On Friday, September 9, Yenching Academy of Peking University held the Opening Ceremony for the 2023 cohort of Yenching Scholars. Several guests graced the event, including the keynote speaker, Professor Shi Yigong (President of Westlake University and Member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences), Prof. Yuan Ming (YCA Honorary Dean), Prof. Dong Qiang (YCA Dean), Prof. Qiu Zeqi (Director, Center for Sociological Research and Development Studies in China, PKU), Prof. Fan Shiming (YCA Associate Dean), and Assoc. Prof. Chen Changwei (YCA Assistant Dean).
The event started with a musical performance and the screening of two short videos. The first clip highlighted the Scholars’ first-week orientation activities since arriving on the PKU campus, and the second was a video message from some 8th cohort Yenching Scholars who talked about their most memorable experiences in the last Academic session, their favorite course at YCA, and first friend at the Academy.
YCA Associate Dean Brent Haas welcomed everyone present and introduced the guests. In his opening remarks, he advised the Scholars to find a balance and be authentic versions of themselves despite the cultural differences they may encounter in a new environment and starting a new chapter of their lives. Assoc. Prof. Haas touched upon the differences between Sinology and China Studies and what it means to be a Yenching Scholar, re-echoing the position of the American Sinologist and historian Frederick W. Mote’s “The Case for the Integrity of Sinology”, which stresses recognizing the integrality of all the different ways to understand the Chinese civilization. “Yes, this is a China Studies program, and [while] your degree might not be a Master of History, Economics, or Literature, the approach that you take to better understand China is valid. You’re able to bring outside viewpoints to your academics. But while doing so, keep in mind that you need to have respect for the integrality of the Chinese civilization,” Assoc. Prof. Haas stated.
Prof. Qiu Zeqi delivered a speech as the Yenching Academy faculty representative. Prof. Qiu extended a warm welcome to the new graduate students at YCA and PKU. His speech encompassed the history of Peking University in the context of Chinese civilization and China’s (traditional) higher education system. Moreover, he explained China’s reform experiences to attain modernization and fit into the modern world, noting that understanding the Chinese experience requires in-depth observation of relevant factors and using the Chinese historical and global contexts as reference points. Prof. Qiu expressed his hope for the students to explore China objectively. “Each of you comes from cultural environments different from China’s, and it is easy to observe China from your perspectives while overlooking the Chinese perspectives. A more objective understanding should be achieved through observation of the interactions between heterogeneity and homogeneity… we also expect that you will use your intelligence, knowledge, and insights to help us understand ourselves and help the world understand China.”
Assoc. Dean Fan Shiming took to the podium to announce the winners of the 2022-23 Yenching Academy Outstanding Academic Awards. This award, designed to acknowledge the efforts of some Yenching Scholars from the 8th cohort, is a testament to their tenacity and seriousness in their studies and attaining their goals despite starting the program online. The award also serves to encourage the new students to make considerable efforts in their studies.
Joyce Wambui Kiarie, the student representative of the 2023 cohort, delivered a speech. She reminded the audience of the popular: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step”. By so doing, she acknowledged the start of her cohort’s academic journey at YCA and encouraged her peer Scholars to be confident as they write the scripts of our lives the best way they can. “My wish is that we can be confident in our script writing, to live like we are the stars of our lives, as if it were a grand novel, to write our stories in bold, big fonts, and whatever layout we choose, to aim to leave an imprint on each other, to be bridge builders between our community here and back at home, break down barriers and be problem solvers.” Joyce recounted her prior experiences studying in China and shared four reflections: China is a beautiful place and one full of opportunities; trusting the process; building the networks of people who are fundamental in this journey of life; and having an open mind, respect for others, and candid conversations. She painted a vivid picture of each season’s beauty throughout the year and expressed her hopes that her peer Scholars will find beauty in all that surrounds them in this YCA season of their lives.
There were bursts of excitement in the auditorium as the Scholars were shown a “surprise” video message from their loved ones. Several parents and family members shared their support and love for the Scholars, wishing them success in their studies in China.
Prof. Dong Qiang, Dean of Yenching Academy, also delivered a welcome address to the Scholars. He urged the new students to immerse themselves in the vibrant tapestry of Chinese culture, values, and people while disallowing the euphoria of the initial days from clouding their minds because understanding a place transcends the surface charm and beauty. He noted that as the Scholars settle into their studies and integrate into the rhythm of life in China, they will uncover layers that might challenge their preconceptions, evoke new questions, and broaden their perspectives. He advised them to embrace those moments of discovery with an open mind and a thirst for knowledge. Moreover, Prof. Dong cautioned the new students from making early judgements but implored them to be quick to understand, listen with open ears and minds, and be curious and eager to explore the unknown to help them navigate the complexities of their studies and uncover the true essence of China. He assured the Scholars of the value of the Yenching experience – friendships, dialogues, and insights – they have just begun shaping their academic and living experiences unfathomably. “In this haven of learning called Yenching Academy of Peking University, you will find opportunities to forge connections that transcend borders. Yenching Academy is meaningful, not only because of its rich courses and its eminent professors but also because of the people who surround it and support it. Yenching Academy is fundamentally important because it is a place of connections with interdisciplinary ambitions.” Prof. Dong hoped the Scholars’ time at YCA would be fruitful, meaningful, and reflective.
The keynote speaker, Prof. Shi Yigong, took to the podium to deliver his keynote speech. He welcomed and congratulated the 2023 cohort, noting that their enrollment into Peking University reflects their remarkable journey and exceptional potential as scholars, global citizens, and upcoming leaders of humanity’s shared global future. Prof. Shi’s speech emphasized the value of YCA’s mission and interdisciplinary approach in today’s increasingly complex and interconnected world characterized by unprecedented divisions, conflicts, and stereotypes as single narratives become more announced. Hence, he noted: “In an era where borders are increasingly blurred, global challenges demand global solutions… You are here because the world needs you. Yenching Academy is not just a place, a chapter in your academic journey. It is a unique and powerful opportunity for you to build your future. I encourage you to begin this journey with curiosity, responsibility, and empathy, being an advocator of mutual understanding, an ambassador of your culture, a builder of the cross-cultural bridge, and a pioneer of healthy change. Today, you begin a journey as a student; tomorrow, you will lead the world towards a better future.” Prof. Shi’s speech also covered China’s contributions to the world and geopolitical relationships that have facilitated the rapid exchange of ideas, commodities, and knowledge. He narrated two stories highlighting the significant impacts of the relationships between China and the United States, especially in the internationalization of higher education and Chinese students’ value-addition to the American economy and contributions to Chinese society after returning to their homeland. Lastly, Prof. Shi outlined his work as the head of Westlake University to promote new reforms in higher education in China while advancing the frontiers of science and technology and cultivating future leaders with a global mindset.
Following his speech, Prof. Shi Yigong received a gift from Prof. Dong Qiang on behalf of the Yenching Academy. The ceremony ended afterwards with resounding cheers from new Scholars and their friends and well-wishers. The Scholars gathered to take pictures and celebrate this monumental start of their academic journey at Yenching Academy on the vibrant Peking University campus.