Posts written by Bill M. Mak

Cambridge, UK. 19 June – 7 July, 2023. University of Cambridge / NRI Workshop: “Exploring the Senses in Chinese History: Body, Space, Spirit.”

A majestic-looking Chinese metasequoia with an interesting history in front of NRI (2023)

A majestic-looking Chinese metasequoia with an interesting history in front of NRI (2023)

The 2023 summer begins with a very interesting workshop held in Cambridge, at the Needham Research Institute (NRI), where I was a Research Fellow prior to my joining of the ISF Academy in 2022. The workshop was titled “Body, Space, Spirit: The Sensorium in Chinese History”. The organiser was Dr. Flavia Xi Fang 方希 and Dr. Avital Rom. Flavia recently received her PhD degree for her research in ancient aromatics on the Silk Road under the supervision of Prof. Imre Galambos. There are some interesting connections here. While at NRI, I came to learn about the ISF Academy because of the works of Dr. Wu Huiyi 吳蕙儀, who was then the ISF Fellow at the institute as part of the ISF Shuyuan Program. Discussion with Huiyi sparked my interest in the kind of creative, transdisciplinary research that ISF students were capable of. Such kinds of research seem impossible for university students, or even scholars who are highly specialised but limited to their fields. Back in 2020, I organised a transdisciplinary workshop titled “China, India, and Iran – Scientific Exchange and Cultural Contact,” bringing together a dozen scholars from three organisations – NRI, Ancient India and Iran Trust (AIIT), and Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (FAMES) of the University of Cambridge. The workshop was planned for September, 2020, but had to be postponed due to the pandemic. Thanks to the support of the sponsors and many scholars, it was successfully held on October 8-9, 2021. From the University of Cambridge (see report on p.5 here). The main supporters were Robinson College, where I was a Bye Fellow, Prof. Galambos, Professor of Chinese at FAMES, and Prof. Mei Jianjun, Director of NRI. Flavia was recruited as a volunteer to assist on the organisation of the workshop. She also presented a paper based on her thesis, which she was about to defend. In March, 2023, Prof. Galambos took part in the “Needham Forum” which took place at HKUST and we took the opportunity to invite him to give a talk at ISF. The talk, titled “Students in Dunhuang during the Ninth and Tenth Centuries,” were well attended by teachers from both Primary and Secondary Schools, together with a handful of enthusiastic parents and students. Now, the one who invited me to join the Cambridge workshop was none other than Flavia herself. Both Flavia and Avital are students of Prof. Galambos.

"Sensorium" workshop at NRI

“Sensorium” workshop at NRI

Bill Mak on "bitterness"

Bill Mak on “bitterness”

The topic I have chosen for the talk was “The Bitterness that is wholesome — The history of unsavoury herbs and foodstuff in medieval China.” Originally, I planned to speak on astronomy, a field that I was much more familiar with. Due to an unexpected shift of research interest, I have turned my research focus to herbs, trees, and plants in general. While ploughing through the sixth volume, part 5 of the Science and Civilisation in China (SCC) sitting on the bookshelf in my A9 office, I was struck by the Chinese obsession with bitter herbs or bitterness at large. Weekly conversation with Ms. Shan Ning, Principal of ISF Academy, Primary School, and other Chinese teachers gives me the impression of the Chinese faith in the virtue of hard, bitter work (xia ku gong 下苦功)! My paper was an exploration of the possible origin of this rather unique Chinese understanding of bitterness, both as a healing taste and a bitter take of meaningful, virtuous life! In the paper, I tried to look for answers both in the Taoist tradition of quietism and the FourNoble Truths in Buddhism, which begin with suffering (Skt. duḥkha), translated into Chinese always as bitterness (ku 苦)!

