Meet Yang Qin: A Chinese studies convert and a student of Sinology

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Yang Qin is a PhD candidate at the ANU School of Culture, History & Language. As she wraps up her thesis, Qin shares with us her journey from social sciences to humanities, the enriching opportunities at the ANU, and what is so unique about pictorial representations of Confucian classics in Song China (960–1279).

1) Tell us a little bit about your background.

My life back in China was mostly an eastwards migration along the Yangtze River. I grew up in Tianmen, Hubei Province, in an electrician and a grocery keeper’s family, went to Nanjing for university, and then travelled further east to Shanghai for graduate study. Although I was trained in social sciences, I ended up in a full-time job as a research assistant in the East Asian Program (now Asian Program) in Fudan University. During the eight years immersed in religious, historical and art history studies, I switched to the humanities and studied Chinese history from scratch. The excellent institute I was working in exposed me to the latest topics in the field and enabled me to learn from the foremost scholars from both within and outside of China.

2) What attracted you to the ANU?

I was attracted to the ANU because of its research strengths in my field, yet ANU also surprised me by giving me access to other enriching activities. In 2014, when I was seeking PhD opportunities with a research interest on the Song dynasty, I wrote to Dr Mark Strange whose research area covers Song historiography. With his support, I applied for and was fortunately awarded a CIW PhD scholarship.

I came to ANU in March 2015 and soon discovered it is the ideal place to live and study. Different from cosmopolitan Shanghai, Canberra is nice and simple. For a student whose daily routine is to read and write about China’s historical documents, the rich collections in the Menzies library and the serenely green campus with mountain views are unparalleled.

At the ANU, there are other enjoyable learning activities that have enriched my PhD study. The two classical reading groups that I have been involved in for a number of years — the Classical and Literary Chinese Reading Group and the Classical Japanese Reading Group — provide much needed training and academic nourishment.

More recently, co-teaching two Advanced Literary Chinese courses, one on Chinese Ritual Texts (Pre-Qin to Song times) and the other on the Tang–Song Historiography on the An Lushan Rebellion (755–763), has given me great opportunities to interact with young students of classical Chinese at the ANU. Teaching turned out to be another form of learning which is both enjoyable and rewarding.

3) You were trained in the social sciences. What made you switch to the humanities, specifically Chinese studies?

Curiosity about Chinese history and historical texts led me on this new path. Learning Chinese history and literature has been an exploration for me. As I learnt later, in modern China, knowledge about and attitudes toward Chinese history and culture went through a series of ruptures, especially during the May Fourth Movement in 1919 and later the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). These events, though drastically different from intellectual and political developments, nonetheless headed in the same direction in terms of breaking away from China’s past, which in effect shaped our contemporary understanding and misunderstanding about China’s ‘tradition(s)’. It does not take a Sinologist to know what happened, but a Sinologist explains why and how these events unfold.

The switch from social sciences to humanities was not an easy decision. On the one hand, there were peers in social sciences who do not appreciate the importance of studying Chinese history. On the other hand, in my transition years, there was doubt from my first humanities mentor that I lacked the essential training to undertake historical studies properly. Both experiences prompted me to reflect more on disciplinary differences and complementarities. Now I would understand them as different paths leading me to the same goal: to shed off uninformed assumptions and to work towards precision.

4) Where's your favourite place to get Chinese food in Canberra?

‘Chinese food’ only became meaningful to me when I left China. I therefore see eating Chinese food as more about satisfying an emotional need rather than my stomach. Amusingly, I am not very good at cooking due to my previous reliance on university canteens in China. While living in Canberra, I mainly cook simple one-pot dishes with whatever ingredients are readily available. Sometimes, at my son’s request, I try to experiment with Chinese ingredients.

