Academic blind spot in Asia

June 5, 1998

We are accustomed to the history of Orientalism in the West and its politically correct extension, the field of Asian studies. We are less aware, however, of Asian efforts to study one another's societies and teach the subject in schools and universities. These efforts are, in any case, rarely described as Asian studies, for the simple reason that Asia is a European construct and Asians have discovered their "Asianness" only during the past century in reaction to being grouped as Orientals.

To be called Orientals reflects the fact that foreign cultures were being studied as the Other by Occidentals. It is different when scholars and students in Asia today turn consciously to study neighbouring countries and peoples as Asians. For most, this would be a new experience that identifies one's neighbours as fellow Asians.

It is time to ask how Asians are faring in the study of their neighbours as part of their discovery of Asia. How did scholars in Asia study the Other before the impact of Orientalism, and how are they doing it now?

The first long-term example of this kind can be represented by Chinese scholarly writings on Indian Buddhism, which included knowledge of Indian states as well as worldly notes on South-east Asian trading ports and kingdoms. The tradition began with imperial records about border states, a sort of Chinese Orientalism, which reached a climax with a series of studies before and after the Cheng Ho expeditions of the 15th century.

As for Chinese Buddhist studies of the Other, they date back at least 1,600 years to Fa Hsien's Record of the Buddhist Kingdoms. This was followed by Japanese and Korean studies of Chinese Buddhism, and both groups were later to write profoundly on Confucianism.

Elsewhere in Asia, a new tradition began with Islam. Arab and Persian studies of the countries they traded with to their east were followed by books on India. And there were also the works in various languages that were spawned by the Mongol empire in Eurasia.

In South-east Asia, too, several empires from Majapahit to Vietnam to Ayudhya left writings that reflected similar approaches to the study of the Other as exotic and dependent entities.

These earlier expressions of imperial Orientalism remind us that the awareness of the Other has both humble as well as arrogant beginnings.

The immediate antecedents of Asian studies in European and North American universities enjoyed an arrogant phase. And there is a residue of superiority in some of the approaches found today. But a more humble scientific attitude has evolved in the post-colonial period, and the study of Asia has diversified well beyond the classical and the ethnographic stage. In particular, the global expansion of the social science disciplines has left no part of Asia unstudied. The question is, how do Asians regard these studies and how far have they developed patterns for studying the Other that are peculiar to themselves?

This subject has intrigued a number of foundations, especially those that have supported Asian scholars in the arts and the social sciences to pursue their studies in Western Europe, North America and, on the edge of Asia, Australasia and the exceptional case of Japan. These scholars have much to offer Western and Japanese students but have also brought methodologies back to their own institutions. Over time, this has led to fruitful collaborations.

What has recently attracted attention is the impression that, while scholars from each Asian country established close relations with their counterparts in Western universities, relatively few have done the same with fellow scholars in Asia. To find out how true this is, and if this has longer-term significance, the president of the Asian Studies Association of Australia, Anthony Reid, was invited to chair a meeting to examine the state of Asian studies in Asia today.

The meeting, held at Hua Hin with Chulalongkorn University's Institute of Asian Studies as host, collected detailed information about each of the 16 territories covered. As one might expect, each country's teaching and research about itself is serious and sustained, but when it comes to the study of other countries or regions in Asia, the situation is quite different.

It is not surprising that the study of the Other varies from country to country. What is surprising is how few scholars in some countries study their immediate Asian neighbours at all. The reasons for this neglect are many. They include obvious ones, such as shortage of money and research facilities and the historical distrust between governments concerned. No less important, however, is that many societies respect their scholars more if they keep close links with their teachers and colleagues in the West than if they work with other Asians. This is partly because the latter have little funding, but also because exciting methodologies have come from the West.

As noted, Japan is an exception, not only because it has absorbed many Western scholarly practices, but also because it has had a long history of studying China as its Other for more than a thousand years. Switching from China to the West was a decision that transformed the country. It used Toyoshi (Oriental History) to cover what the West called Oriental, and employed similar attitudes towards the study of the Oriental Other. It is now the only Asian country that has continuously studied the history of the rest of Asia for more than 100 years.

China and South Korea have also established Asian studies, but economic and political constraints have limited their coverage. Elsewhere, with the exception of Hong Kong and Singapore, funding problems have been more severe, and local scholars often depend on sources outside Asia for funds to keep up their research work.

South and South-east Asian countries are more prone to look to the West than to one another. Does it matter? For the present, probably not. But it does seem a shame that the scholars more likely to understand their neighbours are lured away. It may also be because the near is too familiar and is not enough of the Other to stimulate intellectual interest. There is no relief from the same assortment of underdeveloped problems. What is fresh and stimulating and worthy to be future models comes from the successful West. With the financial denouement of the past year, this is likely to continue. Unless deliberate efforts are made to offer viable alternatives, the study by Asians of neighbouring Asian cultures may become even less appealing.

Wang Gungwu is chairman of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore.

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