05/10 Yang Shen PhD

Associate Professor in Anthropology, Zhejiang University

Secularism and the Arguments of Intellectual Freedom:

Revisiting an Encounter between Ma Yifu and Cai Yuanpei in Early 20th-Century China


Presenter: Yang Shen Ph. D. (Assistant Professor in Anthropology, Zhejiang University)

Time: 3-5pm CT, Friday, May 10

Location: Center for East Asian Studies 319 (1155 E. 60th St)


Abstract: The paper suggests that the global arena of secular universities—rather than the national realms of “religion”—allows us to explore diverse pathways of intellectual freedom in a broad range of modernizing regimes. It focuses on the contrasting views of two key figures in early Republican China, Cai Yuanpei (1868-1940) and Ma Yifu (1883-1967), who had divergent perspectives on the idea of a university. Cai, a secularist and institutional reformer, advocated for the creation of a German Enlightenment-style secular research university, while Ma, an independent classical scholar, was critical of the university institution and instead favored a model based on Chinese Buddhist monasteries. Aware of the condition of financial independence of modern universities, Ma explained that the Buddhist monasteries were a rare example of supporting organized scholarship by social contribution-rather than through state patronage and public funding—in the context of Chinese histories. The paper argues that Ma’s reservations about the university framework reflect a critical examination of the core promise of modernity and its organizational possibilities. By re-visiting the Ma-Cai encounter, this paper highlights the diversity of visions for intellectual freedom under secularist conditions. It also sheds light on the discrepancy between personal ethics and institutional policies and the cultural and societal contexts of the university institution.

Presenter: Dr. Yang Shen is a cultural anthropologist of religion and secularism. Her work explores forms of Chinese secularism and how Chinese conceptions of religion and secularity transform global projects of modernity. Yang received her Ph.D.in Anthropology from Boston University  and was a postdoctoral research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen, Germany. She also taught at the Department of Asian Studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem as a Frieberg-Glorisun Fellow at the Louis Frieberg Center for East Asian Studies. Dr. Shen is currently an Assistant Professor in Anthropology at the Department of Sociology at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China.

Discussant: Dr. Wáng Yōu 王悠 (she/they) is an economic and environmental historian of early modern and modern China and a Harper-Schmidt Fellow and Collegiate Assistant Professor in the Social Sciences Division. Her current book project, Crafting the Waterscape: Environmental Governance and Rural Communities of the Lower Yangzi Delta, 1500-1850, examines the everyday interactions of village women and men with water- and landscapes and how their labor was self-organized, textualized, and gendered.

05/03/2024 Dissertation Proposal Workshop

PhD students from EALC who are working on their dissertation proposals will present on their dissertation proposal writing. The primary focus of the workshop is to brainstorm on the introduction section of the proposal. We will also be mainly addressing the pre-circulated materials themselves, though we will dedicate time to questions about the projects in general. Please do not circulate the materials without the consent from the authors.

EALC Dissertation Proposal Workshop


Hang Wu, EALC & CMS

Yiwen Wu, EALC & TAPS

Yuwei Zhou, EALC

Time: Friday, May 3, 3-5pm CT

Location: Center for East Asian Studies 319 (1155 E. 60th St)