2014 No.3
Event: "Non-popular Reading Methods in the Popular Era"
At the opening ceremony of the Young Scholars' Forum in Chinese Studies on June 18 2014, organised by the ICS, the keynote speaker Sang Bing, Yat-sen Chair Professor at the Department of History at Sun Yat-sen University, delivered a speech entitled 'Non-popular Reading Methods in the Popular Era'.

Sang Bing, Yat-sen Chair Professor at the Department of History, Sun Yat-sen University; Director of the Centre for the Study of Modern China, Sun Yat-sen University; Head of the Institute for Sun Yat-sen Studies, Sun Yat-sen University.

Professor Sang Bing received his PhD in history from the Central China Normal University. He began teaching in the Department of History at Sun Yat-sen University in September 1983, and was appointed to the post of professor in 1992. He was subsequently awarded a Distinguished Professorship by the Pearl River Scholars of Guangdong Province in October 1999, and in January 2005 received a distinguished professorship as part of the Chang Jiang Scholars Programme run by the Ministry of Education. Professor Sang Bing is currently a member of the National Qing Dynasty History Codification Committee and the Philosophy and Social Science Committee of the Ministry of Education. He has recently researched the intellectual and institutional transitions undergone by modern China, education in China since the Qing Dynasty, universities in modern China and Sino-Japanese relations today.

Professor Sang first defined 'the popular era' as today's media-dominant age. He noted that the popular media commonly display similar images to different people in different places, which significantly diminishes individual characteristics. It is thus very difficult to become a reader of non-popular books in the popular era. Indeed, time constraints often prevent people from reading at all nowadays. Most textbooks are read by students during their primary, university or even postgraduate education. However, textbooks (in the modern sense) did not exist in ancient China. Although some teachers began to use textbooks in their classes during China's Republican era, many continued to rely on 'real books' such as Records of the Grand Historian, the Book of Han, Zizhi Tongjian, Shuowen Jiezi and The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons in their lectures on Chinese history and culture. However, as not every teacher was sufficiently competent to lecture on 'real books', the use of textbooks became prevalent. Although PhD students today seem to read to lot, they are usually searching for relevant materials on particular topics rather than reading per se. The same is true of many professors. Most people do not read nowadays.

Professor Sang went on to review educational and reading traditions in ancient China. He pointed out that although China's repository of books and documents, especially ancient texts, is believed to be the largest in the world, few Chinese scholars before the Song Dynasty discussed reading methods. Only a very small group of people in ancient China had access to books, as written communication could not be widely produced or disseminated. In most cases, knowledge was gained from lectures. Lectures also helped readers during the pre-Qin period to interpret books and documents, which were written in extremely condensed language. As paper and printing technologies became increasingly sophisticated during the Song Dynasty, more and more scholars began to discuss reading methods. They realised that the new generation of readers, constrained by their individual and temporal perspectives, often understood ancient books in very different ways than intended by the authors. The topic of reading methods received particular attention during the late Qing, when large numbers of Western books flooded into China. Professor Sang noted that methods of structuring Chinese knowledge, such as subject division, underwent enormous changes as a result of the appearance of textbooks in the late Qing. For example, 'literature' was not regarded as an independent subject in ancient China. Modern China faces many similar problems. To conclude this section, Professor Sang explained that lectures given during the Song Dynasty, which were generally popular among scholars, were completely different from lectures or talks given today. During the Song, lecturers systematically taught students about certain books or the theories of certain schools. However, due to the belief that 'empty talk' was harmful to society, and had led to the destruction of the Ming Dynasty, most scholars during the early Qing Dynasty encouraged students to read rather than attend lectures. This attitude persisted after the late Qing. For example, when Zhang Taiyan gave lectures on Chinese learning, he only discussed 'jing' (the classics) and 'zi' (philosophers); he did not lecture on 'shi' (history), which he believed could only be understood by reading. 

Next, Professor Sang pointed out that although most knowledge today is acquired through reading, the large number of books available is a problem. Only about 20,000 Chinese books and documents existed before the Ming Dynasty. This number increased dramatically during the Qing Dynasty, which saw the publication of between 100,000 and 120,000 books and more than 1,900 newspapers and journals. Within 40 years of the establishment of the Republic of China, more than 200,000 books had been published, along with 4,000 newspapers and 40,000 journals. As many as 12,000,000 volumes are recorded in the union catalogues of approximately 1,000 Chinese archives. This enormous number of books poses problems for scholars today. Categorisation is one means of shortening a reading list, but the ancient Chinese system of categorisating books differed from its modern counterpart. How can scholars use the modern categories to find the books they need? The categorisation of books and the classification of knowledge also pose significant challenges for library-science researchers in modern China. If the 'sibu' classification system for ancient Chinese books had been merely a cataloguing method, Chinese scholars during this period would not have been able to acquire knowledge simply by reading the catalogue. Professor Sang pointed out that the traditional Chinese cataloguing system was actually a compendium of reading methods. He suggested that to deal with the large number of ancient books available, scholars should begin with the 'sibu' catalogue. Most traditional Chinese scholars devoted themselves to interpreting classical texts rather than producing original work. With the exception of the period from the pre-Qin to the Han Dynasty, the period between the Tang and the Song dynasties and the period between the Ming and the Qing dynasties, original books have rarely been produced on a large scale in Chinese history. Even during the abovementioned three periods, books rarely contained original ideas; most were commentaries on or elaborations of the classics. Using the catalogue developed according to the 'sibu' system, scholars can identify the truly innovative books, read them within a relatively short time, and skim the remaining books very quickly. For a good reader such as Mr Chen Yinque, the catalogue would furnish only enough material to read until 30 years of age. Professor Sang stressed that reading 'all' of the books does not entail reading every book and document; only the essential ones.

Professor Sang also mentioned that it was difficult for people in the past to obtain their chosen books, whereas modern readers have access to almost any book they need without leaving their homes. Although a few books cannot be located, readers are able to gain a full range of knowledge from the books available. This ease of access minimises the time and effort required to search for books.

Next, Professor Sang addressed the problem of comprehension. He stated that rather than seeking to understand books' original meanings, many readers today merely look for content that fits their own research. They tend to use concepts and frameworks developed since the late Qing to interpret ancient Chinese texts, and thus ignore the authors' original meanings. Once a book has been located, readers face the greater problem of understanding the book. Professor Sang quoted Professor Yu Ying-shih as follows.

The most valuable academic studies of China by Chinese scholars since the 20th century are those based on the least Western concepts. If a scholar uses a Western framework to examine Chinese history, he is incapable of comprehending the 'original meaning' of Chinese historical texts in a nuanced way. Instead, he is merely skimming the words for the information he needs, as if he were reading a newspaper.

According to Professor Sang, it is acceptable to borrow foreign methodologies to research Chinese history and culture. For instance, Mr Chen Yinque often used popular European theoretical frameworks such as comparative linguistics, comparative philology and comparative theology in his Chinese studies. However, it is crucial to avoid being constrained by Western frameworks. The flexible use of foreign approaches enables researchers to understand the original meanings of Chinese ancient texts while interpreting the texts from their own perspectives.

To conclude his speech, Professor Sang quoted Mr Yan Gengwang: 'real learning is reading common books and developing uncommon ideas'. Knowledge can only be obtained by this means.

Back to Issue
Interview with Professor Leung Yuen-sang
Event: "Non-popular Reading Methods in the Popular Era"
Event: Educational Activities of the Art Museum
Event: Launch of 'David Hawkes Archive'
New Publications
Event Highlight
Editorial Board Committee
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