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Yu Ying-shih

Intellectuals Must Speak Up for the Poor


Intellectuals Must Speak Up for the Poor

Source:Domingo Chung

When prominent Chinese American historian and Sinologist Yu Ying-shih was in Taiwan in mid-September to collect the Tang Prize for Sinology, he had a clear message for Taiwan's intellectuals: be advocates for those in need.



Intellectuals Must Speak Up for the Poor

By Jung Shin Ho
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 557 )

Academia Sinica's Humanities and Social Science Building is normally quiet on the weekends. But on the morning of Sept. 20, hundreds of professors and students crowded into the main hall to see the renowned master.

Yu Ying-shih has long been a legend internationally in the Sinology field, and the "Yu Ying-shih whirlwind" had ushered in an event of a magnitude not seen for a long time in Taiwan's academic community.

Globally Recognized Sinologist

The 84-year-old scholar, known for his broad vision and sharp insight, applied social science techniques to reinterpret Chinese intellectual and cultural history and was named an Academia Sinica academician at the age of 44.

"He was the first ethnic Chinese to serve as a full professor or higher at three prestigious American universities – Harvard, Yale and Princeton," says fellow Academia Sinica academician Ting Pang-hsin of Yu, who has published around 60 books and more than 400 papers in his long career.

Yu's influence was first felt in Taiwan in 1975 when he caused a sensation with his essay "Anti-intellectualism and Chinese Political Tradition" that was published in installments in local media. A year later, he published "History & Thought," a book that has had a far-reaching influence and continues to be reprinted to this day. His prestige reached its peak in 2006 when he was awarded the John W. Kluge Prize for Achievement in the Study of Humanity, sometimes called the Nobel Prize of the humanities.

After that, however, he battled a major illness and did not leave the United States for six years. So when he arrived in Taiwan in mid-September with his wife to collect the inaugural Tang Prize for Sinology, it drew a great deal of attention from Taiwan's academic community.

On the afternoon of Sept. 15, the day after Yu arrived in Taiwan, he sat down at the Grand Hotel with CommonWealth Magazine for a two-hour interview to discuss the democratic development of Greater China, the role intellectuals should play in society and many other important issues.

The following are excerpts from the interview.

CommonWealth Magazine: The longest you have ever resided in Taiwan was when you lived on Zhongxiao East Rd. for about a month, but you have long shown interest in Taiwan and have had high expectations of it. Can you talk about why you attach so much importance to Taiwan?

Yu Ying-shih: The most I've ever stayed (in Taiwan) is a month; this really has nothing to do with time. I lived in China for 20 years, but I still don't want to go back.

The main reason (for my interest) is that (Taiwan) is free China. I agree with Hu Shih's statement that Taiwan is the only free place within China, at least the China that I'm aware of. Of course, I know that there is now a Taiwan independence movement, but that's not relevant.

I think Taiwan will always be a part of Chinese culture. Today, even Hong Kong's freedoms are being restricted, and "one country, two systems" is becoming "one country, one system." Taiwan has also now started to face dangers. It may not yet be directly your turn, but you could very well be next.

CW: Aside from seeing Taiwan as free China, what are other impressions you have of its development?

Yu: You have national power, and traditions have not been wiped out. Traditions have been handed down to the modern era. So I have always said that Taiwan and Hong Kong are the most special places, but they are the places everybody pays the least attention to. They're special because, before the Chinese revolution, neither was part of China.

Hong Kong was ceded to Britain in 1842 while Taiwan was ceded to Japan in 1895. So starting with the Xinhai Revolution (1911), none of the revolutions touched Taiwan. That is Taiwan's good luck rather than anybody's basic skill or ability.

CW: You have previously stressed that "China" is simply a cultural concept. Ideally, what kind of relations would you like to see in Greater China (between Beijing, Hong Kong and Taiwan)?

Yu: Right now, it's the Communist Party that wants to resolve these things (Hong Kong and Taiwan) that are hard to deal with. It's now a question of what kind of methods you use to resist or accept them.

If you accept (Beijing's resolution), I won't say that you shouldn't do it. You're only going to live for dozens of years, and you want to live well and raise your family and you don't want to fight over these things. If you make these choices, I have no reason to tell you that you shouldn't; I will only say that that's the way it is.

If you decide you are not willing to be citizens obedient to the Communist Party, then you have to preserve Taiwan and not fall into (the communists') pit. If it uses force, there's nothing you can do, but if it does use force, it will pay a huge price, and it cannot afford to do that kind of thing. You can't be afraid. There's nothing to fear.

The Power of Being United

In this environment, some people may think about getting ahead (at the expense of others) using different methods. Some may do it for business reasons, to make money. Others may hope for a certain degree of power in the future and go out of their way to show loyalty. Such things happen. I think the ultimate decision rests with the people of Taiwan themselves. I cannot advise Taiwan's people on how to make that decision.

