Indian and South Asian Studies in China

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Asian Studies in China Blogs and Interviews

Indian and South Asian Studies in China

Interview with Dr Cao Yin, Tsinghua University

Yiming Yu

Research Assistant at the Center for Global Asia

Amid the rapidly increasing engagement between China and the rest of the world, when the importance of Chinese Studies is receiving wider recognition and critical evaluation outside China, Chinese scholars have also been striving to learn more about the rest of the world, especially the regions in Asia. As a result, the discipline of Asian Studies has witnessed remarkable growth in China during the past decade.

In this series of interviews by the Centre for Global Asia at NYU Shanghai, we aim to provide insights into how the study of Asia has developed in China. We examine the history as well as the current landscape of Asian Studies through dialogues with scholars at various academic institutions in mainland China who have made outstanding contributions to the field.

In this interview, we talk with Dr Cao Yin, Associate Professor and Cyrus Tang Scholar in the Department of History at Tsinghua University. Dr Cao specializes in South Asian Studies. His research interests include modern South Asia, global history, and Sino-Indian interactions. He is the author of Chinese Sojourners in Wartime Raj, 1941-45 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming) and From Policemen to Revolutionaries: A Sikh Diaspora in Global Shanghai, 1885-1945 (Leiden: Brill, 2018). His articles have appeared in Modern Asian StudiesSouth Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, and Journal of World History. He is currently working on a new project of the British Raj’s imagined infrastructures across the Indian Ocean region in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

01.

As a scholar specializing in Indian/South Asian Studies, could you please provide a brief introduction to the history of this discipline in China?

South Asian Studies in China might be said to have two origins. The first consists of studies of South Asian languages and texts that was undertaken through translations of classical South Asian religious literature. Such studies were influenced by the methodologies of comparative linguistics, popular among the so-called “Oriental Studies” scholars in Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries. This attracted some Chinese scholars to study classical South Asian language and texts. The second origin probably appeared at the end of the 20th century, when the demand to study Chinese geopolitics enticed International Relations and International Politics scholars to focus on contemporary political and economic trends in South Asia. With the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, the academic focus on the politics and economy of South Asia has increased markedly.

02.

As far as you know, how much interest do Chinese university students have in Indian/South Asian Studies? How much support have Chinese institutions provided to these students?

In China, Indian/South Asian Studies is among the less popular disciplines in regional studies. Because of language barriers, limited awareness of research topics, unclear career paths etc., there is not too much interest among students in this subject. The teaching at Chinese universities is language-oriented, which focuses on reading texts, translation, and language training. Since most universities in China that offer South Asian language programs are at local foreign language training campuses, they can only obtain limited funding from the government, so the support for students is relatively modest.

From Institute for International and Area Studies, Tsinghua University

03.

In terms of teaching, could you please compare Indian/South Asian Studies in Chinese universities with those in other countries? In your opinion, what should Chinese universities do to improve their teaching in this field?

Reforming the teaching of South Asian Studies could be approached from two aspects. First, a job-oriented teaching plan should stress vocational expertise in addition to language training. Second, a research-oriented teaching plan should provide students with rigorous academic training in the humanities and social sciences. In other words, in China, research on South Asia should lessen the emphasis only on language training (could language training centres that are independent of research institutes take charge of language training?). They should, rather, establish efficient curricula that integrate humanities and social sciences courses to cultivate comprehensive knowledge of the discipline and awareness of the issues [concerning South Asia].

04.

In the area of historical research, what are the new and popular topics related to India and South Asia in China? What aspects need to be improved? And what are the future prospects of development in these areas?

In my view, in China, South Asian Studies, as a sub-field of regional and country studies, still displays a tendency towards polarization. At one end is Indology, which is dominated by studies of classical languages and terms and the analysis of texts, while at the other end is policy studies, which is dominated by International Relations and International Politics. In China, research on South Asian history during the Islamic and British colonial periods is quite limited. In addition, there is still room for improvements with regard to the identification of research topics.

