Wang Gungwu


Since the late 1950s, Wang Gungwu (1930- ) has been publishing pioneering works on the history of imperial China, China and Southeast Asia, and changing identities of Chinese in Southeast Asia. He also served as the teacher and mentor of several generations of scholars in the field. Born in Surabaya in the Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia) to patriotic, scholarly Chinese parents, and educated in British Malaya and London, he grew up as an insider both in Chinese Confucian culture and in the finest British academic tradition. His subsequent brilliant academic career in Malaya, Australia, Hong Kong, and Singapore, however, inevitably defines him as an “outsider” in the interpretation of China’s view of the world. This unique vantage point affords the most valuable and distinctive insights on Chinese history that characterize many of his works, and distinguishes him as one of the most original and inspiring historians of our times. As eloquently pointed out by William Skinner in 1982, Wang Gungwu embodies three scholarly personae, “The sinological historian, the pundit of Malaysian affairs, and the expert on the Nanyang Chinese.”


Sino-centric World Order: Changing Visions of Tianxia (天下)

Wang Gungwu’s doctoral dissertation (SOAS, London, 1957) published in 1963, The Structure of Power in North China during the Five Dynasties, was his first study on the Chinese world order from a northern perspective. He viewed imperial China as projected by the classics as the world of the Yellow River, where core ideas and values have emerged from the interactions between the plains of Hebei, Henan, and Shandong, and the uplands of Shanxi and Shaanxi, the cradle zones of Chinese civilization, whereas the southern kingdoms of the same period remained politically and culturally marginalized. This early study of a divided Chinese empire drew Wang Gungwu’s attention to rare historical periods of North/South unification into a common tianxia as interludes of political greatness, an ideal aspired by all rulers of China (Divided China: Preparing for Reunification, 883-947, 2007). His early research set the stage for his later studies on modern Chinese history, especially those on the Republican and the Communist Revolutions in 1911 and 1949, respectively, seen by him as modern attempts to realize the old dream of re-unifying China.[1]


His recent publications focused more specifically on what he sees as a probable “fourth rise” of China since 1978, an emerging modern tianxia envisioned not entirely in the old imperial tradition, but one that will be based on new shared values that create a sense of national belonging, while not upsetting the current world order. A recent book based on his interviews, Eurasian Core and Its Edges: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on History of the World (Ooi Kee Beng, 2015), has certainly spark animated discussions by both historians and political scientists on the opportunities and challenges that China is facing in its advance towards the “fourth rise.”


China’s South

        Wang Gungwu’s original approach to understanding China from the southern perspective is in part a natural choice given his personal experience, and also a development of his early interest on Chinese trade in the southern seas (“The Nanhai Trade: A Study of the Early History of Chinese Trade in the South China Sea,” M.A. thesis, University of Malaya, 1954). The classical Chinese education he had at home as a child and his doctoral study in London taught him about the northern origin of the Chinese civilization; his growing up in Malaya arose his early interest on Sun Yat-sen, and the Republican revolution made him sensitive to the political impact of the masses of southern Chinese in Southeast Asia—a historical fact that historians of his time paid little attention to.


         In a brilliant lecture he gave at the University of Hong Kong in November 2018 (“China’s South: Changing Perspective”), Wang Gungwu explained that, while southern literati elite of the northward looking Ming/Qing regimes acquired prestige and political influence in the north, their non-elite compatriots—traders, peasants, fishermen—were increasingly attracted to wealth-making possibilities in the South China Sea. The northern political regimes were traditionally wary of military assaults by enemies coming overland from the north but unaware of existential threats from the maritime south, until the mid-19th century. In other words, the commercial opportunities of the southern maritime global network, and the threat that came with it, were understood by common people in China’s south for a long time, well before the political elite, who recognized the peril when it was too late. Wang Gungwu connects this history to China’s present by pointing out that while China’s southern maritime outreach has clearly become central to the nation’s future economic development, as shown by the One Belt One Road initiative, potential conflicts with Southeast Asian nations have yet to be understood and properly dealt with.


