2017 No.3
Interview with Professor Yip Hon Ming: A Retrospective of My Journey of Historical Inquiry Crossing Academic Boundaries
The cover story of this issue of ICS Bulletin is an interview with Professor Yip Hon Ming who speaks on her experience in studying, teaching and conducting research at CUHK and overseas. Having witnessed the development of Chinese studies at CUHK, she shares with us her review of the field and hope for the future.
Date:22 September, 2016
Location:Room 124, the Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS)
Interviewee:Professor Yip Hon Ming, Department of History, CUHK
Interviewer:Professor Lai Chi Tim, Associate Director of the Institute of Chinese Studies
Recorded by:Xu Yanlian, Research Associate, Institute of Chinese Studies

Professor Yip Hon Ming is Adjunct Professor at the Department of History, Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), where she was formerly Professor and Department Chair. She graduated with a Bachelor's degree from CUHK and obtained her Master's and PhD degrees from the University of California, Los Angeles. Her research interests include modern and contemporary Chinese social and economic history, the local history of north and south China, the history of overseas Chinese, Hong Kong-mainland China relations and overseas networks, and women's/gender history. Her research topics cover the issues of marginalisation, subordination or subversion and struggles within the categories of gender, class and race/ethnicity. Her research areas spans various fields of history and traverses time and space, the modern and the contemporary, the local and the international, as well as gender, class, and other boundaries. In addition to academic papers, she authored books including In Search of Subjectivities: Historical Studies of Chinese Women and The Tung Wah Coffin Home and the Global Charity Network: Evidence and Findings from Archival Materials (both in Chinese). She is editor of Globalization and Gender: The Implications of Global Economic Restructuring for Women in China and Southeast Asia (in Chinese), co-compiler of Indexes of the Dianshizhai Pictorial, The Emended and Punctuated Dianshizhai Pictorial (both in Chinese), and Women in China: Bibliography of Available English Language Materials, co-editor of Gender and Women Studies in Chinese Societies, Gender Awakening: Gender Studies in the People's Republic of China, Hong Kong and Taiwan (both in Chinese), and Tung Chung before and after the New Airport: An Ethnographic and Historical Study of a Community in Hong Kong, and chief editor of the series New History of Overseas Chinese.


1. Education Background

I majored in History and minored in Sociology during my undergraduate years at CUHK, from 1970 to 1974. The discipline of History at that time was heavily influenced by the social sciences, and I became deeply interested in socio-economic history. I paid particular attention to the impact of history upon the present time and how we can learn from history in understanding current issues. As I still recall, my first history essay was entitled "From the Yalta Secret Agreement to the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Alliance" which seemed to have foretold the direction of my academic pursuit toward the study of modern and contemporary Chinese history.

I learned from many great teachers during my undergraduate years as student and teaching assistant for courses such as "General History of China" (taught by Mr Lo Chiu-ching) and "Western Economic History" (by Mr Chang Teh-chang). Besides "Western Economic History," I also took other world history courses (on top of many courses on Chinese history), such as those offered by Professor Noah E. Fehl, a specialist in medieval history, history of religion and comparative history. In the field of sociology, I took elective courses including "Chinese Society and Family," "Mass Movement, " and so forth.

After graduation I worked at the University as a full-time Tutor for two years, which helped prepare me for further studies overseas. Leading tutorials for fellow students at my level had brought quite some pressure on me, but it was also a rare opportunity for me to learn to deal with challenges. I must consult a lot of materials to be competent for the job, and I needed to refer to Chinese and English sources to prepare for each class. As it turned out, those two years of training eventually benefited me a great deal.

CUHK had at the time close ties with the University of California, which offered postgraduate scholarships to selected graduates including those from the History Department (Professor Leung Yuen Sang being one of them). I became an aspirant for the opportunity too and in 1976 embarked on my study at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) with sponsorship from the University of California's Education Abroad Program, which waived the tuition fee and also provided me with a stipend from the State Department of the United States. I served as a teaching assistant and research assistant during my postgraduate years at UCLA and took up part-time jobs at the library and research units (such as the Asian American Studies Center). This exposure to academic institutions widened my horizon and enabled me to learn extensively first before grasping expert knowledge.

