the present. “The Chinese can connect their ancient past to the present through their humanities,” he continued, “whereas we in the West don't work actively at imagining the relations between our distant past and our present.”
This event was made possible by the support of the UCLA Dean of Humanities and Ms. Agnes Lin. The forum was cosponsored by the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Research Institute for the Humanities, with support from the Fo Guang Shan-CUHK “Humanist Humanities” Global Concern Project.
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