2016 No.2
Interview with Professor Yuan Xingpei
The Institute of Chinese Studies Bulletin was honoured to interview Professor Yuan Xingpei on 31 March 2016. Professor Yuan reflected on his study at Peking University and his academic career. He also introduced his current work at the Institute of Traditional Chinese Culture and the International Academy for China Studies (IACS) at Peking University as well as at the Central Institute of Chinese Culture and History.
Date:March 31, 2016
Location:Room 124, the Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS), The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Interviewee:Professor Yuan Xing-pei, Department of Chinese Language and Literature, Peking University
Interviewer:Professor Zhang Jian, Department of Chinese Language and Literature, The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Recorded by:Xu Yanlian, Research Associate, ICS
Translated by:Wu You (Corrected by Professor Jason Gleckman)

Professor Yuan Xingpei, whose ancestral home is Wujin, Jiangsu, was born in Jinan, Shandong. Professor Yuan serves as a Professor in the Department of Chinese Language and Literature and as the Director of the Faculty of the Humanities, Dean of the Institute of Traditional Chinese Culture, Director of the International Academy for China Studies and Editor-in-Chief of Studies in Sinology at Peking University. Professor Yuan has held the posts of President of the Central Institute of Chinese Culture and History and Vice-Chairman of the China Democratic League and has been a member of the Academic Degrees Committee of the State Council. He was also a member of the Eighth and Ninth National Committees of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference and of the Tenth Standing Committee of the National People's Congress.

Professor Yuan's major works include Research on Chinese Poetical Art; General Introduction on Chinese Literature; Research on Tao Yuanming; Annotations of the Complete Works of Tao Yuanming; History of Chinese Literature (a volume on five dynasties, including the Wei, Jin, Northern and Southern Dynasties, Sui and Tang, and a volume on the Yuan Dynasty) (Chief Editor); Studies on Chinese Poetry (Co-authored); Reference Materials on the History of Literature in Wei, Jin, Northern and Southern Dynasties (Chief Editor); Self-Selected Works of Yuan Xingpei, Contemporary Scholars Series; The Style and Characteristic of Tang Poetry; A Study on the Poetic Circles of High Tang (Co-authored); History of Chinese Literature (Chief Editor); The History of Chinese Civilization (Chief Editor); and A Cultural Survey of Chinese Provinces (Chief Editor).

1. The Start of Scholarship: A Solid Foundation of Language and Literature

After I was admitted to Peking University to study Chinese language and literature in 1953, I received a comprehensive education. In 1952, there was much reorganisation in educational circles in mainland China, as the faculties of arts and science of Peking University, Tsinghua University and Yenching University were all merged into Peking University, whilst the faculties of engineering were incorporated into Tsinghua University. At the time, many renowned scholars had gathered at Peking University. The Department of Chinese Language and Literature is a good example: the teaching staff comprised professors from the three former universities, including Professor Wei Chian-gong, Professor You Guo-en, and Professor Yang Hui from Peking University, Professor Wang Yao and Professor Wu Tzu-hsiang from Tsinghua University, and Professor Lin Geng and Professor Gao Ming-kai from Yenching University. There was also an institute of literature that later became the Institute of Literature of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; it's staff included Professor Yu Ping-bo, Professor Tsian Chong-shu, and Professor Sun Kai-di. It is my fortune to have studied Chinese language and literature at Peking University during that era and to have learned from these outstanding scholars. I took a course in Chinese literary history taught by Professor You Guo-en and Professor Pu Chiang-tsing when I was a freshman. At the time, the workload of literary history was rather heavy. We attended six classes a week for four years, and the course covered literary eras from the Pre-Qin period to the modern age, thus providing us with substantial training. Not only did we study the history of literature, we were also required to do extensive reading. When teaching the literature of the Pre-Qin period and the Han Dynasty, for instance, Professor You introduced literary history, whereas Professor Pu talked about selected works. Professor Pu had been an assistant of Professor Wang Guo-wei and was himself well-versed in Chinese studies. The literature of the Pre-Qin period and the Han Dynasty was quite difficult to master, so we had to examine original works introduced in the literary history course after class. Professor You taught The Book of Documents and The Book of Songs in class, and we students studied together in the library in the evening, trying to grasp the works. I really enjoyed those days. In the second year, I studied literature from the Wei Dynasty to the Tang Dynasty under the guidance of Professor Lin Geng, a poet himself. His unique insights into poetry made him the most popular lecturer. In the third year, we explored the literature from the Song Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty. The lecturer was Professor Pu again. He would sing Kunqu opera for us in class, much to our amazement.

