U.S. youth getting into classical Chinese literature: Sinologist

American Sinologist Kang-i Sun Chang

Taipei, May 23 (CNA) While Taiwanese youths seem to be losing interest in classical Chinese texts, American youth have found “healing power” in such venerable Chinese writers as Tao Yuan-ming, a leading American Sinologist said recently.

Tao Yuan-ming was a disenchanted fourth-century recluse whose works show a spirit of rising above things to find peace and harmony, and that message and the ideas of other Chinese literary figures are resonating with young people today as they have in the past, said Kang-i Sun Chang of Yale University in an interview with CNA.

Sun Chang was in Taiwan in part to promote the biennial Tang Prize, an Asian version of the Nobel Prize that awards achievement in Sinology and three other fields, and spoke to CNA on May 17 about the renewed significance of Sinology to people around the world today.

Sun Chang, a member of the Tang Prize’s international advisory committee, said the ideas in classical Chinese works of coming to terms with nature have had healing power for young people in times of national crisis, such as during China’s War of Resistance against the Japanese, when Tao was a model for young Chinese intellectuals.

Those themes are just as relevant today.

“The world has imposed so much stress, incredible stress, on the youngsters to have material success, and very few people are willing to study literature and humanities and many people are going into law and medicine for practical things,” she said.

Su Dong-po (1037-1101), a Song Dynasty poet who was exiled to Huangzhou, and Ji Kang (223-263), a poet in early medieval China, are other figures whose writings have given solace to young people, the Yale scholar said when asked by CNA what “new subjects” are worth pursuing by today’s students of Sinology.

Among the avenues has been the theme of “not having excessive desires, maintaining a state of purity and coming to terms with nature,” concerns highlighted in one of her students’ papers titled “The Modern Imbalance.”

In the paper, the student cited traditional Chinese literature as a kind of remedy, medicine, and therapy for young people stressed out by the pursuit of “success,” said the professor who at age 74 still teaches full time and finds her students’ enjoyment of Chinese literature “rewarding.”

Another subject of interest to young people today with a rich tradition in classical Chinese literature is the relationship between man and nature because of the ecological crises faced by modern society, she said.

She called studies in this area “environmental humanities,” which include travel poems by Xie Ling-yun (385-433) seeking the “tao” (the way or truth).

Sinology is by no means a boring look into ancient Chinese historical records, she asserted, citing her own journey into gender studies in the Chinese tradition since the 1980s, looking for example at “women in literature.”

Of course, teaching classical texts does not mean being insulated from modern trends, and Sun Chang has witnessed the growing importance and popularity of digital technology in her highly interdisciplinary field.

“Teaching is a different kind of game now,” she said, even if she herself remains old school.

While students read on an iPad or iPhone and search for data on Google, Sun Chang said she is an “old fashioned” scholar who still uses her brain a lot to store and remember data and text.

“Weird,” is how students describe her habit of memorizing and retrieving data. But what is really weird, even terrible, is what AI is doing to education, she said.

“It’s so confusing” that AI is doing wonderful work, she said when asked to comment on advances in technology and its impact on human consciousness.

She recalled a book about AI given to her by a student, which shows AI producing reports and beautiful poems.

“My students wrote papers on AI of course,” she said. “I’m frightened, but then AI is here.”

It is in this context that the Tang Prize created by Taiwanese entrepreneur Samuel Yin is of particular historical significance to encourage studies in major fields, including the humanities, because some of the prize money will be used to help humanities scholars pursue their own research.

As Sinology, which includes China studies, is becoming more global and more interdisciplinary, she said, she is happy for Taiwan to give a global prize that highlights Sinology, along with sustainable development, rule of law and biopharmaceutical science.

“Yin is very inspiring” and the Tang Prize is “a very good thing for Taiwan, as it will definitely increase its visibility in the world” while encouraging young people to pursue these fields.

“After seeing who wins the Tang Prize, they will be encouraged to do the same.”

In her eyes, besides being willing to work very hard and being patient, an “ideal Sinology student” has to demonstrate what she calls the ABCDEs of being a Sinologist — being articulate, brilliant, curious, dedicated and encyclopedic.

And her advice to Taiwanese youths who are trying to cut down on their “absorption” of classical Chinese texts and focus instead on contemporary Taiwanese works: “Why not read both?”