Joshua Sze Kiun Fung: From Art to Law, Getting Closer to China

Recently, the Yenching Academy interviewed Joshua Sze Kiun Fung, a 2020 YCA Scholar from North Borneo, Malaysia. He read law as a Senior Scholar of Trinity College, University of Cambridge, and legal theory and philosophy at New York University.

Interest in China

Joshua remarked that he loves Chinese craftsmanship, with an interest in tea, silk textiles, and porcelain. “I found porcelain teacups and other tea ware to be delicate and elegant,” he said. He grew up with exposure to these delightful objects because his grandmothers collected different types of Chinese arts and crafts, such as snuff bottles, and delicate jade pieces. This fascination culminated in a research passion, in which Joshua found himself considering “the historical context in which these beautiful objets d’art were made – how they were made, who made them, and how the law regulated them.”

When the opportunity to study in China and at Peking University came, he took it. He had learned about the Yenching Academy during his time at Trinity College and decided to apply despite initially making up his mind to spend a year in New York. “I do not know of any other program like the one offered at Yenching Academy, and I certainly did not apply anywhere else,” Joshua added.

Yenching Academy Experience

Like many other international students enrolled in Chinese universities, Joshua has been studying online and is unable to travel to China due to the Covid-19 travel restrictions. “I feel that I have lost an opportunity to experience the social life at a Chinese university, with Chinese and other international Scholars,” he stated, adding that his online study and community building experiences with PKU and YCA professors and classmates have alleviated some of his disappointment.

Joshua works hard despite being online, and his endeavors transcend the virtual classrooms. He was one of the winners of the Yenching Academy Award for Outstanding Academic Performance and helped organize several Bai Xian events in his capacity as a Bai Xian Scholar, where he has had many opportunities to learn from remarkable social entrepreneurs and to improve his leadership skills. He noted during the interview that he believes his achievements center around two core ideas: following one’s interests and cultivating a self-reflective attitude. He said these ideas would make it easier to know what methods work best and to be disciplined and rigorous when studying gets tedious.

He also recalled participating in many YCA events, including the 2020 Yenching Academy Opening Ceremony, where he was involved in coordinating a piano-guzheng duet with Liu Yanjun, a fellow 2020 Yenching Scholar from China, remotely. “I enjoyed the attempts to arrange the song, and it was an engaging and exciting experience. Coordinating the entire process remotely was fun!” He also mentioned his experience moderating at the Yenching Global Symposium. “As a moderator, I felt very privileged to be able to have a dialogue with Professor Jia Qingguo about ‘China’s Search to be a Responsible Power’, one of the most important topics in international relations today,” Joshua explained.

He also discussed the most challenging part of his YCA experience and his steps to overcome them. He observed that the feeling of isolation was difficult since he is the only YCA Scholar from Malaysia and could not have in-person meetings with other Yenching fellows. Jokingly noting he had the company of his dog and cat, he added that he appreciated the availability of many ways, besides in-person meetings, to make friends, especially YCA’s online classes and social community-building activities. His most memorable online social activity was the Mid-Autumn Festival celebration which featured the musical talents of Yenching Scholars.

Cross-Cultural Learning and Communication

Joshua talked about his experience learning Chinese. He said that he loves learning the language as the reward includes interesting dialogue with people and grasping wisdom – past and present – buried in the pages of great texts. Nonetheless, after several years of learning the language, he remarked that pronunciation was the hardest part. His recommendation to those learning Chinese is to embrace persistence and immersion as the most important elements.

Joshua noted that he has become more intimate with cultures and people he is not particularly familiar with since joining the Academy. This is not surprising since Yenching Scholars come from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds across the world. “I have found reading classical poetry, the Classics, and admiring the work of Chinese artists so important in helping me to cultivate a sense, but only a nascent intuition, of China,” he said. He is quite interested in the mid-Tang Dynasty poet Li He, whose works, including The Royal Ladies of the Xiang and Lady of the Cowrie Palace, he found incredibly modern and fascinatingly gothic.

Furthermore, Joshua also detailed how his experiences studying and practicing law in the UK, the US, Malaysia, and Hong Kong SAR have helped him with intercultural communication and his study of Chinese law. He remarked that his broad international experiences have helped him grasp the importance of context – of time, place, and circumstance. Joshua noted that despite having much to learn, studying the Chinese legal system has challenged him in unexpected ways, especially considering “the malleability and elasticity of the Chinese legal system, both now and during its imperial past.”

Research at the Academy

Joshua stated that his research at Yenching focuses on the Guiding Case System, analyzing how it has impacted China’s legal system in the ten or so years of its operation. He believes that China’s legal system is best understood as an amalgam of many different influences, having traces of its grand imperial tradition, alongside a civilian influence from Germany and elements of the Soviet legal system. “Now, it is adding what appears to be a common-law style emphasis on judicial decisions, which we more broadly call ‘cases’; the product is a singular legal system that has no close comparator anywhere in the world.”

Joshua is fascinated by China and hopes to get lost in the Jingyuan Courtyard on the Peking University campus. He hopes to study China within China and, one day, appreciate the spring blossoms of wisteria on campus, situated in their proper context.

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