Professor So received her PhD in 1982 from Harvard University in the US. She is an art historian specialising in ancient Chinese bronzes and jades. Before returning to Hong Kong, she was Senior Curator of Chinese Art at The Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. In 2001, she joined the Department of Fine Arts at CUHK as Professor of Fine Arts, lecturing on the history of Chinese jades, Chinese bronzes and methodology in art-historical studies. In addition, she supervises MPhil and PhD students. Professor So was Director of the Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS) from 2002 to 2011 and was appointed Director of the Art Museum at ICS in 2013, the position she currently holds.
In the following article, Professor So reviews her academic choice of Chinese art history and her teaching, research and administrative work at The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). From this we can clearly see Professor So's persistent and continuous efforts in promoting Chinese studies at CUHK.
It was by coincidence that I went into the study of Chinese culture. I went to an English primary school and middle school in Hong Kong when I was a child and my majors for Form 5 and Form 6 were English literature and English history – Chinese history was just one of my many other subjects. When I went to America for my university education, my major was still English literature and my minor was German literature. The only Chinese-related course that I studied was a general introduction to Chinese art history. After graduation, I wished to continue on to post-graduate studies. My professor in English literature recommended I apply to Oxford University, and the professor who taught me Italian Renaissance art encouraged me to study art history at Harvard University. It was then that I realised that, as a Chinese person living in America, I was not familiar enough with my own history and culture, and if I were to introduce Chinese culture to the West, I do not have the knowledge or confidence to do so. After studying English literature for most of my education to that point, I wanted to consider alternatives. Consequently, I applied to the art history programme at Harvard University, to study under Professor Max Loehr, an eminent scholar in Chinese art history. Professor Loehr specialized in ancient Chinese art such as bronzes and jades, and I naturally followed the same path. Studies in Chinese archaeological antiquities were flourishing at the time; it was the 1970s, right after the Cultural Revolution. New archaeological excavations were published; academic journals, which had been neglected or abandoned before the Cultural Revolution, were re-published. New materials and new discoveries were made virtually every day. I was encouraged by this exciting atmosphere and devoted myself to the study of ancient Chinese art. Since then, more than 30 years have passed.
Compared with Western scholars in Chinese archaeology and ancient Chinese civilisation, Chinese scholars tend to pay more attention to written documents. They tend to look at excavated antiquities through the medium of traditional historical texts. In contrast, Western scholars pay more attention to the excavated works of art. When newly excavated antiquities do not align with records in traditional Chinese texts, the value of those antiquities is not simply dismissed. Western scholars are wary that historical documents were often written with subjective perspectives, while excavated artifacts are objective things. As a result, Chinese scholars focus more on ancient Chinese texts, and Western scholars place more emphasis on excavated artifacts. This is one of the differences between Chinese and Western research methodology. With my educational background and academic training, I tend to adopt the Western methodology, starting first with excavated artifacts, but will use textual material as appropriate.
My first impression of CUHK came from my father and brother. They both worked at the Education Bureau, and from them I heard much about the university. After I graduated from Harvard University, I went to work at The Freer Gallery of Art. At the time, Professor Arthur K. C. Li was Vice-Chancellor of CUHK. I came back to CUHK frequently for academic conferences, and I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Lee Jung-sen as well, a major benefactor and supporter of Chinese studies at CUHK. Both Professor Li and Mr. Lee Jung-sen were enthusiastic about promoting Chinese studies and about the development of ICS. They encouraged me to return and join the university. At that point, I had been working at The Freer Gallery of Art for 10 years and felt that I was ready for a change. I joined CUHK in 2001 as Chair of the Department of Fine Arts following the retirement of Professor Mayching Kao. One of the first things I did as Chair was to review the Fine Arts curriculum and renovate the studios, classrooms, and departmental offices to improve the teaching and learning environment for both teachers and students. In 2002, I was appointed Director of ICS following the retirement of Dr F. C. Chen. I served as the ICS Director until 2011 and in 2013, I was appointed Director of the Art Museum.
