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Whither Chinese Studies?

By Wm. Theodore de Bary

The most remarkable thing about the history of the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation is the breadth and liberality of its programs. Before the death of Chiang Ching-kuo, his name was associated in many Western minds (though not in those well acquainted with his real accomplishments) with a reactionary nationalism, a kind of blind, stubborn anti-Communism, and a one-party state the only legitimization for which derived from a claimed need to "recover the mainland."

Though these impressions of Chiang were mistaken, more than a few scholars in the West could have been apprehensive that the new Foundation would conceive its mission in a narrow ideological frame - one serving the interests of the Kuomintang, of Taiwan, of anti-communism and conservative values. By now, these misconceptions should have been largely dispelled by the actual performance of the Foundation. It has supported a wide range of scholarly and educational programs. Its definition of "Chinese Studies" has been as broad as many in the West, and its research horizons have extended not only to all areas of the China mainland but to all of East Asia touched by Chinese culture or in any way pertaining to the comparative dimensions of Chinese studies. To my knowledge the Foundation's judgments in the making of grants have been based on most of the same criteria used foundations in the West, and for this reason the cooperation of the CCK Foundation in joint programs has sought repeatedly y major American foundations and scholarly associations; the latter have been secure in the knowledge that the practices of the CCK Foundation could not compromise their own.

I realize that my own familiarity with the Foundation's doings is far from complete, and the experience of others may differ. I can only speak for myself in this. I do so, however, for reasons that go beyond my estimation of the Foundation's performance itself - indeed, I do so in order to raise questions that go beyond this or any other foundation's support of Chinese studies. The most important of these questions is precisely the basis on which such agencies promote scholarly research as an unlimited growth industry. We are all familiar with the jargon that accompanies this unfettered drive to do more and ore research about less and less. It justifies itself by endless resort to such indomitable cliches as "innovative" and "cutting edge." It claims to do what no one has thought or done before, often simply out of ignorance of what others have already done or out of some misrepresentation of the latter - what's "new" actually amounting only to a new misconstruction of the old.

This view of a compelling need - if not a compulsion - to pursue unlimited research horizons is not of course without some basis, whether in the unquenchable curiosity of humankind and the thirst for new knowledge that has been characteristic of the human species in all ages, or in the present age's unquestioned faith in unlimited growth conceived only in terms of outward expansion. But in the final chapter of my book East Asian Civilizations, based on my Reischauer Lectures at Harvard, I have raised from a traditional East Asian perspective, as well as out of a modern ecological concern, whether we can continue to assume the viability or validity of the underlying assumption: that unlimited expansion will still be the order of the day in the twenty-first century. The very recognition that, in the humanities and social sciences at least, we are producing "more and more about less and less," suggests that the quantitative approach to learning has reached the point of diminishing returns: like the news media and entertainment industry we are more and more engaged in trivialization - occupying our minds with "trivia" ("trivia" quizzes and utterly vapid "Guinness" or sports records) as a distraction from any serious consideration of value alternatives.

In these circumstances scholarship, and the support of scholarship, will have to become wary of appeals to pursue or promote whatever is recommended as "cutting edge" or "unprecedented" or "new age." Perhaps the proposed project or venture is "unprecedented" because it was never a good idea in the first place.

It will perhaps sound, to modern ears, altogether too reactionary for me to recall the frequent argument in Confucian discourse that such and such a proposal was unheard of - the usual formulation of such a cautious or skeptical attitude being "I have heard of…(something right or good deserving of acceptance) but I (we) have never heard of … (something implausible, of doubtful value, or possibly evil, to be rejected as unconfirmed by past experience). Certainly to disallow a proposal as simply "unheard of" would be mindless and unreasonable. Nevertheless it might be worth pausing to ask whether a proposal should not be expected to justify itself no more substantial, long-term grounds than simply innovative or novelty. When we privilege novelty or mere "originality" do we not risk letting scholarship be too much governed or even seduced by the language of the market place or consumerism, always selling a "new" brand or formula?

If this is not too unconventional an idea - to raise questions about cliches routinely invoked and uncritically accepted in such cases - I might cite others current in the marketplace that have infiltrated academic parlance. One typical of our times and altogether overworked is the adjective "exciting," which betrays a popular mind - and an academic one no less - that is so enervated and so lacking in any deeper running or firmly grounded motivation that it can only be roused by the constant excitation of the senses and firing up of the imagination?

