Historian Wang Gungwu wins Taiwan’s Tang Prize for work on Chinese world

  • Arts
  • Saturday, 27 Jun 2020

Wang was lauded for his 'unique approach to understanding China by scrutinising its long and complex relation with its southern neighbours.' Photo: Filepic

Renowned historian Professor Wang Gungwu was recently awarded the 2020 Tang Prize in Sinology for his trailblazing work on Chinese overseas, the history of the Chinese world order and the Chinese migratory experience.

In a statement from Tang Prize, the leading scholar on Sino-South-East Asian historical relations was lauded for his unique approach to understanding China by scrutinising its long and complex relation with its southern neighbours.

“His erudition and critical discernment 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, ” it said.

It referred to Wang’s research as an “integration of a variety of histories, including the history of Chinese overseas, of China’s relation with the outside world, of South-East Asia, and of commerce and maritime history”.

Wang was born in Surabaya in the Dutch East Indies’ (today’s Indonesia) in 1930 to Chinese parents.

Raised in Ipoh in British Malaya, he studied at Ipoh’s Anderson School before pursuing his tertiary studies at National Central University in Nanjing, China, University of Malaya in Singapore and University of London.

Upon his return to South-East Asia, he lectured at the University of Malaya, first in Singapore then Kuala Lumpur, where he became dean of the Faculty of Arts and Professor of History. Subsequent academic appointments brought him to Australia, Hong Kong and the United States.

“What drew me to that subject (Chinese overseas) was what China meant to the world outside, especially to those Chinese who had left the country and settled abroad, ” wrote Wang in his 2018 memoir, Home Is Not Here.

He is currently university professor at the National University of Singapore.

In his acceptance, Wang, 89, remarked that sinology is not just the study of China's ancient past.

"Sinology includes what has happened to China in the past couple of hundred years and how China has reconnected with that past but also made advances or made efforts to advance and progress towards mechanising the other great things that have happened about the world," he said.

"In other words, the world outside is now very important to China and it is important for the study of China to recognise that China's position in the world is a major part of modern sinology today," he added.

Young people aspiring to be sinologists should master the foundations of sinology but Wang advised: "be prepared to go forward and focus on one particular aspect, one particular area and go further in that".

"In my case, it was history but it doesn't have to be history. In the end, what happens is that you enrich and broaden the field and make China studies far more important than it is recognised today," he said.

Wang has published numerous works on this subject, including A Short History Of The Nanyang Chinese (1959), The Structure Of Power In North China During The Five Dynasties (1963), The Chinese Overseas: From Earthbound China To The Quest For Autonomy (2000) and Renewal: The Chinese State And The New Global History (2013).

The biannual Tang Prize, established by Taiwanese entrepreneur Samuel Yin, aims to promote cooperation between cultural and technological research, for sustainable development of the world.

It honours people who have made contributions in four categories: sinology, development, biopharmaceutical science and rule of law.

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