2017 No.1
Interview with Professor John Lagerwey: "My Teaching and Research in Chinese Studies at CUHK"
The Institute of Chinese Studies Bulletin was honoured to interview Professor John Lagerwey on 19 January 2017. Professor Lagerwey recalled his teaching and research at CUHK and shared with us his comments and expectations for Chinese studies at CUHK.
Date:January 19, 2017
Location:Room 124, the Institute of Chinese Studies
Interviewee:Professor John Lagerwey, Professor of Chinese Studies, Centre of China Studies
Interviewer:Professor Lai Chi Tim, Associate Director of the Institute of Chinese Studies
Recorded by:Xu Yanlian, Research Associate, Institute of Chinese Studies

John Lagerwey
Professor of Chinese Studies, Centre of China Studies, CUHK

In 1975, after graduating with a PhD from Harvard University, Professor Lagerwey worked as a post-doctoral fellow at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes (EPHE) with Professor Max Kaltenmark and Professor Kristofer Schipper. In 1976, he was named Secretary of the Daozang Project piloted by Professor Kristofer Schipper, and in 1977, he became a member of the École française d'Extrême-Orient (EFEO). Over the next 23 years, he carried out historical and ethnographical research on Daoist rituals. His many publications include the 30-volume Traditional Hakka Society Series. In 2000, he was elected the Chair of History of Daoism and Chinese Religions at EPHE. Since 2008, he has been the Professor of Chinese Studies at the Centre of China Studies at CUHK, and he has served as the chief editor of an eight-volume series on the history of paradigm shifts in Chinese religion.


1. My Years at CUHK

In 1990, I was working in Paris with Professor Jacques Lemoine who had a close relationship with the Department of Anthropology at CUHK. He asked me to replace him teaching in the Department of Anthropology at CUHK. In the same year, Professor Jean-Pierre Drège, who was later elected Director of the EFEO, also asked me to visit Hong Kong as he could not come for some reason. I was very happy to take the chance to come to Hong Kong. I started my fieldwork in 1980 in Taiwan and discovered the origins of Taiwan Zhengyi Daoism in Zhao'an County, Fujian, and its relationship to the Hakka. I decided to shift my fieldwork from Taiwan to mainland China in 1987. I considered Hong Kong as the perfect place for me to carry out my fieldwork in mainland China, because it is a cosmopolitan city that has all the convenience of proximity. I started my journey to Hong Kong in 1990.

My first course at CUHK was given at the Department of Anthropology. I found very soon that because the ideas of anthropology were deeply rooted in a very specific western and European cultural tradition, I needed to explain all the historical and cultural background to the Chinese students before I could really discuss anthropology with them. Most of the time, I ended up teaching western cultural concepts instead of anthropology. The teaching experience was very remarkable for me. I had a good lesson in the importance of indigenization. At the time I also met Professor Archie Lee from the Department of Religion, who was also very interested in indigenization and cross-cultural adaptation. I got to know Professor Lee very well. As we had a lot of staff involved in religious studies at EFEO, we decided that it was a great idea to establish a long-term relationship between the EFEO and the Department of Religion at CUHK. Professor Archie Lee was the key person to introduce me to the Department of Religion at CUHK, and our friendship also led to a fruitful relationship between the EFEO and the Department of Religion later on.

All through the 1990s, I traveled between Paris and Hong Kong and stayed at CUHK for around five years. I alternated with Professor Marc Kalinowski and later Franciscus Verellen, who also came and taught in the Department of Religion during the 1990s. At around 1993, we were given an office at the Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS). During that year I got to know Dr. Chen Fong Ching, and we often discussed the idea of establishing cooperation between the EFEO and the ICS. As the representative of the EFEO, I signed a long-term relationship memorandum with the ICS and a permanent EFEO Centre was established at the ICS in 1994. At the ICS, I had the chance to meet and talk with Professor Jao Tsung-I frequently at the time. I met Professor Jao when he visited Paris back in the 1980s and I was very lucky to have the chance to visit the caves of Lascaux in Southern France with Professor Jao. I still remember how Professor Jao used the fingers of his right hand to reproduce in his left hand the outlines of the paintings on the cave walls, and I was very impressed by his knowledge of calligraphy and painting. I also joined his series of lectures on oracle bones in Léon Vandermeersch's class. When I came to Hong Kong and found that Professor Jao was also here, I often visited him after I returned from fieldwork in mainland China and shared with him my latest discoveries and new materials I found in China. One time I came back with some pictures of ancestor portraits that I had found in my fieldwork in Liancheng County in southwestern Fujian Province. When I showed Professor Jao the pictures, he commented that the quality of the paintings was comparable to that of royal court paintings. He also approved the importance of my study. The constant affirmations that I received from Professor Jao encouraged and motivated me to carry on my fieldwork research.

