Asian Studies in China Blogs and Interviews

Southeast Asian Studies in China

Interview with Dr Xie Kankan, Peking 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.

Dr Xie Kankan is Assistant Professor of Southeast Asian Studies at Peking University. His research and teaching deal with various historical and contemporary issues of the broadly defined “Nusantara” (Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore), particularly the region’s left-wing movements, the intersection of colonialism, nationalism & decolonization, as well as China and Southeast Asia relations during the Cold War. His current research focuses on the history of Indonesian leftism and Chinese diaspora, funded by China’s National Social Science Foundation and the Institute of Overseas Chinese History Studies. Xie has published in Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia, Journal of Indonesian Social Sciences and Humanities, Dongnanya Yanjiu, and Nanyang Wenti Yanjiu. He received his Ph.D. in Southeast Asian Studies from the University of California, Berkeley and holds an M.A. in Asian Studies from Cornell University and a B.A. in Malay Language & Literature from Beijing Foreign Studies University.

01.

As a scholar specializing in Southeast Asian studies, especially on Indonesia and the Malay World (Nusantara) could you please describe the development of Southeast Asian studies overall, particularly in China, and say what Peking University has done to promote these fields of study?

Modern Southeast Asian studies in China can be traced back to the 1920s, when the National Jinan University in Shanghai established the Nanyang Cultural Affairs Bureau to study socioeconomics, history, geography, and social culture in the Southeast Asian region. Southeast Asian studies in China started in the form of ‘Nanyang studies’, was closely associated with research on the Overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia and was broadly defined as ‘Overseas Chinese Affairs’. Despite the Second World War having an adverse impact on Chinese research institutions focusing on Southeast Asian studies, interest in and the demand for studying Southeast Asia continued to grow in China. In the post-war era, ‘Overseas Chinese Affairs’ or ‘Nanyang studies’ gradually evolved into ‘Southeast Asian studies’ focusing on the region’s nation-states. At present, research institutions concentrating on Southeast Asian studies in China can be found at institutions of higher learning, Academies of Social Sciences, and military organizations, which are located in cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong, Fujian, Guangxi and Yunnan.

In terms of the history of the field, Southeast Asian studies at Peking University stemmed from two branches: the Department of Oriental Languages, and the Institute of Asian and African Studies. The study of Southeast Asian languages at the Department of Oriental Languages was built upon the disciplinary foundations laid by the National College of Oriental Languages, which had been established in 1942. In the beginning, these languages included Burmese, Vietnamese, and Thai. The objective was to train translators to satisfy the urgent requirements of the nationalist government during the war. In 1949, the National College of Oriental Languages was merged into the Department of Oriental Languages, which gradually added Bahasa Indonesia (Malay) and Filipino to its curriculum. In 1999, the Department of Oriental Languages was integrated with the Departments of English, Russian, and Western Languages to form the School of Foreign Languages. The Department of Southeast Asian Studies, under the School of Foreign Languages, now offers undergraduate and postgraduate programs in all five languages.

The Institute of Asian and African Studies was set up at Peking University in 1964 with the aim of studying and teaching Asian and African politics, economy, society, and culture and serving China’s diplomatic initiatives. The Southeast Asian Research Unit at the Institute has long focused on the Overseas Chinese, Southeast Asian politics and economy, and other topics. At the end of the 1990s, the Institute of Asian and African Studies was merged with the School of International Relations. Apart from the School of Foreign Languages and the School of International Relations, scholars from other departments at Peking University, such as History, Government, Law and Sociology, have been engaged in the study of Southeast Asia as well. Peking University has also set up cross-departmental and interdisciplinary research institutions, including the Asia-Pacific Research Institute, the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, and the Center for Overseas Chinese Studies. Moreover, in 2018, Peking University established the Institute of Area Studies, of which Southeast Asian studies is an important component, aiming to integrate campus-wide resources and build a comprehensive academic platform that will draw together academic research, academic management, scholarly training, think-tank functions, and international academic exchanges.

02.

What types of support does Peking University provide to undergraduate and postgraduate students in Southeast Asian studies, such as language training, academic resources, and international exchanges?

