Renowned historian Wang Gungwu was named winner of the 2020 Tang Prize in Sinology at a press conference held in the Tang Prize Foundation on June 20. Prof. Chin-Shing Huang, vice president and academician of Academia Sinica, read the citation prepared by the selection committee, which lauded Prof. Wang “for his trailblazing and dissecting insights on the history of the Chinese world order, Chinese overseas, and Chinese migratory experience”, and for his “unique approach to understanding China by scrutinizing its long and complex relation with its southern neighbors.” As a result, his academic accomplishments have “significantly enriched the explanation of the Chinese people’s changing place in the world, traditionally developed from an internalist perspective or in relation to the West.”
Explaining the significance of awarding the prize in Sinology to a scholar widely known for his study of the history of Chinese overseas, Prof. Kuo-Tung Chen, research fellow of the Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica, roughly divided Sinology into three branches. While the study of the Han Chinese and of the non-Han ethnic groups related to China constitute the first two, the third one, namely the study of Chinese overseas, is a vast gap that still remains to be explored in this discipline. Prof. Wang’s research filled this gap, and his oeuvre has made Sinological research more comprehensive and more complete.
Born in the Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia) to Chinese parents and growing up in British Malaya, Prof. Wang started his research on the Chinese overseas focusing mainly on Southeast Asian countries because of his background, which, nonetheless, does not restrict his perception and imagination as a scholar. By acquiring a thorough knowledge of China’s history, he was able to establish a theoretical framework based on his personal experience and his academic training. This framework not only allows him to study Chinese overseas living in pre-modern eras and those living in regions other than Southeast Asia, but it also benefits other scholars who applied his theories to the study of Chinese overseas in different parts of the world.
Given Prof. Wang’s impressive accomplishments in this area, it would seem that there is little room left for other scholars to contribute to. However, Prof. Chen pointed out that research on immigrants and immigration issues would become more prominent because of the growing trend of people migrating to other countries for a variety of reasons, be it political, economic, or religious. Therefore, while in the past, diaspora was usually associated with the Chinese or Jewish communities overseas, nowadays it also refers to a wide range of communities living abroad including Korean, Indian, and others. What we can infer from Prof. Chen’s remarks is that anyone interested in migration studies can be inspired by the methodologies Prof. Wang developed: learning different languages and different histories so as to be able to adopt different perspectives. To truly understand migration, our worldview cannot afford to be monolithic and one-dimensional.
That is why in his acceptance video clip, Prof. Wang encouraged young scholars today to “take a broader view” when looking at Sinology and recognize that modern Sinology includes “all forms of knowledge and all sorts of methodologies that might be helpful or relevant to the studies of Sinology, and try to make use of them to enrich the[ir] studies.” For that reason, “it is important for the study of China to recognize that China’s position in the world is a major part of Sinology today.” The advice, provided by the latest winner of the Tang Prize in Sinology, is a clear echo of the message delivered by Dr. Samuel Yin, founder of the Tang Prize Foundation, telling us that “what the Tang Prize signifies is Asia’s significance in relation to the rest of the world”.