Looking into the Chinese and History Combined – An Interview with Professor Li Hsiao-ti, Head of the Department of Chinese and History

Prof LI Hsiao-ti, Head of the Department of Chinese and History

During the housewarming of CAH, the officiating guests participate in the traditional roasted pig cutting ceremony. The department's emblem on the backdrop featuring the intertwining figures of Fuxi and Nüwa is selected by Prof LI.

Although CityU locates at the busiest part of the city, there is always a place of tranquility that allows concentrated and devoted teaching and research. A traditionally decorated office stops any interruption from the complicated and infinite world outside of the campus. This place is surrounded by verdant beauty. A flowing stream and the chirping of birds by the window would have made it even more perfect. At this moment, while heavenly voices are not heard, earnest inculcation lingers around our ears. These scholarly sounds are enough to delight any eager learning minds. We interviewed Professor LI Hsiao-ti, Head of the Department of Chinese and History, about his vision for the future of the department.

At first glance, the name of Department of Chinese and History (CAH) might invite scepticism. In the Chinese-speaking world, Chinese language and history are two individual disciplines that are rarely combined into a single academic department. However, Professor Li considers this creative and motivating, as well as expressive of the innovative transformation in CityU's conception of traditional liberal arts subjects. He suggests a starting point for understanding CAH — the department's emblem, personally selected by Professor Li and inspired by a drawing in a Han tomb, features the intertwining figures of Fuxi and Nüwa. Nüwa stands on the left holding a ruler, while Fuxi stands on the right holding a carpenter's square. Both deities have a human head and a snake's body. Fuxi and Nüwa are the ancestors of the Chinese nation, who are brother and sister as well as husband and wife. They form a metaphor of the relationship between Chinese language and history. The two deities define the traditional Chinese spirit within the area drawn by the ruler and the carpenter's square. As they ride on clouds and fly into the sky, endless energy is injected in this spirit.

Cross-disciplinary studies for great historical works

The image is a symbol of building strengths and overcoming weaknesses, implying the interaction and fusion of the three disciplinary streams of Chinese, history and cultural heritage at CAH. This forms one of the visions of Professor Li. At the Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica, Professor Li was for many years director of the project "Society and life in the Ming and Qing dynasties". The project was undertaken by a team of historians, art historians and researchers in literary history. Through learning from each other and exchanging invaluable insights, the team conducted group studies with fruitful results. In the context of their modern disciplines, Chinese language, art history and history all call for very different training. Art history and Chinese literature share some commonality — the traditional method of study emphasizes textual interpretation of genres such as poetry, prose and painting. This method can serve as a reference for historical research, which emphasizes data collection without proper interpretation. According to Professor Li, all great historical works share one thing in common — they dissect minute details and uncover hidden meanings. The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History, by Robert Darnton, and Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768, by Philip A. Kuhn are two examples. Philip A. Kuhn was Professor Li's mentor at Harvard. The figure of the "soulstealer" that Kuhn studied seems to be a kind of superstition. Yet, the meanings it embodies are boundless. Professor Li explains, "Discussing 'soulstealers' in the context of megatrends is what Professor Kuhn does brilliantly, which is different from its introduction through folklore. The way that Professor Kuhn interprets and analyses materials is very similar to the operation in art history and Chinese language. Professor Li is also much inspired by the "thick description" and "meaning interpretation" techniques used by anthropologists like Clifford Geertz (1926–2006)."

So, how does CAH actualise cross-disciplinary exchanges? Professor Li explains that CAH is going to launch two three-credit common foundation courses. Students in all three streams are required to take these courses. The course is initially designed to introduce "selected readings of classic literature", which cover important writings of the past and the present. Professor Li admits that it is very difficult to set up new courses, not to mention as core electives for students of different streams. Despite the difficulties, CAH is confident that the foundation course can serve as a good starting point and differentiate itself from offering of traditional majors by leveraging the diverse resources of the department. It is ready to take on a unique mission in a primarily technical and scientific institution like CityU.

"Globalised cities" and cultural history

In addition to teaching, Professor Li also discusses research development at CAH. At present, there is already an Academic Advisory Committee at CAH. The world-renowned scholars on the committee, after discussions with specialists of different regions and disciplines, decided to place the focus of research on "globalised cities" (or coastal cities). Those who know about Professor Li will be aware that his past studies have always featured cities as a theme. Professor Li became famous for his studies on Shanghai's popular culture in the early part of his career; he later moved to the research on the dynasties of Ming and Qing. His focus then turned to "intellectuals' culture and city culture", with research methodology gearing more towards cultural history.

According to Professor Li, history embodies a wide range of knowledge and it has become a modern discipline over the past century. The subject has been constantly influenced by other academic disciplines. For example, French historian Fernand Braudel (1902– 85) of the Annales School was influenced by the study of geography; his contribution to modern historical studies is significant, leaving an imprint on several generations of scholars. Subsequently, cultural history came along like a storm across the landscape of social history. The respective epistemologies of cultural and social history are completely different. The former is constructed on the basis of post-modernism, while the latter is influenced by the ideological trends of social sciences and anti-modernisation. Yet, this does not preclude possible marriage between the two. Professor Li hopes that when CAH studies coastal cities in the future, it can combine the aspects of social and cultural history, and that an emphasis will be placed on immigration, business networks and cultural exchange. The study should incorporate larger narratives from social and political history and smaller ones from cultural history. He mentions his mentor Professor Philip A. Kuhn again, who was first engaged with very traditional studies in social history, but while writing Soulstealers, was already heavily inclined in the direction of cultural history. To outline the larger issues of society, he dealt with fear, rumour and religion, delving into anatomical analysis and eventually combining his findings with themes of population growth and the socioeconomic development of downstream Yangtze River.