CW: Are you still confident and optimistic when it comes to Taiwan?

Yu: If you wholeheartedly move in a single direction, there could be different scenarios that emerge.

If everybody feels powerless, then individuals will feel helpless and simply go with the flow. Any sense of initiative will disappear, and passivity will dominate. If people are passive, nobody can have any idea what the outcome might be. If you're lucky, nothing will happen, and if changes start to take place (in mainland China), you'll be safe, but then again, that may not be the case. My point is that even if Taiwan wants to surrender, it should do it on its own initiative.

CW: What kind of person is your ideal intellectual? What is the responsibility and mission of an intellectual?

Yu: It (would be) China's tradition of the "intellectual," which only exists in China, not in the West. (The West) only has this concept in religion, with only pastors or priests similar to the "intellectual" in China. That's because China does not have Western-style religion. China's "religion" has its origins with Confucius, with an emphasis on respecting people. In the West, people commonly call this Confucian spirit "humanism." That is the basic value inherent in Confucianism. 

When we talk about Chinese culture, we are mainly talking about a value, not an actual institutional issue. China's value is to respect people.

I often say that the West puts great importance in democracy, freedom and individualism. But if you look at Greece, at Aristotle's writings, they took slavery for granted. The Western system of slavery is untenable on an ethical basis, and Christianity was needed to justify the practice. In China long ago, in the Han Dynasty, the emperor ordered that "slaves are personal property that cannot be bought and sold," the reason being that "in the hierarchy of nature, people are the most valuable beings." The essence of nature is that people are most precious and therefore should not be sold as slaves.

In terms of values, Chinese was a step ahead of the West. Although we didn't bring up democracy and human rights, that's a different issue – the West didn't start talking about these concepts until the last 100 or 200 years.

From this, one can see that in Chinese tradition, the intellectual's mission was to be an advocate for the poor. In the Han Dynasty, for example, when people made too much money, scholar and philosopher Dong Zhongshu would stand up and criticize that. In the West, such behavior was traditionally criticized by religious figures, invoking the name of God. The way they delivered their messages may have been different but the values were identical.

In the past, this intelligentsia had certain privileges, but it doesn't anymore. One can say that now is the weakest the intelligentsia has ever been.

CW: Contemporary intellectuals are often seen as compromising their integrity, either being dependent on authority or worshipping it. You once said you have never idolized anybody in your life. Is that a fundamental attitude of contemporary intellectuals?

Yu: Worshipping is like religious zeal, (where people) believe a person has no flaws. But people who are truly striving for greater knowledge aren't like that.

We can admire certain people because they pioneered the way for us. That we are able to see new values today is because they gave us wisdom early on.

This also reflects why I have confidence in Taiwan – it's because even though Taiwan has gone through several changes, including the Japanese colonial period, original Chinese cultural values have been preserved in Taiwan. Family relations and even certain religious beliefs have been brought in from Fujian province. In other words, there are some values that have survived change and remained preserved in traditions. Though those values may no longer recognizable, they still exist as part of those traditions.

CW: You stress that it is sufficient to respect trailblazers for what they have accomplished. If some young scholars idolize or even worship you, what would you say to them?

Yu: It's not something I'd want to see. If people think that what I have to say is worth listening to, then they should read my books. I hope they (young scholars) can surpass me and be different from me. Only then can there be progress.

I definitely have no interest in being a guru, but I understand that young people will admire their contemporaries; I think it's simply a question of age. Once people's knowledge reaches a certain level, they will gradually realize this.

It's like me and my teacher Chien Mu. I have always respected him to this day, but I am also different from him in many ways, differences that are clear to others. The reasons there are differences of opinion is because I wanted to develop and advance his ideas. You don't want to simply keep him on the same pedestal and believe he is already perfect and above reproach.

According to a Zen saying, if you do not have more wisdom than your teacher, you are not worthy of being taught.

Keep the Faith, Be Free of Fear

CW: In this constantly changing Internet era, people are anxious to find a place where they can live a meaningful life. What advice could you give them?

Yu: The key is one's own values. People who have constant anxiety and cannot find inner peace often do not have solid values or have some values they cannot overcome. As a result, they can't tell right from wrong or distinguish truth from falsehood, leaving them distressed.

So basically the question is how to find one's way through values that one believes in. You have to have a certain amount of faith. Faith is something that's subjective and personal. You cannot waver because others may want to learn from you. Faith can be adjusted and broadened. It's essentially a matter of values.  

Many people's fears result not because they have not studied enough but because they did not form any of their own ideas about what they studied. It doesn't matter how much you study, but whether they come to life in you.

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier

(Note: The full interview, reported in six segments, is available in Chinese on the CommonWealth Magazine website.)