CHEN Yubo: Happiness is about Spending the Whole Lifetime Searching Truth, Goodness and Beauty

 

 CHEN Yubo

 

Even if CHEN Yubo is a stranger to you, you would not have difficulty spotting his face among the crowd that come and go in Shunde Building. He is about 190cm tall and smiles like an innocent child – all these features make him stand out among the crowd. However, it is not his height nor his warm smile that makes people remember him. His academic achievements and unique way of thinking is what makes him an unforgettable personality. He was born in the 1970s and has a doctorate degree in business administration from the University of Florida. At such a young age, he has already been made a tenured professor and doctoral supervisor at Tsinghua School of Economics and Management (SEM) and his essays in marketing have won many international award. “Young and talented” is a very proper word to describe him.

To make it on time for the interview, Professor CHEN rushed back to his office immediately after he finished attending a lecture. He warmly welcomed the reporters to join him in the interview in his office. Besides the basic furniture and a computer, what attracts our attention is a big shelf with dozens of Chinese and English books stacked neatly on it. In this simply decorated and bookish room, Professor CHEN had a long chat with us on his life and study, his ambition and aspiration, his past and future plan, as well as his firm belief in truth, goodness and beauty.

 

Looking for truth – a principle that never pales as time passes by 

In 1999, Professor CHEN graduated from China’s Southeast University with a master’s degree. Everyone thinks he should go for politics, but he instead chose to go abroad to further his studies. His decision is based on a very simple reason. “I always wanted to be able to think in a systematic way. One cannot become a successful scholar, or politician or businessman or do anything well if he cannot think properly. This is a universally applied rule,” he said. For him, to a large extent, being able to think in a logic way is being able to think logically. “As a scholar, having a rigorous attitude towards research is the essential requirement. You cannot jump into a conclusion if you have not studied the issue thoroughly.” He called it logical thinking. “Being sensible is being able to not thinking subjectively. Talk about the matter as it is. Sometimes, Chinese people do not think in a systematic way. Compared to us, the westerners are thinking in a more logical way. There is an English saying that says the error is in our judgment not apprehensions. We have to talk about the matter as it is. Your view and your inference have to follow logics and have to be thorough. Your conclusion cannot contradict your inferences. This is the basic way of logical thinking,” he said.

The job of a scholar is to look for truth,” he said. He believes truth can be tested by systematic and logical thinking.

To realize his dream of truth-seeking, Professor CHEN lived abroad for more than 10 years, during which time, he accumulated knowledge and made remarkable academic achievements. Before he became the youngest professor at SEM, he was made a tenured associate professor in marketing at the University of Arizona.  When he taught at the University of Arizona, he won prizes for teaching excellence and curriculum innovation, and was awarded as Educator of the Year.  

However, Professor CHEN chose to go back to China when his academic career was making good progress in the US. In 2012, after 13 years of being abroad, he came back to China, as determined as he was when he left for the US 13 years ago.

In many people’s view, Professor CHEN had given up too much by coming back to China – a good academic environment, the university that he is very familiar with, and the tenured professor status that keeps him away from being unemployed.

However, Professor CHEN disagrees. “By going back to China, I could realize more of my value.” Now that he is a professor of China’s best university, he is using his knowledge and thinking to influence China’s elite students. This is what he really aspired for.

Many overseas returnees think lowly of China and highly of themselves – this is not a good attitude. Professor CHEN is conscious of these issues and is mentally prepared for the adaptation issue that concerned many returned scholars. He clearly realized it is important for the overseas returnees to learn about China’s national conditions and cultures and stressed the importance of being “down-to-earth” and “stay attuned to local culture”. “It is important to be able to stay attuned to local environment. You have to feel the importance of China’s issues from the bottom of your heart,” Professor CHEN said. Some of the western research system and way of thinking is very mature, but when you apply it to solve China’s issues, you have to adjust it to the local conditions, he said.

For Professor CHEN, the pursuit of truth is not just about the process, but also about sincere attitude. “Nothing is impossible if you try to solve the issue with sincerity. If you could do this well, opportunities would knock on your door.”

 

Being good – a heart of an idealist 

Professor CHEN’s father is an engineer and his mother is a devoted wife and mother. He grew up in a democratic, open-minded, fair and relaxed atmosphere. He was born in a village and had personal experience of the grassroots’ life. Therefore, he has a natural inclination to help the disadvantaged.

As a person with integrity, you have to be kind first,” he said, saying that this is what his family taught him.

However, as a scholar, being good is not just about being kind to other people; it also represents the devotion to acquiring knowledge, and using that knowledge to make positive social impacts.

For Professor CHEN, the university is the cradle for thinkers and academic integrity is the basis of a university. Business school mainly offers practical subjects, but it has to maintain its academic integrity. “Business school should not be customer-oriented. We cannot provide students with whatever they ask for. We have to be responsible for their future as well as the society’s future.” University is the cradle for thinkers and the guardian for social integrity and professors have to make sure the university is playing such roles, he said.

