The Third Tang Prizes

Innovation, Sustainability and East-West Exchange

2018 / November

Esther Tseng /photos courtesy of Chuang Kung-ju /tr. by Jonathan Barnard

“The ultimate effect of social transformation in the Tang and Song dynasties was the expansion of the common people’s power.” So remarked Dr. Yoshinobu Shiba, winner of the third Tang Prize in Sinology, in an exclusive interview with Taiwan Panorama. The power of the common people repelled raids by barbarians, thus allowing for the cultural achievements of the Tang and Song dynasties, he explains. Moreover, the common people of Fu­jian and surrounding areas would demonstrate their empowerment through emigration, which laid the groundwork for the contributions of today’s overseas Chinese.


The Tang Prizes are known as the “Nobels of the Far East,” and this year’s eight winners came to Taiwan in September to take part in the awards ceremony and lecture series. The winners have actively engaged in research to confront the threat posed by climate change, to develop drugs that combat cancer, to highlight the economic achievements of the Song and Tang dynasties, and to foster important conversations about the importance of rule of law to freedom and democracy—thus helping to shape important viewpoints and values for the 21st century.

Although the prizes are international, Dr. ­Chern Jenn-­chuan, CEO of the Tang Prize Foundation, points out that they were established through a gift from the Taiwanese entrepreneur Samuel Yin. In contrast to the Nobel Prizes, which honor contributions to basic scientific research, literature, and peace, the Tang Prizes have been adapted to meet current world developments and challenges, with prizes in Sustainable Development, Biopharmaceutical Science, and Rule of Law. A Tang Prize in Sinology was also established to showcase Eastern values and to highlight differences between Eastern and Western culture.

Yoshinobu Shiba: The people’s power

One of the two prizewinners for Sinology this year, Yo­shi­nobu ­Shiba, a native of Tokyo and a representative figure in the “Tokyo school” of Japanese sinologists, is noted internationally as an expert on Chinese economic and social history. Now 88, he has spent more than six decades researching Song-Dynasty economic and business history, as well as the history of the overseas ­Chinese.

In a Taiwan Panorama interview at the Grand Hotel in Tai­pei, Shiba revealed that it was largely through the influence of his parents that he pursued sinology: “Originally, I wanted to research German economic history, but my father said that as Chinese characters had long been used in Japan, I’d be sure to do better using Chinese to do research than using German. What’s more, my mother had a relative engaged in research on Chinese society who would often talk about the joys of conducting research in China. That instilled a sense of longing in me.”

Shiba, who often rests his forehead on his fingers as he pauses to consider how to best answer a question, points out that the ultimate effect of social change in the Tang and Song dynasties can be described with one phrase: Power came to the people. In Europe, it wasn’t until the Commercial Revolution of the 11th century that the common people began to obtain power. In Japan it took until the To­ku­gawa Shogunate era (1600‡1868) for this process to start. But it happened much earlier in China, and it had a much broader impact. It was a major factor in the blooming of Tang-Dynasty culture in the eighth century. 

He cites an example: In the middle period of the Tang Dynasty, with more than a million mercenaries in China, there was an immense need to supply troops and horses with food. The government turned that job over to merchants and hauliers. This had obvious results in helping to repel invasions by the Khi­tan and Jur­chen, and it also helped to raise the status of merchants. With the construction of the Grand Canal in the Sui Dynasty, local products could be marketed all over the country, and locales became known for their production of certain goods, such as brocade from ­Chengdu and porcelain from Ding­zhou. Meanwhile, merchants began to leverage the difference between the cost of production and the price of sale to amass great fortunes.

Yoshinobu Shiba has sifted through tremendous amounts of data and information, gaining knowledge that has led him to grasp the essence of the Song and Tang dynasties. At the end of our interview, he spoke of what he regards as the most important advice about how to live one’s life: “Don’t let yourself be swayed by the outside world, but rather be firm to your purpose.” For instance, when he was engaged in sinological research in the 1970s, China was in the throes of the Cultural Revolution and Marxism was in the mainstream of international thought. Opposition to capitalism made it difficult to conduct research and gather data about commerce. But even though his research ran against the currents of the day, he stayed true to his original intentions and pressed ahead.