In 1996, I carried out my fieldwork in Shouning with Yang Yanjie and Professor Daniel Overmyer, to watch puppet plays done by a puppeteer who was also a daoshi 道士. For all of us, it was an eye-opening experience, and led to Prof. Overmyer, who at the time was Acting Chairperson of the Religion Department, promoting fieldwork at CUHK. This led to my developing a long-term collaborative relationship with Professor Tam Wai Lun of the Department of Religion. We went for a field trip on July 2, the day after the Hong Kong handover ceremony in 1997, and that was the beginning of our more than twenty years of collaboration on The Hakka Traditional Society Series.

In the year 2000 I was elected to the Chair of History of Daoism and Chinese Religions at the EPHE, so I left the EFEO Centre here and went back to teach in France. I came back to the ICS in 2004 as a visiting scholar. In 2007, I was invited by the Department of History as a visiting scholar and came back to CUHK again. During that semester, I gave four lectures at CUHK and based on these lectures, I published my book China: a Religious State. In the spring of 2007, Professor Billy Kee Long So, Director of the Center for East Asian Studies at CUHK, invited me to come and teach fulltime at CUHK. After consulting with the EPHE, I decided to take a two-year leave to have a try. After I came and taught at CUHK in 2008, I discovered almost immediately that teaching at CUHK was something I had been waiting for all my life, because the opportunity to teach Chinese students their own culture was a revelation to me. Religion has been an almost forgotten subject since 1949 in China, and now the students came to CUHK to learn the truth about their own culture. It has been very rewarding for me to supply the missing piece of Chinese history for Chinese students. I myself did not learn the missing history when I was studying Chinese literature at Harvard University. When I attended Professor Kristofer Schipper's classes later in Paris, I realized what I had thought of Chinese history was seriously biased, and that was a revelation to me. From then on I threw myself into Daoist study passionately. My Chinese collaborators over the years have also felt the same way as I did. At the end of their fieldwork and research, they often felt they had rediscovered their own culture.

I have been teaching at CUHK for nine years since 2008. It is rewarding for me to see some of the Chinese mainland students who come to CUHK for their MA program continue to carry on study in Daoism for their PhD program in great universities abroad such as Harvard, Princeton and so on. Students become excited when they learn a new aspect of their own culture and they go on to sign up for MPhil and PhD programs to discover more. It is exciting for me to see these students explore features of their own culture and go on to deepen their own understanding. I think one of the primary functions of CUHK is precisely to take the students from China and transform them. It is a mission for CUHK.

2. My Views on Chinese Studies at CUHK

The original mission of CUHK is to provide knowledge of Chinese culture and history, and this emphasis makes CUHK particularly attractive to overseas students; however, I think Chinese studies at CUHK could be much stronger if the University could integrate all the forces involved in Chinese studies on the campus in a better way. In American universities, teachers from different departments can teach the same students because students are free to choose different courses from different departments. I think the financial policy at CUHK is a main factor in preventing the University from developing a good community for Chinese studies on campus. For instance, students from one department such as the History Department will often not choose courses in the Department of Chinese Language and Literature or any other department. If this policy problem is not solved, CUHK will not fulfill its potential.

Compared to other universities in Hong Kong, CUHK should stick to its contribution of Chinese culture to humanity studies and keep its uniqueness. Combining all the departments of Chinese studies, such as the departments of Religion, Philosophy, Archeology, Chinese Language and Literature, History and so on, CUHK contains a depth of knowledge of Chinese culture that cannot be reached at even the best universities in the United States. The unique combination of teachers of Chinese studies and international scholars at CUHK is very important for cross-cultural dialogue. The great challenge for CUHK is still how to integrate different departments to establish a real community for Chinese studies.

As a new Asia is built with new vigor and determination, the location of CUHK and its original mission to promote cultural China are the most important elements for the University to carry on its specialties in the world. It makes such a difference to students coming from abroad that they are in a Chinese society and a Chinese speaking environment. From here, they can easily go to Taiwan or Beijing for their language studies. Students of cultural studies need to experience the culture directly, because culture is not just written in books, it is above all carried by people.

I enjoyed my experience at the ICS during the 1990s. At that time, it was a very vital intellectual center, with active scholars such as Jin Guantao, Liu Qingfeng, Professor D. C. Lau, Professor Jao Tsung-I  and so on. The prestigious project of digitalization of the entire corpus of traditional and excavated ancient Chinese texts was very valuable and a great contribution to Chinese studies. ICS is basically a research institute with long-standing programs. It has a very specific role to play. I think ICS should make the best of its resources of existing programs and the well-established art museum, keeping up as a research institute for advanced studies. Inviting more visiting scholars to stay for a longer time and starting post-doctoral projects could be really helpful in promoting advanced Chinese studies.