After obtaining my Master's degree at UCLA, I went on to study in the doctoral programme majoring in Modern Chinese History, with three minor areas, i.e., early modern Chinese History, Asian American Studies, and American History. My supervisor, Professor Philip Huang was at the time carrying out an original study on small peasant economy in north China, based on first-hand data, collected by South Manchuria Railways Co., which were archived at the Hoover Institute of Stanford University and other academic organisations in the U.S.A., together with other historical sources. I was lucky to be under his tutelage, taking his graduate courses on modern Chinese socioeconomic history and starting my doctoral research. Under his supervision and guidance, I conducted archival and ethnographical surveys on  social and economic issues of north China, focusing on the case of Weixian (present-day Weifang) in Shandong province between 1900 and 1937. My doctoral dissertation "Merchant Capital, the Small Peasant Economy, and Foreign Capitalism: The Case of Weixian, 1900s–1937" investigates how China's local economy was influenced by foreign capitalism. After years of reflection and rumination, the full-length work is only now being prepared in book form, though parts of the dissertation have been published separately.

For early modern Chinese History, my teacher was Professor David Farquhar. After taking his graduate courses, I wrote a paper on the guan-da-min-shao system and its influence on the development of Jingdezhen's porcelain industry. The paper was later published in English by the Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica, Taiwan. In the field of Asian-American studies, my mentor Professor Lucie Cheng, then Director of UCLA's Asian American Studies Center and a sociologist specialized in women and gender studies. At the Center under her leadership, I was a regular part-timer, being very much inspired by its research culture and colleagues there and their scholarship on Asian-American and Chinese-American studies. These all had a long-term influence on my life and work. During the years when I worked there, I assisted Professor Cheng and Professor Charlotte Furth in compiling Women in China: Bibliography of Available English Language Materials (published in 1984) and was credited by Professor Cheng as a co-compiler. She not only led me into the realms of women's history and the history of overseas Chinese, but also impressed me with her academic integrity and public concerns. Her early passing has left a big void in me since. In the field of American history, Professor Alexander Saxton, a specialist in American labour history, alerted me to the issues of class and race. Under his supervision, I wrote a paper on Chinese agricultural workers in California, which was later translated into Chinese for publication. My interest in Chinese workers overseas has lasted to this day.

2. Teaching and Research at CUHK

In 1986, I returned to Hong Kong and received an offer at CUHK. Then with the retirement of Professor Hsü Kuan-san at the History Department, I was appointed to take over the teaching of his two year-courses, "Contemporary Chinese History" and "Historical Method." After the University's switch to the three-year system, "Contemporary Chinese History" was split into two semester courses, i.e., "Twentieth-Century Chinese Revolution and Modernization" and "China Today." I also joined the team teaching the course "Revolutions East and West." My teaching experience complemented my research, and thus my research interests now include China's social revolution. A Direct Grant supported my research project on China's revolution and Hong Kong, which resulted in publication of outputs on Hong Kong as an arena of rivalry among different political forces from the mainland in the 1940s. While teaching the compulsory course "Historical Method" for years, I have also published on historical methodology. In the mid 1990s, I volunteered to teach a new course "Gender and History," which was related to a field that, I thought, should be developed extensively at the University. I have also been actively involved in the development of Gender Research Centre and Gender Studies Programme at CUHK. As women's history and gender history began to receive attention in local academia then, I held that a response from both my teaching and research was called for, so that we could traverse the gender boundary in methodology and fully explore the complexity of relations between men and women. At that time, I often travelled to south China for field research because of geographical proximity. In my own native town of Shunde, I got to know over a hundred zishunü (women who vowed to remain single) who had retired from Singapore after serving mostly as amahs. To interview them, I launched a year-long oral history project, resulting in publication of a number of papers on the topic. This research crossed the boundary of social history and cultural history and covers issues such as the zishu practice, the transformation of marriage customs, popular beliefs, ethnic acculturation, and so on.

As "new cultural history" has become very much a trend in the ascendant in historical studies and new findings and publications came out, the scope of history expanded, with developments such as the "linguistic turn" and the "pictorial turn". In 2004, I initiated the project "The Dianshizhai Pictorial and the Cultural History of Late Imperial China" jointly with scholars in Hong Kong and the United States in the fields of literature, history, and philosophy. It was a time when university professors were asked to actively apply for the General Research Fund (GRF) from the Research Grants Council (RGC). Fortunately, the project was awarded the fund. In 2007, upon the completion of the project, Indexes of the Dianshizhai Pictorial was published and the full set of the pictorial was digitised. My own papers on the subject deal with the transformation of courtesans to common prostitutes as demonstrated in the pictorial and the subtle difference between drawing and writing in the pictorial texts. In 2014, The Emended and Punctuated Dianshizhai Pictorial was published, and more publications are expected to be forthcoming, though RGC's only concern is works published shortly after the funded period, while in international academia the production of research outputs in the humanities often requires years of work. "It takes a decade to hone a sword," as the saying goes.

