The 2014 Tang Prize in Sinology is awarded to historian Yu Ying-shih

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The 2014 Tang Prize in Sinology is awarded to Yu Ying-shih


The 2014 Tang Prize in Sinology is awarded to Yu Ying-shih 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.

With an illustrious academic career spanning over half a century, Professor Yu has reinterpreted the tradition of thought in China and revived the importance of intellectual history by shedding new light on the value, richness, and current significance of Chinese culture. Like the Grand Historian Sima Qian, Professor Yu has left no stone unturned in his “thorough investigation into the interplay of heaven and earth,” allowing him “to understand changes of the past and present” in order to forge his own theories. In short, Yu Ying-shih not only exemplifies all the qualities of the public intellectuals in his studies but also embodies the traditional philosophy of historians in China.


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Commonly hailed as the greatest Chinese intellectual historian of his generation, Professor Yu Ying-shih (1930 – ) is a master of Chinese political, cultural, and intellectual history who has researched and written extensively on almost every period of Chinese history. With an illustrious academic career spanning over half a century, he brought previously overlooked and forgotten aspects of Chinese culture and history to the forefront of mainstream academia and society. Beyond innovative studies in Chinese history, his research has had an enduring impact, inspiring others to discover new ways to better understand Chinese culture. Specifically, Professor Yu’s original research and profound insight into the tradition of Chinese thought have revived the importance of intellectual history through his illuminating interpretation of the value and richness of Chinese culture, a remarkable contribution that bridges our understanding of the entire span of Chinese history, from early times to the present.

In the process of exploring the history of China, Professor Yu has delved into past and present sources for Chinese history and philosophy, synthesizing them on a broad range of topics while putting much thought into the impacts and influence of his research. Initially publishing in English in 1967, he came to be widely recognized as a rising scholar in the United States. While his research was read extensively in the West, Yu soon realized that his work sparked little interest in the East. Hoping that his research will spread beyond the field of Sinology in the West and reach a larger audience, Yu decided to write and publish in Chinese. In 1976, he published his first collection of essays Lishi yu sixiang (History and Thought) in Taiwan, which later came to be one of his most influential works around the world, especially in the East. This work portrays Yu’s academic philosophy, emphasizing the interrelated nature among Chinese literature, history, and philosophy, in addition to covering his thoughts on the similarities and differences between Western and Eastern culture and thought as well as the importance of thought in the study of history. Many of the research topics included in this collection of essays were later expanded into full-length books. Professor Yu’s key decision to publish in Chinese made it possible for the East to join the dialogue on Chinese historiography, diversifying the academic discourse in the field of Sinology, one previously dominated by the West.

Seeing all history as the history of ideas, Professor Yu has left no stone unturned in his thorough investigation into the universe, understanding changes of the past and present in order to forge his own theories on the history of China, particularly the history of public intellectuals in traditional and modern China. His research traces the tradition of public intellectuals and the evolution of their identity and status. In his breakthrough research, he even includes Buddhist monks of the Northern and Southern dynasties as well as the Sui and Tang dynasties as public intellectuals, a view that was hitherto not yet recognized. While Professor Yu is an authority on traditional Chinese historians, his profound understanding of modern public intellectuals is also equally enlightening. His works elucidating the status and political philosophy of such key intellectuals as Hu Shih, Ch’ien Mu, and Chen Yinque are so telling that they speak for themselves. For instance, his analysis on the coded poetry Chen penned while living under Communist rule deciphered these encrypted works, providing scholars today with a glimpse into Chen’s feeling of helplessness and resistance to the political situation at the time. It also offered a deeper appreciation of the sorrow and sagacity characteristic of traditional scholars that was still alive and well in modern intellectuals.

Working deeply with original texts, Professor Yu has been credited with “rescu[ing] the Confucian heritage from caricature and neglect,” which in turn “has stimulated younger scholars to rediscover the richness and variety of Chinese culture after the ravages of Mao [Zedong]’s Cultural Revolution.” A leading scholar of his time who is admired for the insightful way in which he examines major questions and deeper truths, Yu has revived the importance of Chinese history for Westerners and Easterners alike by interpreting primary documents in a revolutionary manner and examining past events through innovative historical approaches. An overarching theme in his research is the relationship between intellectuals and the traditional Chinese heritage. Studying the history of ideas, Professor Yu opines that intellectualism sparked the rise of philology during the Qing dynasty, showcasing that Confucianism has since taken a different turn and has begun to develop in a new direction, bridging the traditional and the modern.

 Besides his insights into the tradition of intellectualism and anti-intellectualism and its continuation in China, he has also shed new light on the relation between Neo-Confucian notions of daotong (tradition of philosophy) and zhengtong (tradition of governance), redefining and asserting an intellectual historian’s notion of daotong. While delving into the history and development of thought, he not only mastered the intricacies of Confucian thought spanning from the classical period to the 19th century but also became so well-versed on major thinkers and intellectuals including Fang Yizhi (1611-1671) and Zhu Xi (1130-1200) that he has published research that has fundamentally reinterpreted towering figures throughout the history of China. His 1111-page masterpiece on Zhu Xi, the 12th-century Confucian scholar that helped codify the Confucian canon, is more than just an enlightening study on the political culture of the Song Dynasty that reinterprets the intellectual history of the Song period and brings clarity to the role of public intellectuals as political actors. Instead, this two-volume work also speaks to the question of where thought, an often neglected subject, belongs in the study of history. His extraordinary contribution to the methodology used in intellectual history makes his work on Zhu Xi a must read for not just scholars studying the Song period but rather for all those engaged in the study of traditions in China and their impact and meaning today. With his works adding to the knowledge of Chinese history and the practice of history, Professor Yu ultimately provided new ways of thinking, paving the path for future scholars to reexamine, understand, and find value in the richness of the history and culture of China. These remarkable contributions have established him not only as a leading scholar but also as the modern authority on Chinese intellectual history.

Even after retiring from Princeton University in 2001, Professor Yu does not rest on his laurels despite the many accolades he has garnered. His main focus is writing, which he continues to do almost daily, revising old works and publishing new ones. For his tireless effort in academia, Professor Yu was awarded the 2006 Kluge Prize in recognition of his lifetime achievements in the humanities. However, Professor Yu is not simply a scholar in the modern sense. Beyond his academic contributions are Yu’s humanitarian efforts and political commentary. Besides researching and redefining what encompasses a public intellectual, Professor Yu himself has become an exemplary model of the modern public intellectual. Yu publishes extensively, and many of his writings were essays on Chinese political situations with various pieces touching on cross-strait issues. Thus, Professor Anthony C. Yu of the University of Chicago once noted: “Professor Yu Ying-shih exemplifies all the qualities of the public intellectuals that he studies as reflected by his lifetime research and studies.” In the world of scholarship, one would be hard pressed to find another Yu Ying-shih—a scholar who sees himself as a public intellectual in the traditional Chinese sense, taking on the responsibility of making the world a better place.