Compared with the ICS, the Centre for China Studies has a completely different function and mission. It is firstly a teaching unit that aims to internationalize Chinese studies and uses English as the primary language. I think we should include Mandarin as the language of instruction at the Centre for China Studies, but a lot of preparations need to be done beforehand. For the moment, it is very important to solidify the international dimension by attracting more international students from different majors to study at the Centre for China Studies. Currently the focus of teaching of the Centre for China Studies is primarily studies of contemporary China, but I hope it will become a centre that covers Chinese studies from ancient China to contemporary times in different aspects including history, philosophy, literature and anthropology in addition to modern Chinese economy and political policies. In this way, international students can have a better understanding of cultural China.

3. My Research at CUHK

In 2006, I organized two conferences in Paris on early Chinese religion, which resulted in publication of Early Chinese Religion: Part One: Shang through Han (1250 BC-220 AD) (2 vols) and Early Chinese Religion, Part Two: The Period of Division (220-589 AD) (2 vols). At the end of 2010, Billy So and I were discussing a new course in Chinese history, and I came up with the idea for my present course of Critical Cultural History of China. In 2012, I again organized two conferences on modern Chinese religion, which resulted in Modern Chinese Religion I: Song-Liao-Jin-Yuan (960-1368 AD) (2 vols) and Modern Chinese Religion II: 1850 - 2015 (2 vols). Altogether we have eight large volumes of Chinese religious history that cover four major paradigm shifts in Chinese cultural and religious history. These valuable research outcomes were stimulated by my research and teaching at CUHK. When I was teaching in Paris, it was much more difficult to go to China for fieldwork. Staying in Hong Kong makes it possible for me to carry out my fieldwork again. So being at CUHK has been extremely helpful for both my ethnographic and my historical research.

In 2014, we received a three-year grant from the United Board that supported us for a leadership training program for graduate students from CUHK and Fujian Normal, Xiamen, Wenzhou and Zhejiang universities. We designed a program to introduce Chinese graduate students to the rigor and rewards of fieldwork. The program is carried out in August each year and lasts for about twelve days with two days of lectures, six days in the field and one day for students' reporting. The most experienced professors in fieldwork including Yang Yanjie, Tam Wai Lun, Ye Mingsheng and other professors give preparatory lectures before the students go into the field. Students are all very excited about the program, and more students are applying for the program now. I hope we can find other funding support to keep the programme running in the future. We are also planning to include MA students or even undergraduate students so that they will get ideas for their further studies. I find the programme really meaningful and exciting and would like to continue to promote it. The students' passionate responses to our work and programme are the most rewarding results for me.

The most fruitful result during my years of teaching and research in Chinese studies is that I am deeply influenced by Chinese culture. When I was studying at Harvard, Chinese pre-Qin philosophy completely transformed my understanding of philosophy. In Paris, I was shocked a second time by a different aspect of Chinese culture: its incredibly rich religious tradition. Going into the field—into villages but also climbing sacred mountains—was a third shock to my system. These shocks made me realize the richness of Chinese culture and have deeply influenced not just my teaching and research, but also the way I understand what it is to be human in a globalizing world.

Back to Issue
Interview with Professor John Lagerwey: "My Teaching and Research in Chinese Studies at CUHK"
Event: 2017 ICS Luncheon I: "Life Cultivation with the Notion of Harmony between Nature and Human"
Event: ICS 50th Anniversary Celebration Activities Highlights
Event: CUHK–Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation Asia-Pacific Centre for Chinese Studies (APC) Public Lecture by APC Visiting Scholar 2017: "Mutual Rescue? Republican China's Visual Fascination and Ethnic Images of the Northwest in the 1930s"
Event: 'Writing Chinese Translation History', Seventh Young Researchers' Conference On Chinese Translation Studies, Research Centre for Translation
Event: Opening Ceremony and Public Lectures of "Her Distinguished Brushwork: An Exhibition Featuring Paintings by the Seventeenth Century Artist Li Yin", Art Museum
Event: Documentary Film Series co-organised by the Research Centre for Contemporary Chinese Culture and the Universities Service Centre for China Studies
Event: Linguistics Seminars Organised by the T. T. Ng Chinese Language Research Centre of the Institute of Chinese Studies
New publications
Amazing Clay: The Ceramic Collection of the Art Museum (1 April 2016 – 28 May 2017)
Young Scholars' Forum in Chinese Studies 2017, jointly organised by CUHK–Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation Asia-Pacific Centre for Chinese Studies and ICS (25–27 May)
Maritime Silk Road Suite, jointly organised by the T. T. Ng Chinese Language Research Centre, the Institute of Chinese Studies and the Department of Chinese Language and Literature (27 March–30 April)
Editorial Board Committee
Past Issues
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