Author: Richard Rigby, ANU
The citation awarding 2020’s prestigious Taipei-based Tang Prize in Sinology to Professor Wang Gungwu records his ‘ground-breaking research on the Chinese world order, Chinese overseas, and Chinese migratory experience’.
As the leading historian on Sino–Southeast Asian relations, he has developed a unique approach to understanding China by scrutinising its long and complex relations with its southern neighbours. ‘His erudition and insight have significantly enriched the explanation of the Chinese people’s changing place in the world’, bringing a new perspective to a field once dominated either by a traditional internally-focused Chinese view or by China as seen through Western eyes.
The word ‘unique’ is entirely appropriate. It reflects Wang Gungwu’s background and upbringing. While he was born in Indonesia and grew up in Malaya (colonial and Japanese-occupied), Wang Gungwu was educated at home as an insider in China’s ‘great tradition’ by his Jiangsu scholar-gentry father sent by the then Chinese government to Southeast Asia as a teacher.
Simultaneously, he became an insider in the British school system through his higher education at the University of Malaya, SOAS in London and the Central University in Nanjing during the crucial years 1947–1948. While fully identifying as Chinese, at least in the cultural sense, he was equally part of both the English-speaking West and Southeast Asia.
With this background, his own experience and his enquiring mind, it is not surprising that he originally hoped to devote himself to the study of modern Chinese history. Having personally witnessed China in turmoil and on the cusp of change, he was interested in big questions: how did China fall apart at the end of the Qing Dynasty, and what did it take to re-establish order?
But political circumstances at home were not favourable for such endeavours, and he turned his attention to earlier times. His MA thesis at the University of Malaya (1954) examined the history of early Chinese trade in the South China Sea, a topic at that time largely untouched. This thesis, subsequently re-worked as an influential monograph published in 1958 as The Nanhai Trade, established his position as an expert in this area. This was further confirmed by his contribution on Ming Dynasty relations with Southeast Asia to Chinese World Order edited by Fairbank in 1963.
In the intervening period, he did not ignore the issue of dynastic change. His PhD at SOAS on the Five Dynasties, completed in 1957, looked at how the Tang dynasty fell apart and how order was eventually rebuilt. This became the basis of his first major book, The Structure of Power in North China During the Five Dynasties (1963, republished by Stanford in 1967).
This and The Nanhai Trade set the pattern for a life of scholarship covering China and Southeast Asia, the overseas Chinese experience and the big questions of Chinese history. Professor Wang’s opus is huge: a listing of his select publications from 1950 to 2010 covers 45 pages. It includes works in Bahasa and Chinese and translations of his works into these and other languages. As with his background and the scope of his writing, his influence spans not only the Anglosphere but Southeast Asia, the Sinophone world and Japan.
Wang Gungwu writes from no ivory tower: he draws on the rich personal experience of the various worlds in which he has lived. He leans on his engagement with administration as well as scholarship pure and simple, while never losing sight of the true reason for the existence of those bodies over which he has exercised responsibility.
From 1968 to 1986, as professor and head of the Department of Far Eastern History and director of the Research School of Pacific Studies at the Australian National University, he played a major role in helping Australians enhance their understanding of China and Southeast Asia. He trained several generations of scholars and political leaders. As vice-chancellor of the University of Hong Kong from 1986–1995, he helped prepare it for the post-1997 era. As director of the then new East Asian Institute of Singapore from 1997, in the words of Ezra Vogel, ‘he led the Institute in studying the big issues facing China and writing crisp clear reports that inform not only scholars but governmental and business leaders around the world’. He has also given wise counsel to Singapore’s political leaders over many years, while retaining his Australian citizenship.
Such experience helps inform his own research. In the best Confucian tradition, this combines scholarship and administration for the betterment of the world.
In recent years Professor Wang has brought together the various strands of his work to focus once again on the big questions: what is China, how does it relate to the rest of the world and vice-versa? What is the balance between tradition and modernity, continuity and change? He has given lectures and published a number of relatively short, accessible works. These are broad yet deep and rich in scholarship. Two that are particularly worthy of attention are The Chinese Overseas: From Earthbound China to the Quest for Autonomy (2000) and Renewal: The Chinese State and the New Global History (2013).
Much like his answers to questioners from around the world at his Tang Prize award ceremony on 23 September, these works display an open, affirming and positive view of life and learning without ignoring the horrors and stupidity of which mankind is capable.
As we face current challenges, Wang Gungwu’s is a voice we need more than ever.
Richard Rigby is Emeritus Professor at the College of Asia and the Pacific, the Australian National University.
This essay is the first in an EAF series, Asian Voices, celebrating the contribution of great Asian intellectuals and thinkers to the understanding of the region. This essay is the first of two published today on the occasion of Professor Wang Gungwu’s ninetieth birthday.
Wang Gungwu AO CBE is Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University and University Professor at the National University of Singapore. He is a former chairman of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and the NUS East Asian Institute, and former vice chancellor of Hong Kong University. He is a fellow and former president of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, a foreign honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Science, and an awardee of Singapore’s Distinguished Service Order. Professor Wang’s major works include The Nanhai Trade (1958), Community and Nation: China, Southeast Asia and Australia (1992), The Chinese Overseas: From Earthbound China to the Quest for Autonomy (2000) and Renewal: The Chinese States and the New Global History (2013). Professor Wang is a long-time contributor to News JU.
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