Sinology Laureate Wang Gungwu Elaborates on the Importance of China’s Wen and Shi Tradition

  • Wang Gungwu, 2020 Tang Prize Laureate in Rule of Law
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Preceding the 2020 Tang Prize Award Ceremony scheduled to take place virtually on November 20, the laureate’s lecture, titled “From wen to shi: China’s Road,” by Prof. Wang Gungwu, renowned historian and winner of the 2020 Tang Prize in Sinology, was broadcast online at 10a.m. of the same day. Chronicling the trajectory of his research with anecdotes about his family and educational background, Prof. Wang provided a detailed overview of China’s development in the past century in comparison with its history in the past millenniums. He concluded that even though political systems might come and go alongside the ebbs and flows of dynasties, China’s wen (culture, literacy or literature) and shi (history) tradition remains highly relevant today. 


Born in Surabaya and growing up in British Malaya, Prof. Wang studied the Chinese tradition and classical Chinese at home, largely due to his father’s belief that wen was the foundation of Chinese culture, and “with this wen, all records, the shi records for example, were kept, family relationships were defined, and a tianxia ideal was conceived. In this way, the shi tradition enabled generations of leaders to establish a ruling system that brought order and wellbeing to their people.” The arrangement made by his father, who tutored him in classical Chinese but also sent him to an English school, would later on allow Prof. Wang to not be constrained by any traditional points of view and migrate between eastern and western thoughts with an open mind.      


In this lecture, Prof. Wang pointed out that during the years when the age-old concept of “emperor-tianxia,” of a monarch having absolute sovereignty over a huge empire, was transformed into that of a modern nation-state, the Guoxue tradition, that is, Chinese studies established over centuries by scholars within China, came into numerous conflicts with Western knowledge systems. Though 20th-century China was subjected to the judgement of a new world order, much of its cultural heritage was dismantled in the Cultural Revolution. After Mao Zedong passed away and China opened up to the world under Deng Xiaoping, who chose to pursue the course of economic reforms, new possibilities arose for the wen and shi tradition, which, despite the challenges posed to the regime of the Chinese Communist Party by the Tiananmen Square tragedy of 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union, can still exert influence in a modern world.  As Prof. Wang observed, “the shi…the records of every dynasty” could serve the purpose of shaping a country’s collective memory as well as providing “continuity for all of China’s past.” Leaders who succeeded Deng, from Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping, all returned to this wen and shi tradition, as manifested by their “strong support for a Standard Qingshi (history of the Qing dynasty) to connect the end of the Ming to the beginning of the republic.” Offering an overview of the many political transformations China went through within just a few centuries, Prof. Wang illustrated how the meaning of this wen-shi tradition evolved over time.


Beginning with references to Prof. Wang’s personal experiences, which are then interweaved with the vicissitudes of China’s modern history, this lecture demonstrates that the wen-shi tradition not only defines some of the most memorable chapters in his life but also underpins China’s transition from past to present, from tradition to modernity, and from the “emperor-tianxia” to a nation state. At a time when western ideas have become much more dominant, this wen-shi tradition seems to be fading away like flakes of rust. Nonetheless, Prof. Wang’s vivid account of the development of China’s history reminds us of why the wen-shi tradition still plays an important role today.


Prof. Wang Gungwu was awarded the 2020 Tang Prize in Sinology for “his groundbreaking research on the Chinese world order, Chinese overseas, and Chinese migratory experience.”


As part of the celebration of the 2020 Tang Prize, all eight laureates will deliver their lectures online. Check out more in this series of lectures where laureates convey their broad vision through inspiring and thought-provoking stories, in the hope of helping restore order and stability in a post-pandemic society. The Tang Prize Foundation therefore cordially invites everyone to visit our official YouTube channel to watch these lectures and learn about some of the most pressing issues of our time.