Taking history public

Professor Leung Yuen-sang’s game-changing innovation at CUHK

History is the science and art of recording changes over time, and it uncovers what the world needs most. In the mid-1970s, history Professor Leung Yuen-sang was studying for his PhD at the University of California, Santa Barbara, when he met Professor Robert Kelley, a pioneer of public history in the United States.

“At that time, all tutor positions for Chinese history courses were filled, so I became a tutor of American history. Under the influence of Professor Kelley, I developed interest in public history too. It is an important component in contemporary history, which focuses on history for the general public.”

When he returned to Hong Kong in 1992 as a professor, CUHK’s Department of History was suffering from under-enrolment and a lack of funding. Professor Leung proposed that it introduce a public history course which turned out to be a game-changer. Today, CUHK’s M.A. Programme in Comparative and Public History remains a popular course, attracting applicants from all walks of life including retired civil servants.

Now, an Emeritus Professor in the Department, Professor Leung has devoted over 50 years to the study of history. “History is an important discipline which lays the foundations for many other subjects. It helps us better understand how and why the world appears the way it is,” he says.

Professor Leung was among seven distinguished individuals recognised for their exceptional achievements and outstanding contributions at the University’s 21st Honorary Fellowship Presentation Ceremony on 20 May.

Delivering an acceptance speech on behalf of all honorary fellows, Professor Leung said: “Throughout these decades at CUHK, ‘role-changing’ experiences happened time and again. These experiences, coupled with introspection and self-examination, gradually imparted on me a positive attitude in life. They teach me when to change, for the better, and when not to.”

The growth of curiosity

Professor Leung began studying history in 1968 at Chung Chi College during the University’s early years. The subject was not his first choice. “I found myself intrigued by Chinese literature and wished to pursue Chinese studies in university,” Leung recalls. This was despite the fact there had been little Chinese studies in his high school curriculum in Hong Kong. “Having achieved good results for history in the university entrance examination, I ended up choosing history as my major in university.”

During his first two years as a CUHK undergraduate, Professor Leung kept up his interest in Chinese studies by taking it as a minor. “I took a lot of Chinese courses and got good grades – I got A+ for two courses!”

Professor Leung (second from right) with his classmates on Chung Chi campus in 1968

With time, Professor Leung gradually found his niche as a history student. The more he exposed himself to the subject, the more his curiosity and enthusiasm grew. He adds that he also encountered some of CUHK’s greatest teachers.

“I can still recall how interesting Professor Leo Lee Ou-fan’s lessons were! At that time, Lee had just graduated from Harvard University and joined the Department as a lecturer. He often brought in fresh ideas and encouraged us to think outside the box. At that time, I started to find history interesting and challenging, and wanted to dig deeper into the subject.”

Later, while teaching at evening school, he realised that conducting research was where his true passion lay. Towards the end of his second year at university, Professor Leung became determined to sink his academic teeth into historical research. He buried himself in history books. Joseph R. Levenson’s Confucian China and Its Modern Fate: A Trilogy was one of his favourites. The extensive knowledge he obtained from this reading laid a solid foundation for his subsequent rise in academia.

Advocating for history

From a history student to a leading research expert in the field, Professor Leung believes that passion is the fire that fuels persistence. Although his research spans different disciplines, modern Chinese history has always been his favourite. His early interest gradually developed into an abiding passion. “The five areas of modern Chinese history are like the five petals of a plum blossom,” he says. “It includes the history of ideas, Confucianism, culture and ideology, migration, and Christianity. At school, I used to enjoy reading and transcribing original texts. I also had the chance to learn from many distinguished historians at CUHK who are experts in Chinese history.”

Professor Leung has now been involved in historical research for over 50 years and has taught in the United States, Singapore and Hong Kong. He observes that people from different regions perceive history differently. “For instance, history is a compulsory high school subject in the US. In Europe, a lot of professionals in political, legal and business fields are history degree holders.”

In Hong Kong, by contrast, people tend to place less importance on history studies and focus more on professional disciplines. “As a history lover, I hope Hong Kong society will give more recognition to the significance of history studies. I look forward to exchange ideas with students coming from different countries!”

Last year, Professor Leung initiated the CUHK 60th Anniversary Oral History Project, penning and recording anecdotes of 60 members of CUHK community who have played an important part in the University’s development. “We are history writers of our time,” says Professor Leung. “It’s exciting to see history being recorded both on paper and on screens!”

By Gillian Cheng
Photos by D. Lee


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