The Chairman of the Department of Chinese Language and Literature, Professor Yang Hui, emphasised that language and literature are inseparable "organically correlated" aspects, so I took five linguistic courses during my four years of undergraduate studies. Professor Gao Ming-kai, who had studied in France, taught introduction to Linguistics. Professor Wei Chian-gong taught classical Chinese, and Professor Chou Tzu-mo taught modern Chinese. Professor Yuan Chia-hua's course on Chinese dialectology, as a pioneering dialectology university course, introduced numerous dialects. Professor Yuan returned to China after studying in Britain. He wore a black corduroy suit and acted with grace, and was much admired by his students. I can still remember how he read "Mooring by Maple Bridge at Night (Feng Qiao Ye Bo)" when he taught us to read poems of the Tang Dynasty in Cantonese. During my junior year, Professor Wang Li came to Peking University from Sun Yat-sen University to teach us Chinese etymology, another new branch of study. Professor Wang published his An Investigation into Chinese Etymology (Han Yu Shi Gao) after teaching the course. I benefitted much from these five linguistic courses. For instance, in the Chinese etymology class, we were required to memorise all the rhymes in each rhyme class in Guang Yun. Such a solid linguistic foundation is crucial for studies of classical texts. Apart from these scholars, Peking University also invited Professor Cheng Dian to teach Wen Xin Diao Long, Professor Li Fu-ning to teach Western literary history, Professor Chi Hsian-lin and Professor Chin Ke-mu to teach Eastern literary history, Professor Yu Chen to teach Russian literary history and Professor Cao Ching-hua to teach the literary history of the USSR. The four years at Peking University provided me with a comprehensive foundation for scholastic work. Instruction by excellent professors from Peking University, Tsinghua University and Yenching University broadened my scope of academic research and benefitted the rest of my life. My later interest in interdisciplinary research should be attributed to my college education.

During that time, the Department of Chinese Language and Literature of Peking University combined three different schools of thought. Comparing and contrasting them can be a valuable topic for research of intellectual history, but what impressed me most was the wonderful fusion of the three aspects. After graduation, I stayed at Peking University as a teaching assistant, with Professor Lin Geng as my supervisor. He had been a student of Professor Chu Tzi-tsing at Tsinghua University and had taught at Yenching University. Professor Chu was skilled at prose, and his academic writings were also refined. His works such as "An Analysis of How Verse is Visceral (Shi Yan Zhi Bian)" and "Problems in the Chronicle of Tao Qian's Life (Tao Yuan Ming Nian Pu Zhong Zhi Wen Ti)" embody both meticulous textual research and groundbreaking ideas. I also appreciate Professor Wen Yi-duo, who passed away in 1946. Although he had not been our teacher, I was still greatly influenced by his books. During his days at National Southwest Associated University, he explored the customs of minor ethnic groups to interpret The Book of Songs. His writings were fiery and illuminating. Professor Lin, Professor Chu and Professor Wen have significantly influenced me. We also deeply admired Professor Yu Ping-bo. In addition to his achievements in textual research on A Dream of Red Mansions, he had many original contributions to poetry criticism. Professor Wu Tzu-hsiang had a rather popular course on A Dream of Red Mansions at Peking University. He was especially interested in artistic analyses of the novel, and his interpretations of characterisation were penetrating – as a novelist, he had a unique perspective. In 1993, we urged Professor Wu to publish "A Dream of Red Mansions Annotated by Wu Tzu-hsiang", and he was delighted by the idea. Sadly, however, he passed away before the book was completed.

Courses on literary history were more common back then, whilst there were fewer courses on special literary topics or selected works. The aim of this education mode was to offer students a more thorough knowledge background. Students' study methods also differed from today. In addition to absorbing information and taking useful notes in class, we were expected to read relevant anthologies that interested us according to the timeline of literary history. It was far from sufficient to confine your studying only to class hours.

