In 2000, the Institut de France, Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres awarded Hegel the Prix Stanislas Julien for Reading Illustrated Fiction in Late Imperial China.
Hegel was raised on a dairy farm in Goodrich, Michigan, where he was inspired by the Soviet launching of the Sputnik rocket in 1957 to study engineering. But once enrolled at Michigan State University, he recalled later, he "discovered fairly quickly that it didn’t matter how hard I studied calculus, I just couldn’t understand it.” Instead, he began to study Chinese, which he found "different, and much more difficult than I had imagined, but it was also fascinating,” he said. “Chinese culture was unfamiliar, yet understandable — human interests and needs being pretty much constant around the world, after all.”
In 1965 he entered the graduate program at Columbia University using a National Defense Foreign Language fellowship which supported him through coursework and a period of study in Taiwan. At Columbia he studied with C.T. Hsia, who was turning his attention to the classic Chinese novels. In Taiwan, Hegel took a supplementary job for the China Airlines flight magazine, which he credits with getting him outside the library to learn about Chinese culture.
While finishing work on his dissertation, he taught at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland from 1972 to 1974. At Duke University, Durham, he was Visiting Associate Professor of International Studies in 1986 and Resident Director of the Duke Study in China Program for 1986. He joined Washington University as Assistant Professor in 1975, and became Full Professor and Chair of the Department of Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages and Literatures in 1986.
Hegel's 1981 monograph, The Novel in Seventeenth Century China, analyzes three related seventeenth century works of fiction set in the Sui dynasty, along with other prominent writings, especially the critical writings of Jin Shengtan and Zhang Zhupo. Hegel sets these works of fiction and criticism in their political and cultural background, particularly the decades of turmoil that marked the transition from the Ming to the Qing dynasty. Hegel sees three developments reflected in fiction of this period: interest in contemporary events, a rise of individualism and self-expression, and a new interest in using form to convey character and feeling. These developments, he argues, were similar in some ways to those when Western fiction moved towards realism and pychological awareness. Ellen Widmer's review in Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies praises the work but adds that a choice of different works to include would lead to different results and that it is a "preliminary foray, the rough first mapping which inspires others to amplify and shade in."