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China Historian Yü Ying-shih, Whose Work Was Respected and Banned by Beijing, Dies at 91

Calligraphy done by Yü Ying-shih for the new Pauli Murray College at Yale in 2017, which translates to 'learning and practice constantly,' a quotation from the Analects of Confucius. (Kang-I Sun Chang)

When acclaimed China historian Yü Ying-shih accepted the inaugural Tang Prize in Sinology in September 2014, he used his speech to express support for Hong Kong's pro-democracy Umbrella Movement.

In response, China promptly banned his books and articles.

When Yü collected the $358,000 award, he was 13 years into retirement, which consisted of days spent researching and writing into the early hours of the morning. The routine resembled his working life in academia, where he was recognized as one of the leading historians in China studies.

By backing the Umbrella Movement, Yü affirmed that he viewed himself “as a public intellectual in the traditional Chinese sense, taking on the responsibility of making the world a better place,” as the press release announcing the award characterized him.

That speech delivered in Taiwan demonstrated Yü's “sense of mission” that “gave him the confidence and courage to speak truth to power,” said Hoyt Tillman, who studied under Yü as a doctoral student at Harvard in the 1970s and is now a professor emeritus at Arizona State University.

Yü taught as a full professor at Harvard, Yale and, most recently, Princeton, where he retired as a professor emeritus in 2001. He also briefly worked at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

When Yü died in his sleep at his home in Princeton, New Jersey, on Aug. 1 at the age of 91, his status as one of the most influential and highly regarded scholars in the field of China studies was undisputed, as his awards testified. In 1974, Academia Sinica, Taiwan’s most prestigious academic institution, made him a lifetime member and in 2006, he received the John W. Kluge Prize for Achievement in the Study of Humanity at the Library of Congress.

Yü is survived by his wife, Monica, and his two daughters, Judy and Sylvia.

Reading and writing were among Yü’s greatest passions, but as he told his students, more important than what academics publish is the relationships that they develop with people. As his former students and colleagues attest, he had no shortage of relationships with people.

In 1989, Yü watched the pro-democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square that ended June 4 with a bloody crackdown by the Chinese military. With the financial support of Princeton alumnus John Elliott, a financier with an extensive collection of Chinese art, Yü launched the Princeton China Initiative, which provided refuge to dozens of Chinese intellectuals who fled China following the massacre.

Yü Ying-shih's original poem and calligraphy for Kang-I Sun Chang and her husband, C. C. Chang, written before Yü left Yale for Princeton in 1987. The original poem is now at the National Central Library in Taipei. (Kang-I Sun Chang)
Yü Ying-shih's original poem and calligraphy for Kang-I Sun Chang and her husband, C. C. Chang, written before Yü left Yale for Princeton in 1987. The original poem is now at the National Central Library in Taipei. (Kang-I Sun Chang)

Yü was perhaps the most well-connected person who didn’t have email, according to Kang-I Sun Chang, a longtime friend and former colleague of Yü’s from his tenure at Yale. Yü, who didn’t use a computer, preferred communicating via fax, although he also used a landline phone.

Chang, now a professor emeritus at Yale, recalls buying a fax machine for the sole purpose of staying in touch with him. “He had a gift for friendship,” she told VOA.

To commemorate events and offer encouragement, Yü gave friends poems he composed in Chinese and wrote in calligraphy, a gesture traditional among China’s scholars centuries ago. A poem for Chang explained Yü’s reasoning for departing Yale for Princeton in 1987.

He was also a generous scholar, said Willard Peterson, a friend and colleague of Yü’s at Princeton.

Yü wrote so many prefaces for other scholars that he later published a collection of them. Academic colleagues appreciated his willingness to provide advice on their research and writing, and Chang was quick to add that while she was often among those who asked Yü for research advice, “he didn't need any help.”

Following Yü’s death, China scholars took to social media to recount the many ways he had helped them during their careers, often without Yü ever fully realizing the great impact he was having on them.

Born in the northeastern Chinese city of Tianjin in 1930, Yü never received a formal education as a child. Growing up amid war with Japan, he largely studied on his own and received just one year of schooling under a private tutor before passing the high school exams that let him attend college.

Civil war in China disrupted his higher education, but he continued his studies in Hong Kong, then a British colony, before later leaving to pursue a doctorate at Harvard. Yü emerged with an unparalleled ability to read classical Chinese, analyze and compile evidence, and write convincingly about Chinese history, his colleagues said.

He also excelled at weiqi, “the game of encirclement,” an ancient, abstract Chinese board game.

During his hiring process at Princeton, “we realized Professor Yü had published something substantial in the specialized field of each of us in Chinese studies,” Peterson told VOA.

Yü’s legacy will be his historical approach to studying China that blended “empathy, sincerity and critical evaluation,” in contrast to the study of China through the lens of philosophy and religion, Tillman said.

Yü Ying-shih's calligraphy of a poem by the Tang poet Zhang Ji (张继), which he presented to his Yale colleague Edwin McClellan before Yü left for Princeton in 1987. (Kang-I Sun Chang)
Yü Ying-shih's calligraphy of a poem by the Tang poet Zhang Ji (张继), which he presented to his Yale colleague Edwin McClellan before Yü left for Princeton in 1987. (Kang-I Sun Chang)

Throughout his career, Yü published dozens of books and more than 500 articles, most of which were written in Chinese. Yü never compiled a curriculum vitae of his publications, a usual academic endeavor, but he never needed one because his reputation preceded him, colleagues told VOA.

When China banned those writings in 2014, Yü felt honored because it meant the Chinese government viewed his work as powerful and influential, according to Wang Fan-sen, a distinguished research fellow at Academia Sinica who studied under Yü as a doctoral student at Princeton.

That Yü’s writings are still available through underground back channels in China despite their prohibition is just another testament to their influence, Wang added.

Censoring and banning material that is deemed sensitive or contrary to the official state narrative is common practice in China but being outlawed reflected Yü’s rarified embodiment of the traditional Chinese concept of the public intellectual.

Yü felt it was his duty to raise issues in his scholarship that impacted and improved the world, said Peterson, who is now a professor emeritus at Princeton.

“He understood -- more than most of us in the history profession understand -- that part of the purpose of history is to understand how we got to where we are, and what are we going to do about it going forward,” Peterson continued.

A colleague, Perry Link, who is now a professor emeritus at Princeton, told VOA, “Yü Ying-shih was like an unmoving North Star, an always reliable point that could provide orientation for everyone else.”

In a 17th-century Chinese tale, a bird flies over a flaming mountain, letting drops of water fall off its wings onto the conflagration below. The bird knows that it won’t quench the blaze, but it cannot bear to watch the mountain burn without doing something.

Yü was like the bird, said Peterson. With each scholar that he advised, each book and article that he wrote, Yü sought to rescue a Chinese culture that he viewed as under threat, even if he alone couldn’t save it. In all his endeavors, said colleagues, it was that sense of mission that strongly guided him.