Wednesday, June 10, 2009


June 10, 2009 ST
The accidental - but masterly - historian
By Goh Sui Noi, Senior Writer

IN A way, Professor Wang Gungwu is an accidental historian.
His first love was literature. He would have picked literature for his honours course at the University of Malaya in Singapore except that the professor of English whom he admired had returned to England. He was left to choose between economics and history, the other two subjects he had studied. Economics, with its abstract models, he found too theoretical. 'I was more interested in unique things and things that actually happened,' he explained. So he chose history.

Even so, he could have gone on to pursue his interest in creative writing. 'In the end, I had to decide whether I was good enough to be a creative writer.'

He decided that he did not have the talent or will to write great novels or poetry and so chose to be a scholar instead.

'The scholarly life was something that appealed to me,' he said. He liked that teaching at a university meant taking part in the task of discovering new knowledge, of having better interpretations or devising new approaches.

Literature's loss is history's gain. Prof Wang went on to become a fine historian of China and the Chinese, penning many riveting books of history. He will be honoured on Friday for his work when he will be conferred an Honorary Doctorate of Letters by Cambridge University. He will be joined by nine others, including 1998 economics Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates.

This is not the first accolade that Prof Wang has received for his work, but it holds special meaning for him. For one thing, he is not an alumnus of Cambridge. He has not worked in Britain, whereas he has done so in Australia, where he has received honorary degrees from several universities. Chinese and Hong Kong universities have also awarded him honorary professorships and degrees respectively.

The latest award 'is special because it suggests that Cambridge University, which is a very good university, feels (Chinese history) is an important field and that my work is worth honouring or rewarding in some way', he said.

Prof Wang's work reflects his abiding interest in understanding the human condition, believing as he does that one can attain a deeper understanding of the present by knowing the past. As is the case with all great historians, what motivates Prof Wang's interest in the past is not the past as such but the present.

He was first drawn to study China's history because he had spent a year in Nanjing in 1947-48 at the National Central University. He saw a regime that had just won a victory against the Japanese and was in possession of huge resources decline rapidly and lose a civil war within three years. He wanted to understand why great civilisations could collapse.

He started by studying the reformist Kang Youwei and the nationalist revolutionary Sun Yat-sen, but found it impossible to do so given the atmosphere of the time. After the communist takeover in China, and with colonial Singapore combating its own leftists, anything to do with contemporary China was considered politically suspect. Books published in China were banned and that limited his research material.

He turned to ancient Chinese history instead, first researching the early trade between China and South-east Asia for his masters and then the period of chaos between the Tang and Sung dynasties - much like the period after the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911 - for his doctorate.

On his return from London University's School of Oriental and African Studies where he did his PhD, he taught at his alma mater in Singapore for two years before moving to its new branch in Kuala Lumpur in 1959. He taught the history of the Ming dynasty but was also asked to talk about the Chinese in South-east Asia. So he was simultaneously researching Chinese involvement in South-east Asia during the Ming dynasty as well as contemporary overseas Chinese. He was imperceptibly moving away from the ancient history of China into contemporary history - the history of the present, as it were.

Just as he was feeling then the limitation of doing research in Malaysia, he was invited by Australian National University to be a research professor there. The Cultural Revolution had just begun in China and he was appalled by the destruction of books and artefacts and wanted to understand why it was happening. The impetus to do so came during a month of travel in South Korea in 1968 where he saw how well Chinese traditions had been preserved there. He left that year for Australia where the abundance of research material and the freedom to study what he wanted was a refreshing change.

'I was able to catch up and understand, and it was there after a few years that I started to write about contemporary China,' he said.

In 1985, he was offered the vice-chancellorship of the University of Hong Kong. He could not resist the opportunity this afforded to observe at close quarters the tremendous changes taking place in China.

Prof Wang was born in Surabaya in Indonesia, grew up in Ipoh in Malaya and studied in Singapore - to which he returned in 1995. Former deputy prime minister Goh Keng Swee had invited him to head the Institute of East Asian Political Economy, now known as the East Asian Institute.

When the institute moved in 2007 to the Bukit Timah campus, where the University of Malaya was once located, Prof Wang's academic life had come full circle. He stepped down as director of the institute that year but remains its chairman. At 78, he spends his time lecturing overseas and here, co-supervising graduate students and continuing with his study of Chinese history. He is currently looking at China's transformation from empire into a nation-state and the obstacles it faced in the transformation. Prof Wang is one of the contributors to the Think-Tank column in these pages.

Though he has not gone back to studying ancient history, it continues to fascinate him. 'I wish I had more lives to learn about all that, it is too much to learn.' The accidental historian has become the consummate historian.

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