TANG PRIZE/Sinology laureate touts importance of Chinese 'wen and shi' tradition

11/20/2021 06:08 PM
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Photo courtesy of Tang Prize Foundation
Photo courtesy of Tang Prize Foundation

Taipei, Nov. 20 (CNA) Wang Gungwu (王賡武), winner of the 2020 Tang Prize in Sinology, on Saturday touted the importance of the "wen and shi" (文史) tradition in China, despite changes in political systems.

In his speech titled "From Wen to Shi: China's Road," Wang elaborated on "wen," which refers to literature, and "shi", which means history in Chinese, saying that while political systems have come and gone with the ebb and flow of dynasties, China's wen and shi tradition remains highly relevant in modern times.

"With this wen, or records, the shi records for example were kept, family relationships were defined, and a tianxia (the world) ideal was conceived," Wang said in a speech before receiving his award at the Tang Prize Award Ceremony the same day.

The awards ceremony was postponed for one year to 2021 due to the COVID-pandemic.

"In this way, the shi tradition enabled generations of leaders to establish a ruling system that brought order and well being to their people," Wang said.

Born in Surabaya, Indonesia and having grown up in British Malaya, Wang, who is both a sinologist and a writer, said he studied the Chinese tradition and classical Chinese at home with his father, who grew up in a time of transition and believed wen or literature was "the foundation of our culture."

"(My father) was concerned that I understood what traditional China was like. The mix of classic texts and literary gems included stories about emperors, mandarins and military commanders," Wang said.

Wang said he memorized as much as he could of the poetry and prose of the ancients.

"It did not matter that it was not the language that we were using to speak with one another," Wang said. "These were the texts that conveyed the deep feelings of longing and pride that made China endearing."

Although he learned traditional Chinese at home from his father's tutoring, the senior Wang later sent his son to an English school, ensuring he would not be constrained by any traditional point of view and be able to navigate between eastern thought with an open mind, according to the Sinology laureate.

Wang said his father's training in modern educational methods also led him to believe that learning a foreign language "could be a window to modernity."

Through the speech, Wang demonstrated how the meaning of the wen-shi tradition evolved over time.

China in the 20th century was subjected to a new world order, while much of its cultural heritage was dismantled in the Cultural Revolution, Wang said.

The laureate said after Mao Zedong (毛澤東) died, and China opened up to the world under the rule of Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), who pursued economic reform, new possibilities were created for the wen and shi tradition and it still exerts influence in the modern world, even though China faced challenges posed by the Tiananmen Square Incident in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Those leaders who succeeded Deng, from Jiang Zemin (江澤民) and Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) to Xi Jinping (習近平), Wang said, all returned to the wen and shi tradition as manifested by their "strong support for a Standard Qingshi (history of the Qing dynasty) to connect the end of the Ming with the beginning of the (Chinese) republic."

Wang added Xi is well aware that choosing the path of the wen-shi tradition will help his regime gain support.

"The process of reconnecting to Confucius as sage may be largely symbolic because it is not a vehicle to drive the future," Wang said. "What it does is to provide the PRC with a better defense of its legitimacy."

In his speech, Wang said that shi refers to "the records of every dynasty" and can serve the purpose of shaping a country's collective memory and providing "continuity for all of China's past."

Wang was awarded the 2020 Tang Prize in Sinology for his groundbreaking research into the Chinese world order, overseas Chinese and Chinese migratory experience, according to the Tang Prize Foundation.

The Tang Prize is a biennial award established in 2012 by Samuel Yin (尹衍樑), chairman of the Ruentex Group and founder of the Tang Foundation, to honor people who have made prominent contributions in four categories -- sustainable development, biopharmaceutical science, Sinology, and the rule of law.

(By Chen Chih-chung, Elizabeth Hsu and Frances Huang)

Enditem/AW

Source: Tang Prize
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