The content of the Dianshizhai Pictorial has been regarded by Chinese scholars and Sinologists as a microcosm of Chinese society and culture in transition at the turn of the twentieth century. Its drawings and appended wordings provide an impassioned representation of China at a turbulent time. Indexes of the Dianshizhai Pictorial makes available a powerful system of indexes for the pictorial, whereas The Emended and Punctuated Dianshizhai Pictorial emends and punctuates all paragraphs appended to the drawings. Our punctuations can facilitate future analyses of the writings in the pictorial. Penned by the last generation of civil examination candidates, these writings have seldom been studied in details thus far. Now with our new reference tools, the cultural history of the pictorial can be studied more effectively via in-depth textual analysis, combined textual and graphic analysis, contextual analysis, or a mix of all three, to gain insights into the state of Chinese society and culture prior to its transition into the modern era, and how that has in turn influenced development in the latter ages.

Another GRF-funded research project of mine entitled "Networking Charity: The Tung Wah Coffin Home and the North America-Hong Kong-Guangdong Connection" concerns China's relations with the rest of the world, particularly in terms of the role of Hong Kong. My previous study of the history of overseas Chinese is of great help here, and my discoveries in the process of compiling the Tung Wah Group of Hospital's documentary records convince me that Hong Kong did play a seminal role in connecting overseas Chinese with their hometowns. The project thus involved issues concerning the history of overseas Chinese, Chinese history, the history of Hong Kong, and the global Chinese network and world history. The funded case study of mine focuses on Hong Kong's intermediary role in the charitable network between overseas Chinese in North America (particularly in the "Gold Mountain" area, i.e., the United States and Canada) and their hometowns in China (mainly in Guangdong) from the 19th century to the 1950s for the repatriation of the coffins and remains of Chinese emigrants who died abroad. Such a network was also important in terms of migration, logistics, business and trade, information flow and cultural exchange. Hong Kong has long been a hub linking overseas Chinese communities in the world. The research, centring on charity and benevolent institutions, will hopefully promote further macro analyses of the almost uncharted area of overseas Chinese and their global networks. To retrace the steps of the forefathers of Chinese emigrants, I have made field trips to Chinese immigrant communities in California and Canada, and to their hometowns in south China, such as Taishan, Xinhui, and Kaiping. My next stop for fieldwork will be Australia, dubbed the "New Gold Mountain" in those days, to reveal the final chapter of the gold-rush story in the mid 19th century. This is beyond the scope of the original project though, and detailed findings and research outputs can only emerge after the official completion date of the project. I may even need to continue writing for this project after retirement.

Another research project to be concluded after my retirement is the one on zishunü, which I had started upon my return to Hong Kong after studying in the U.S.A., in response to the recent discourse of the "last generation of zishunü." As mentioned above, the scope of this project well exceeds the boundary of women's history, traverses even social and cultural history, and requires an integrated perspective of gender/women's history. The GRF that I applied for and was granted three years ago for the project entitled "The Last Generation of Spinsters in China: Revisiting a Regional Tradition, Its Gendered Implications and Transnational Perspective" allowed me to work towards a final conclusion to the study at this critical juncture. I was also able to go beyond studies of emigrant communities in China and conducted fieldwork in host countries for overseas Chinese such as Singapore and Malaysia. Now aside from reiterating that the project concerned has traversed the gender boundary and crossed the line between social history and cultural history, I can further explore the extended significance of the zishu phenomenon from a transnational perspective. I hope to link up individual experiences with the regional socio-cultural system and the larger context of global migration, so as to publish the conclusive version of my research results under the title "Engendering the History of Chinese Transnational Migration."

3. Chinese Studies in Hong Kong and the Role of CUHK

The long years of my studies, teaching and research have taught me that there is no clear-cut line between world history, Chinese history and local history. With geographical advantages and special favourable factors, Hong Kong should shoulder the responsibility of the time, bridging the scholarly exploration of local and world studies through Chinese studies. And CUHK should upkeep the established academic tradition of the studies of Chinese culture with solid foundation and unique characteristics.