As a comprehensive university, Peking University is relatively rich with its academic resources, curricular development, library collections, inter-university exchanges and other opportunities. MA and doctoral students in the field of Southeast Asian studies are able to apply for funding for a variety of exchange programs, fieldtrips and short-term research. The sources for such funding are diverse, coming from either standard funding agencies such as the China Scholarship Council, the University and its Graduate School, or specifically through supervisors, alumni, and project-based grants. Compared with other comprehensive universities in China, Peking University enjoys a degree of advantage in training in Southeast Asian languages. The School of Foreign Languages regularly offers courses in five concentrations: Thai, Burmese, Vietnamese, Indonesian and Filipino. Each of these five concentrations enrols undergraduate students every four years and occasionally employs foreign scholars to enrich their curricula. Before the pandemic, many undergraduate students had opportunities to visit countries of their concentrations for one or two semesters. Others attended summer schools in Western countries. However, the pandemic has made such international experience more difficult. Those not majoring in these languages, whether undergraduates, and postgraduate students, are also able to enrol in or audit language courses that are occasionally offered to non-majors. The Southeast Asian studies program at Peking University is not confined to these five languages. We enrol postgraduate students (including international students) interested in studying Laos, Cambodia, Singapore and Malaysia. Many of these students also choose to study additional research languages from outside of Southeast Asia, such as Sanskrit, Pali, French and Spanish, for their research. Evidently, the languages acquired for research exceed those learnt for teaching purposes.

03.

Some of your projects related to Indonesian studies receive funding from the National Social Science Fund and Peking University. What is the state of funding like for Southeast Asian studies from Chinese universities and the Chinese Ministry of Education?

My academic interests lie primarily in modern Indonesian history, specifically left-wing movements in the late colonial period. At present, I am an independent PI of a research project funded by the National Social Science Fund’s Young Scholars Program. Additionally, I am a co-PI of another project under the Fund’s Major Projects scheme. I also received funding from the All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese (AFCROC). All these projects are closely related to my research interests. In the last decade, the Belt and Road Initiative has drastically boosted the government’s support for area studies, prompting Chinese universities to establish relevant research institutions en masse. Peking University therefore considers area studies a priority field under ‘Advanced Interdisciplinary Studies’ and an important ‘Academic Growth Sector’. Southeast Asia is a neighbouring region of China, with close connections through exchanges of people, trade, and culture. In China, Southeast Asian studies often involve an indispensable sub-field of the Overseas Chinese studies. Thus, with the rise of area studies in China, developing a good Southeast Asian studies program has become an important objective of many Chinese universities. With regard to the National Social Science Fund, I have not found an evident preference for area studies in general or Southeast Asian studies in particular. However, agencies such as the Ministry of Education and the AFCROC, as well as local governments at all levels, have clearly intensified support for policy-related research within the field of area studies. The methods and intensity of support from Chinese universities vary as well. At comprehensive universities located in places such as Beijing and Shanghai, Southeast Asian studies does not have a clear advantage over studies of other regions. However, similar programs at universities in Guangdong, Fujian, Guangxi and Yunnan enjoy more favorable treatment because of their proximity to Southeast Asia.

04.

Southeast Asia is a geographical region that includes eleven countries. As for Southeast Asian studies in China, is there any centre of gravity, i.e. does any particular country or area receive more focus? What impact do you think such a preference will have on the future development of Southeast Asian studies in China?

There is a clear preference for Southeast Asian studies in China. A basic tendency is that the greater the country's economy, population size and territorial area, the more attention it receives. As a result, the larger Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand receive more attention within Chinese academia. However, smaller countries like Brunei, Cambodia and Timor-Leste are barely studied. The same phenomenon exists among Western scholars as well. A major difference between Chinese scholars and their Western counterparts is in their respective research into ‘middle countries’. Chinese scholars focus more on countries such as Malaysia and Singapore, largely because of the Chinese diaspora, but the Philippines, a country of similar size, does not receive similar treatment. The main reason for this is accessibility to research resources, as many Chinese scholars working on Southeast Asian studies only know Chinese and English and not the local languages. Many of them thus use the local Chinese community as the starting point for their research, studying Southeast Asia through the lens of the Chinese overseas. In the long run, Chinese scholars have inevitably failed to avoid the bias of ‘China-centrism’ or ‘Chinese-centrism’, where there is a lack of important local perspectives. The other trend in Southeast Asian studies in China is the emphasis on current affairs in the neighboring regions. One example of this is the focus on the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, the coup in Myanmar, and measures to prevent COVID-19 in many Southeast Asian countries. The consequence of this trend is that many scholars over-emphasize the study of ‘hot’ current affairs at the expense of the necessary long-term accumulation of knowledge and in-depth investigation of the region.

Teaching a class on Southeast Asian at PKU. Many international students enrolled before the pandemic.

A lecture by Professor Henk Schulte Nordholt on nationalism, decolonization, and the Cold War in Southeast Asia.

A Panel discussion after Professor Henk Schulte Nordholt’s lecture on nationalism, decolonization, and the Cold War in Southeast Asia. Participants from right to left: Henk Schulte Nordholt (KITLV and Leiden University), Ngeow Chow Bing (University of Malaya) and Xie Kankan (Southeast Asian Studies, PKU).

05.

Speaking of the three Nusantara countries, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, many people would associate them with studies of local Chinese communities, and much of your research is on these communities. So, in the first place, how much does research on local Chinese communities account for studies of the Malay World in China? Secondly, apart from this subject, what are the emerging or popular topics in studies of the Malay World in China? Which areas do you think deserve more attention?

