Tang Prize Laureate Wang Gungwu Elucidates Sinology’s Pluralist Future

  • The Tang Prize Foundation and Taiwan’s National Chengchi University co-hosted the 2020 Tang Prize Masters’ Forum in Sinology on September 22, 2020 at the university’s Art and Culture Center.
  • The Tang Prize Foundation and Taiwan’s National Chengchi University co-hosted the 2020 Tang Prize Masters’ Forum in Sinology on September 22, 2020 at the university’s Art and Culture Center.
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Tracing the history of Sinology, Professor Wang Gungwu began with Orientalist Sinology that emerged in Europe in the 18th century, then overviewed the development of China Studies or Guoxue advocated by intellectuals in the late Qing Dynasty, and finally outlined the transformation of the field into new Hanxue or China studies in the 1960s which incorporated methodologies of social sciences. He shows that the history of Sinology is indeed complex. In his Masters’ Forum speech, Prof. Wang Gungwu, 2020 Tang Prize laureate in Sinology and doyen of Chinese overseas studies, provided us with an in-depth analysis of how the development of Sinology is intertwined with the rise and fall of Eastern and Western civilizations, as well as with the vicissitudes of modern China. Enriched by various cultural and political forces and nourished by ideas of different academic disciplines, Sinology has been able to carve out its own distinct path.  


The Tang Prize Foundation and Taiwan’s National Chengchi University co-hosted the 2020 Tang Prize Masters’ Forum in Sinology on September 22, 2020 at the university’s Art and Culture Center. The forum began with Prof. Wang’s talk on “The High Road to Pluralist Sinology,” which was followed by a panel discussion featuring Prof. Wang, Prof. Huang Chin-shing, vice president and academician of Academia Sinica, Prof. Chen Kuo-tung, research fellow of Academia Sinica’s Institute of History and Philology, and Prof. Yang Jui-sung, professor and vice dean of National Chengchi University’s College of Liberal Arts.  


Prof. Huang, when introducing Prof. Wang, informed the audience that Prof. Wang was chosen as winner of the 2020 Tang Prize in Sinology because he is among the top scholars with the most profound understanding of China and new Asia. He praised Prof. Wang for his “trailblazing and dissecting insight” and his original approach which not only “parts ways with traditional perspectives and carves out a new path that significantly enriches our understanding” of Sinology but which has also “filled a gap in the field of Sinology.”  


In his opening speech, President of National Chengchi University Kuo Ming-cheng remarked on the timely nature of Prof. Wang’s topic and its relevance to the university. He especially mentioned the Lo Chia-luen International Sinology Chair, which was established at the university in 2019 as part of its mission to further the development of Sinological studies. Academician Yu Ying-shih of Academia Sinica and 2014 laureate of the Tang Prize in Sinology was invited to serve as its inaugural professor emeritus. With the honor of having Prof. Wang deliver a speech here, the university hopes to be “in a position to connect Chinese culture with the rest of the world” and to be the meeting place of “established scholars and rising stars in the field of Sinology.”


What constitutes pluralist Sinology? As far Prof. Wang is concerned, there are four components. First, it “covers the total body of work by scholars of different cultural and national identities.” Second, its foundations “have been built on classical Chinese and several other knowledge traditions.” Third, its scholarship is based on multiple premises “drawn from more than one academic discipline.” Fourth, “the plurality makes Sinology useful for China’s future development but may also serve a variety of political agendas.”  


Orientalist Sinology was founded on “the study of languages and philological methods.” It is a “holistic” approach to “understanding a once admirable civilization.” Toward the end of the 19th century, China plunged into turmoil. Chinese scholars thus started to look into the Jingshi tradition, hoping to “find lessons from the past to help them deal with new challenges” and to make China “admirable and secure” again. Another turning point arrived with the rise of a new China. It was a time when China’s relation with the former Soviet Union and its role in the Cold War with the United States in the late 1950s became an incentive for a new generation of scholars from fields including anthropology, history, economics and political science to study these phenomena. Sinologists at that time also began to realize that if they didn’t “extend their scholarly range” and “take into account what this China was reconstructing,” they would become increasingly irrelevant.   