From Institute for International and Area Studies, Tsinghua University

05.

In the area of South Asian Studies, how is the state of interaction between scholars in China and those from other countries?

There is not much interaction. Publications on South Asian from prominent foreign university presses are rarely translated into Chinese. Similarly, research on South Asia by Chinese scholars is seldom translated and published outside China. Interaction between Chinese and prominent foreign South Asian Studies centres are not very frequent.

06.

What has Tsinghua University done to promote the study of South Asia?

There are several post-doctoral fellows and young scholars specializing in South Asian Studies at the Institute for International and Area Studies, Tsinghua University (IIAS). They focus on all topics related to contemporary South Asian politics, economics, and culture. I have convened two course modules at the Department of History, Tsinghua, related to South Asian Studies, namely A Brief History of India and The British Raj and the Making of the Modern World.

I and the postgraduate students under my supervision focus more on the interaction between South Asia and other regions in the early-modern era, as well as on the impact of colonialism on South Asian politics, environment, and culture. Through events such as postgraduate reading groups, workshops for young scholars and public talks in South Asian Studies, South Asian Studies at Tsinghua have gradually cultivated the ability to interact with international academia and develop unique research themes.

07.

Regarding your courses on Indian history at Tsinghua, what has student feedback been like? In your view, before attending the first lecture, how much did students know about the subject? Why do they choose courses on South Asia?

In the first few years, not many students took my courses on Indian history. Most of those who enrolled in the classes had no background knowledge or language skills. They conveyed that it was hard to understand the content of the lectures. These students mainly learned about India through what they saw on the media and Internet. They took these courses in the hope of understanding Indian culture further. About a third of these students are international students, most of whom come from Malaysia. They opt for courses on India because they have often interacted with Indians in Malaysia and thus hope to learn more about the Indian community in their own country.

08.

Does Tsinghua provide extra support such as language training, academic resources or opportunities for students to take Indian/South Asian Studies abroad?

The IIAS recruits PhD students with a full scholarship. These doctoral students are entitled to two-year field trips in South Asia and one-year visiting positions at universities in Europe and the USA that have research programs on South Asia. MA students in the Department of History, Tsinghua University, can undertake a one-year study visit to Europe, the USA, or South Asia with funds from the China Scholarship Council. Since there are no schools of foreign languages or foreign teachers within the university, Tsinghua should step up its efforts to provide training in South Asian languages.

From Institute for International and Area Studies, Tsinghua University

09.

In the past, you have at various seminars frequently mentioned that Indian Studies should be placed within the wider perspective of Global Studies to make the necessary connections and comparisons. Regarding such cross-regional and interdisciplinary research, what is the state of collaboration between yourself and other South Asian Studies scholars and those in other disciplines in and outside Tsinghua? How have you collaborated with foreign scholars, organized lectures by foreign scholars for Tsinghua students, and partnered with foreign institutions?

I and some of my peers from the School of Foreign Languages, Peking University, have set up two research groups: Asia-African Studies in Motion, and the Monsoon Lab. Both aim to integrate South Asian Studies with African Studies, Southeast Asian Studies and Chinese Studies in order to extend the boundaries of South Asian Studies through inter-regional comparison and connection.

Additionally, I have also organized three lecture series for promoting global South Asian studies in Tsinghua. Through the Glocal Asian Studies Lecture Series in 2019, the New Frontiers of Global History Lecture Series in 2020, and the Asia & Africa Studies in Motion Lecture Series in 2021, I have invited more than one hundred scholars with humanities and social sciences backgrounds from across the world to give in-person and virtual talks. In so doing, I am working hard to build a platform to facilitate the interdisciplinary understanding and dialogue among young scholars in China to facilitate interaction among Southeast Asian Studies, Chinese Studies and African Studies in China.

I have also worked closely with the Centre of Global Asia at NYU Shanghai to train Chinese graduate students in issues related to methodologies and concepts in China-India Studies.

