Professor rises from poverty to win 'Nobel for historians'
Raised in a rural community in southeastern China and uneducated until his mid-teens, Ying-Shih Yu seems an unlikely recipient of the John W. Kluge Prize in the Human Sciences, informally referred to as the Nobel Prize for history.
Now a pioneer revered in both Englishand Chinese-speaking circles and professor of history and East Asian studies emeritus, Yu has come a long way. As he is fond of telling friends and colleagues, he is a self-taught scholar. He is the author of more than 30 books, covering perhaps as many themes of Chinese history, culture and philosophy.
"He is maybe the most important historian of China alive today," East Asian studies chair David Howell said. Before his retirement in 2001, "many students every year applied to Princeton in hopes of conducting their research and writing their theses under Professor Yu's tutelage."
Howell said Yu's success in Chinese studies was because of his exceptional style of scholarship. "One of his strengths is that his range is incredibly wide," he said. "He always knows something about even the most obscure issues in the field."
Yu's scholarship spans two millennia of Chinese history, touching upon, among other things, markets in despotic rule and gender in literary masterworks.
For Yu, the compromise between breadth and depth is a matter of integration and expression, longtime friend and East Asian studies professor Willard Peterson said.
Yu's essays find strong foundations on Chinese source materials, and each piece is profound in its own focus, Peterson said. In fact, he added, Yu's works may indeed be more "specialized" than those of many "specialist" historians themselves.
"I do not to separate Chinese history into discrete, detailed examinations," Yu said, "because continuity is essential to uncovering patterns of change in Chinese cultural and philosophical history visa-vis that of the Western civilization."
Central to Yu's work is this aspiration to connect the past with the present. "I want to breathe life into history," he explained.
Some historians have suggested that Yu lines himself up with many great historians of the past, whose accomplishments were characterized by broad perspectives, Peterson said. But Yu has also undertaken many excursions into the nooks and crannies of Chinese history, bringing to the forefront of sinology seminal materials neglected by previous scholars.
Peterson said that Yu's renown, particularly in China, has much to do with his knack for translating difficult Western concepts into modern Chinese language.
"I try to bring a native as well as a comparative view to history," Yu said. "Contrasting but interrelated perspectives make my work different and interesting."
"It's a good thing that the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress recognizes studies of Chinese culture.," Yu said.
"I'm glad that they acknowledge contributions in any language," added Yu, who writes in both Chinese and English.
Indeed, Yu said the recognition of Chinese studies was an important part of his winning the Kluge Prize.
"I feel happier for the field I represent than for myself," he said. "I was very surprised, and I am truly honored."
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