Bill Mak and Tim Barrett at NRI

Bill Mak and Tim Barrett at NRI

Workshop dinner at St. John's College, Cambridge

Workshop dinner at St. John’s College, Cambridge

During my time in Cambridge, I was able to meet up with many scholars and colleagues, among whom, the always inspiring and humorous Prof. Tim Barrett, who is certainly not unfamiliar with many of my Hong Kong colleagues. Another senior scholar I enjoyed very much meeting with was Prof. Margaret Cone, scholar of Pali language and author of three massive volumes of the PTS Dictionary of Pali (up to Bh). Though I had always wanted to read some Pali texts with Margaret, every time we meet we ended up talking about something else, mostly about poetry, from John Dunne to the Tang poets. The visit to the British Museum and British Library was a great delight, as always. I was able to work on my book as well, benefiting from the wonderful library of the NRI. While I was there, I ran into my ISF colleagues, Malcolm, Diana, and Sarah, who were running the Oxbridge program for the advanced students of the ISF Shuyuan program. Before I left the UK, I had to retrieve my guqin which accompanied me during my sojourn in Cambridge. Dr. Joan Greatrex, scholar of Medieval Church history and also Fellow of the Robinson College, kept my guqin in her locker for over a year already. Joan, though in her 90s, was very active. I also met up with her son, Prof. Geoffrey Greatrex, Professor of Classics at the University of Ottawa. Geoffrey and I knew each other for decades through Esperanto since being a linguistics undergrad at McGill in the 90s. Geoffrey is in fact now the president of the Canadian Esperanto Association and is a very active in the Esperanto-speaking academic circle. When I was invited to deliver a lecture on the “Sciences of the Silk Road” at the 73rd Internacia Kongresa Universitato (IKU) during the 105a Universala Kongreso de Esperanto in Montreal, August 2022, Geoffrey was the host who introduced me!

Dunhuang scholars and researchers in Cambridge

Dunhuang scholars and researchers in Cambridge

Sharing my guqin music with my friends in Cambridge

Sharing my guqin music with my friends in Cambridge

Examining the strangely bound Sanskrit manuscript at the AIIT with Dr. Daniel Sheridan

Examining the strangely bound Sanskrit manuscript at the AIIT with Dr. Daniel Sheridan

My pragmatic, utilitarian Hong Kong friends may wonder what the usefulness of such meetings are other than just friendly chitchat and lots of beverage. One of the secrets of a successful career in research and academia in general is becoming part of a scholarly network. Not only is it useful to have friends among fellow scholars who know what you are doing because of peer review and career advancement, it is important to know what others are doing. Even when there are differences of opinions, it is vital to know what they are. In case multiple scholars are pursuing a “hot topic” simultaneously, communication is all the more important in order to have a division of labour and to avoid repeated work. Last but not least, I would appeal to the concept of uselessness once again. I did not think that my work would connect to those of other scholars through Esperanto. In my 2014 monograph dealing with my discovery of a Chinese translation of Dorotheus’ first-century astral text, the Italian scholar Prof. F. A. Pennacchietti who helped me with the Syriac content was known to me through Esperanto!

At present, I am completing my book project titled “Foreign Astronomy in China — From Six Dynasties to Northern Song”, to be published within this year with Routledge as part of the NRI monograph series. The project was delayed due to pandemic and other reasons. As an incentive, Prof. Cullen thought that the trustees would organise a trip to the Stonehenge after my book is published. A draft of the key chapters have been submitted to series editor and just some weeks ago I received the reviews of two reviewers. I couldn’t resist the beautiful English countryside during one of those rare beautiful summer days and I made a trip to the Stonehenge and to Bath before I returned to Asia.

Bill Mak @ Stonehenge

Bill Mak @ Stonehenge


癸卯仲夏於英國巨石陣    Bill Mak @ Stonehenge

癸卯仲夏於英國巨石陣 Bill Mak @ Stonehenge

過去一年,為了弘立書院成立中華研究中心,時間都花在行政方面。實際上,學術活動才是學者真正工作的核心。但學者究竟在幹什麼?讀書、寫論文、教學?如果我們說研究,學者究竟在研究什麼?學者的生活給外界的印象,要不是深不可測,就是莫名其妙。香港社會,商業掛帥,大眾對學術抱有很多誤解,認為學術研究必然是枯燥無味,甚至是無用的。香港人消費主義的慣性思維模式,讓很多人對一些不了解的事物抱有一種過於功利主義的態度,認為對自己當下無用的東西,就是完全無用的東西。不明白的東西,其實需要耐性了解,不一定是沒用,更不一定是對方解釋得不好。說不定學會虛心聆聽,會看通更多事物,心胸更廣闊,懂的人會更願意給不懂的人解釋。不過,無用之用,本來就是我們中華文化固有的觀點和智慧,當代西方學者也有這種見解,像美國學者Abraham Flexner這部有趣的著作:The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge,值得一讀。無論如何,讓我為大家介紹一下我個人的研究,同時揭開學術研究的神祕面紗!