Chinese studies enjoyed the highest status at CUHK ever since the beginning of its establishment. The University established the Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS) under the leadership of the founding Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Li Choh-ming, who had placed utmost emphasis on Chinese culture. In the pioneering days, the Art Museum and Archaeology and Art Studies were both highly acclaimed with impressive development to be followed later by outstanding performance in studies of the Chinese language, Chinese ancient texts and translation. Both the Department of Chinese and the Department of History had their top professors' offices at ICS for leading research projects, training postgraduate students and young scholars and exchanges with visiting scholars from all over the world. In the 1990s, the publication of Twenty-First Century coupled with the well-established Journal of Chinese Studies in exerting impact upon both local and the overseas academic circles, and yet each has ever maintained its own unique features. The growth of the Centre for Chinese Archaeology and Art, and the founding of the Research Centre for Contemporary Chinese Culture in recent years and its efforts in gathering scholars in the field of Chinese studies all testify to the painstaking labour of ICS members in organising events and participation in various activities.

On this occasion of ICS's golden anniversary, however, it is perhaps time for us to ask ourselves: has CUHK remained committed to the development of Chinese studies? To what extent can it still undertake the development of Chinese studies in Hong Kong? What kind of conditions is the field of Chinese studies facing in an environment of top-down, outside-in marketised competition, corporatised management, indicator-oriented assessment, and standardised uniformity, in which both subjects of humanities and humanism have been severely affected? What will its prospects be? The most serious problem of all is that a state of fierce competition and rivalry exists among local institutes and practically the whole of the territory's academia resulting in a frantic scramble for resources. In pursuit of departmental and institutional fames, energy has been used up in triumphing over the counterparts. In this state of wasteful internal exhaustion in the territory under the impact of survival crisis of individual institutions, regrettably local strengths with solid foundation and proud legacy cannot converge to produce something with original distinctive features that merits an international standing. Without a critical mass, it is difficult to put out a grand masterpiece without concerted effort in Hong Kong. Yet the top-down pressure from those who control research resources breeds a short-sighted research culture in academic departments and research units, which focuses only on quick success in terms of the number of funded projects and funding amounts. The RGC's external overseas reviewers are often astounded by this phenomenon, which has seldom been seen elsewhere in international academia. Unfortunately, most of them have chosen to remain reticent about it. (Yet I recall that a conscientious foreign scholar once used the word "pathetic" to refer to this absurdity.) Ironically, this kind of "internationalisation with Hong Kong characteristics" is impeding the continuity and development of the tradition of Chinese studies with Hong Kong characteristics. This is most unwise and regrettable. How can Hong Kong break out of this loop? How should CUHK approach the issue in its own way? Do we have no choice but just to follow suit? If that is the case, the humanities might be the last defence safeguarding Chinese studies, but they are under threat as well and unable even to fend for themselves.

As a pluralistic and inclusive community, Hong Kong used to be an ideal space for the study of Chinese culture which is grand and profound, rich and diversified. Whether this space can remain or will be narrowed gradually depends first on the working of our own critical faculties, self-reflective ability, and capacity to overcome.

Back to Issue
Interview with Professor Yip Hon Ming: A Retrospective of My Journey of Historical Inquiry Crossing Academic Boundaries
Event: ICS 50th Anniversary Celebration Activities Highlights
Event: Opening Ceremony, Public Lecture Series and Special Programmes of ''History of Gold: Masterpieces from Shaanxi" Exhibition, Art Museum
Event: Opening Ceremonies of the Exhibitions "Golden Techniques: Art of the Chinese Goldsmiths", "Universe within Inches: Bronze Mirrors Donated by Prof. Mark Kai-keung" and "A Legacy of Elegance: Oracle Bones Collection from The Chinese University of Hong Kong", Art Museum
Event: The Fifth Summer School on Chinese Translation History, Research Centre for Translation
Event: Launch of Shen Zhihua's Latest Book, co-organised by the Chinese University Press, Research Centre for Contemporary Chinese Culture and the Universities Service Centre for China Studies
New publications
Event Highlight
Exhibition: "A Field in Bloom: Highlights of Chinese Art to Mark the 60th Anniversary of the Department of Fine Arts", Art Museum
Exhibition: "Phoenix Reborn: Chu Jades Excavated from Hubei", Art Museum
Editorial Board Committee
Past Issues
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