Benjamin Lee

Finding humanity and heritage through Traditional Chinese Studies

29th August 2018

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Benjamin Lee is a Bachelor of Asian Studies student and the recipient of the Liu Ts’un-yan & Liu Chiang Szu-yang Prizes for Traditional Chinese Studies for 2018. We recently spoke to him about his passion for Chinese studies and how ancient cultures and philosophies continue to shape the modern world.

Tell us a bit about your background.

I was born in Hong Kong but grew up mostly in Australia. Brisbane is my adopted hometown, but Canberra is where I live now.

Why did you choose to come to ANU, and what degree are you studying?

I previously did an Arts/Law double degree at the University of Queensland and moved to Canberra to work in the Australian Public Service. I then did a Graduate Diploma of Legal Practice at ANU, but I soon felt an urge to study Mandarin. I already knew that ANU had a formidable reputation for Asian Studies, and great facilities like the Menzies Library, so I enrolled in a Bachelor of Asian Studies.

Why did you choose to take Chinese Studies?

Although I grew up in Australia, I’ve always tried to stay in touch with my Chinese heritage. Even a casual observer can see that China has changed so much in the last couple of decades, let alone the last couple of centuries! Coming to grips with traditional Chinese culture helps me feel closer to enduring aspects of Chinese identity. It’s also valuable for understanding an increasingly important country that Australia has to interact with.

I’ve taken Mandarin classes from intermediate level to advanced, even doing the Year in Asia program at Fudan University in Shanghai. I’ve also studied Chinese Literature and some Literary Chinese language, which has given me some insight into the ancient thinking that continues to inform Chinese culture today.

What’s the most surprising thing about Traditional Chinese Studies?

I’ve realized that there are some things that human beings have always worried about and will continue to worry about. War, love, family, even the importance of the natural environment, the Chinese have been thinking and writing about all these things and more, for thousands of years. I think studying any culture, be it classical Greece, ancient India, or Islamic civilization, as different as they are, you will see the same themes emerging again and again.

You’ve just been awarded the Liu Ts’un-yan & Liu Chiang Szu-yang Prizes for Traditional Chinese Studies. What were you awarded them for, and how did it feel when you heard the news?

I won these prizes specifically for my academic achievement in Chinese Literature (ASIA2003), taught by Dr Michael Schimmelpfennig. I was satisfied with how well I did in the course, but I did not know I was even in the running to win anything. I was so surprised when I read the email from CAP that I had to call the office and make sure it wasn’t spam! I’m grateful for these prizes, and for the teachers and facilities that made it possible.

What advice would you give to students considering Traditional Chinese Studies?

Try and find the humanity behind everything and it will speak to you so much more.

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