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Global look at Chinese history of ideas worth a big prize: sinologist

TAIPEI -- A leading French sinologist said the first Tang Prize in Sinology should go to someone “who has done profound and highly scholarly” research on the history of ideas, including the history of Chinese philosophy and political history, “but with a global perspective regarding the future of China.”

The research should not be “ideological or amateurish, but [is] a serious consideration of China's past, with a view to thinking better about china's future,” said Professor Pierre-Etienne Will of the College of France, during a recent interview with CNA in Taipei.

Sinology is one of the four fields of knowledge that will be awarded each with a cash prize of NT$50 million (US$1.6 million) for the first time this year by Tang Prize Foundation set up by Taiwanese businessman Samuel Yin. The other three are rule of law, sustainable development and bio-pharmaceutical science.

Will, whose specialty is Ming and Qing history, said while he is confident a Chinese study prize will gain traction, it might be difficult to achieve prominence for the rule of law prize, though development in this area concerns everybody. “We need to work harder for that,” he added.

From his study of China's history, Will saw a problem of the people's respect for political power -- “a problem that takes a long time to overcome.” He said he admires bureaucrats who did a good balancing job of serving both the dynasty (the ruling emperor) and the people.

He noted that after the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, many said the West should keep in contact with China and do business with it because that would help promote democracy in China, but “I don't think it's true.”

What should be done to achieve that purpose is help encourage liberal thinking and build a democratic tradition such as civil society and rule of law -- things that he said do not exist in China right now. “Just doing business with China is not enough to make changes in China,” Will added.

However, he also saw a big change in the intellectuals' attitude toward the ideas of modern democracy and human rights over the past 20 years, as he has encountered many who are “extremely open and progressive in their ideas.”

The openness of society, access to information and increasing travel by its citizens, plus an increasing number of students studying abroad are a clear indication that “things are changing,” he said.

The professor's expansive study into Chinese history has brought him to areas such as hydraulic engineering, political system, and sustainable development because, as he said, “these things are related.”

For example, to study China's economic history, Will has looked into China's irrigation system, which led him to study 20th-century Chinese engineering, railway, naval engineering, and so forth.

He was invited to make a visit to Taiwan in late March by Tang Prize Foundation, which will announcement the winners in the four prizes in June and present the awards in September.

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