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Distinguished scholar in Sinology delivers series of lectures on Early Chinese Language and Culture

17 Oct 2017

Professor Wolfgang Behr is invited to serve as Distinguished Visiting Scholar
Professor Wolfgang Behr is invited to serve as Distinguished Visiting Scholar

World-renowned Sinologist Professor Wolfgang Behr was invited by the HKBU Jao Tsung-I Academy of Sinology as Distinguished Visiting Scholar and resided at the Academy for two months. During his stay, Professor Behr gave three lectures “‘Not just being bipedal and without body hair’ – What makes a human being a human being in Ancient China?”, “On the origin of Dào and its word family”, and “Towards an etymology of ‘Love'” respectively.

A Professor of Chinese Studies of Traditional China, Asia-Orient-Institute, University of Zurich, Professor Wolfgang Behr has a broad range of research interests, including Old Chinese phonology, morphology, etymology and paleography, Sino-Tibetan linguistics, external contacts of Old and Early Middle Chinese, history of Chinese philology, epistemological foundations of historical linguistics, pre-Qin archaeology and early Chinese history, and early Chinese historiography. He is the author of many peer-reviewed articles and monographs, which have earned him an international reputation.

In the first public talk, Professor Behr revisited the ancient Chinese discussion on what defining characteristics differentiate human beings from animals from a linguist’s point of view. After tracing the discourses on speaking animals by citing a wealth of ancient Greek and Chinese sources, he argued that while language is generally seen as a specificum definiens of human beings in Western traditions, it was not the case in ancient China. Such conclusion reaffirms that the primary focus in the discussion is never the language faculty of human beings but their moral capacity.

In the following lectures, Professor Behr further demonstrated his prowess as a seasoned philologist when conducting etymological investigations on two culturally significant keywords in the Chinese language: dào (the Way) and ài (love). Drawing on his profound knowledge of paleography, linguistic typology, and comparative-historical linguistics, he discussed the variant graphs, the Old Chinese pronunciations, and the primary notion of the word in question together with the diachronic and synchronic relationship between its different usages. One of his many interesting findings was that the earliest example of the Chinese sentence “Wǒ ài nǐ” (I love you) can be found in a bamboo manuscript called “Wang ju” dating to the Warring States period from the Shanghai Museum Collection, with a slight variation in wordings but following the same subject-verb-object structure.

The Jao Tsung-I Academy of Sinology launched the Distinguished Scholar in Residence programme in 2015 and each year invites one to two non-local scholar(s), who are specialised in Classical Chinese Studies or Sinology, to visit HKBU and give a series of public talks. Through this effort, the Academy hopes to bring new ideas to the University and the local academia, and inspire up-and-coming scholars and students to take on new research challenges.