Tang Prize in Sinology winner proponent of civilized dialogue(Focus Taiwan)

  • Announcing the prize in Sinology was former Academia Sinica President and 1986 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry Yuan Tseh Lee.
  • Professor William Theodore de Bary, whose calls for dialogue among different civilizations are vastly different from Samuel Huntington's study on clashes of civilizations, has been awarded the 2016 Tang Prize in Sinology Monday.
A- | A+

(Focus Taiwan)


Taipei, June 20 (CNA) Professor William Theodore de Bary, whose calls for dialogue among different civilizations are vastly different from Samuel Huntington's study on clashes of civilizations, has been awarded the 2016 Tang Prize in Sinology Monday.

"In his remarkable academic career spanning over seven decades, he has written and edited over 30 books with many of them making ground-breaking contributions that provide both enlightening insight and honest critique into Confucianism," according to the Tang Prize citation.

The Tang Prize Selection Committee touted the laureate as "a rare exemplar of a scholar known not only for his monumental scholarship and leadership in the field of Confucianism, but also for his unflagging dedication to renewing and realizing a great civilized conversation to iron out differences and foster mutual understanding between the East and the West."

De Bary, 96, will receive a cash prize of NT$40 million (US$1.23 million) and a research grant of up to NT$10 million to be used within five years, as well as a medal and a certificate.

Unlike John Fairbank, whose studies on China centered on how China was responding to Western challenges, de Bary worked to promote sympathy toward and understanding of Chinese culture, creating a "paradigm shift" that Huang Chin-shing (黃進興), director of the Institute of History and Philology at Academia Sinica, said is de Bary's greatest contribution to Sinology.

Relevance to today's world

Besides pointing out the vibrant history of Confucian and Indian traditions, de Bary also holds an open and multicultural outlook, encouraging dialogue between different cultures as a way to find common ground and the best way to showcase the value of human rights of civil society and resolve key issues facing the world today.

He says Confucian teachings of "restraining oneself" and "the Way and its relationship to all things" still apply today.

Earlier, in 1988, in "East Asian Civilizations: A Dialogue in Five Stages," he analyzed the development and exchanges within East Asian civilization and offers a suggestion of encouraging dialogue and exchange between different cultures and civilizations.

De Bary believes that in a chaotic world, there is no better remedy, and this has been the purpose of his scholarship.

A prolific career

Throughout his career, de Bary has headed many academic projects including the translation and compilation of various texts. Students and scholars in the field of East Asian studies have all greatly benefited from his 1960's "Sources of Chinese Tradition," in which he has translated and annotated a large number of Chinese classics and texts.

This key publication offers a thorough portrayal of different aspects of Chinese social, political, intellectual, and cultural traditions to the English-speaking world.

The continual publication of much enlarged editions of this work in 1999, 2000, and 2004 is a testimony to the significant contribution this source book has made to Sinology.

He has also been a leading figure presiding over the translation of Eastern classics at Columbia University, a project that has seen the translation of over 150 classics, which serves as a key foundation for East Asian studies in the West.

He has also invited leading scholars from around the world to dialogue and exchange findings on Neo-Confucianism, publishing their insights for readers around the world.

In brief, de Bary has fostered a global conversation based on the common values and experiences shared by the East and the West, serving as a bridge between Confucian traditions and the modern world, according to the Tang Prize Selection Committee.

Academic background

Upon completing his doctoral degree in 1953 at Columbia University, de Bary started his teaching and research career at his alma mater as a specialist in Chinese intellectual history, especially focusing on Confucianism, and has since continued on even after his retirement in 1990.

Recognized as essentially creating the field of Neo-Confucian studies in North America, he has written and edited over 30 books with many of them making groundbreaking contributions to the study of Confucianism.

He chaired the Department of East Asian Languages and Culture between 1960 and 1966 and served as Executive Vice President of Academic Affairs and Provost from 1971 to 1978. He was also president of the Association of Asian Studies from 1969 to 1970.

Even now in his 90's, he continues to publish works that reflect his commitment to addressing key questions that face humanity, including his 2013 publication "The Great Civilized Conversation: Education for a World Community."

