Historian Prof Tang Kaijian: Let Macao’s cultural heritage be its glittering calling card

Text│Tony Lai (Stringer)
Photo│Jack Ho, with some provided by the interviewee

With a 400-year history, Macao hardly qualifies as the oldest city in China. But in terms of the rich cultural heritage resulting from the interaction of Eastern and Western cultures, no other city in China equals Macao. This unique cultural heritage was exactly what drew Tang Kaijian, a professor from the Department of History, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Macau (UM), to study the history of Macao in the first place. When asked why he has devoted half his life to studying Macao’s history, Prof Tang answers, ‘Because the rich cultural heritage of Macao could become a glittering calling card of the city.’

A Treasure Trove of History Yields Numerous Awards

In the early days of his research career, Prof Tang mainly focused on the histories of the ethnic minorities in northwest China. It wasn’t until 1986, when he transferred to Jinan University, Guangzhou, that he considered an alternative research agenda. ‘Guangzhou was quite far away from northwest China, and because of the distance, I decided to switch my research focus,’ he says. ‘In searching for alternative subjects of interest, I discovered that Macao is a treasure trove of history, with a lot of issues remaining largely unstudied. It’s like a virgin territory for historians.’ The enormity of the historical data, available in more than a dozen languages, makes the task even more challenging. Motivated by a sense of mission, Prof Tang vowed to work on this underdeveloped ‘treasure trove’.

In 1992, Prof Tang began to devote himself to the study of Macao’s history wholeheartedly. During his time at Jinan University, he became a well-known leader in the field. In 2008, he joined UM. With the support of the university management and Prof Hao Yufan, dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, he proposed establishing a research team on Macaology, of which he and his doctoral students would later become key members.

Prof Tang Kaijian

From 2008 to 2015, Prof Tang published 41 papers in prestigious journals both at home and abroad. During the same period, he also published ten monographs through various publishinghouses, including the Commercial Press, Brill, and Guangdong People Publishing House. The ten books include the Chronicle of Macau (vol1-6), Essays on the History of Macau in Ming Dynasty (2 volumes), Setting Off from Macau: Essays on Jesuit History during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, and The Forgotten ‘Taking off’: Industrial Development of Macau (1557-1941). In addition to publishing nearly 8 million words in papers and monographs, Prof Tang is also the chief editor for various academic publications, including the Journal of Macau Historical Studies, Macaology Translation Series, and World Cultural Heritage of Macau Series His works have brought him numerous awards, including the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Palmes Academiques (Knighthood in the Order of Academic in Palms) from the Ministry of Education of France. Essays on the History of Macau in Ming Dynasty has earned him three awards, including a first prize in the monograph category at the Fourth Outstanding Achievement Awards for Macao Research in Humanities and Social Sciences.

Prof Tang Kaijian (left) receives a first prize in the monograph category at the Fourth Outstanding Achievement Awards for Macao Research in Humanities and Social Sciences

Sorting and Translating a Sea of Historical Data

These are hard-won achievements. Recalling the challenges he faced in the early days, Prof Tang says, ‘Chinese data related to the history of Macao were scattered among the collections of essays and notes by scholars from Ming and Qing dynasties, and what I did in the last century was sort through a sea of literature from Ming and Qing dynasties for snippets of information about Macao, and then compile such information into a record of over one million words. There was no computer. I couldn’t search data on the internet. So I had to pore over all the material one word at a time. It was a laborious and painstaking process, but I eventually acquired a solid grasp of the Chinese material about the history of Macao.’

However, collecting data is only the first step. To carry out an in-depth study of the history of Macao, it is essential to translate into Chinese the various historical data which are available in foreign languages, which is exactly what Prof Tang has spent most of his time doing since he joined UM. In addition to arranging for his own doctoral students to learn Portuguese, Spanish and French and translate historical data in these foreign languages into Chinese, he also obtained research funding from UM and recruited master’s and doctoral students from the Department of Portuguese to participate in what he jokingly terms as ‘The Big Movement of Translating Macao-related Portuguese-Language Historical Data from the 16th Century to the 19th Century’.

Prof Tang Kaijian (left) receives the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Palmes Academiques (Knighthood in the Order of Academic in Palms) from the Ministry of Education of France

‘We need to sort through a sea of historical data written in more than a dozen languages for information about Macao and then translate the relevant material into Chinese. It is a monumental task. With Portuguese language alone, we have to deal with over a million documents,’ he explains. ‘The fact that there are many students at UM studying the Portuguese language presents a unique advantage for my research work, and since I joined UM, I have focused my energy on arranging for master’s and doctoral students to participate in my research by helping with data sorting and translation. Without these students’ assistance, it would have been impossible to achieve satisfactory results in the study of Macao’s history. That’s why I always say we must first tackle the basics. Then and only then can we talk about in-depth study of the history of Macao.’

