A figure of profound influence in my life— Chin-shing Huang shares fond memories of his mentor Yu Ying-shih

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Interview by Sophia Lin

Chinese original by Daisy Lee

English translation by Wei-Hsin Lin

Photo by Mark Huang


“Had it not been for Prof. Yu, I would not have become a Sinologist.” 


Dr. Chin-shing Huang, vice president of Academia Sinica and an expert on the history of Chinese thought, religious culture, and historiography, is also known for his study of temples dedicated to Confucius. After getting his PhD degree from Harvard University in 1983, he returned to Taiwan straightaway and started a lifelong career at the Institute of History and Philology at Academia Sinica. As a great writer, he has published not only academic works but also two bestselling collections of essays, Those Days at Harvard and Personal Impressions and Other Essays. Sketches of things he came across during his time as a PhD candidate as well as of all types of scholars he chanced upon, these two books give readers a rare glimpse of the daily life of some of the world’s most prominent intellectuals, including his teacher and the greatest Chinese intellectual historian of his generation, Prof. Yu Yin-shih.


Whenever the topic is about Prof. Yu, Dr. Huang never forgets to mention, with self-depreciating humor, comments his teacher made about him, which always contain the oxymoron: precocious but immature. He recalled that while people would describe Prof. Yu as humble and amicable, his manners pleasant and his words inspiring, to Dr. Huang, he was, however, a “strict teacher” who would “dish out admonishment” quite frequently. Nevertheless, he emphasized that Prof. Yu “never lectured arbitrarily. Instead, he pointed out the problems in a rational way.” More importantly, “every time he made criticisms, it led to a critical turning point in my learning journey,” Dr. Huang added. Take his doctoral dissertation as an example. Prof. Yu wanted him to study the Qin scholar of Neo-Confucianism, Li Fu, a topic very few people knew much about and therefore leaving Dr. Huang with almost no reference books to consult. He had to read every volume of relevant anthologies by himself, acquiring his knowledge one step at a time. As it turned out, Prof. Yu’s rigorous intellectual training enabled him to unshackle his mind from the frameworks of western scholarship and secondary literature and, in this way, build a solid foundation for his future research.         


Prof. Yu not only advised him during the six years he studied at Harvard. He also gave him counsel on marriage.

In 1983, when Dr. Huang completed his PhD and was about to set off back to Taiwan, Prof. Yu was worried that he would remain single for the rest of his life. So he kept reminding Dr. Huang that if he met the girl he liked, “make sure the romance comes to fruition within three months. Don’t let it drag on for eight years, because eight years later it will end in failure.” Heeding this advice, Dr. Huang didn’t let his teacher down. He married Yonghui Wu and would later on use her name to publish essays.  


Here is another example that shows Prof. Yu’s care for his students. When Dr. Huang took over as vice president of Academia Sinica in 2016, he was concerned that the time-consuming administrative duties had taken a huge toll on his research productivity.


One day, he wrote to Prof. Yu to pour out his anxiety and frustration. Little did he expect to get a phone call from his teacher, telling him that “it doesn’t matter that much now whether you publish one more paper.” Being straightforward and not mincing his words, Prof. Yu pointed out that for someone his age and enjoying such a high status, he should try to help others, rather than just pursue further academic achievements. “Your time should be spent on helping young scholars and on cultivating their talents, not on trying to surpass yourself.” After that conversation, Dr. Huang said, laughing, that he has been trying to do one good deed a day, helping one young person a day.   


Tireless in his efforts to promote Chinese culture, Prof. Yu didn’t limit his support for the younger generation to his students such as Dr. Fan-sen Wang, Dr. Jo-shui Cheng, and Dr. Huang himself. When he won the Tang Prize in Sinology in 2014, he designated the NT$10 million (approx. US$0.35 million) Tang Prize research grant to set up the “Yu-Ying Shih Fellowship for the Humanities.” In the five years following its establishment, it has been awarded to thirty young researchers and PhD candidates in the field of the humanities.      


It could be a phone call, a face-to-face meeting, or a causal chat, and that is how Prof. Yu and Dr. Huang established a special relationship that lasted for more than four decades. Prof. Yu was also the reason behind Dr. Huang’s decision to transfer from the University of Pittsburgh to Harvard, a decision that opened the door to the pantheon of academic giants for him. From then on, his research set out on a different trajectory, shifting from the study of western culture to that of Chinese history.


Asked what he would say to Prof. Yu if they met again, Dr. Huang noted that he has been a teacher himself for more than four decades and has come across many different students. He doesn’t believe that at that time he was qualified to be admitted to Harvard. So why did Prof. Yu give him an offer? It has been the question he wants to ask the most, but also the one he dares the least to ask. Sadly, before he even summoned up the courage to say anything, Prof. Yu is already gone.