Professor Li reckons that, among various coastal cities, Hong Kong acts as a pivotal channel for exchange and communication. In terms of contemporary Chinese history, Hong Kong is to a certain extent even more important than Shanghai. As a transportation hub, Hong Kong is where East meets West. It is crucial in any discussions of migration or exchange between Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia. From his personal observation, however, scholars have not yet paid adequate attention to the study of Hong Kong history. The situation is quite similar to the lack of interest in Taiwan history some years ago. He believes that Taiwan and Hong Kong resemble one another. Both places had been colonised and there is a serious sense of crisis in their identities and histories. Hong Kong is almost repeating the history of Taiwan at this very moment. Early research into Hong Kong history was usually positioned as regional history, overlooking its identity as a cosmopolitan city. When Hong Kong is described as a fishing village, many issues would inevitably be left undiscussed.

Details of knowledge: key to wide perspectives

Professor Li observes that, when we examine the same issue using different theories and methods, different results are generated. Professor Li's early writings on Nanjing, for example, featured romantic literary touches. He now makes use of quantitative statistics (which he once "disdained") and Geographic Information Systems (GIS). As the environment changes, his state of mind changes. This enables Professor Li look at Chinese history from different perspectives. What remains constant is his interest in theories and his sensitivity towards academic trends. He reminds everyone that the priority is to master local knowledge before researching coastal cities from a wider and broader perspective. This is the only way to move to the next step, which is to begin describing research outcomes with more breadth and depth.

Why is CAH putting so much emphasis on the details of knowledge? Professor Li gladly shares the milestones of his academic journey and his present research ideas. First, he has had a change of attitude towards traditional Chinese textual scholars. At first, he thought their work was trivial and uninteresting, but later his mindset changed when he saw the textual criticism that Hui Dong (1697–1758) performed on the work of Wang Shizhen (1634–1711). Hui Dong made detailed explanations of the difficult-to-understand flowers, birds and local produce in the poetry of Wang Shizhen. Professor Li benefited much from the explanations and he began to admire philologists who were very knowledgeable about the names of worms, fish, birds and animals. He considered that as an aspect not to be overlooked in Chinese traditions. Professor Li reckons, "If one does not know about details, it is unlikely that one may reconstruct the life and cultural history of intellectuals."

Second, he has been much influenced by the "South China School", founded by Professor Zheng Zhenman of Xiamen University, Professor Chen Chunsheng of Sun Yat-sen University and David Faure of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The aim of the South China School is to study history with anthropological knowledge based on social history. Professor Li says, "It is of course important to decipher historical documents, but studying history without performing fieldwork research would in fact make it difficult to look at the issues in the historical context, which would help in the precise understanding of the researched subject." Professor Li joined Professor Zheng Zhenman in his visits to villages in China. They made observations in every village, looked at local organised religions, learned about local culture, and eventually generated sensible explanations of things that had looked ridiculous seemingly. This approach calls for stringent academic training which takes a very long time. Regarding this point, Professor Li thinks that the academic environment in Hong Kong, as a whole, is overly utilitarian. For example, he spent many years on his PhD at Harvard. He therefore thinks, "The study period for a doctoral degree is far too short in the mainland, in Hong Kong and in the UK!"

To realise the above objectives quoted above, CAH has gradually commenced a number of academic research activities. These include the recently completed "Cross-Strait Postgraduate Forum on Chinese Literature and Modern Transitions", "International Conference on Traditional Chinese Coastal Cities and Their Modern Transformation", "International Conference on the Maritime World of East Asia in 16th–19th Centuries", as well as the upcoming "2015 Cross- Strait History and Culture Study Camp". Professor Li adds that they are on the one hand introducing top-notch teachers to sharpen the competitiveness of CAH and on the other striving to nurture highcalibre postgraduates who might be delegated to renowned institutions such as Fudan University and Heidelberg University for more academic exchanges. History", "Workshop on Society and Culture of Ming-Qing Nanjing and Their Modern Transitions", "International Conference on Traditional Chinese Coastal Cities and Their Modern Transformation", "International Conference on the Maritime World of East Asia in 16th–19th Centuries", as well as the upcoming "2015 Cross-Strait History and Culture Study Camp". Professor Li adds that they are on the one hand introducing top-notch teachers to sharpen the competitiveness of CAH and on the other striving to nurture highcalibre postgraduates who might be delegated to renowned institutions such as Fudan University and Heidelberg University for more academic exchanges.

Department of Chinese and History is the most newly established department of CLASS. We are honoured to have witnessed its birth and growth. We also hope to live up to the expectation of President Way Kuo — "to contribute to the intellectual cross-fertilisation between China, Asia and the West to support global development and human progress." Professor Li and all the teaching staff of Department of Chinese and History do have an arduous task on the road ahead!