Overseas Chinese studies is a topic that is impossible to overlook in Southeast Asian studies. Despite the fact that the Chinese communities are in the minority in most Southeast Asian countries, the international academia pays a great deal of attention to this group, which is closely associated with China’s influence in these places and the political and economic status of the Chinese in local societies. With regard to the three Nusantara countries, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, the Chinese communities have always been an important research subject. Nanyang studies, the predecessor of Southeast Asian studies in China, originated from a focus on these countries. The Schools of International Relations of Xiamen University and Jinan University, two important institutions for Southeast Asian studies in China, were built on the foundation of the respective institute of Overseas Chinese studies. However, in recent years, most space in academic periodicals for area studies in China is devoted to International Relations. In terms of Southeast Asian studies, Overseas Chinese studies still accounts for about ten percent of the core periodicals of International Studies, even though most publications related to this subject focus on culture and history (see: Luo, Yifu, “Status of Southeast Asian Studies in China (2007-2017)—Based on Articles Issued by Journals of International Relations Studies in China,” Journal of Strategy and Decision-Making 9, no. 5 (2018): 28.) The Journal of Overseas Chinese History Studies, the periodical specifically focusing on this subject, also features a large Southeast Asia-related content. Apart from Overseas Chinese studies, Chinese academia now focuses on bilateral relations, domestic politics, trade and economic ties, ASEAN and regional cooperation, and the South China Sea. Most of China’s academic focus still falls primarily in the fields of politics and macroeconomy, which are relatively elite-driven and time-sensitive. There needs to be more attention to local society and culture, long-term history, and minority communities. Similarly, archival studies and ethnographic studies, which demand long-term and in-depth research in local areas, are rare. Before the 21st century, there was a relatively strong tradition of cultural and historical studies in Southeast Asian studies in China, which have now been relegated to the fringe amid the rise of policy-related area and country studies. I think we need to seriously reflect on this shift.

Book launch of Language Ungoverned: Indonesia’s Chinese Print Entrepreneurs, 1911–1949 (Cornell University Press, 2021), by Dr. Tom Hoogervorst (Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies, KITLV).

A lecture on Dutch-Indonesian writer Tjalie Robinson (1911-1974) by Jeroen Dewulf, Queen Beatrix Professor in Dutch Studies at UC-Berkeley.

06.

You chose to do a Designated Emphasis (minor) in Dutch studies for your PhD. Given the colonial past of Southeast Asian countries, how important do you think it is to simultaneously study the colonial history from a Western perspective in Southeast Asian studies? In the field of Southeast Asian studies in China, is it common to study the metropoles and colonies at the same time?

I systematically studied Malay during my undergraduate years at the Beijing Foreign Studies University, laying the foundation for my smooth transition into the study of Indonesia in the postgraduate programs. The relatively long length of doctoral study in the USA enabled me to learn Dutch from the scratch with ease, which fortunately led me to study colonial history. Undoubtedly, the Dutch perspective is very helpful in my study of Indonesia because firstly, there is a rich collection of archives and materials in the Netherlands, and secondly, there is an outstanding tradition of Indonesia studies in the Netherlands, where one can find a large number of excellent scholars specializing in studies of the Malay World. As a result, the research experience in the Netherlands benefited me tremendously, which allowed me to get in touch with several researchers in the field outside China, America and Southeast Asia, and helped me to get rid of the thinking patterns of essentialism among area studies scholars (or ‘Indonesian Exceptionalism’, i.e. ‘Indonesia is the most unique country unparalleled to other countries because I am studying Indonesia.’) By understanding the colonial histories of the Netherlands and Britain, I have more comprehensive knowledge of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. I could imagine that studying France would improve my understanding of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, while studying Spain and the US would benefit research on the Philippines and studying Japanese and Arabic would help one examine several specific topics during a specific period. Based on my observation, a lot of Chinese scholars belonging to my generation have undergone similar academic training in the West, especially in the field of Southeast Asian studies. In China, this kind of doctoral training is still not possible, as researchers in Southeast Asian Studies are limited by factors such as the duration of study, language skills and academic resources.

07.

Does the Department of Southeast Asian Studies at Peking University have any kind of collaborations with other departments or institutes within the university? What is academic exchange like in the field of Southeast Asian studies in China?

