Ching-kun (CK) Yang (Yáng Qìngkūn)

Photo from the cover of Social Change in Contemporary China: C.K. Yang and the Concept of Institutional Diffusion, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006.

Chinese American, Sociologist

Ch’ing-k’un (CK) Yang (Yáng Qìngkūn)


Also known as Ch’ing-K’un Yang; Qingkun Yang, C. K. Yang was a sociologist whose work contributed to scholarship about religious life in China as well as in Asian diaspora communities in the US. 

Born and raised in China, Yang received his BA and MA degrees in sociology from Yenching (Beijing) University, and his PhD in sociology from the University of Michigan (1939). Subsequently, he taught at several universities in the US (University of Washington, MIT, Harvard University) and China (Lingnan University, Zhongshan University). In 1953, he began teaching at the University of Pittsburgh, where he worked until his retirement in 1981. In retirement, he was instrumental in the development of sociological studies in Hong Kong and Mainland China.  

Yang was one of the leading experts in the study of Chinese society and culture, as well as folk religion. Early in his career, in the 1930s and 40s, Yang’s scholarship drew upon the sociological works of Robert Park (Chicago School) and Max Weber’s writing on Chinese religion. He would depart from their theories as he developed his more logical and analytic framework for understanding Chinese society and religion based on the solid fieldwork he conducted with his own family and in villages across China, as well as from his experience working in the Chinese American community as an editor of the Chinese Journal in New York in the 1940s. Yang’s groundbreaking analysis of social and religious life in China was a milestone in scholarship on Chinese culture and everyday life, introducing such concepts as “institutional religion” and “diffused religion.” He was respected by and influential to scholars of Chinese religion and society. While he wrote in English, all of his books have been translated and published in Chinese. He is also acclaimed for his pathbreaking contributions to the establishment of the Department of Sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (1960s) and the re-establishment of sociological studies in China (in the early 1980s). Numerous memorial conferences and published collections have been organized in his honor.

Despite these accomplishments, Yang’s contribution to folkloristic studies of religion, and folklife in general, and the formation of Chinese and East Asian American diasporic identities more specifically, have not been appropriately recognized. His scholarship departed from those that framed a Western notion of “religion” in conflict with the local practice of “folk religion,” which contributed to distorted interpretations of the Eastern folk practices. Yang’s work continues to be significant and influential today. It provides an understanding of the spiritual life in diasporic Chinese communities that is fundamental to any examination of how folklore and folklife shape Chinese American identities through concepts of family and kinship, and the everyday practices of rituals, diets, and festivals. 

Research of particular significance to Folklore Studies:

Yang, C. K. Chinese Communist Society: The Family and the Village (1959).

———. Religion in Chinese Society: A Study of Contemporary Social Functions of Religion and Some of Their Historical Factors (1961).

Juwen Zhang