2017 No.4
Interview with Professor Cheng Hwei Shing : My Days with the Institute of Chinese Studies

Date:9 November 2017
Location:Room 124, the Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS)
Interviewee:Professor Cheng Hwei Shing, Senior Research Fellow (honorary), Research Centre for Contemporary Chinese Culture, ICS
Interviewer:Professor Lai Chi Tim, Associate Director of the Institute of Chinese Studies
Recorded by:Pei Fanhui, MPhil in Translation, CUHK

Professor Cheng Hwei Shing was born in Hong Kong in September 1949. He graduated from the Department of History at Nanjing University in 1982, and was then assigned to work at the Second Historical Archives of China in Nanjing. He was promoted as the Associate Director of the Archive Processing and Cataloguing Department in January 1985. In December 1988, he came to Hong Kong and reside there hereafter. He obtained an MPhil degree from the University of Hong Kong and a PhD degree from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He had been working with the Institute of Chinese Studies in the Chinese University of Hong Kong since 1990 and retired in September 2013. Professor Cheng is now a Senior Research Fellow (honorary) of Institute of Chinese Studies and Adjunct Professor at the Department of History in the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Professor Cheng has long been working on the collecting, editing and publishing of archives for the Republic of China Period. His study focuses on the history of the Republic of China, especially on the financial and economic policies, national capital and bureaucratic capital under the Nationalist Government in the 1930s and 40s, as well as its sino-foreign economic relationships. He had published a number of important works in this field, and over 100 papers on various historical journals both in mainland China and overseas.


1. 'Historical Misunderstanding'

I was born in Hong Kong, twenty days earlier than the founding of the People's Republic of China. Before I reached six-month's age, my parents brought me back to the mainland. In 1967 when the Cultural Revolution started to spread out on that vast land, I graduated from high school, just in time for becoming 'Lao San Jie', which in a simple way means I cannot further my studies in Universities; instead, I first went to the countryside and then a colliery to 'develop my talents to the full through education amongst the rural population'. For ten years I worked as a minor miner, tasting another way of life.

But the light for knowledge never died out in me. In 1977, the College Entrance Examination was resumed after ten years' suspension. Upon hearing the news, I wanted to give it a try, but was hesitated because of my family's background. My father was a graduate from National Chiao Tung University (today's Shanghai Jiao Tong University), and my mother graduated from Yenching University (on the location of which stands Peking University today). They were not that 'low-born', which in those year was not a good thing for us. Sensing my hesitation, however, my parents encouraged me to pursue what I really wanted. Yet even that I could pick up my courage, still I cannot pick up what had been put away all these years – the knowledge of mathematics, physics and chemistry had deserted me long ago. Hence, I chose to enter the grand hall of arts, embracing history as my love because of its high admission requirements. I always borrow what Qu Qiubai had said in his Superfluous Words, that the entering into the field of history was a 'historical misunderstanding' for me. I never expected it to happen, yet I never regretted.

I was admitted to the department of history in Nanjing University, a department which had always put great emphasis on the use of historical archives. Nanjing, a city of rich history, had served as the capital of various Chinese dynasties, kingdoms, as well as the Chinese Nationalist Party Government. Relying on such abundant resources, in 1970s, Nanjing University pioneered to study the history of Republic of China. Being not well-trained in classical Chinese, I decided to take this opportunity and enter the gate of studies on Republic of China.

Time flies. In 1982, I graduated from Nanjing University, and was assigned to work in the Second Historical Archives of China in Nanjing. My tutor at Nanjing University, Professor Zhang Xianwen, encouraged me to take the postgraduate entrance examination; But considering my age, I chose not to. To work in the Second Historical Archives of China (SHAC) was the best choice for me at that time: as one of the national archives of China, SHAC has a vast collection of original records of all the central regimes and their subordinate organs during the Republican Era of China, which would without doubt contribute to my researches on Republic of China. While still in Nanjing University, I have already visited SHAC for many times to finish my undergraduate dissertation; Its collections, especially those records related to the smuggling by Japan in North China before the Second Sino-Japanese War, was of great help to me.

In SHAC, I was assigned to the Financial and Economic Unit in the Archive Processing and Cataloguing Department. My job was to select and edit financial and economic records out of SHAC's storage. While doing this job, I combined what I do with what I study, shifting my research interest to the financial and economic policies, national capital and bureaucratic capital under the Nationalist Government in the 1930s and 40s, as well as its sino-foreign economic relationships. I started from a small research topic which I always refer to my students as a 'point', then logically stretched that topic to a 'line' of relative researches, and later to weave a research 'plane', which forms my expertise. Utilizing this research method, I soon became a productive researcher, published a series of papers on different journals, and made my name in this field.

