In December 2022, a group of Ostrom scholars from various leading Chinese universities hosted a virtual event to honor the lives and works of Distinguished Indiana University Professor Elinor Ostrom, 2009 winner of Noble Prize in Economic Sciences, and her husband Vincent Ostrom who was also a world-renowned scholar in political science. This event was organized to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of their passing and was attended by over 400 participants including activists, community leaders, and practitioners who implemented the concept of self-governance at a local level.
The esteemed couple, and the workshop named after them, are all highly respected and very well known in the country. Over the past two decades, a large number of Chinese scholars have studied and visited the Ostrom Workshop. They brought back to China not only the knowledge they gained from the two academic masters, but also their inspiring life attitude and spirit of continuously pursuing academic excellence. For many, Elinor and Vincent are not only their dear teachers but also their role models.
Scholars and graduate students from Tsinghua University (Tsinghua), Peking University (PKU), Renmin University of China (RUC), and Chinese University of Political Science and Law (CUPL) gave presentations and passionately reflected upon their personal experiences in learning with the Ostroms. The event was attended by hundreds of scholars across China, emphasizing the depth and breadth of the impact that Indiana University has across the country, both academically and in practical applications of their work.
The event started with a short preview of the film Actual World, Possible Future.This WTIU documentary film from 2020 about the Ostroms was only recently translated into Chinese by Professor Shoulong MAO and Professor Youhong CHEN from RUC, and Professor Jianxun WANG from CUPL, who also helped to coordinate part of the film’s production in China. They shared stories about filming in China and the translation process, then kicked off a series of presentations and personal remembrances that exemplified the real-world impacts of the Ostrom Workshop in China.
Professor Yahua WANG
In his 15-minute talk titled Governing the Commons: Academic Legacy of Ostrom, Professor Yahua WANG from Tsinghua University passionately recalled his personal connection with Elinor and Vincent Ostrom.
In the year of 2000, I was still a doctoral student trying to decide on the topic of my PhD thesis and was introduced to the newly published Chinese version of Elinor’s book Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. I was deeply attracted to and fascinated by the book. When I completed my PhD thesis in 2004, I had a chance to briefly visit the U.S. and for the first time met with the Ostrom couple at Indiana University Bloomington. The long-admired academic masters treated me with extreme warmth. Elinor took me to attend a small seminar, where she introduced me to several of her doctoral students. She also made arrangement for me to meet with her husband Vincent. The Ostrom couple’s profound knowledge and their hospitality touched me deeply. The idea of formally visiting the Ostrom Workshop one day naturally became a dream sowed in my heart.
My next meeting with Elinor was three years later when she visited Beijing in 2007 and attended an international economics conference hosted by Tsinghua University. Not long after returning to the U.S., Elinor sent me an invitation to visit the Ostrom Workshop. With her nomination, I was awarded a fellowship from the Committee on Scholarly Communication with China in 2008 and was able to officially visit IU Bloomington as a visiting scholar in August 2009. My dream came true! During my visit, I was fortunate to experience the exciting moment of Elinor’s winning the 2009 Nobel Prize in economic sciences. Both Elinor and Vincent’s personal and academic charisma profoundly affected me and made my time at the Workshop a life-long cherished experience.
The societal governance and collective action theories established by the Ostrom couple was introduced to China at the beginning of the 21st century, which provided Chinese scholarly community an academic enlightenment in those fields. Elinor being awarded the Nobel Prize in 2009 further spread the influence of her theory on governing commons in China. Even after their passing , the research in societal governance still had a booming momentum in China.”
Influenced by Ostrom’s academic thoughts and with joint efforts by generations of Chinese scholars, the research of governing commons started and prospered in China during the past two decades. More and more university faculty and students became familiar with the theories and committed to research in relevant fields. Scholars from RUC, Tsinghua, PKU, Zhejiang University, Xiamen University and SYSU [Sun-Yat Sen University] played an important role in leading research in this area. An increasing number of articles written by Chinese scholars have been published by prominent academic journals like International Journal of the Commons, World Development and Ecology & Society. The research of Chinese scholars is gradually being recognized by the global academic community.
Professor Yahua WANG has set a perfect example of growing from a young graduate student to a nationally and internationally recognized prolific scholar in his field of study, with the support and guidance of the Ostroms. Professor WANG, now serving as the Associate Dean of Tsinghua University’s School of Public Policy and Management, published a book titled Enhancing Commons Governance: Elinor Ostrom’s Scholarship and Applications. The book is dedicated to comprehensively reviewing her academic thoughts and achievements and how they have influenced and been applied in China.
Professor Shoulong MAO
Another scholar with long and deep connections with the Ostrom couple is Professor Shoulong MAO from Renmin University of China, a pioneer in the research of public affairs in China. He wrote a foreword for the Yahua’s aforementioned book and affectionately reflected upon his personal connection with Elinor and Vincent and detailed how the two academic masters established deep ties with China.
At the invitation of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Elinor and Vincent visited China for the first time in 1997, when I had the fortune to meet them in Beijing. We had several long chats during that time. We all felt very pleased to know each other. In the fall that year, I received funding from British Royal Academy of Sciences to study in London for three months. Elinor invited me to also visit them in Bloomington. In January 1998, setting off from London, I finally arrived at Indiana University Bloomington and stayed at a guest house of Ostrom Workshop for two weeks. During that time, Elinor hosted a talk by me to introduce the development of social sciences in China. My talk was attended by a full house of audience, which showed Elinor, Vincent and their colleagues’ great interest in China.