In addition, I am lucky to have taken a course on the general history of China. In the first semester, Professor Chou Yi-liang covered up to the Tang Dynasty, and in the second semester, Professor Deng Guang-ming began with the Song Dynasty. I gained so much during that year. It was wonderful that those experts in history would teach freshmen of other majors.

2. Historical and Comparative Studies: From Literary History to the History of Civilisation and Regional Cultures

In 1995, I began to edit a textbook "for the twenty-first century", Chinese Literary History, having invited 30 professors from 19 universities to participate. I mention my major opinions on literary history in the general preface to the book. First, I talk about the definition of literary history. In the past, people identified literary history on a single continuum, such as realism and anti-realism or Legalism and Confucianism. Such identification, I think, is very inappropriate. How can a literary history spanning over 3000 years and consisting of numerous genres and styles be confined to a single continuum? The consequence, naturally, is that many ideas are imposed upon original works. Therefore, I propose three principles. The first is "literature-centred", i.e., to create literary studies, not sociological analyses. The second is "historical thinking". Literary history is, after all, history, so we should explicate historical development. The third is "cultural perspective", as we should explore literature in light of its broad cultural background. After my opinions were agreed with by others, we worked hard to embody them in the book.

As for the periodisation of literary history, I deviate from the conventional division into dynasties. One should divide political history into different dynasties, but literary history does not alter immediately after a change of dynasty. Hence, I propose division into "three eras and seven periods", i.e. the classical, mid-ancient and early modern eras and seven further divided periods. To take the early modern era as an example, I set the beginning point not as the establishment of the Ming Dynasty, but as the middle period of the Ming Dynasty. During that period, society experienced radical changes, somewhat like the Renaissance of the West. Citizens thrived as cities bloomed, and the literary centre moved southwards. Moreover, liberalism emerged in the intellectual community, nurturing people such as Li Chi and other leftist advocators of Wang Yang-ming's philosophy, which is why works such as The Golden Lotus and The Peony Pavilion were written. However, I do not reject division into dynasties when developments in literary history are related to changes in dynasties. For instance, the "mid-ancient era" of literary history begins from the establishment of the Sui Dynasty, which ended hundreds of years of conflicts during the Southern and Northern Dynasties and reunited China as a new empire. The literature then also underwent a revolutionary change – literary works of the Tang Dynasty are indeed very distinct from those of the Southern and Northern Dynasties. Furthermore, to make my proposal more specific, I advocate "three eras, seven periods and double perspectives". That is to say, the general division of literary history should accord with the development of literature per se, and yet we should not go to the extreme of denying the legitimacy of studying literature by dynasties. There can still be a "literary history of the Tang Dynasty" or a "literary history of the Ming Dynasty". The two perspectives are not incompatible. When I put forward my ideas, they were rather sensational among the community of literary history scholars. Professor Huang Lin of Fudan University, an expert in the literature of the Ming Dynasty and chief editor of chapters on the Ming Dynasty in Chinese Literary History, supported my opinions. Now there is probably little controversy over this issue. We later adopted the same method of division when editing The History of Chinese Civilization, treating the middle period of the Ming Dynasty as the starting point of a new era.

I am no "titular editor"; I write chapters in any book I edit. I am not merely the chief editor of Chinese Literary History. I wrote the three chapters on the Wei, Tsin, and Southern and Northern Dynasties on my own, in addition to the general preface. During the creation of the book, we frankly shared our opinions. It is vital to maintain a friendly academic atmosphere when carrying out a group project. The chief editor should tolerate various academic ideas. When Professor Luo Tzong-tsiang of Nankai University, in charge of the part on the Tang Dynasty in Chinese Literary History, suggested including a chapter solely on Li Shang-yin, I encouraged him, and I invited Professor Yu Shu-cheng to write that chapter. The part about the Yuan Dynasty was edited by Professor Huang Tian-chi of Sun Yat-sen University, the top university in drama studies. Professor Huang advocated that drama should not be examined only on the page but should be "materialised" and appreciated when performed on stage, and this idea is expressed in Chinese Literary History.