2. From Nanjing to Hong Kong

In the 1980s, studies of the Republic of China history in mainland China was booming. Scholars from domestic and abroad came to SHAC for checking records, and academic exchanges were more frequent than ever. However, those slight borders between mainland China and Hong Kong as well as Taiwan was like a big screen, filtered possible scholarly communications. To remedy this regret and boost researches, SHAC decided to hold an international seminar on Archives and History (in the Republic of China) in 1987 and invite scholars from Hong Kong and Taiwan over. I was in the preparatory team. This seminar was proved a success, attended by many famous Chinese historians and over twenty overseas scholars, and received strong support from the government. Yet Professor Wang Gungwu and Mr Liu Chia Chu from Hong Kong whom we invited wasn't able to come, so was scholars from Taiwan. That was a huge regret. In 1988, on his way back from an academic trip to Australia, Professor Mao Jiaqi from Nanjing University stopped by Hong Kong and met with Professor Wang Gungwu in the University of Hong Kong. Professor Mao and Professor Wang happened to be from the same province, i.e., Jiangsu Province, went to National Central University on the same year, and were both world-famous historians. When talked about the regret that no Hong Kong or Taiwan scholars showed up on last year's seminar, Professor Wang kindly suggested that the University of Hong Kong could be the host for a second seminar, which would allow scholars from Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as from mainland China to participate. Professor Mao loved this suggestion. He came back to Nanjing with this piece of good news. I happened to have to visit Hong Kong for private business during that summer, therefore the negotiation with HKU on a second international seminar naturally fell on my shoulder. Carrying Professor Mao's introduction letter, I arrived in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, Professor Wang was then out of Hong Kong on business. Therefore I was introduced to the head of School of Chinese, Professor Chiu Ling-yeong, and a senior lecturer of the Department of History, Dr. Luk Yan-lung, who were in charge of the preparatory works of the second seminar on behalf of HKU.

During our discussions over organizing details, Professor Chiu asked about my personal researches. After kindly reading through some of my papers, he recommended that I should pursue a postgraduate degree in the University of Hong Kong. I was persuaded by him. In the end, this seminar was not realized because of situation, but my life was totally changed. I left SHAC shortly, and started a new academic life in Hong Kong.

In Hong Kong, I rarely had the chance to visit the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Only in August 1990 did I first step onto the land of the Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS). It was because of a seminar held by the department of history at CUHK, which Professor Chang Yu-fa from Taiwan would attend. I had long been writing with Professor Chang, and wanted to meet him in person. Professor Tam Yue-him who was the initiator of this seminar kindly granted me audience. Standing in front of the gate of ICS, I was deeply moved by its pleasantness. Yet I never expected it to be my future belongingness.

Shortly after this seminar, I came across an advertisement on a newspaper, saying that ICS was recruiting a research assistant of history or arts history background. This looked like a great chance for me, as I just handed in my postgraduate dissertation and was looking for jobs. I filed my application and received an invitation to interview in early October, 1990.

It was the only job interview that I ever had till today. I could still remember clearly that on that day, I came to ICS early and reported to general office; Ms Betty led me to room 108 and asked me to wait outside for my turn. I couldn't help but peeped inside. It turned out to be Professor Jao Tsung-I who was sitting indoor! I had always known that Professor Jao is a most achieved scholar of Sinology. I once had the privilege to have met him on a conference in HKU, and later had passed him a book that others brought him, but we never talked.

Finally, my turn came. After a small chat over my background, Professor Jao asked me, 'What do you know?'

I was nervous and struggled for my words, 'Comparing with you, I know but nothing. What I studied was about the modern history.'

I could see Professor Jao's fingers brushed through my papers. 'I study almost everything,' said him gently, 'the only subject that I won't touch, is modern history.'

Well, irrelevant as I was, I still got this job. On October 22, 1990, I officially started my time with the ICS.

3. Working with Professor Jao

Professor Jao is a world-famous scholar of Sinologist. People always mention him together with Qian Zhongshu or Ji Xianlin. A versatile scholar, he contributes to every field of humanities, including what Ji Xianlin had summarized as eight categories: Tunhuangology, oracle bone studies, literature, history, bibliology, Chu Ci studies, archaeology and epigraphy, and calligraphy and painting. After becoming Professor Jao's research assistant, once I asked him, 'Professor Jao, now that I am your research assistant, and that I have no knowledge of your researches, do you find it better if I change my research field and look into Tunhuangology or oracle bone studies?'

Professor Jao firmly rejected my proposal. He said that I shouldn't give up what I have built up so far in the studies of the Republic of China history at this age, and that I should be at ease to pursue my own research road. I am still grateful for this.
Hence, I worked with ICS and Professor Jao, collecting materials, editing papers and preparing publications on my day time, and continued my own researches whenever I was free. In 1992, I got my postgraduate degree from HKU. Professor Mao suggested that I shouldn't stop here as an MPhil. Although I'm old of age, I didn't want to give up half way. With the eager for knowledge burning inside, I contacted my MPhil tutor, Professor Chiu Ling-yeong, who gladly referred me to take on the PhD course in CUHK. Professor Jao and Dr. Chen Fong Ching, director of the Institute of Chinese studies, also encouraged me a lot. I approached Professor Leung Yuen Sang from the department of history, whose research field was also related to the modern history. He kindly accepted my application, and became my PhD tutor as well as my friend.