I have tried various ‘Asian supermarkets’ around the City Centre and on campus. A while ago, I made an interesting discovery of symbolic Chinese food at the ANU Daily Supermarket. I found beautifully packed crispy sunflower seeds (guazi 瓜子), which is a necessity for any Chinese Lunar New Year gatherings. I was amused at the sight of the standard Chinese breakfast set of fried paste strips (youtiao 油條) and soy milk (doujiang 豆漿). My other favourite buys include pine-leaf patterned century eggs (songhua pidan 松花皮蛋) and salted eggs (xiandan 咸蛋). Translations here are just as funny as reading the English translations on the menu of a Chinese restaurant, in the sense that the charm of the Chinese terms is lost in translation.

5) What sparked your interest to undertake a PhD on pictorial representations of Confucian classics in the tenth to thirteenth century Song period?

During my working years, I was inspired by the various research on visual and textual materials to undertake my doctoral thesis on "pictorial forms of canonical interpretation in Song China (960–1279)". The highlight of this project is the use of pictorial materials, such as sketches, charts, maps and diagrams, along with textual analysis in a mostly text-centered field.

My PhD research contributes to the understanding of textual and visual analysis in Song dynasty scholarship and sheds light on the transformation of learning and teaching in Chinese history.

The Song period experienced the rise of Neo-Confucianism, which emphasised self-cultivation as a path to a harmonious state, and the shift of canonical focus from the Five Classics to the Four Books. During this process, the pictorial method played an important role in developing new canonical interpretations and new opportunities in educating a more civilised society of the Song.

In addition, pictorial commentaries contributed to a change in learning processes from one that relied heavily on reading canonical texts to one that also incorporated reading interpretive pictures. The expansion of civil service examinations and the increase in school and academy lecturing also created the need for more effective pedagogical tools, such as the use of interpretive pictures. As a result, charts and diagrams gained equal foothold with text and have shaped learning and teaching practices since the Song dynasty.

6) Why is it important to study Chinese history and literature?

If I have to talk about the importance of studying Chinese history and literature, I would nominate two points from my recent research topic to better explain the term, ‘Chinese culture’.

Our understanding of ‘Chinese culture’ is refined when we are better informed of China’s past. I will take one example to further explain this point. Most museum Chinese art collections nowadays possess the iconic pre-historic Chinese sacrificial jades of bi 璧 and cong 琮. These items are usually explained to the public as ritual symbols of the Heaven and the Earth. Going through various imperial ritual records, however, I found images of cong in various designs of flat-sided pieces, which stand in contrast with the square-surfaced cylindrical cong from archaeology.

Why are there different depictions of the same object? How did our current knowledge of early ritual jades come into place? Was it real or was it constructed? In my recent draft on this topic entitled “The designed and the discovered: sacrificial jade cong in ritual records and in archaeology,” I looked at different conceptions of cong by exegetes, antiquarians and archaeologists. I hope this study will contribute to a better understanding of the contemporary interpretation of a cultural emblem.

‘Chinese culture’ has grown through a plurality of literary sources. Better understanding of Chinese literature can shed new light on understanding Chinese culture. For example, we generally refer to schools of thought by lineages and traditions, most prominently Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism as the major pillars of Chinese culture. At the same time, the interactions between them are equally important.

In the Song dynasty, both Confucianism and Chan 禪 Buddhism underwent critical changes. Confucians adopted some of the Chan practices to make teachings more accessible to a growing civil society. At the same time, some lineages of Chan produced large amounts of commentarial texts, despite the strong Chan spirit of ‘disregarding texts and words’ and its dismissal of authority by ‘berating the Buddha and accusing the patriarchs’ 呵佛罵祖. For these two competing intellectual groups, what sustained their distinctive identities? And what common ground did they share? A comparative study will help understand some of the foundational oppositions in Chinese culture: learning from direct experience or from transmitted canonical knowledge; and learning through sudden enlightenment or through gradual cultivation. These oppositions, expressed and debated in history, played a role in shaping our ways of thinking and expression.

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