After that, I edited The History of Chinese Civilization, and I greatly enjoyed the process. In 1999, Peking University was included in China's "Project 211" and received funding. The vice principal then in charge of academic research asked for my suggestions for research projects. "Why not compose a history of Chinese civilisation!" I said without hesitation. At the time, I had just finished editing Chinese Literary History. I continued to adopt the principle of "cultural perspective", and I motivated all the scholars of humanities at the university, including experts in Chinese, history, philosophy and archaeology, and professors of Eastern cultures such as Professor Wang Bang-wei, as well as scholars in the history of science and technology, to compose together a history of Chinese civilisation. Later, the plan was carried out as a project of the Institute of Traditional Chinese Culture. I was the chief editor and worked along with 36 professors to produce the four-volume The History of Chinese Civilization in six years' time. Although my name comes first in the list of editors, the contributions of the other scholars, including Professor Yan Wen-ming in archaeology, Professor Chang Chuan-hsi in history, and Professor Lou Yu-lie in the history of philosophy, are by no means less important. We all served as chief editors. We held numerous meetings to discuss and revise aspects ranging from the general design to the details of each volume and chapter. The composition of the book is rather like "group calisthenics". Some of us said that it would be hard to organise such a project again in the future. Professor Liu Yong-tsiang, who participated in writing the fourth volume, even said that he felt like he had "studied for a PhD in the history of civilisation".

Soon after the publication of The History of Chinese Civilization in 2006, Professor David R. Knechtges (Academician of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and professor at the University of Washington) from the United States facilitated its translation into English, which was published by Cambridge University Press. I attended the book launch with him in London in 2012. This motivated Professor Inahata Koichiro of Waseda University of Japan to translate the book into Japanese. He divided the four volumes of the original work into eight volumes. Five volumes have already been published, and it is anticipated that the entire series will be published this autumn. Four hundred people attended the press conference in Tokyo last year, including personages from intellectual and political circles and the media industry. There is also a Russian translation by a researcher at the St. Petersburg Institute of Oriental Studies and a Korean translation by scholars at Yonsei University. A Serbian version is in progress, and contracts for Hungarian and Hindi versions have been signed. The book is truly having a global impact.

When I edited A Brief Introduction to Regional Cultures in China, I applied the principles of Chinese Literary History and The History of Chinese Civilization, and yet I changed the method from historical studies to comparative studies. In 1978, I wrote an article about my reflections on my future academic path, and it was then that I noticed the concept of "comparative studies" in On Literature and History (Wen Shi Tong Yi) by Chang Hsue-cheng. Chang Hsue-cheng does not think highly of comparative studies in that he regards scholars in this field as amateurs who know a little of everything but have a deep understanding of nothing, rather akin to a bookseller's knowledge of books. However, if we view comparative studies from the new perspective of interdisciplinary research, this method can be quite beneficial. I have written a short article called "Comparative Studies and Historical Studies (Heng Tong Yu Zong Tong)", in which I advocate that we should continue to conduct historical studies to provide in-depth investigations of the evolution of certain academic fields while at the same time paying attention to relevant fields. For instance, literary scholars should also explore the histories of philosophy, politics and art. These ideas have been guidelines for my academic career. There was a great deal of extension from literary history to the history of civilisation, and many more fields of study were concerned. China has a vast territory consisting of dozens of distinct regions, so if one does not know the regional cultures of China, as Professor Tan Tsi-hsiang says, he or she will be unlikely to have a profound comprehension of Chinese civilisation. Therefore, I took the opportunity as President of the Central Institute of Chinese Culture and History to organise all the regional institutes of literary and historical studies throughout China to compose A Brief Introduction to Regional Cultures in China in 34 volumes. We can divide China in the way used during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States Periods, separating China into the broader areas of Shandong, Hebei and Sichuan, etc. For the sake of convenience, however, we chose to devote each volume to one province, autonomous region, or municipality, including Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. In this way, each region would participate more actively in the project. We invited around 500 scholars, including the members of regional institutes of literary and historical studies and experts in other academic fields. The volume on Hong Kong is well worth reading. Professor Jao Tsung-i was the honorary chief editor, and Professor Wang Guo-hua and Professor Deng Cong made many contributions. I do not wish Chinese culture to become "all of a piece". On the contrary, Chinese culture is diverse, and we should maintain the richness of its regional characteristics and seek the potential for the cultural development of each region.