Quality Research VS Rehash of Old Ideas

By conservative estimates, before the handover of Macao, thousands of scholars in China were studying the history of Macao, with hundreds of thousands of books and papers churned out on a regular basis. ‘Some of the works may have been of good quality, but I’m afraid for quite a lot of people, Macao studies was less a pure academic pursuit than a tool of political propaganda. And the result was that most of the works were just a rehash of old ideas and failed to achieve academic respectability,’ says Prof Tang. After the handover, with political considerations losing hold, the number of researchers in the area declined sharply. The existing research teams in China that study the history of Macao are mainly comprised of those from Macao and Guangzhou, with UM being the most important player in the field. ‘The quality of our research is constantly improving. It’s now more standardised and international, with a variety of subjects under study, including the early history of Macao, the modern history of Macao, and the oral history of Macao,’he says.’

In recent years, UM-published books on Macaology have become some of the most representative and influential works in the field. Prof Tang and Prof Hao Yufan have jointly published a series of books on the subject. Moreover, UM-published Chinese works have begun to be translated into other languages. For example, Brill, a publishing house in the Netherlands, recently published the translated English version of Prof Tang’s book, Setting Off from Macau: Essays on Jesuit History during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. This is the first time that a UM scholar’s English monograph on Macaology has been published by a leading European publishing house.

Prof Tang Kaijian receives a first prize in the paper category at the Third Outstanding Achievement Awards for Macao Research in Humanities and Social Sciences

Let the Cultural Heritage Be Macao’s Calling Card

Many people doubt the value of studying events that happened hundreds of years ago. But in Prof Tang’s opinion, studying the history of Macao is not merely an academic pursuit of the city’s roots; it also has immediate relevance to Macao’s present and future. ‘Many people think Macao is just a gambling city. While it’s true that gambling is a significant source of income for Macao, we don’t want to be stuck with the image of a gambling city. And playing on the strength of Macao’s cultural heritage is one of the best ways to change this image,’ he says. ‘Macao is a mix of Eastern and Western cultures, with a history of more than 400 years. No other city in China can compare to Macao in this respect. While Beijing has a long history and a rich heritage of Chinese culture, it can’t hold a candle to Macao in terms of the heritage of Western culture. Shanghai was one of the first cities in China to be exposed to Western culture, but it owes the source of its Western influences to Macao. Hong Kong is also a blend of Eastern and Western cultures, but it became a free port 285 years later than Macao.’

Macao’s historical importance does not lie merely in being a channel through which Western culture is spread to China. According to Prof Tang, Macao is also where this cultural dissemination started. In the process, Western culture left an indelible mark on every aspect of Macao’s society, including politics, law, religion, education, science and technology, language, literature, arts, and social life. ‘From a historical and cultural standpoint, Macao should protect and take advantage of its unique cultural heritage and develop its economy within this context. In time, we would be able to make Macao’s history and culture its glittering calling card,’ he says.

A Touch of Alienation in the Celestial Empire: Western Civilization in Macau, 16-19 Centuries is an important achievement of Prof Tang Kaijian’s research in Macao.

Devote the Rest of His Life to Studying Macao’s History

Having studied Macao’s history for over 20 years, Prof Tang says he will continue to spend the rest of his life sorting and translating historical data in different languages. ‘If Macao studies is a mountain, it would be impossible to reach the top of the mountain without persistence,’ he says. ‘I once wrote an inscription for the magazine Chinese Postgraduates—The success of a historian depends not on talent, but on diligence and persistence.’ Prof Tang is the author of two major research projects at UM. The first is A Touch of Alienation in the Celestial Empire: Western Civilization in Macau,16-19 Centuries, which was published in March 2016. This is the first book by a Chinese scholar of Macaology to extensively use original historical data in Chinese and other languages. Consisting of nearly 2 million words and quoting several thousand historical documents in Chinese and other languages, the book explores the spread and development of Western culture in Macao from the 16th century to the 19th century. The second project, which is still ongoing, involves a worldwide search of archives in various countries for Macao-related records, sorting and translating the records, and compiling catalogues.

Asked about his plans for future research, Prof Tang says, ‘Ever since I came to Guangzhou and Macao, I’ve always felt that Macao studies would be the task to which I should devote the rest of my life. Of course it’s a monumental task and cannot be accomplished by myself. It requires the effort of several generations to come, but at least I could lay a solid foundation so that future researchers can study the subject in a more in-depth manner.’

ISSUE 14 | 2016

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