“Keep it Going 100 Years”: Princeton Historian on Lasting Legacy of Tang Prize

  • Willard Peterson, Chinese Professor of East Asian Studies and History at Princeton University
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“Remembering where one came from” is de rigueur in the study of history, but for Willard Peterson it is also a way adapt to a changing future. Peterson, Chinese Professor of East Asian Studies and History at Princeton University, visited the Tang Prize Foundation offices Thursday (April 21) to discuss the field of Sinology (Chinese: Hanxue). Peterson mourned that Classics studies like Sinology are increasingly ignored in modern society, but noted that “the Tang Prize reminds the world that Sinology is still important. It is not just about the past, is about the values that are rooted in that past that still might apply today.”

Peterson and his colleague at Princeton Yu Ying-Shih, the giant in Chinese intellectual history and inaugural Tang Prize laureate in Sinology, have known each other since the Sixties. The two were very nearly advisor and advisee, and later, as Peterson relates, he feels that the two share a brotherly relationship. Peterson admires Yu for his ability to penetrate into nearly any period of Chinese history, including modern day China, and even compare the thought systems of multiple periods with ease. Peterson, himself a scholar of Ming and Qing history, argues that studying the history of thoughts and values has tremendous import for our current world.

He likens it to a busy metropolis, where millions of people wake up, dress, and walk or drive to work. Although the near infinity of crisscrosses appear complicated, the city people get along well enough to avoid running into each other. Similarly, there have been Chinese philosophical systems aimed at the same goal of moderating society, Mencius (Chinese: Mengzi) and Ming dynasty (1368-1644) philosophers Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming being just a small sampling. Their systems were not born in a vacuum, but rather of thinking out how to situate oneself as a person in the interplay between individual and society. It is an idea that has applications—especially—in today’s world of constant change.
Sinology and the humanities are ways for humans to understand their own existence, and are just as important for a sustainable society as law and technology. Taiwan has rich soil for Sinology, with its numerous museums, libraries, and schools that provide a classical Chinese education. Nevertheless, in Peterson’s native US, and even in Taiwan, the humanities are facing competition for resources and enrollment from more lucrative fields. Returns from the sciences and the financial fields might be more immediate, but upon closer inspection their development is in no small part thanks to the humanities. Without the openness, inclusiveness, and other values which the humanities foster, science and economy would not be possible. Aside from material benefits, Peterson believes that the value of the humanities is in its personal and moral applications. In a phrase, it is “good for its own sake.”