In 2009, I came up with the idea of selecting and annotating a new Thirteen Classics. The original Thirteen Classics are "Confucian classics", but I wished to select Thirteen Classics of Chinese Civilisation not limited to Confucianism only. Chinese culture is composed of multiple schools of thought, including Confucianism, Legalism, Mohism, Taoism and Strategics. Hence, I think we should replace six books in the original Thirteen Classics, The Book of Standard Chinese (Er Ya), The Book of Filial Piety, Rites of the Zhou Dynasty, The Book of Aristocratic Rites (Yi Li), The Gong-yang Commentary of Spring and Autumn Annals and The Gu-liang Commentary of Spring and Autumn Annals, with Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, Mo Tzu, The Art of War, Han Fei Tzu, and Hsun Tzu. In addition to the new selections, we should also make new annotations that convey fresh readings based on updated information and global perspectives. We have unearthed more documents and have more reliable ancient texts. Furthermore, China now has more communication with other nations, so we should grasp opportunities to seek unconventional interpretations of the classics. I have requested the Institute of Traditional Chinese Culture to work on this task without applying for a research project, because I think it should be accomplished when the time is ripe. Thirteen professors at Peking University are responsible for the programme, and my part is the new annotation of The Book of Songs. I hope that Peking University will be an important foundation for studying, emendating, propagating and eventually reviving the classics. This programme is now in progress.

3. "Here Knowledgeable and Noble Ones are Gathered": Work at the Institute of Traditional Chinese Culture, IACS and the Central Institute of Chinese Culture and History

The history of the Institute of Traditional Chinese Culture at Peking University can be traced back to 1992, when Professor Nan Huai-chin donated 100,000 US dollars to the university to be used for research into traditional Chinese culture. We began to publish an annual volume, Chinese Studies, containing collected papers; to date, 36 volumes have been printed. We published Series of Chinese Studies and have by now composed dozens of books on various topics. In 2001, the institute began to admit PhD students, most of whom became famous scholars after graduation. In addition, during the centennial anniversary of Peking University, we held an international conference on Chinese studies with 270 top scholars from diverse countries. That was indeed a grand occasion. Publications from the institute include the aforementioned The History of Chinese Civilization and The New Thirteen Classics, with New Annotations (Xin Bian Xin Zhu Shi San Jing). The institute employs no full-time professors; instead, its members are all adjunct professors, as our slogan is, "to do substantial work by insubstantial organisation". In addition to in-depth academic research, we have also made efforts to popularise Chinese culture. In this way, our work, to use the name of Professor Wang Li's study, can be called "concerning the high and the low (Long Chong Bing Diao)". The most influential of our programmes for educating the public is the 150-episode television series The Glory of Chinese Civilization (Zhong Hua Wen Ming Zhi Guang), made in cooperation with CCTV. Professor Chi Hsian-lin, Professor Hou Ren-chi and Professor Deng Guang-ming have all been featured on the show, and we published a large series of books afterwards.

In 2009, Peking University worked with the Office of Chinese Language Council International to found the International Academy for China Studies. The organisation is called an "academy" because we wish to study together with foreign sinologists as well as learning from each other. We created two periodicals after the establishment of the academy. The first is the International Chinese Studies Bulletin (Guo Ji Han Xue Yan Jiu Tong Xun) edited by Professor Liu Yu-cai, of which 11 volumes have been published. The other is the journal Chinese Literature and Culture (Zhong Guo Wen Xue Yu Wen Hua), which is edited in cooperation with Professor Cai Tzong-tsi and an editorial committee of Chinese and foreign scholars. Four volumes of the journal have been published in English in the United States. We are also working together with Professor Cai to compose How to Read Chinese Literature. Professor Cai has finished the chapters on poetry, and we will also include chapters on novels, drama and prose. Columbia University Press is ready to publish the book. In 2014, IACS held the International Conference of Translators of Chinese Works. Translation is a frequent bottleneck, especially in the introduction of contemporary monographs to the world. IACS has invited several globally renowned sinologists to participate in academic research. For instance, Professor David McMullen and Professor Leon Vandermeersch have both stayed at the academy for half a year. Many young sinologists have also come to the academy for advanced study. The highlight of IACS's activities is the Marco Polo Programme led by Professor Rong Hsin-chiang, which consists of relevant research and a new translation of The Travels of Marco Polo. Professor Rong is meticulous about scholastic work. He teaches a class in which students read The Travels of Marco Polo line by line with him, and he has led field trips to various places, including Iran. I support him with all my heart and give him as much assistance as possible. Starting this autumn, the offices of IACS and the Institute of Chinese Studies will be in one building. Thus, when you step through the west gate of Peking University facing the vice chancellor's office building, you will see the foreign studies building on the left and our offices on the right. In this way, Chinese and Western studies face and echo each other, which well befits Peking University. Our building is named the "Hall for the Knowledgeable and Noble (Da Ya Tang)", alluding to the line in the poetic prose "Chang An (Xi Du Fu)" by Ban Gu, "here knowledgeable and noble ones are gathered".