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Asia Research Center, Fudan University

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Asian Studies in China Blogs and Interviews

Asia Research Center,
Fudan University

Yiming Yu

Research Assistant at the Center for Global Asia

Amid the rapidly increasing engagement between China and the rest of the world, when the importance of Chinese Studies is receiving wider recognition and critical evaluation outside China, Chinese scholars have also been striving to learn more about the rest of the world, especially the regions in Asia. As a result, the discipline of Asian Studies has witnessed remarkable growth in China during the past decade.

In this series of interviews by the Centre for Global Asia at NYU Shanghai, we aim to provide insights into how the study of Asia has developed in China. We examine the history as well as the current landscape of Asian Studies through dialogues with scholars at various academic institutions in mainland China who have made outstanding contributions to the field.

In the first of this series, we interviewed Dr Zhang Ke, Associate Professor in the Department of History at Fudan University, who works at the Asia Research Center, Fudan University.

01.

Why did Fudan University decide to establish the Asia Research Center (ARCFD)? What is the ARCFD’s place in Fudan’s organizational structure? Where does the funding for the ARCFD come from?

The Asia Research Center, Fudan University, was officially established in 2002, thanks to the plan of the Korea Foundation for Advanced Studies (KFAS) to set up Asian Studies centers in collaboration with prominent universities in China to boost Asian Studies both within and outside China. Fudan University was among the first institutions to receive funding from the KFAS to set up Asian Studies centers. Fudan University has continuously provided support to the running of the ARCFD.

The Asia Research Center, Fudan University, is an independent platform for research within the university, mainly covering a variety of programs in humanities and social-science disciplines. The funding of the ARCFD mainly comes from the KFAS, and since 2019 from the Chey Institute for Advanced Studies (CIAS), the successor to the KFAS.

02.

Does receiving support from the KFAS influence the focus and gravity of the ARCFD? Does the ARCFD collaborate with its Korean partners in its daily operations?

The KFAS has supported more than ten universities in China to establish Asian Studies centers. However, the KFAS does not interfere with each center’s specific operations and planning. The ARCFD has constantly maintained a good relationship with the KFAS (CIAS) and therefore has always emphasized its research on Korean language and culture and Sino-Korean exchanges, leading to the publication and translation of many relevant academic works.

Generally, the ARCFD operates independently and regularly reports to the KFAS (CIAS) and Fudan University on its progress and expenditure.

ARCFD Committee Meeting

03.

How does the ARCFD operate?

The ARCFD is jointly managed by Fudan University and the KFAS (CIAS). The Principal of Fudan and the Chairman of the KFAS (CIAS) both take on the role of the Chairman. The structure of the ARCFD includes bodies such as the governing board and the academic council. The Center regularly organizes planning meetings. Day-to-day operations are in the hands of the Director and the Director’s team. Every year, the ARCFD regularly sponsors Fudan scholars’ Asian Studies projects, organizes academic conferences, publishes academic works, translations and collections, and pushes collaboration with internal and external research institutions.

04.

Which Asian region does the ARCFD focus on? Given the results of project grants in recent years, does the ARCFD prefer to support research on East Asia?

As a matter of principle, the ARCFD has not committed itself to focusing on any specific regions in Asia. Nevertheless, among the project grants in recent years, projects in East Asian Studies do account for a higher proportion and greater total number of projects. This is in line with the general picture of Asian Studies in China. In the future, the ARCFD will place more emphasis on the balance between different subjects of study and consider sponsoring some “neglected” projects which have received little attention.

05.

Does the ARCFD provide students and scholars with relevant language training?

The ARCFD prioritizes academic research and has little involvement in teaching. Its scholars already possess good language skills. The ARCFD currently does not plan to conduct language training.

06.

Given the presence of other institutions relevant to Asian Studies in Fudan University, such as the Japan Research Center, the Korea Research Center and the Center for Asian Economic Research, do the research areas of the ARCFD intersect with these institutions’? Does the ARCFD collaborate with these institutions?