How should we understand the relevance of Sinology in the context of the emergence of new academic disciplines? Prof. Wang noted that the end of the 19th century saw many European powers trying to establish their modern achievements as “universal standards for civilization” and to impose these standards for the then ailing China. Sinologists, however, made strenuous efforts to “correct the biases among those foreign leaders who preferred China to be weak and ripe to be carved up.” In fact, these Western countries’ ideological claims “had not been acceptable, not in the Islamic realms, nor in Hindu and Buddhist polities.” Moreover, “even for East Asian countries that wanted progress and development, changes were partial and came about with reluctance.” Prof. Wang argued that “China’s painful history over the past 150 years have shown why studying China requires us to understand why its people today still expect to preserve key parts of their rich heritage.”

While contemporary Sinologists have become well acquainted with methodologies used in the social sciences, a pluralist Sinology also faces new challenges. Prof. Wang alerted us that “a strong and ambitious China is now seen by the global superpower, the United States, as a threat to its supremacy,” and “for both powers, the knowledge gathered by pluralist Sinology could serve as a weapon, for either self-defense or for intelligent offense, under conditions of intense rivalry.” Therefore, he encouraged the “large and varied internationalist Sinologists” to “learn how to wield their knowledge not only to defend the integrity of their profession but also to help dowse the fires that others had fanned with their inbuilt or policy-determined biases.” Concluding his speech, Prof. Wang pointed out that on this high road to pluralist Sinology, “that sensitive and difficult task will always be a severe challenge. But it remains an unshirkable responsibility to confront that challenge.” 



Commenting on Prof. Wang’s talk, Prof. Yang noted that there seems to be a tension between a pluralist and a more classical approach to Sinology, and also asked Prof. Wang how his upbringing has affected his research. In reply, Prof. Wang pointed out that what really mattered was not whether an approach was classical or not but whether we can continue to challenge existing literature and keep learning and thinking. He stressed that ultimately Sinologists should be able to distinguish between what is temporary and what is permanent, and between what is subjective and what is objective. It is the scholars’ duty to constantly search for better answers in order to create new bodies of knowledge.   

Prof. Chen mentioned how globalization and the explosion of technological innovations have broaden the scope of Sinology on the one hand, but have also made information integration more difficult on the other. The result is that some researchers tend to get tunnel vision and their research suffers from superficiality. Prof. Wang remains rather optimistic about these trends, as he believes that they show Sinology’s potential to become an all-encompassing subject and reflect our ability to update ourselves on new skills and new methodologies. Our base of knowledge became more comprehensive because of globalization, and we also became more capable of dealing with all kinds of problems and communicating with other people. Globalization weaned us from navel-gazing, so we can pay more attention to people with different cultural backgrounds and values. These are all positive outcomes of globalization. The real challenge would be to identify the information we need among a tsunami of data available to us now.  


To understand how Prof. Wang’s research can contribute to the development of Sinology in Taiwan, we can look to the speech given by Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at National Chengchi University Hsueh Hua-yuan, in which he pointed out that Chinese immigrants and the culture they brought to Taiwan have become an indispensable part of Taiwanese culture. He believes that National Chengchi University can become the mecca for people interested in Chinese studies, a place where frequent academic interactions will take place and cultivate in the Taiwanese people an open mind to engage with the world. He hopes that Prof. Wang’s speech would mark the start of the realization of this vision.   


Founded in 2012, the Tang Prize Foundation awards the Tang Prize in four categories biennially. The 2020 Tang Prize in Sinology was awarded to Prof. Wang “for 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 develops a unique approach to understanding China by scrutinizing its long and complex relation with its southern neighbors. His erudition and insight 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.”