Expat corner: US historian sings praises of the Song

By Louise Ho (China Daily)
Updated: 2007-02-15 07:10

"We have to 'unlearn' history if we want to know more about the past," says Richard L. Davis, head of the Department of History at Hong Kong's Lingnan University and an expert in the history of the Five Dynasties (AD 907- 960) and Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279) periods.

"Chinese have a distinct sense of right and wrong towards history. They identify a historical figure by how they were taught in textbooks as either hero or villain," said Davis, who translated 'Historical Records of the Five Dynasties' (Wudai shiji) by Ouyang Xiu from classical Chinese to English.

He was speaking from his own experience of working with Chinese scholars and teaching Chinese students. "My identity as a foreigner grants me a sense of distance and liberty to study Chinese history from a different perspective," he said.

Professor Davis learnt Chinese and Chinese history when he was studying a double major in political science and Asian studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo. His interest in the Song Dynasty grew after a year of extensive reading when he was doing an MA at Buffalo.

He was also influenced by James T.C. Liu, his PhD advisor in Princeton University from 1975 to 1985, who was an authority on the Song period.

He thought he would only have a limited view if he did not visit China and exchange views with Chinese scholars, so he left the United States and went to teach in Taiwan in 1996. There he taught at Tung-wu University and National Chung-cheng University from 1996 to 1998.

When he first started teaching in Taiwan, the students found it difficult to accept the fact that a foreigner could teach them Chinese history. But, after he explained his research record and his knowledge of Chinese history and classical Chinese, their opinions quickly changed.

In his view, Taiwan students had detailed knowledge but they lacked a clear understanding of history. For example, they knew Ouyang Xiu as a literary man, but did not know about his stature in terms of history and politics.

This is why he asked his students to "unlearn" what they knew and look at history from a new perspective.

Speaking in fluent Putonghua, he said we should reflect on history from diverse angles to form our own view. For example, most Chinese think the Song Dynasty was a weak period, when art was appreciated and military power despised (zhongwen qingwu).

For Davis, however, it is his favorite period in Chinese history. "Song is a rare period in Chinese history in which emperors value intellectuals. The system itself makes men excel," he said.

He is particularly impressed with the beauty of the classical writing of the time, particularly Ouyang Xiu.

Ten years after he taught in Taiwan, he is now teaching in Hong Kong. Last year Lingnan University offered him the position and he decided to leave Brown University where he had been teaching for 17 years.

He thinks Hong Kong is a convenient base for him to do research on the Chinese mainland. He likes Hong Kong and plans to stay here for the next 10 years. His forthcoming book, The Cambridge History of China, Volume 5, a political history on the last four Song emperors, will be published this year.

(China Daily 02/15/2007 page5)

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