‘Studia Humanitatis’ and ‘Renwen’: Teaching the Classics in Contemporary China

Presented by: Xinyao Xiao

When: 8:15 – 9:15 am Section 1: Humanities Concepts and Disciplines; Panel 1, 1D

Abstract: In From Humanism to the Humanities, Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine discussed the fundamental problem within the study of humanities that Cicero helped create—the problem of “the inevitable discrepancy between an educational goal and the curriculum designed to achieve it.” This discrepancy is a result of the historical distance between the society that generated the educational ideal and one that received and practiced the pedagogy: the Roman studia humanitatis Cicero envisioned was based on a Greek ideal, originally devised to tackle issues in a society quite different from Cicero’s Rome; similarly, the sixteenth-century humanists’ pedagogical ideal of creating latter-day Ciceronian orators was bound to be frustrated by a society far removed from that of the Roman Republic.

The study of the humanities, since its very origin, has been haunted by this sense of incompatibility. Yet it is also revealing that the Ciceronian studia humanitatis survived and thrived for centuries and its heir, the “Western” liberal arts education, has now been adopted in various countries with drastically different cultural histories. How do we account for its popularity and assess its success in different local contexts? How has the connotation and value of the humanities been interrogated as it travels across national, cultural, and linguistic boundaries? How may globalized and localized theories and pedagogical practices of the humanities enrich our conceptual and methodological repertoires?

In this paper, I try to approach these questions by taking as cases in point the liberal arts programs established in the recent decade by leading Chinese universities (e.g., Sun-Yat-Sen, Tsinghua, and Chongqing Universities) where the Greco-Roman antiquity are taught together with the Chinese classics. In addition to re-visiting the manifestos written by the leading pioneers of these programs to map the still-ongoing debates over the humanities in China, I will also look at the current curricula of these programs and how they have evolved over the years. Is the discrepancy between the educational goal and curriculum that pestered the Ciceronian project still present? A close investigation of key courses in these programs will also offer an opportunity to think about the question Harvard Sinologist Puett challenged us to think about back in April of 2012: how may the history of Greek democracy and Roman imperialism be taught differently if the world’s leading classicists and their students are located in China?