New center for Silk Road studies opens on campus

Brittany Hosea-Small/Courtesy

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After a year and a half of planning, North America’s first institutionalized center dedicated to studying the Silk Road launched at UC Berkeley on Saturday.

The P.Y. and Kinmay W. Tang Center for Silk Road Studies is the first center in North America to study the Silk Road exclusively, according to Karen Clancy, one of the center’s coordinators from the Institute for East Asian Studies, or IEAS. The center will focus on promoting research, sending students and faculty to study the Silk Road as well as educating students outside the campus community about Chinese culture.

“It’s very much a public center,” IEAS associate director Martin Backstrom said. “The Tang family was very clear: they wanted knowledge of the Silk Road generated at the center to be disseminated to the community.”

The Silk Road was an ancient network of trade routes that spanned across the Asian continent, allowing goods and ideas to flow from the Mediterranean to the Korean peninsula. Ideas spread at the time by way of the Silk Road, such as Buddhism, came out of India, expanded through southeast Asia and continue to shape Asian cultures today.

According to campus Buddhist studies professor Robert Sharf, the Tang Center for Silk Road Studies is unique because major Silk Road resources around the world tend to be separated, with texts in places like Russia and Japan, but not in one central location. UC Berkeley, he said, was an ideal institution to house this center because it already has diverse resources such as an extensive Buddhist studies program and the IEAS, which has many different centers dedicated to the study of various Asian cultures.

The $5 million endowment for the center was provided by Oscar Tang, a Chinese American philanthropist, along with his family members Dr. Agnes Hsu-Tang, Martin Tang, campus alumni Nadine Tang and Leslie Tang Schilling. The establishment is one of two Asian studies centers that have been sponsored by the Tang family, the first one having opened at Columbia University in 2015.

To Nadine Tang, the outreach component of the center is extremely important because high schools and elementary schools focus on teaching Western civilizations, with very little taught about Chinese civilizations. Learning about the Silk Road, she said, can help people in the present day understand that globalization is not unique to the modern century, and that all cultures are shaped in some way by the goods and ideas exchanged along the Silk Road.

“For the 21st century, we need as Westerners to understand that the world isn’t just the West, that there are other places that have been trading and communicating for a long time,” Clancy said. “There’s more that we need to understand about the world to understand our places in it.”

Ashley Wong is the lead academics and administration reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @wongalum.