The Tang Dynasty, founded in 618 CE, brought one of the world’s great periods of cultural flowering. Different peoples intermingled as East met West, resulting in an open, advanced, and inclusive age whose culture influenced surrounding countries.
In 2012, Taiwanese entrepreneur Samuel Yin founded the Tang Prize in Taiwan, treating “618” as something of a cipher—the prize recipients are announced once every two years on June 18.
In 2022, despite the continuing Covid-19 pandemic, the Tang Prize Foundation announced its fifth slate of winners. This year’s prize in Sustainable Development goes to US economist Jeffrey D. Sachs; that in Biopharmaceutical Science to Katalin Karikó, Drew Weissman, and Pieter Cullis, for developing mRNA-based Covid vaccines; in Sinology to Jessica Rawson, a long-time scholar of Chinese art history; and in Rule of Law to Cheryl Saunders of Australia, for her work on constitution-building in the Asia–Pacific region.
Taking aim at 21st-century issues
The biennial Tang Prize is Taiwan’s first international academic prize conferred upon recipients from throughout the world. Ten years in, we come to the awarding of the Fifth Tang Prizes, which are given out in the four fields of Sustainable Development, Biopharmaceutical Science, Sinology, and Rule of Law. From this list one can see that the founders of the Tang Prize feel an especially strong concern for matters that touch upon the social sciences.
Tang Prize Foundation CEO Chern Jenn-chuan explains, “We’re living in the 21st century, and the natural sciences alone are no longer sufficient to resolve the challenges we face. People play a crucial role.” To address the issue of sustainable development, for example, besides tapping into the fruits of basic scientific research, it is becoming increasingly important that people get out and advocate if we are to achieve real resolutions. Rule of law, meanwhile, sets the rules of engagement between people, between individuals and society, and between states. For the world to enjoy peaceful co-existence, the rule of law is indispensable.
The way the social sciences pay simultaneous attention to a diverse range of phenomena is very much in tune with the melting pot of diversity that was the Tang Dynasty. This year’s Sinology laureate, Jessica Rawson, has particular expertise in Chinese art and material culture. Unlike previous Sinology laureates, who have generally emphasized philosophy and literature, she discusses the mixing of Eastern and Western cultures from the perspective of the visual arts. Wang Gungwu, the fourth Sinology laureate, is a historian from Malaysia and Singapore whose understanding of Chinese history is informed by a Southeast-Asian perspective. He thus provides historical viewpoints that differ from those of the past, which have tended to center on the North China Plain. His departure from the prevailing tradition of centrism is very much in line with the Tang Prize’s focus on innovation, diversity, and fusion.
Chern Jenn-chuan states that the Tang Prize laureates can provide solutions to 21st-century issues. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
After five rounds across ten years, the Tang Prize has achieved its initial mission. Says Chern Jenn-chuan: “The fifth round was the perfect time to run a retrospective. We’ve set out lists of the laureates from all the first five rounds, which upon perusal show the significance of the Tang Prize and how it ties into our times.”
In the Sustainable Development category, for example, the first award was given to former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland. Known as the godmother of sustainability, Brundtland in 1987 published a report entitled Our Common Future, which put forward the definition of “sustainability” that remains in use today, and set in motion a train of events that led to the establishment of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. This year, the fifth Sustainable Development Prize goes to Jeffrey D. Sachs, who has served three terms as a special advisor to the UN secretary general. In that capacity he put forward workable action plans to implement the eight Millennium Development Goals and then the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Both of these laureates have thus worked hard to achieve a globally sustainable future.
The research topics of the Biopharmaceutical Science laureates since 2012 have all tied in closely with things happening in the world. Over the first four rounds the laureates specialized in immunotherapy, genome editing, targeted cancer therapies, and cytokines. In this fifth round the prize for Biopharmaceutical Science goes to three recipients who discovered key immunology concepts and methods and went on to successfully develop mRNA-based Covid-19 vaccines that have saved millions of lives. Having spent decades slowly crafting sophisticated means to protect human health, these laureates now stand before us as consummate role models.
After ten years, the significance of the Tang Prizes is coming into clearer focus. Recognizing people who directly address a range of issues that face the contemporary world, and propose solutions, is a key feature of these prizes. Chern Jenn-chuan often says, “The Tang Prize is a way for ethnic Chinese people to give back to the world.”