Since its establishment, the ARCFD has constantly emphasized collaboration and interaction with other institutions in Fudan, certainly including the Japan Research Center, the Korea Research Center, etc. The collaboration includes sponsorship of relevant research projects, joint publications of collections and translations of academic works, joint organization of academic conferences and invitations to relevant scholars to be members of academic and review committees.

07.

How does the ARCFD collaborate and interact with other Asian Studies centers in and outside China?

The ARCFD and other Asian Studies Centers in China are all members of the Asian Studies network supported by the KFAS (CIAS) and hold regular exchanges. Every year, a joint meeting of the Directors of each Asian Studies center is held, where all the centers discuss their works and progress. The collaboration between the ARCFD and the Asia Pacific Research Institute, Peking University, is the longest and closest one. The two institutions have been regularly organizing academic forums and young scholars’ conferences for more than ten years.

08.

Could you please briefly talk about the development of Asian Studies in China? What role has the ARCFD played in this process?

Overall, there has been a lot of progress in the field of Asian Studies in China, especially in East Asian Studies. In recent years, academia has made a leap in studies of Southeast Asia, South Asia, Inner Asia and West Asia. Personally, I think the future direction of the field will be first, to focus on integrating the studies of all these regions to discuss interactions and communication of substance and values within Asia; and second, to think about concepts such as Asian values and Asian communities with a shared future as a whole to lay the foundation for reshaping Asian identity in the future. The ARCFD expects to work towards these two directions while maintaining the existing traditions to strengthen the influence.

09.

Has the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) brought more opportunities to the ARCFD? How does the BRI influence the operation of the ARCFD?

The BRI has indeed benefited the ARCFD and other Asian Studies centers with lots of fresh development opportunities in recent years. Focusing on the new problems emerging from the BRI, the ARCFD supports various academic conferences and research projects, some of which emphasize theoretical research, while others focus on practical ones. The ARCFD hopes to play to its and Fudan’s strengths, on the one hand to make intellectual contributions to the BRI with research in humanities disciplines, such as history, culture, geography and religion, and on the other hand to actively support policy research in international relations and the development of the political economy.

10.

How does the change in the contemporary international political landscape influence the operation of the ARCFD?

In the last two years, the COVID-19 pandemic and the resurgence of isolationism and nationalism in every country have generally presented great challenges to ‘Asian Studies’, and the ARCFD is no exception. The pandemic has caused lots of problems for academic exchanges in and outside China, as a lot of interactions could only be conducted on-line, and some projects had to be suspended. However, the changing international political landscape has stressed instead the urgency and values of rebuilding the ‘regional community’. The ARCFD hopes to strengthen research on topics like ‘Intra-Asian exchanges’ and ‘Reshaping Asian values’ in order to excel in ‘working ahead of the times’ and thus to prepare the foundation in the face of the development of and changes to the future political landscape.

11.

Compared with the initial years, how has the ARCFD developed over the years? Where and how can it improve in the future?

Almost twenty years ago, when the ARCFD had just been established, a shared platform for different Asian Studies disciplines in Fudan University was lacking. Nor was there any adequate funding for research projects, academic publishing or organizing conferences. This was about the time when the ARCFD was set up. The Center has provided a lot of Fudan scholars, young emerging ones in particular, with valuable assistance in terms of research funds and platforms in all these years, enabling them to publish a number of works on a variety of topics. Compared with its initial years, today the ARCFD has established an extensive network among both scholars and institutions, which marks the greatest development of the Center.

In the future, the first thing to focus on is the dimension of theories and the Center’s directions. Amid the rapid changes in and outside China, there will be much more to work to do on how to reshape Asian values and identity, reiterate the meaning of ‘Asia’ and tell good Asian stories. The ARCFD hopes to support relevant research in this aspect. The second aim concerns specific operations. The Center hopes to gradually resume its pre-pandemic operations and development in the next few years, to keep working on its existing projects and to expand its network of external collaboration.

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