Citations and Speeches


136th Congregation (1989)

FEI Xiaotong
D.S.Sc., Ph.D.

The University of Hong Kong brings before you Fei Xiaotong so that we may honour a lifetime of academic achievement in the fields of Applied Anthropology and Sociology.

Interestingly enough becoming a Social Scientist was not Fei Xiaotong's first ambition for he had originally entered Dongwu University in Suzhou to study medicine. By the age of twenty, in 1930, he had realised that spending one's life curing the illnesses of patients was not for him, but rather had he concluded that: 'What ailed society must be cured first'. He left Suzhou and travelled to Beijing, to Yenching University where he graduated from the Social Sciences Department in 1933.

As an undergraduate he had met a visiting professor from the University of Chicago, Professor Robert Park who helped to instil in him as a young man an abiding respect for the value of practical sociology. Fei has explained how the early academic tradition in sociology in China had virtually eschewed the practical aspects of the subject. Because classical Chinese scholarship revolved so much around literary research, students were taught to find solutions to problems in books, not to define parameters, acquire data in society itself and then subject those data to intellectual analysis. Professor Fei as an undergraduate apparently knew most about the problems of gangs in Chicago and of Russian immigrants in America, simply because they were the topics given as examples in the social science textbooks available to him. On the other hand, he and his fellow students were woefully ignorant about the issues affecting Chinese rural life of the day. The undergraduates were already discontent with the artificiality of such teaching, so the advice of someone like Professor Park, to go out and conduct field studies, to make direct observations within the community, came as a breath of fresh air. Very quickly the students in Yenching had started a series of community studies in different parts of China, and one of these projects formed the basis of Fei Xiaotong's doctoral thesis, 'Kai-hsien-kung: Economic Life in a Chinese Village'. This subject matter, it is now clear, anticipated a recurring theme in Professor Fei's research and in his writings - social interactions in rural China and the industrialisation of a rural society. Certainly he has remained a confirmed proponent of fieldwork, measurement, recording and analysis as true sociological method throughout his academic life, alluding to it as 'the adventurous spirit ... exploring living problems'.

However, Mr. Pro-Chancellor, we must return to Fei Xiaotong, the new graduate leaving Yenching University in 1933. He subsequently embarked upon three years of postgraduate studies at Qinghua University, expanding his knowledge and expertise in social anthropology. In 1936 he sailed to London, there to complete his Doctorate of Philosophy at the London School of Economics in 1939 under the tutelage of Bronislaw Malinowski.

Upon his return to China, beset then with the turmoil of war, Fei Xiaotong was appointed Professor of Social Anthropology at the National Yunan University. He was field director of a sociological research station near Kunming and was much occupied, together with his colleagues, in his field research programmes. A further opportunity to work overseas presented itself in 1943, when, on the invitation of the United States State Department he undertook teaching and research in three institutions - Harvard University, the University of Chicago and the Institute of Pacific Relations in New York. On his return to China in late 1946, Fei Xiaotong was appointed Professor of Anthropology at Qinghua University, continuing his teaching in that field until 1949, and he received much international acclaim for his research and his publications.

1949 was a milestone in the life of Fei Xiaotong, just as it was a momentous year in the history of China. In his approach to his own work and research, Fei could not be solely empiric, for he recognised that social sciences had practical value, and like the natural sciences, they too could be applied in society. In his 1981 publication 'Towards a People's Anthropology' Professor Fei remarks:

'The science of man, including the humanities and other social sciences, is more closely connected with the politics and economics of a given place at a given time. Accordingly, when appraising a scholar, we must take care not to overlook the time in which he lives... We must evaluate the part he plays in facilitating the march of time in (the) light of the specific environs around him. We must, at the same time, take into account the limitations imposed on him by the times'.

Certainly times were changing with enormous rapidity in China. From 1950 to 1957 Professor Fei found himself involved in a considerable number of Government Committees. However, the disciplines to which he had devoted his academic life thus far no longer found favour. Professor Fei transferred to work in the Central Institute of National Minorities, and he become its Vice-President. He continued his ethnological research using those very tools of the anthropological and sociological disciplines in which he had been trained, even though these subjects had been formally repudiated as university disciplines.

Of the years between 1957 and 1979, I feel I have no right to speak, other than in Professor Fei's own words:

'The road I have traversed has not been smooth... As a student of society and living in the midst of such huge changes one should be the first to see this as an extraordinarily rare opportunity. Is not one's understanding of human society greatly enriched observing vast and kaleidoscopic changes that could never have occurred in a stable society? In such a society one cannot help being a participant in the social changes as well as being changed oneself. Certainly such real experiences, physically and emotionally experienced, would be paid for with tears and blood. But they are just the things for a student of society. At the same time, one must ask oneself, in this huge and tempestuous tide of history how much can one decide for oneself? Light and darkness, life and death, forever changing, swift and unexpected... Often it was not the life of a scholar but a scholar of life'.

Now those years have passed and ten years on, Mr. Pro-Chancellor, this 'scholar of life' must take great satisfaction in having seen the Social Sciences and Anthropology re-established as academic disciplines in China. It is Professor Fei himself who in large measure is responsible for that rebirth. With unflagging energy, he has devoted himself to the development of the Institute of Sociology in the Academy of Social Sciences, so that, under his guidance a new generation of graduate social scientists has emerged in China.

His achievements are internationally recognised and they have resulted in honorary membership of many learned societies. Professor Fei was awarded the Malinowski Prize by the International Applied Anthropology Association in 1980; the Huxley Memorial Medal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland in 1981; and an Honorary Fellowship of the London School of Economics and Political Science in 1983. The University of Hong Kong would wish to add its acknowledgement of Professor Fei's long and distinguished life time of scholarship, especially of his contributions to ethnology, anthropology and sociology. We admire his devotion to his country and to its people, as we admire his championing not only of the cause of the social sciences in China but also of the freedom of the intellect to pursue such academic disciplines. We admire the goal which he, at 79 years young, still sets for himself - to use these disciplines to help 'build a society where there is peace, equality and prosperity'.

I now present Fei Xiaotong to you for admission to the Degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.

Citation written and delivered by Professor William Ian Rees Davies, the Public Orator.