Being a part-time PhD student at CUHK won't allow me to slack in ICS. Professor Jao was kind enough to allow me to do my own research as long as I could finish my job. A part-time PhD student would usually take four to eight years to graduate, but I only spent less than three years before finishing all the requisite courses and my dissertation draft. In 1997, I passed the oral exam, got my degree, and became an independent scholar. My PhD dissertation got published on the journal of Research Centre for Contemporary Chinese Culture and later by the Chinese University Press. ICS has been a greenhouse for scholars.

As for Professor Jao, after retired in 1978 from CUHK, he was entitled the ICS Honorary Advisor, the Wei Lun Honorary Professor of Fine Arts, and Emeritus Professor of Chinese Language and Literature at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Every week he would come once or twice to his office, room 108, in ICS; most of the times he would call me from home if there were any instructions. My job was to help him copying, editing, sorting and proofreading his manuscripts. They were hard to recognize at first, but then I got used to his writing. I also had to check his references and collect materials for him. Though advanced in age, Professor Jao didn't show any sign of withdrawal in memory and thinking. He would remember every word he read, and sharp on research questions. For twenty years I worked with him, and learnt a lot from his attitude towards affairs, his research method, and his spirit in research.

Professor Jao is a great promoter of Sinology. In 1993 he instituted the Centre for Dunhuang and Turfan Studies at New Asia College and the Hong Kong Journal of Dunhuang and Turfan Studies, both with remarkable success. For over a decade, Hong Kong had become an academic centre for Tunhuangology, with scholars exchanging their ideas and receiving Professor Jao's instruction. These scholars are now the mainstay of this field. However regrettably, this centre was closed after Professor Jao's sudden ill.

Humanities is much different from Science – the former asks for accumulation, while the latter requires updating. Professor Jao's academic life lasted long after he retired. As I have calculated, what he wrote after retirement was much more than before, and his researches were always at the front edge. Working with Professor Jao, the cultural icon of Hong Kong, was a great privilege of mine.

4. A Few Words for ICS

This year (2017), Professor Jao embraced his 100 years old birthday, while the Institute of Chinese Studies welcomed its 50th anniversary. Calling for 'combine tradition with modernity; Bring together China and the West', ICS has been a great promoter on Chinese Studies. During my twenty years' experience with ICS, I witnessed many great scholars in this exquisite building, for example, in the 1990s there were Professor Jao, Professor Lau Din Cheuk, Professor Cheng Tsu Yu, and many researcher and visitors. Yet nowadays, it seems to me that the researchers in ICS were less than before, and no 'masters' are now here to lead the research work. How could ICS continue to bring its function onto the international stage? Here are my humble suggestions.

Firstly, ICS should invite back retired scholars and facilitate them with an office for their study use. As is the case of Professor Jao, the academic life of scholars often lasts long after their retirements. A platform in ICS would surely be mutually beneficial.

Secondly, ICS should continue to communicate with outside while maintaining its own traditions, so as to gain resources and promote academic researches. The Institute of Chinese Studies should not be simply regarded as a mere University research centre; ICS was and should be a cultural icon in CUHK, in Hong Kong, and in the world.

Back to Issue
Interview with Professor Cheng Hwei Shing : My Days with the Institute of Chinese Studies
Event: ICS 50th Anniversary Celebration Activities Highlights
Event: 2017 ICS Luncheon III
Event: 2017 ICS Luncheon IV
Event: 2017 ICS Luncheon V
Event: Public Lecture on "Deliver Us from Evil: The Daoist Quest for Release in Medieval China", organised by CUHK–Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation Asia-Pacific Centre for Chinese Studies, Institute of Chinese Studies, CUHK, Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient Centre, and Center for Studies of Daoist Culture, CUHK
Event: Opening Ceremony of the Exhibition "Treasures from the Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong: Past, Present and Future"
Event: Autumn Guqin Concert, Art Museum
Event: Opening Ceremonies of the Exhibitions "A Field in Bloom: Highlights of Chinese Art to Mark the 60th Anniversary of the Department of Fine Arts, CUHK" and "Phoenix Reborn: Chu Jades Excavated from Hubei", Art Museum
Event: "Linguistics Seminar" and "CUHK-KU Workshop on Chinese Grammar" organised by T. T. Ng Chinese Language Research Centre
Event: Documentary Film Series co-organised by the Research Centre for Contemporary Chinese Culture and the Universities Service Centre for China Studies
Event: Launch of Professor Alain Roux's Latest Book, co-organised by the Chinese University Press, Research Centre for Contemporary Chinese Culture, and the Universities Service Centre for China Studies
Event: Public Lecture Series by Research Centre for Contemporary Chinese Culture
New Publications
Event: Fourteenth Graduate Seminar on China, Universities Service Centre for China Studies (4–7 January 2018)
Exhibition: "Purity in Zisha: Exhibition on Yixing Zisha Stoneware in the Collection of Art Museum of The Chinese University of Hong Kong"
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