二)合肥。2023年7月9—26日。中國科學技術大學夏季學期研究生課:1)古代中國科技史入門; 2. 古代印度科學文獻導讀。



五)香港。2023年8月10—11日。香港大學。「佛教、科學與技術:數碼世界對宗教的挑戰」國際會議的首屆論壇 —「人類的競爭與互鑑互補」。




癸卯年夏季學術活動總結 2024 summer academic trips


Bill Mak @ Stonehenge

癸卯仲夏於英國巨石陣    Bill Mak @ Stonehenge

過去一年,為了弘立書院成立中華研究中心,時間都花在行政方面。實際上,學術活動才是學者真正工作的核心。但學者究竟在幹什麼?讀書、寫論文、教學?如果我們說研究,學者究竟在研究什麼?對於學術界以外的人來說,學者的生活既神秘,也讓人費解。香港社會,商業掛帥,大家普遍認為對學術抱有很多誤解,認為學術研究必然是枯燥無味、莫名其妙,甚至是無用的。無用之用,本來是我們中國人原有的觀點和智慧,但西方的學者也有這種見解,像美國學者Abraham Flexner這部有趣的著作:The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge,值得一讀;還有一種見解,認為所謂無用的學問,其實一種知識的轉型,舊學問被淘汰,新學問才能出現。無論如何,讓我為大家介紹一下我個人的研究,同時揭開學術研究的神祕面紗!



In the past year, my time was spent mostly in administration, establishing the Chinese Research Center at the ISF Academy here in Hong Kong. However, for scholars, the core activities should be academic in nature. But what do scholars do? Often, as my non-academic friends or even family members would wonder, do scholars just read and write some books as they like, and perhaps teach some classes occasionally? Indeed, the definition of scholarship varies across cultures. Having studied and worked in universities in North America, Europe, China, Japan, India, and Southeast Asia, I have become keenly aware of the differences of perception and the actual works that scholars do or are expected to do! If there is one thing that connect them is the kind of research they do, i.e., the kind of research they are involved in that connect them both to their colleagues, and their fields at large. A genuine scholar should be a researcher who is in the forefront of their fields. They are naturally innovators and creators, not because they want to create new scholarship for the sake of it, but because by having mastered one’s own field of research and having become a authority recognised by their peers, one engages constantly with topics at the frontier of knowledge. At the frontier of knowledge, one sees many new and surprising things that others do not. This is the reason why for most people outside the academia, the interests of a scholar are often mysterious and obscure. In a very pragmatic society like here in Hong Kong, scholars are often accused of being unpractical and overpaid. Leaving aside the overpaid part, the works of true scholars are often unpractical because they are visionary, and the before their ideas are turned into something transformative and useful, they need to be properly investigated and explored. This is true for both science and humanities, as great inventions and ideas all start off from creative thinking, connecting ideas and things that may appear to be useless. On this topic, a provocative, little book titled The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge by Abraham Flexner published by Princeton University Press is highly recommended. Here, please let me share with you at least the kinds of scholarly activities I was involved in over the summer months.

For scholars and researchers, myself included, the past few months were particularly hectic since many academic meetings and conferences have been postponed during the pandemic. For the first time in years, scholars are able to see each other in person once again. My summer months were spent giving lectures in universities, visiting fellow academics, and attending conferences in multiple cities in the UK, Germany and China. Many of these activities are connected with my own field of research in premodern history of science in Asia, while some are connected with my broader interests in Buddhism, history of Sino-Indian relation, and Chinese studies in general.

1. Cambridge, UK. 19 June – 7 July, 2023. University of Cambridge / NRI Workshop: “Exploring the Senses in Chinese History: Body, Space, Spirit.”

2. Hefei, China. 9 – 26 July, 2023. University of Science and Technology of China. Two post-graduate summer courses: 1. Introduction to the history of science and technology in ancient China; 2. Reading Ancient Indian Scientific Literature.

3. Baofeng Monastery, Jiangxi, China. 27 — 31 July, 2023. Sanskrit Recitation and translation of Mahāyāna Buddhist text.

4. Qufu, China. 31 July — 4 August, 2023. Visit of traditional Chinese academies.

5. Hong Kong, China. University of Hong Kong. “Buddhism, Science and Technology: Challenges to Religions from a Digitalized World” at the Inaugural Forum “Beyond Civilizational Clash: The Coalescence of Human Civilizations”

6. Hong Kong, China. 13 August, 2023. Public lecture: “Siddham and Siddham Studies”.

7. Frankfurt, Germany. 21–23 August, 2023. 16th International Conference on the History of Science in East Asia (ICHSEA). Panel: “Translating East Asian Sources: Historical Studies and Research Practice”. Paper presentation: “Sino-Indian astronomical texts in translation – Authorial intention vs. readers’ interpretation”.

8. Lanzhou & Dunhuang, China. 23—30 August, 2023. ANSO Silk Road Forum + 2nd ATES Open Science Conference. Alliance of International Science Organisations (ANSO) , Association for Trans-Eurasia Exchange and Silk Road Civilization Development (ATES). Paper presented: “Sino-Indian Astronomical Knowledge Transmitted on the Silk Road — From Kumārajīva to Amoghavajra”