He respects professionalism. “When you do things, you have to have a reason, but that reason cannot be all about money,” he said and thought this is a key message that the business school has to deliver to the students. When you spend one day at work, you have to make sure you utilized every minute of that day well. He despises those who are irresponsible and compromising at work. “These will not do them good nor will do good to the society,” said Professor CHEN.

There are many things a scholar could do other than teaching. They can make contributions to the society.”

His care for social responsibility was developed when he was the Student Union President in his university days. This experience left huge impact on him. As a Student Union President, he often took other student leaders to check on the food supply at student canteens, investigate on food prices and organize performance events. He didn’t do these to please the teachers; he simply wants to be helpful to other students. He describes his leadership style as “walking alongside with the people”.

This experience did not just help CHEN to develop his capabilities. “If your existence could bring positive impact on other people’s lives, you would be a very happy person. I am not talking about making big contributions to the country and the society, but some basic things that can make other people’s lives better,” he said affirmatively.

Commitment to social responsibility has become deep-rooted inside me. It’s derived from the enthusiasm I have for my country and hometown,” he said. These words carry a lot of words especially when it’s coming out of a young scholar who just returned from overseas studies.

This kind of deep emotion with the country is widely seen among people who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s. People born in those years are all, to some extent, idealists. Professor CHEN always wants to bring positive impacts on people around him and the society. He always stresses the importance of rigorous academic attitude; he never speaks carelessly in case that would get people hurt. He gives encouragement and help to his students to grow into a person with academic and personal integrity. Now, Professor CHEN is trying to pass on his enthusiasm for his country to his peers, his work and his students.

 

Creating beauty – interests and love enlighten his life

Because of his ardent love for academic research, Professor CHEN invested a lot of time and efforts in work. In addition to work, he has a lot of passion for art and literature - this is quite usual for someone who has been associated with science and business courses since college years.

Professor CHEN is interested in all sorts of art forms, music, architecture, calligraphy, painting, etc. He believes that beauty exists in all sorts of art genres, no matter it’s the impressionism from the East or the realism from the West.

Professor CHEN enjoys classical music and local opera the most. He never attempts to hide his love for music. During college days, he was a frequent visitor to the school auditorium – no matter it was a symphony orchestra performance or an opera. While living abroad, Professor CHEN was able to keep this hobby as the performances by the world leading bands at a luxury auditorium and the affordable performances at school were all very available. Later on, he developed it into a habit. Professor CHEN is never a suit-and-tie guy, but when he was at the theater, he would definitely dress up for the occasion. “When I was listening to the music, I feel like watching a solemn ritual,” he said. During the weekends, he would play his favorite music, sometimes for the whole day. Listening to music and watching performances is almost part of his life. Although he is quite new to Beijing, he has already visited all the theaters and opera houses in the city. “That’s the fun part of life,” he said. “Doing academic research is a difficult job. Sometimes a project requires 10 years of hard work. So you need to add some flavor to your life.”

Professor CHEN loves all things beautiful and he loves to explore beauties. That’s his ingredient to a rich and interesting life. He also loves his students. He believes that working with his students could bring his work a lot more fun.

He stresses equal status with the students. He loves to explore the inner world of his students. He is concerned with his students’ future. He is willing to help in daily life, but he is very strict to them academically. Although he did not have classes for undergraduates this year, Professor CHEN still got many visits from the undergrads. They are eager to share their thoughts on work and life with Professor CHEN and are always received with a warm welcome.

Beauty and love are well reflected in all aspects of Professor CHEN’s life, including art, day-to-day life, interest, students and work. Beauty is the reason for love, and love creates beauty. Love and beauty light up Professor CHEN’s life.

In the end, Professor CHEN shared with us the major takeaways of his learning experience. He stressed the importance of accumulating a wide-range of knowledge. When he was teaching abroad, he usually sat in the same classroom with his students listening to the lectures of other disciplines. In the spring of 2012, when he was a visiting scholar at Tsinghua University, he finished the entire course of System Evolution. He believes the accumulation of cross-disciplinary knowledge is very important for future studies. He uses an example to illustrate it: The blade of a kitchen knife is as sharp as that of an ax. However, you can only use the ax to chop the firewood, but not the kitchen knife. It’s only because of the weight that an ax carries with it. He always reminds his students not to confine themselves in a specific subject very early on or they would risk to become a technical person that only have very limited skill sets.

I wish my students can become thinkers, but not technical persons,” he said.

Happiness is about spending the whole lifetime dealing with truth, goodness and beauty,” Professor CHEN said and he tried to realize this belief both at work and in life. He is using his words and actions to pave the way for him to seek truth, be kind and create beauty. “My students are really lovely. I would love to spend time with them,” he said.