The two weeks’ visit to the Ostrom Workshop made me feel very necessary to introduce Ostrom’s academic thoughts to China. After returning to China in 1999, I spent a year translating six books of Ostrom and having them published in 2000. With efforts by more scholars during the following years, almost all the works of Ostrom have been translated into Chinese. Elinor and Vincent once joked about them having more reputation in China than in the U.S. Of course, I think that’s not true. But I take their words as great encouragement to us, as that showed their recognition of our work and had set expectations on us to work harder.
I had many short visits to Indiana university, during one of which, I even stayed in Ostrom’s house in the woods for a month and therefore had a chance to closely observe the two masters’ life. They both got up very early in the morning. Each time when I got up and started to make morning coffee, they had already worked for a few hours. We then would make breakfast together. After breakfast, Vincent often took me out for a walk before going to work. Their dinner was simple, and they would always start to work again after dinner. Such is the simple and focused life of the two academic masters. They put all their time and energy in academic research, which made me so believe that all their great achievements were by all means result of their diligence.
Elinor and Vincent came to China almost every other year. I remember once, with a special connection I had at the Beijing International Airport, I made it possible to meet them right at the gate of the airplane. When seeing me there, the couple felt as excited as a child and kept telling me how unexpected it was for them to see me at the gate of the plane! Vincent was deeply impressed by his first visit to Beijing. Every time I drove him around in the city later, taking him to various places he visited in 1997, he would excitedly tell me how he remembered this place and that.
Elinor’s last visit to China was in 2011. I could tell she wasn’t in the best health condition then, so that I tried my best to leave sufficient time for her to rest well in between her visiting activities. Elinor and I remained in communication via emails constantly. She always responded to my message fast. The last message I received from her was in the evening of June 11, 2012. But on the morning of the following day, I received an email from Elinor’s assistant, telling me that she passed away. I and all my colleagues were deeply saddened. I was expecting her next visit in 2013. But that visit could never happen anymore.
Elinor and Vincent undoubtedly left tremendously valuable academic assets to scholars in China through the published works they had. But what’s more important than that is their spirit of tirelessly pursuing scholarly excellence. Every single Chinese scholar and student who has visited Indiana University and studied with Elinor and Vincent at the Ostrom Workshop has been affected with a unique and noble academic temperament, which provides them an endless stream of power for self-actualization in their personal, professional, and academic lives. Every time I read books written by Elinor and Vincent, I could feel that magic power bestowed on me. It made me feel they are still around me, paying attention to my research and encouraging me to work harder and be a scholar with more productivity.
Under the coordination of IU China Gateway Office, Professor Scott Shackelford, Executive Director of Ostrom Workshop also made remarks at the event through a pre-recorded video. He noted that, “This event honors [the Ostroms] as people and as interdisciplinary scholars who were in many ways so ahead of their time, but who’s work still has much to teach all of us and how we can better understand and manage the collective action challenges we face now, and in the future, from climate change to polarization.”
The special bond between IU and China, established by a group of diligent scholars and the Ostrom couple, will continue to exist and flourish for many years to come. As the Ostrom Workshop is set to celebrate its 50th anniversary this year, we hope that many of the Chinese Ostrom scholars will be able to return to the IU Bloomington campus, connect with their colleagues, and join together in shared aspirations for a better world.
- Kexin SHU, Researcher at Governance & Community Institute (GOCO), A summary of the work of translating the documentary film of Actual World, Possible Future
- Chaoliang JING, Associate Professor, School of Economics and Management, Tianjin University of Science & Technology, A brief introduction of the documentary film of Actual World, Possible Future
- Zhihui ZHANG, Researcher and Deputy Director, Institute of Political Science, Academy of Social Sciences of Shandong Province, Political Science in the Residential Community
- Youhong CHEN, Associate Professor at School of Public Administration and Policy, Renmin University of China, Director of GOCO, Remembrance of Ostroms: about community level self-governance theory and practice
- Xiaodong LIANG, General Manager of Jinan DFL business operation and management company Ltd., Researcher at GOCO, The important guiding significance of Ostrom’s contribution to the practice of property management in China
- Ying LI, Doctoral Student at RUC, The concept of Public Entrepreneur raised by Ostrom
- Shoulong MAO, Professor at School of Public Administration and Policy, Renmin University of China, About Bloomington School
- Zengke HE, Professor and Academic Director of PKU Research Center for Chinese Politics, Harmonization of Scientific Spirit and Scientists
- Hongshan YANG, Professor at School of Public Administration and Policy, Renmin University of China, Self-governance and social community
- Jianxun WANG, Associate Professor at China University of Political Science and Law, How to make self-governing societies possible?
- Feng WANG, Professor and Associate Dean, School of Public Economics & Administration, Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, The influence to public affairs management in China by Elinor and Vincent Ostrom
- Jianguo CHEN, Professor at School of Humanities and Social Sciences, North China Electric Power University, Understanding the Theory of Polycentric Governance
- Xingyuan FENG, Researcher at the Rural Development Institute of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, A comparative analysis of Economics of Ostrom, Buchanan and Hayek
- Lihua YANG, Professor at the School of Government, PKU; Vice President of International Research Society for Public Management, Inheriting and Carrying Forward the Academic Spirit and Contribution of Elinor and Vincent Ostrom
- Yahua WANG, Professor and Associate Dean of School of Public Policy & Management, Tsinghua University, Governing the Commons: Academic Legacy of Ostrom
- Pengfei WAN, Associate Professor and Departmental Chair, Department of Administrative Management, School of Government, PKU, Love, Giving and Sharing
- Xunda YU, Professor and Director of Research Center of Political Science, School of Public Affairs Zhejiang University, Using Ostrom thoughts in the state system: from local to global governance