For scholarship to be held in such thrall to mere emotional titillation or passing fancies is a mark of its abject intellectual and moral impoverishment. But hardly a day passes that one is not asked to read, accept or support a supposedly "new" and "exciting" project, with little else of substance or rationale to back it up.

One cannot of course dismiss completely the idea that there are new worlds to conquer or new frontiers of knowledge to be explored, but as we increasingly find ourselves encountering limits to growth and obstacles to the idea of unlimited economic expansion, we have to think of growth in terms - not necessarily of extensive development, but of deeper, more intensive cultivation. The new worlds to conquer may have to be old ones with which we have lost touch, interior spaces that have been neglected, and roots that have gone untended, with the result that we have a shallow, rootless culture that is predicted - like a consumerist, throw-away economy - on the compulsion to trash itself. So overextended by this are our nervous systems and emotions that we have become spastics - stretched to the breaking point and unable to bear up under any strain at all.

The difficulty in trying to establish any sound standards on which to judge the worth and long-term viability of research projects is that academic discourse itself ha become so fragmented and specialized that little common ground is left, and few consensual standards still shared, on which to base firmer judgements. Thus a modern life becomes ever more complex, it is no wonder that foundations themselves can cope with the problem only by defining still more narrow fields as their own home field - the first obligation of any foundation being to define its specific mission, to delimit its responsibility and to exclude from consideration any proposal that does not answer to its stated criteria. No one wants to deal with things whole, but only by compartmentalizing them to fit one's own limitations.

The persistent preoccupation with research at the so-called "cutting edge" has increasingly dominated universities and research institutions, as the need to sustain research - has led to the replacement of education by training for specialized research or professional training for technological applications. This is not however simply a phenomenon of so-called "scientific" research or technical institutions, verses the so-called liberal arts, nor a problem of bridging the two cultures - scientific and humanistic - a la C.P. Snow. Even the "humanities" today have become so technologized, and are given to their own technical, disciplinary or ideological jargon, that so-called "humanists" can hardly talk to each other. Much less can one discern in the "humanities" any concern for what might be thought human, or for the human enterprise as a whole in contrast to departmental concerns. Even so-called "multi-disciplinary" or "interdisciplinary" programs rarely go beyond the trading of current gimmicks and buzz-words, so lacking are we in any agreement on shared, central concerns.

Educationally speaking this is evidenced by the way in which so many "core programs" fail to address any common core, but tend rather to be "distribution" requirements, exposing students to different ways of looking at things from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, wit little discussion of core human concerns or ho consensus might be achieved on a working public agenda.
To be sure, education should indeed expose one to different ways of looking at things, but it ought also to provide a meeting ground for ideas, a method for engaging in dialogue about matters so urgent and compelling that they call for decision and not simply speculation - that is, for practice in school on making value judgements. Actual agreement on ends may be too much to expect, but it should not be too much to hope that both means and ends together would be the subject of continuing dialogue, or that education should develop our capabilities for dealing in a civil way even with matters of profound disagreement about ultimate concerns.

This to me is the kind of core dialogue that must be continuously sustained in parallel with "advanced" research, so that each contributes to the other, and especially research to the ongoing dialogue. In today's multi-cultural world, the humanistic resources of east Asia, in which Chinese culture - Confucian, Taoist, Buddhist and much else - is deeply implicated, this dialogue must be informed by sharing in the Chinese experience both as part of any undergraduate core curriculum and as essential to the continuing discussion of core values and concerns - a continuing liberal education that should extend this dialogue into the highest ranges of research and not just leave it on the freshman/sophomore level.

Difficult though it maybe to generate and sustain such a dialogue in the face of the powerful centrifugal forces that operate in academia today, there is always a need to start somewhere and the deliberations of the leaders and advisers of the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation, who have exercised such wise judgement in the past, should be one good place to start work on this.

Lest I end on too general and seemingly too abstract or ideal a note, let me suggest a quite specific are in which research could contribute to the enterprise I am talking about - the history of education in East Asia and its reassessment in terms of core values, both traditional and modern. A recent history covering all of East Asia, past and present, that bids fair to be used in many undergraduate courses, makes its first indexed reference to education with the founding of Tokyo Imperial University in the late nineteenth century. Certainly we can do better than that! Education, as almost every scholar of East Asia should know, was a core value of Confucian culture. If it were not for the academic preoccupation with trivia and marginalia, how could a subject of such intrinsic importance be so overlooked?