From left: Katalin Karikó, Drew Weissman, and Pieter Cullis, winners of the fifth Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science.
The Tang Prize amounts to NT$50 million in each category, making it the richest academic prize in the world in cash terms. NT$40 million of the prize money is for the laureate, who is expected to use the other NT$10 million to fund research activities. This setup enables the Tang Prize to make its influence felt far and wide in the academic community.
Chern explains: “In the previous four rounds there were a total of 27 laureates, and to date the awards have been used to fund 29 research projects that are either currently underway or already completed.” As Tang Prize CEO, he travels widely to observe the outcomes of different research projects. “Gro Brundtland, the winner of our first Sustainable Development Prize, donated NT$5 million to the Milgis Trust elephant conservation project.”
The winner of the first Rule of Law Prize was the South African human rights activist Albie Sachs, who used his prize money to establish the Albie Sachs Trust for Constitutionalism and the Rule of Law, which set about recording the history of South Africa’s democratic transition. “All those materials were compiled with the intention that they should be remembered by the whole world. This was a very important and special process,” says Chern. South Africa continues to face a wide range of problems, and the wounds of history take time to heal. But the people of South Africa and the world need to know this chapter in history.
Tang Prize laureates are always invited to come to Taiwan to receive their prizes and take part in a Masters’ Forum. While in Taiwan they visit high schools and universities to deliver lectures and give students a chance to come in direct contact with some of the great academics of our time.
In each round of the Tang Prizes there have been laureates who have given commemorative gifts to the Tang Prize Foundation. Fourth-round laureate Jane Goodall presented a very special stick—the one she first saw being used by the chimp David Greybeard at Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania as a tool to catch termites. She wrote up this observation in a 1960 academic paper in which she described how chimpanzees have the ability to fashion and use tools. This discovery was a momentous advance in the study of primates. It redefined the relationship between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom, and shook the scientific community.
One can just imagine the many inspirations a young mind might take away after meeting face to face with a leading scholar or seeing first hand an object with the significance of something like David Greybeard’s stick. The Tang Prize brings those people and artifacts to Taiwan so that through them our students can get to know the world. Such experiences may inspire young people to pursue excellence and do their part to achieve world peace.
Gro Brundtland, winner of the first Tang Prize for Sustainable Development, donated part of her prize money to the Milgis Trust in Kenya.
An NGO named Dejusticia, one of the recipients of the 2020 Tang Prize for Rule of Law, donated a tapestry made by Colombian women. The tapestry portrays some of the organization’s work in defense of human rights over the preceding 15 years. It also depicts its Tang Prize award. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
John Mendelsohn, winner of the third Tang Prize for Biopharmaceutical Science, donated a vial of the anti-cancer drug Erbitux to the Tang Prize Foundation. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
Joseph Raz, recipient of the 2018 Tang Prize for Rule of Law, gifted to the foundation three pieces of antique Chinoiserie-styled tea ware in red English stoneware, symbolizing East–West cultural exchange. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
Of Taiwan, and of the world
In just ten years, the Tang Prize has become well known internationally. The laureates have come from 33 countries on six continents, a quarter of the prizes have gone to women, and some of the laureates have gone on to win Nobel prizes. For example, after the immunologists James P. Allison of the US and Tasuku Honjo of Japan received a Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science in 2014, they went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2018. Also, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2020 was awarded to two recipients of the 2016 Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna. This represented yet another milestone for the Tang Prize.
Chern sets out a number of factors that have been key to the success of the Tang Prize. First, it was set up by a donor who has a great deal of foresight. Second, the members of the selection committee are professionals of the highest order. The Tang Prize retains people from the Academia Sinica to serve on the selection committee, and benefits from their international connections when they refer outstanding colleagues from around the world to join the committee. Third, the foundation’s operations are very international in character. Finally, Taiwan’s achievements in terms of socioeconomic development, democracy and openness, and science and technology are widely recognized, giving Taiwan a certain international standing. The Tang Prize helps the world to understand Taiwan and raises our nation’s global profile.
Due to the Covid pandemic, the fifth Masters’ Forum was held in a hybrid format, with some participants attending online and others in person. Rule of Law Prize laureate Cheryl Saunders is shown here attending online.
The design of the Tang Prize certificate features the four visual elements of water, earth, wind, and fire, which allude to how the four Tang Prize award categories are closely interlinked with public health and wellbeing.