In addition to Peking University, I also work at the Central Institute of Chinese Culture and History, where experts in literature and history get together. We give advice on cultural development to the government in addition to performing academic research. I assisted Professor Tsi Gong, the late president of the institute, in editing Collected Rhymes (Zhui Ying Ji), which contains selected verses by members of the institute, including Professor Hsie Wu-liang, Professor Shen Yin-mo, Professor Tsi Bai-shi and Professor Chang Shi-chao. After Professor Tsi Gong passed away, I succeeded to his office in 2006 and have edited quite a few books myself. We are now working on A Hundred Classics of Traditional Chinese Culture (Zhong Guo Chuan Tong Wen Hua Jing Dian Bai Pian). The book will include 100 articles selected from more than 3000 years of Chinese classics, ranging from "Gao Yao Mo" in The Book of Documents to "Young Chinese, Youthful China (Shao Nian Zhong Guo Shuo)" by Liang Tsi-chao. We choose articles that teach people virtue, wisdom, justice, kindness and familial love. It is anticipated that the book will be published this autumn.

Looking back on my academic career and life experience, I think of my motto: "Always have a thankful heart and a humble mind." Without others' help, it would have been impossible for me to have attained the achievements I have. I feel deeply grateful to my teachers, colleagues, students and friends at home and abroad. I think one should be thankful and stay sober. I have had an enjoyable experience with professors and students at The Chinese University of Hong Kong and have learned a lot from you. I hope I can share this spirit of thankfulness with my friends at the university.

Back to Issue
Interview with Professor Yuan Xingpei
Young Scholars' Forum in Chinese Studies 2016, jointly organised by ICS and CUHK–Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation Asia-Pacific Centre for Chinese Studies (APC)
Event: 2016 Institute of Chinese Studies Luncheon II: "Evolution of Western Geography: The cultural and historical origins of the Age of Discovery in the 16th century"
Event: 2016 Institute of Chinese Studies Luncheon III: "Imagining the Entitled Middle-class Self in the Global City: Guo Jingming's Tiny Times and the New Shanghainese"
Event: CUHK–Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation Asia-Pacific Centre for Chinese Studies (APC) Public Lecture by Professor Ho Hon-wai
Event:《良渚玉工》學術成果發布會暨良渚文化玉器與中國古代玉器工藝學術座談會, co-organised by Centre for Chinese Archaeology and Art
Event:「玉器與王權誕生」研討會, co-organised by Centre for Chinese Archaeology and Art
Event: Ancient Chinese Scripts Workshop and Ancient Chinese Scripts Family Workshop, Art Museum
Event: "Fun with Cantonese" Book Exhibition and Talk Series, T.T. Ng Chinese Language Research Centre
Event: Academic Events, T.T. Ng Chinese Language Research Centre
Event: Academic Lectures, Research Centre for Contemporary Chinese Culture
Event: Documentary Screening Series, Co-organised by Research Centre for Contemporary Chinese Culture and Universities Service Centre for China Studies
New Publications
Exhibition: Amazing Clay: The Ceramic Collection of the Art Museum (From 1 April 2016)
"Amazing Clay: The Ceramic Collection of the Art Museum" Lecture Series, Art Museum
Editorial Board Committee
Past Issues
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