        His mastery of the geopolitical significance of China’s south and Southeast Asia greatly impressed John Fairbank as early as the 1960s when he was invited to contribute to The Chinese World Order (1968), a volume that Fairbank was editing at the time (“Early Ming relations with Southeast Asia – a background essay”). After decades of research on Chinese in Southeast Asia, he recently re-focused and further sharpened his views on this specific topic in a new book that has certainly aroused much public interest: China Reconnects: Joining a Deep-rooted Past to a New World Order (2019, parts reprinted from his 2018 lecture).


Chinese in Southeast Asia: Multiplicity of Identities

        Wang Gungwu is best known for his pioneering work on Chinese in Southeast Asia. He does not see the “Chinese” in this part of the world as a monolithic group with a clear identity with China. By looking at their place of origin (from northern or southern China with different deities and cultural practices), the historical moment of their migration from China, their economic activities, and their integration into their host nation states, he distinguishes different historical processes constructing various types of “Chineseness” that these communities could assert when engaging their country of residence or mainland China.


He stresses the key factor of postcolonial nation-building in Southeast Asia that created political identities adopted by its citizens of multi-ethnic origins, including the Chinese. The cultural identity of ethnic Chinese, or their Chineseness, does not exclude their national identity with their host country. He advocates that the Chinese overseas be studied in the context of their respective national environments, and taken out of a dominant China reference point. Chinese overseas today, with a complex identity, are no longer the same as their forefathers who left China as huaqiao (Chinese sojourners) with a single and dominant Chinese identity during the Qing until the early 20th century, when they played a key role in creating modern Chinese nationalism.[2]


His many books written with first-hand life experience and erudition on Southeast Asian history, and sophisticated analysis of the role of Chinese in the region past and present, are now classics in the field: These include A Short History of the Nanyang Chinese, 1959; Community and Nation: Essays on Southeast Asia and the Chinese 1981;  Southeast Asia and the Chinese, 1987; The Nanhai Trade: The Early History of Chinese Trade in the South China Sea (南洋貿易與南洋華人, 1988); China and the Chinese Overseas, 1991; Community and Nation: China, Southeast Asia and Australia, 1992; The Chinese Overseas: From Earthbound China to the Quest for Autonomy, 2000; Don’t Leave Home: Migration and the Chinese, 2001; Overseas Chinese Studies: New Horizon and Direction—Collected Essays by Professor Wang Gungwu (海外華人研究的大視野與新方向, 2002); China and its Cultures: From the Periphery (離鄉別土: 境外看中華, 2007).



In addition to his pioneering studies on China and Chinese and Southeast Asia, Wang Gungwu has also written important works on contemporary Chinese politics and economy, imperialism and post-colonialism in Southeast Asia, and on the history of Malaysia more specifically. His extraordinary publication record started in 1953 and continues until 2019, with hardly any blank year.


On top of his brilliant scholastic achievement, he has also been a model academic leader: He was Head of Department (1968-1986) and Director of the Research School of Pacific Studies (1975-1980) at Australian National University; Vice President (President) of the University of Hong Kong, 1986-1995; Chairman, Institute of East Asian Political Economy, Singapore, 1996-2002; Director of East Asian Institute of National University of Singapore, 1997-2007.


Wang Gungwu as a scholar is widely respected and admired, as shown by the many honors he has obtained: Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities (1971); Commander of the Order of the British Empire (1991); Academician of Academia Sinica (1992); Winner of the international Fukuoka Asian Cultural Prize (1994); Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Science (1995); Honorary Doctorate of Letters from the University of Hong Kong (2002); University Professor, National University of Singapore (2007); Honorary Doctorate of Letters from the University of Cambridge (2009); Economic and Social Science Prize, Asia Cosmopolitan Award (2014).


For his outstanding contributions and achievements, Wang Gungwu is awarded the 2020 Tang Prize in Sinology.


[1] For detailed treatments of these topics, please see Wang Gungwu’s publications on China and the World since 1949: The impact of Independence, Modernity and Revolution (1977), The Chinese Way: China’s Position in International Relations (1995), and Joining the Modern World: Inside and Outside China (2000).

[2] For more, see Wang Gungwu’s The Chineseness of China (1991) and Diasporic Chinese Ventures: The Life and Work of Wang Gungwu (2004).

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