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Sima Qian 司馬遷 and Beyond - Interview with History Professor Grant Hardy, University of North Carolina at Asheville

By Adelina, 02-21-2019

I am a big admirer of Professor Hardy for his dedication to the study and teaching of the ancient Eastern intellects and their philosophies. Recently, I had the privilege to interview Professor Hardy. I hope you find it as informative and as insightful as I did:

Photo Courtesy: Professor Grant Hardy

Q: You did your Ph.D. work in Chinese Language and Literature at Yale University. Why did you choose this major and what is it about Chinese Language and Literature that interests you the most?

A: have always been interested in books and ideas, and when I started college I took two semesters of ancient Greek. After that first year I volunteered to serve a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) and I was sent to Taiwan for two years, where I learned to speak Mandarin. I don’t know how good of a missionary I was, but the family joke is that the Chinese more or less converted me. I was fascinated by a rich, ancient civilization that had known nothing of Homer and Plato, and I was drawn to cross-cultural comparisons. When I returned to the United States, I completed a degree in ancient Greek with a minor in Chinese, and then went to graduate school to study Classical Chinese literature.

Q: In your opinion, what are the most difficult parts of learning the Chinese language and its literature?

A: The two most difficult parts of learning Chinese are the tones and the characters, both of which take a great deal of time to become competent in (at least that was my experience). Once a person is comfortable reading the characters, the literature is still quite challenging, especially pre-modern Chinese, because the grammar is not intuitive for English speakers and because the language is so allusive. Skilled authors could draw on over two thousand years of literary precedents and they tended to write for readers who had memorized large portions of the Confucian classics, Tang dynasty poetry, and other significant works.

Q: You lived in Taiwan for a significant period of time. Do you have any examples of cultural shock and reverse cultural shock?

A: One of the greatest cultural shocks came when I tried to understand Chinese politeness. For instance, you should turn down offers of drink or food at least a couple of times, even if you’re really thirsty or hungry, before you can finally yield to your host’s polite insistence. And Chinese people often avoid answering questions directly if a refusal means that the other person might lose face. It took some getting used to before I could read the cultural cues, but these sorts of customs greatly smoothed social interactions. When I returned to the States after two years, Americans seemed rather rude and pushy by comparison.

Q: You wrote a book called Worlds of Bronze and Bamboo. This book is about SIMA QIAN, 司馬遷 (C. 100 B.C.E.),  who is considered to be the first Chinese historian. In your book, you argued, “Sima embodies the historian as sage rather than chronicler.” What motivated you to write a book about Sima Qian? Will you elaborate on why you regard Sima Qian as a sage rather than as a chronicler?

A: When I compared Sima Qian to early Western historians such as Herodotus and Thucydides, I discovered that Sima was a much less intrusive narrator, and he invented an unusual form for his history in which often distributed various stories and details about a single historical figure among several chapters. (The book is organized into a series of basic annals, hereditary houses, chronological tables, treatises, and biographies). It seemed to me that Sima approached his material from a Confucian perspective, within which he felt free to shape his materials in ways that highlighted moral meaning. He provides a lot of facts, but his sagely judgment is manifest in the way that he selects and arranges those facts.

Q: In your opinion, what are the major differences and similarities between the historians of the ancient West (e.g. Greek) and the East?

A: Greek historians usually take the role of an active narrator telling their readers a single story and offering explicit personal judgments all the way through. Chinese historians after Sima Qian have been more comfortable with multivocal histories in which the historian functions more as a compiler. While there can certainly be bias in the way Chinese historians tell stories, many have followed Sima’s example in saving their personal judgments for brief comments at the end of chapters. Some similarities between historians of ancient Greece and China, at least after Sima Qian, are concerns for accuracy, chronology, and primary sources.

Q: What motivated you to do a series of videos (36 videos) on the Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition?

A: As a young professor in the 1990s I was thrilled to discover the Teaching Company, and in particular, an early course titled “Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition.” I often wished that there were something equivalent for Asian religion and philosophy. Almost twenty years later one of their recruiters came to UNC-Asheville as part of their regular campus tours and sat in on one of my classes. I was invited to do a sample lecture on Confucius, and when that was positively received I was invited to put together an entire course on Asian thought—which turned out to be the course I had been hoping for so many years before.

Q: In your opinion, what was the main philosophy of the ancient Eastern intellects? Were they more concerned about self-enlightenment than teaching the public how to live or vice versa?

A: This is a difficult question since there is so much variety among ancient Eastern thinkers. Some wrote books targeted at government officials, while others were happy to advise individuals about their private lives. And readers themselves have sometimes sought personal application in books that were probably originally intended for aristocrats, such as the Daodejing or the Bhagavad Gita. There have been Asian philosophers and religious figures arguing on both sides of our most familiar Western dichotomies—private vs. public, individual vs. community, spiritual vs. secular, human vs. nature, mind vs. body, knowledge vs. mystery, etc. (though perhaps Eastern thinkers have been less quick to divide the world into such binary categories). I suppose I could venture that most Asian thought has been less systematic and abstract than that found in the Western tradition. Asian philosophers have often been concerned with finding a useful path rather than establishing ontological truths.

Q: How do you decide which period or historical figure to study? What is your current work?

A: Since I am at a small university, I’m free to follow my interests. In recent years, I’ve been intrigued by notions of canon and scripture, particularly with regard to how they might play out in my own faith tradition. (I’m still very Mormon, even though my spiritual sensibilities have been greatly enriched and enlarged by my studies of Asian philosophies and religions.) I recently published a new edition of the Book of Mormon, and I’m currently working on a commentary. I’m particularly interested in how, as a relatively new sacred text, it is similar to or different from the Bible, Buddhist sutras, Hindi epics, Confucian and Daoist classics, the Qur’an, and the scriptures of Sikhs and Baha’is.

We are very thankful to Professor Hardy for spending his time and effort sharing his personal experiences with us. His insights on ancient intellects have broadened our knowledge in this domain and provide a great comparison between Eastern and Western cultures. We wish him much success going forward.

Photo Courtesy: Professor Grant Hardy