Wang Gungwu

Tang Prize Laureate Wang Gunguwu Emphasizes the Study of Languages as Fundamental to Understanding Chinese Civilization

  • Wang Gungwu
  • Wang Gungwu
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The Taiwan-based Tang Prize Foundation recently announced historian Wang Gungwu as the winner of its 2020 prize in Sinology. An acclaimed scholar of Chinese overseas studies, Prof. Wang is an also expert on Sino-Southeast Asian relations. He developed a unique approach to understanding China by scrutinizing its interactions with its southern neighbors and is able to integrate the history of the Chinese overseas, Sino-foreign relations, Southeast Asia, trade, as well as maritime history. His erudition and insight have significantly enriched the explanation of Chinese people’s changing place in the world.   


Modern Sinology helps us understand China’s position in the world


Caught by surprise and thanking the Foundation for the award, Prof. Wang noted that Sinology in the past has been given a relatively narrower definition—one that would make him question if he is considered a Sinologist. But as far as Prof. Wang is concerned, Sinology is not only about the ancient past. It also includes what has happened to China in the last couple of hundred years, and how China has reconnected with that past while also making progress towards recognizing what is taking place around the world. These are all essential aspects that anyone studying history should be familiar with.


“It is important for the study of China to recognize that China’s position in the world is a major part of modern Sinology today,” Prof. Wang observed. In addition, how China is perceived by the outside world merits equal attention in today’s China.    


A scholar born in the time of chaos, an intellectual from a diverse background, and an academic with multiple viewpoints


Modern China is a history peppered with many episodes of political turmoil. Against this backdrop coupled with advancements in navigation and the colonial expeditions of many European countries, many Chinese people in search of a better life chose to leave their hometowns and immigrate to Southeast Asia. It is therefore imperative that those interested in studying the Chinese overseas not only achieve fluency in Chinese but also have a firm grasp of the socio-economic factors of the countries they have settled in and of the language, culture and history of these colonial powers.  


Different from Guoxue’s internalist perspective on China or the scholarship of Hanxue developed outside of China, Prof. Wang’s approach is more broad-minded, eclectic and inclusive of global history. He offers in-depth analysis of issues such as China’s rise and fall, the role assumed by the Chinese overseas, and the emerging maritime powers’ impact on continental states, which earned him the reputation as the trailblazer of Chinese overseas studies.   


Growing up in a multi-cultural environment and educated to be a polyglot give Prof. Wang the advantage needed to be an outstanding academic. Understandably, when reflecting on winning the Tang Prize, he stressed that the key to a proper understanding of Chinese civilization lies in the mastery of the language. 


Prof. Wang’s ancestors lived in the Hebei province; his grandfather once served as a government official in the Jiangsu province; and his father went to South Asia to teach Chinese. Born in Surabaya in the Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia) in 1930, he later on moved to British Malaya with his family. At home, his parents tutored him in Chinese and Confucianism. Once he stepped outside the house, it was a racially and culturally diverse society where a miscellany of languages, including Chinese, English, Malay, and Hindi, were spoken.   

Adding to the experience of growing up among a heterogeneous population was the education he received in different parts of the world, including Malaya, China and England. After getting his PhD degree from SOAS, the University of London, in 1957, he began his academic career which would bring him to Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Australia, and the United States. From 1986 to 1995, he was president of the University of Hong Kong. In 1992, he was elected academician of Academia Sinica. He was also a visiting fellow at Oxford’s All Souls College, a Rockefeller visiting fellow at the University of London, and recipient of the Order of the British Empire. Currently he is university professor at the National University of Singapore. In August 2020, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, a Singaporean national honor.      


To young people: know thyself and the sky is the limit


Nurtured by traditional Confucian teachings, Prof. Wang nonetheless was able to carve out his own worldview, for which he has his father to thank. He will always remember his father as the person who encouraged him to pursue his interest, which at first was literature but after he began studying history, was switched to the latter. From then on, he made up his mind to explore the different eras of China through the eyes of a historian.   


Prof. Wang’s unique background and personal experiences sent him on an introspective journey of self-discovery, which not only helped him develop original research methods but also paved the way for his lifelong commitment to the study of the Chinese overseas. Long before “identity diversity” became a trending topic, Prof. Wang had already started to formulate this concept. This is clear proof of the prescience of his research. At a time when Sinology’s relevance to the entire world becomes ever more obvious, he advises young novices in this field to master its foundation, the language itself, and then concentrate their attention on one particular area and dive deep into it. Ultimately, the goal is for them to “enrich, broaden the field, and make Chinese studies far more important than is recognized today.”      


In “China’s South: Changing Perspective,” a lecture Prof. Wang delivered at the University of Hong Kong in 2018, he offered brilliant explanations of how, as an ancient continental empire, China in the 18th century was confronted with serious challenges from emerging maritime powers. The fact that it fell far behind other countries in terms of technology triggered a series of economic and cultural reforms, which eventually led to a complete overhaul of China’s political system. Dr. Sun Yat-sen overthrew the Qing Dynasty with the hope of establishing a democracy, and even though China has grown into the world’s second largest economy, how to reconcile the differences between the diverse ethnicities living in its vast territory remains a real challenge.       


With a wide scope of knowledge that ranges from politics, economics, foreign relations to cultural studies, and with the ability to make in-depth and comprehensible analysis of the vicissitudes of global situation China’s fate during the past two hundred years was entangled with, Prof. Wang holds views that are not only sui generis but are also of great value to today’s Sinology.