Bright international lights

The Tang Prize Foundation works with important international academic organizations to put on the Tang Prize Lectures, so that the impact of the Tang Prizes will extend throughout the world and raise Taiwan’s visibility on the international stage. For instance, in 2016 the foundation formed a nine-year partnership with the International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology to sponsor international forums related to these two areas of research and to provide young scholars with travel funds to conduct research abroad and attend international conferences, thereby cultivating professional talent and innovation in the biomedical field.

The IUBMB held its 24th Congress in Seoul this year. To kick off the event, Ta­suku ­Honjo, who won both the first Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science and a Nobel Prize for medicine, delivered the Tang Prize Lecture to the more than 2500 experts attending the event, sharing his achievements in immunotherapy.

Masters and novices

It’s not simply a matter of drawing international attention: The Tang Prize Foundation also works with universities and high schools to get Tang Prize winners to put on Tang Prize Master Forums on campuses in Taiwan. These events aim to inspire and to pass down an intellectual legacy. 

The two winners of this year’s Tang Prize in Sustainable Development, James E. Hansen and Veera­bhad­ran Ra­ma­na­than, respectively went to National Central ­University and National ­Chung ­Hsing University to discuss the issue of climate change and how to respond to it. Meanwhile, two of the Biopharmaceutical Science winners, Tony Hunter and Brian J. Druker, respectively went to National Taiwan University and China Medical University to discuss the obstacles and breakthroughs they have encountered on the road of scientific research. Winner in Sinology Yo­shi­nobu ­Shiba lectured at Tai­nan’s National ­Cheng Kung University on “Jing in Tai­nan Prefecture Temples and the Social Organization of the Chinese.” Stephen Owen, this year’s other winner in Sinology, spoke about the challenges he faced when researching Chinese literature from the Han to the Tang and Song dynasties. Meanwhile, Joseph Raz, winner in Rule of Law, was invited to National Cheng­chi University to discuss the innate value of law.

James Hansen, Tang Prize winner in Sustainable Development, who used to head NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, delivered the lecture “Young People’s World: Making Your Future” to more than 200 high-school students from across Taiwan at the Affiliated Senior High School of National Taiwan Normal University. Afterwards, the young students asked Hansen questions about ideology, Taiwan’s energy policies and the issue of nuclear development.

Trickle-down research funding

The Tang Prizes come with NT$50 million in prize money, of which NT$10 million must be spent to support other research. This grant-money share of the award effectively creates “sub-prizes,” adding to the impact of the Tang Prizes and making up for a deficiency characteristic of many international prizes, which are typically awarded to people who have already made their achievements, while overlooking the need to encourage young scholars. For instance, Yu Ying-shih, the winner of the first Tang Prize for Sinology, used this grant money to establish the Yu Ying-shih Fellowship for the Humanities, which provides a five-year grant to young researchers to enable them to write books or doctoral dissertations.

Gro Harlem Brundtland, the winner of the first Tang Prize in Sustainable Development and a former prime minister of Norway, gave half of her grant money, NT$5 million, to the Milgis Trust, a conservation organization, to be spent on efforts to protect elephants. The other half was spent to establish the Gro Brundtland Award and to commission National ­Cheng Kung University to hold a “Gro Brundtland Week of Women in Sustainable Development” for three successive years beginning in 2016. Women scientists from developing nations are chosen to come to Taiwan to get a feel for the nation’s energy and experience, thus fostering international connections. 

Currently executive librarian of the Toyo ­Bunko (Oriental Library) in Tokyo, Yo­shi­nobu ­Shiba is an expert at making deep investigations of complex historical materials. He plans on taking a portion of his NT$5 million research award to establish a scholarship at the Toyo ­Bunko that will encourage Japanese youth to participate in researching and organizing some 24,000 documents and document fragments donated to the Toyo Bunko by the Morrison Foundation. He plans on using another portion of the grant money to compile an electronic dictionary of social and economic terms.

Like Yo­shi­nobu ­Shiba through his study of Tang- and Song-dynasty prosperity, the Tang Prizes hope to highlight and carry forward the spirit of the Tang Dynasty. By leveraging the award winners’ achievements, it is hoped that the awards will promote East‡West cultural and scientific exchange and bring new vision and innovations to current social issues—so that the world can work together in peace and pursue sustainable development.

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