Conference Report: The First Cross-Straits History and Culture Summer Research Institute

By Nicole Elizabeth Barnes

The First Cross-Straits History and Culture Summer Research Institute: The Culture of Ba and Shu (第一屆兩岸歷史文化研習營:巴蜀文化), August 18-27, 2011 at Sichuan University, Chengdu

Another UCI graduate student and past China Beat contributor, Chris Heselton, and I recently attended the first ever Cross-Straits History and Culture Summer Institute, co-facilitated by the Sichuan University History Department and the Institute of History and Philology at Taipei’s Academia Sinica, and co-sponsored by the Chiang Ching-kuo and Song Qingling Foundations. Over 50 Taiwanese and mainland Chinese scholars of the up-and-coming generation attended. By virtue of our relationship with Wang Guo, a Beida student of Luo Zhitian who spent a year studying with Ken Pomeranz at UC Irvine and served as an institute TA, Chris and I were able to attend despite the fact that the original plan did not account for the participation of foreign scholars.

Participants in the Cross-Straits History and Culture Summer Research Institute

My overall impressions from this institute are of awe and hope: awe at the brilliant young scholars who, I think we can all attest, will be at the forefront of China studies in the decades to come as the center of scholarship moves to China itself, and hope that this process will lead to greater scholarly dialogue and openness on all sides.

The institute aimed to achieve two goals: first, to give Taiwanese graduate students the opportunity to visit and personally experience places in China—focusing on Sichuan province in this first meeting—that may figure in their research; second, to incite academic dialogue across the straits. Although these two tasks were fulfilled to differing degrees, the overall institute was a tremendous success. The places we visited included the museums of the Sanxingdui and Jinsha relics of the ancient Shu kingdom, the tomb of the founding king of Shu Wang Jian (王建), the site of the old market village where William Skinner did his first field research, the famed Qin state waterworks Du Jiang Yan, an old Hakka neighborhood of Chengdu dotted with neighborhood associations, Du Fu’s Thatched Cottage, the memorial tomb of Liu Bei (Wuhou Ci), Mt. Emei, Mt. Changshan, and of course a local theater for a Sichuan opera performance. Judging by this list alone, one can easily see that the first goal was more than achieved, and not only the Taiwanese scholars, but also Chinese scholars and we two Americans gained a lot of insight by visiting these long-celebrated sites. Although I’ve been living in Chongqing for about a year now, and have spent lots of time in Chengdu, during this institute I was able to go to places I’d never been before, and “old” places felt new when experienced alongside intelligent and inspiring friends.

The second goal, to spark a cross-straits academic dialogue, is off to a good start but will take a lot more time and mutual effort to achieve. The nine-day institute included eleven different lectures on everything from Babylonian archaeology to Daoist medical exorcism to the ages-old battle between textual exegesis and historical research (經學於史學). The latter topic, subject of the very last lecture, summed up the tensions that institute planners and attendees came across in reaching for this second goal.

People immediately noticed and commented on differences in scholarly approach, application of theory, educational methods and attitudes in classroom discussion between Taiwanese and Chinese scholars. Some comments and behaviors were interpreted as hurtful on both sides, and on the last “free activity” day most students stuck with their own band of friends rather than reach across the cold and frothy straits. Ultimately, I came away with the feeling that Taiwanese and Chinese scholars do not only have a different character script (traditional and simplified), but speak an entirely different scholarly language. Coming from the American academy, Taiwanese analytical and critical scholarship is more familiar and comfortable to me than is the frequently cumulative and cataloging style of much mainland scholarship, but I am loath to call it better for that reason alone. Rather than take sides or stake out a territory in this debate, I wish merely to point out that their grandparents’ political fight and the decades of separate development that it brought have driven a rather large froe between a once unified log, and it will take decades to match up the wood fibers. The first step is for those fibers to long for their old neighbors, and I am not sure if all fibers are on the same page there.

Future such institutes may be held, potentially on a Taiwanese site next time. The irony is that Chiang Ching-kuo’s aunt Song Qingling did not speak to her sister or nephew for decades; would the two be rolling in their graves if they knew how their money was being spent? I would rather hope that the afterlife has given them some wisdom that transcends this dusty world, and that they are smiling at their grandchildren who dare to befriend each other and speak one another’s language.

Nicole Elizabeth Barnes is a PhD candidate in Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine.

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