'Waiting for Dawn'

Professor de Bary's study of Confucianism began with Huang Zongxi's "Waiting for the Dawn," through which he strove to understand internal problems China faced through its history, ideals and traditions, free from Western preconceptions, theories, and values.

With his leading insight into the field, de Bary went on to pioneer the field of Neo-Confucianism beginning with his 1953 publication of "A Reappraisal of Neo-Confucianism."

He does not champion traditional Confucian thought as perfect; instead, he endeavors to bring forth the Confucian idea and ideal of daotong or what he phrases as "the reconstitution of the Way."

Chinese view of freedom

Over the past half century, de Bary's masterpieces had centered around two major themes. The first discusses the history and evolution of the Cheng/Zhu school of Neo-Confucianism through a historical perspective as seen in his representative works "Neo-Confucian Orthodoxy and the Learning of the Mind-and-Heart" (1981) and "Message of the Mind in Neo-Confucianism" (1989).

His second major theme focuses on the Confucian emphasis on the individual and freedom, advocating that Confucianism is by no means an obstacle to modernization and is instead the core foundation of culture across East Asia.

He is especially interested in Wang Gen and Li Zhi's focus on the individual, which he delves into in "The Liberal Tradition in China" (1982). He stresses that while China lacks what in the West is known as "liberalism," this does not mean China does not value freedom.

His research demonstrates that Neo-Confucian teachings in late imperial China, particularly during the Ming Dynasty, contain values that he terms "liberal tendencies."

And throughout history, these values are propelled by Confucian and Neo-Confucian scholar-officials, who de Bary regards as noble junzi (gentlemen) with a "prophetic voice" that are willing to take a stand against the abuse of political power.

In his 1990 publication "Learning for One's Self: Essays on the Individual in Neo-Confucian Thought," he found common ground between the Eastern Confucian cultivation of the self and the Western emphasis on individualism.

Despite his great respect for Confucianism, de Bary understands that the "liberal tendencies" and "prophetic voices" in Confucian tradition have never been transformed into legal institutions such as those in Western liberal democracy to protect basic civil rights.

"The Trouble with Confucianism" fully examines this dilemma and limitation and advocates that an understanding of why Confucian political ideas failed to take hold must be based on the ideals set forth by the tradition itself.

The Confucian ideal of cultivating sage kings is difficult to realize and must rely on junzi to mediate between the ruler and the people.

While junzi are "destined" to serve as the "spokesmen of heaven," they are unlike the Western prophet who has been ordained as the messenger of God. The biggest limitation of the "prophet" tradition in China is that it lacks the power base of an authority like the Western church.

Cut off from people

However, the most significant limitation is how far removed the junzi are from the people in that they only serve to convey messages to the ruler rather than the people.

De Bary is concerned with the democratic values of the East and the West, which he discusses when examining Huang Zongxi's "Waiting for the Dawn."

In his 1993 English translation of this book, he said that he believes that the elements of democracy in Huang Zongxi's work cannot be directly transplanted into Western democracy.

The purpose of Huang's advocacy of Confucian constitutionalism is to increase the authority of the prime minister so he can serve as a check and balance against the monarchy. The establishment of an education system as a forum for educated opinion on public affairs is another check against the monarchy.

However, Huang's ideal political system and the Western representative democracy have fundamental differences: The prime minister in the East is selected by the emperor and public opinion should be driven by scholar-officials.

De Bary finds "Waiting for the Dawn" of particular significance because this work places much emphasis on law as an outgrowth of local needs and not imposed by leaders with a political agenda.

Huang's political tract condemns laws driven by political agendas and advocates for the importance of creating laws before the selection of rulers. This perspective departs from the traditional Confucian expectation of monarchs.

Nevertheless, de Bary also understands that Huang's legal system does not resemble that of the social contract of the West, so the role of the people is greatly limited.

The Tang Prize was established by Taiwanese entrepreneur Samuel Yin in 2012 to complement the Nobel Prize. The first Tang Prize award ceremony was held in 2014.

The biennial award recognizes top researchers and leaders in the fields of sustainable development, biopharmaceutical science, Sinology, and the rule of law.