Renowned art historian and archeologist, Professor Dame Jessica Rawson was named winner of the 2022 Tang Prize in Sinology at a press conference held at the Tang Prize Foundation on June 20. In the citation, the Selection Committee praises Professor Rawson “for her gift and mastery of the craft of the visible to read the art and artifacts of Chinese civilization. By giving voice to the ancient world of objects, she has taught generations how to see when they look at things, and her acuity and vast visual learning have given new insight into the world of lineages, transformations, and migrations of mute things.”
In his opening remarks, Dr. Jenn-Chuan Chern, CEO of the Tang Prize Foundation, pointed out that “in a globalized world, the study of Chinese civilization is especially important, because it helps us understand different cultures and the world better.” He also expressed gratitude to the Selection Committee and its chair, Professor David Der-wei Wang, for their tireless efforts to award people who have enriched Chinese studies and broadened the scope of Sinology. He also hoped the laureates’ achievements will inspire the younger generation to “follow in their footsteps and make the world a better place.”
In his introduction of Professor Rawson, Professor Wang, also the Edward C. Henderson Professor of Chinese Literature at Harvard University, first drew our attention to the language of objects, pointing out that objects are not merely mute things, but behind these objects are what Professor Rawson calls visual systems that encode information, covering conventions on how to use and design objects and include numerous icons and motifs. Professor Wang then referred to the pattern of lotus leaves seen on many Chinese porcelains and described how Professor Rawson was able to trace its origin back to Western civilizations. In addition, he talked about Professor Rawson’s study of architectural and sculptural designs, such as the framing or settings of the Buddhist grottoes, and explained how she identified the structural principles which indicate the interactions between early Chinese civilizations and Western ones that were located in as far as the Mediterranean. Professor Rawson is also known for her extensive studies of burial culture and ritual practice in ancient China. Through these studies, she came to the conclusion that the composition of the excavated items tells us not only the transition and breakups of different dynastic civilizations but also the continuation and integration of cultural, political and even psychological transmutations from one culture to another. Equally significant is Professor Rawson’s latest research on horse trade, which illustrates how the evolution of ancient civilization was a rather dynamic and animated process. Professor Wang stressed that the dominant theme in Professor Rawson’s research is “transculturation” and that for her, “any culture is never an individual and independent culture” but “is always a transcultural process through which human beings came to know and understand each other.” To elaborate on the significance of awarding the Prize in Sinology to Professor Rawson, Professor I-tien Hsing, Academician of Academia Sinica, noted that this decision underscored the importance of visual art, which is often overshadowed by the importance placed on written texts. Therefore, the breakthroughs Professor Rawson has achieved on this subject have broadened the scope of Sinology and helped us gain a more comprehensive view of Chinese culture and civilization.
Responding to the news of the award, Professor Rawson said she was “incredibly honored to be awarded this prize” and felt “astonished,” adding that she had “never expected to be even considered to be within the category of Sinology.” She explained, “I am an archeologist interested in material culture, and I am not a Chinese language specialist. And so I’ve never expected to be considered. So I was almost shocked and surprised and very happy to learn that the Foundation had been interested in my work.”
In 2014, the inaugural Tang Prize in Sinology was awarded to the late Professor Yu Ying-shih. Lauded for his mastery of Chinese intellectual, political, and culture history, Professor Yu reinterpreted the tradition of thought in China and revived the importance of the field by shedding new light on the value, richness, and contemporary relevance of Chinese culture. The late Professor Theodore de Bary is the recipient of this prize in 2016. Professor de Bary’ is widely recognized for establishing the field of Neo-Confucianism in the West. His scholarly work on Confucian studies and his efforts in education elevated Asian studies to the level of prominence once reserved for European scholarship. In 2018, the Prize went to Professor Stephen Owen and Professor Yoshinobu Shiba. Focusing on classical Chinese literature, Professor Owen breathed new life into this field by reinventing the way it is studied. As a prolific translator, he also provides students and general readers with an easy access to classical Chinese poetry. Professor Shiba is an expert on the socio-economic history of the Song dynasty. His integration of Sinological scholarship of East Asia and the West brings together the strengths of academic paradigms represented by research done by Chinese, Japanese, and Western scholars. In 2020, the Tang Prize honored Professor Wang Gungwu for his groundbreaking studies of China’s southern neighbors, the Chinese overseas, Chinese migratory experience, and Chinese world order, all of which greatly enriched the field of Sinology and allowed us to understand China through a brand new lens.