ICS's advantage lies not only in its central location on campus, but also in the central academically role it plays as the core research unit for Chinese studies at CUHK. As its Director, I tried to promote a fresh face for the Institute by creating a more open atmosphere. We worked with Rocco Yim, a renowned Hong Kong architect to renovate its 40-year old offices, knocking down solid brick walls and exchanging them for glass and wood-accented walls. After the renovations, the offices were more spacious and open but maintained enough privacy for work. We also enlarged the platform in the middle of the pond to provide a larger open space for a variety of activities such as receptions and performances. I also tried to make ICS a more welcoming academic environment. ICS' various research centres were established as separate units, but I believed that to grow and develop, ICS needs to move beyond individual research centres and build connections with other related academic units and staff at CUHK, as well as similar institutions at other universities. The Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University served as my model, where a strong research center was built by inviting a large number of professors in the field to join the Institute. Before I left the directorship, I submitted a five-year plan to the ICS Advisory Board in which I proposed strengthening ICS' academic reach in a number of ways, including inviting the Universities Services Centre for China Studies to join ICS, and non-centre-related faculty members to become part of ICS. Later, under the tenure of the succeeding Director, Professor Shun Kwong-loi, Universities Services Centre for China Studies did become a constituent unit under ICS. During my directorship, I also reconfigured the Advisory Board and invited prestigious international scholars from Harvard, Yale, E.F.E.O., Academia Sinica etc. to serve as members.
ICS celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2007 – when the East Wing of the Art Museum was completed. We held a big celebration at the University Mall and turned it into an opportunity to further promote communication between ICS and the rest of campus. Looking at the 40 year history of ICS, I felt there was a great opportunity for ICS to further expand its academic vision and reach out to build broader connections and cooperation with other institutions.
I resigned as Director of ICS in 2011 and rejoined the Institute in 2013 as Director of the Art Museum. This move was a chance for me to fulfill my hopes in art education. In my view, the teaching of art history cannot stay merely at the theoretical level, and the appreciation for works of art cannot merely depend on theories and slide images in the classroom. With its rich collections of Chinese art, the Art Museum is a great asset for students at CUHK. I have been incorporating the Art Museum's collections in the teaching of Chinese art in the Department of Fine Arts since I returned to CUHK in 2001. For example, I arranged for art history tutorials to be conducted within the Art Museum to make use of relevant collections and exhibitions, enabling students to go beyond theoretical learning and appreciate the works themselves. I also incorporated the Art Museum's collections into the Ph.D. qualifying examinations for post-graduate students to test their connoisseurship and knowledge of a wide range of artifacts. Now, as Director of the Art Museum, I plan to further strengthen relationship and collaboration between not just the Department of Fine Arts, but also with other teaching departments and the Art Museum to enhance art education at CUHK.
The future development of the Art Museum lies with the arrivals of Drs. Xu Xiaodong and Josh Yiu last year as its associate directors. Dr. Xu Xiaodong is a specialist in jade, gold, and other metalwork and comes to the Art Museum from her Research position at the Palace Museum, Beijing. Dr. Josh Yiu was born in Hong Kong and educated in America and Britain. The two associate directors complement one another in their different backgrounds and specialties, and together, they will play a key role in leading the Art Museum into new realms of research and development, to further promote the public education of Chinese art and culture with exhibitions and research. The Art Museum hopes to appeal to a wide audience – people from different social and educational backgrounds, including CUHK professors, students and fans of antiques. I think the Art Museum can play multiple roles in mobilising solid research into art, while promoting general education in Chinese art at the same time. To do this, I hope that the university will review its established practice of seeing the Art Museum's Director, Associate Directors and other trained scholarly research-curatorial staff as mere administrative staff. Their academic research abilities should be acknowledged and their positions regarded as equals of professors in teaching departments. Only then will this properly reflect the academic training of the scholarly staff at the Art Museum, and the important role they play in the scholarly life and Chinese studies at ICS and CUHK.
Chinese studies are identified as one of the five key areas of CUHK, so ICS plays an important role. I hope that ICS will continue to improve its international reputation and increase it importance within its field. Besides research carried out by individual centres, ICS can broaden its academic vision and reach further to provide a more open platform for cross-central, cross-institutional and cross-disciplinary communication and cooperation.