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.


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.


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


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].


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


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.


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.


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.


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


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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