U.S. scholar sees Sinology's value in contemporary world

  • Willard Peterson, a professor of East Asian Studies and History, visited the foundation office.
  • Willard Peterson, a professor of East Asian Studies and History, visited the foundation office
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Taipei, April 21 (CNA) A U.S. scholar on Thursday touted the Tang Prize for shedding light on the importance of Sinology and suggested that many of the teachings of ancient Chinese philosophers are still applicable today.

As universities in the United States and Europe are under increasing pressure to study contemporary China, instead of ancient China, the Tang Prize Foundation is making a contribution by reminding the world that Hanxue (Sinology) is still important, Willard Peterson, a professor of East Asian Studies and History at Princeton University, told CNA in an interview in Taipei.

"Hanxue is not just about the past, it is about the values that are rooted in the past that still might apply today," said Peterson, who specializes in Chinese intellectual history of the Ming-Qing period and in early Chinese thought.

Those moral values or traditions include the virtues of ren (benevolence), yi (righteousness) and zhong (loyalty), which were not handed down by deities or rulers, but developed and defined by each generation, the professor said.

Peterson said the moral values are "values of being human."

"Ren means fully being a human" and living up to the expectations of what a human should do, he added.

At the core of Kongzi's (Confucius') teachings is persuading people that if they want a better society, they should self-consciously correct themselves and act accordingly, Peterson said.

He said Chinese intellectual tradition is about the tension between authorities and individual human beings. The former -- fathers, teachers or rulers -- want to tell the people what to do, but "Kongzi, Mengzi (Mencius) and Zhu Xi are telling us: you have to learn for yourself," Peterson said.

People often say that Chinese moral or ethical traditions are very family- or society-centered, but "it's a bit wrong," he said, adding that ancient Chinese philosophers such as Kongzi and Mengzi in fact focused on "the self."

"But they are talking about the self not in a selfish or self-centered way, but in a way that you learn that you have individual agency," he added.

Chinese Neo-Confucian philosopher Wang Yangming also emphasized that "you can find within your own heart the power to act and make correct moral judgments everyday. And it's a very strong message, and gave followers of Wang Yangming self-confidence," Peterson said.

Wang's ideas were attractive to people in the 16th century because it taught them how to gain confidence in a competitive society, where they faced huge pressure from examinations, economic security and social turmoil, Peterson said.

Meanwhile, Peterson said, the Tang Prize in Sinology should be promoted to the world and not just among Chinese speakers.

"If you think about Sinology as something that is being offered to the whole world, to all societies, and not just for people who speak the Chinese language, it becomes a universal claim for a humanistic value-driven way of approaching the world," Peterson said.

Although the Tang Prize may not be known among many people now, Peterson said the award has the potential to become a lasting legacy like the Nobel Prize or the Fields Medal if it lasts for 100-200 years.

Chinese American historian Yu Ying-shih won the first Tang Prize in Sinology in 2014 for his research and insight into the intellectual history of China. Yu is particularly known for his research on the tradition of public intellectuals and the evolution of their identities and statuses.

The winners of the second Tang Prize are expected to be announced over a period of four days from June 18-21, while an award ceremony will be held Sept. 25 in Taipei to honor the laureates.

The Tang Prize was established by Taiwanese entrepreneur Samuel Yin (尹衍樑) in 2012 to complement the Nobel Prize and to honor top researchers and leaders in the fields of sustainable development, biopharmaceutical science, Sinology, and the rule of law.