The School of Foreign Languages at Peking University is unique. On the one hand, it represents the Primary Discipline of Foreign Language and Literature in the university with over two hundred full-time faculty members, way more than those in the Schools of Foreign Languages at other comprehensive universities in China. On the other hand, the research interests of the faculties at the School of Foreign Languages cover many areas, such as literature, history, linguistics, anthropology, politics, and religious studies. The School could thus be described as a cluster of inter-disciplinary research and teaching in area and country studies. The Department of Southeast Asia collaborates with several departments within the School, particularly with the Departments of South Asia, Arabic, West Asia and Afro-Asia, which were all part of the now-defunct Department of Oriental Languages, and newly-established departments involving area studies, as joint research projects and inter-department modules are quite common. At the university level, there are a lot of inter-school platforms for collaboration. For example, the School of Foreign Languages convenes a joint program, Foreign Languages and Foreign History, with the Department of History and the Yuanpei College (Liberal Arts), as well as a joint program, Foreign Languages and International Communication, with the School of Journalism and Communication. The School of Foreign Languages has also established collaborations with the Schools of International Studies, Government, Law, Sociology, Chinese Literature, History, Philosophy and even the Schools of Medicine and Natural Science and Engineering within the university. This has been achieved through a series of inter-disciplinary platforms such as the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences, the Asia-Pacific Research Institute and the Institute of Oceanic Research. The Institute of Area Studies further integrates resources for relevant disciplines across the university, as there are numerous opportunities for inter-disciplinary dialogue and collaboration.

Even with the impact of the pandemic, there have been lots of academic exchanges in the field of Southeast Asian studies in China. Although it is difficult to accurately count the number of scholars working in this field in China, from my personal view the scale of the academic community and the frequency of academic events are higher than those in America and Europe. The Association for Southeast Asian Studies in China, founded in 1978, holds a major conference every four years. The last conference was held in Guangzhou in 2019 with near four hundred participants in attendance. This number of attendances is just the tip of the iceberg for Southeast Asian studies in China, and this quadrennial conference has been unable to satisfy the demands of Southeast Asian studies in China. There are numerous seminars, workshops, and lectures on different scales in the field of Southeast Asian studies in China, most of which are centred in Beijing, Guangzhou, Xiamen, Nanning and Kunming, all cities with high concentrations of Southeast Asian Studies institutions. In recent years, the online visibility of Southeast Asian studies has improved dramatically, as many new online lectures during the pandemic have overcome the restraints of time and space in academic exchanges. There are countless accounts and a great deal of content on social media platforms such as Wechat and Weibo with a self-claimed focus on Southeast Asian studies, but they are of inconsistent quality.

A lecture on developmental states in Southeast Asia by T.J. Pempel, Jack M. Forcey Professor of Political Science at UC-Berkeley.

Giving an online talk on the Chinese National Salvation Movement in Malaya and Java, hosted by the Harvard University Asia Center.

08.

You did your PhD research in the United States and have also gone on research visits in the Netherlands and Southeast Asia. What do you think are the differences in research directions and methods between your research in China and the research undertaken in the United States, Europe and Southeast Asia in Southeast Asia studies and studies of the Malay World?

Academic discourses are influenced by local social, political and cultural factors. Academic circumstances in different places certainly shape local Southeast Asian studies. In the United States, Southeast Asian studies was influenced by Cold-War area studies and was initially inextricably linked to decolonization, nation-state construction, modernization theory, and ideological debates. However, after decades of development, Southeast Asian studies has been organically assimilated to America’s academic ecosystem. Southeast Asia has been both a natural lab for social-science theories in the United States and an important source for the development of the relevant disciplines. This includes Clifford Geertz’s research on local knowledge, Benedict Anderson’s study of nationalism and James C. Scott’s work on anarchism. Contemporary Southeast Asian studies in the United States is closely associated with those areas that have received wide attention, including migration, human rights, ethnicity, gender, religion, the environment, climate change and postcolonialism, all sustaining the development of this scholarly field. Southeast Asian studies in Europe has been heavily influenced by its tradition of orientalism and production of colonial knowledge, but it shares common ground and even converges with its United States counterpart in methodology and theoretical concerns because of strong academic interactions across the Atlantic. To some extent, ‘French Indo-Chinese studies’, ‘Dutch Indonesian studies’ and ‘Spanish Filipino studies’, rooted in the production of colonial knowledge, have gradually been transformed into ‘European Southeast Asian studies’, a discipline with a modern academic focus. After the Second World War, as Southeast Asian countries gained independence, local scholars started focusing on the issues of decolonization, construction of nation states, ethnic politics, and religion in their own countries. Also, an increasing number of Southeast Asian scholars have started to shed more light on neighboring countries or to break down the different silos of nation-states to study issues such as migration, the environment, cultural heritage, and regional cooperation. In addition, Southeast Asian studies in Southeast Asian countries is deeply impacted by western academia, with more frequent interactions between both sides. In the past, Southeast Asian studies in Singapore, with its close alignment with western academia, is a unique case in the region. More recently, highly internationalized research institutions have prospered all over Southeast Asia. As mentioned above, Chinese Southeast Asian studies, greatly influenced by the requirements of the government, economic activities, and popular consumption, has witnessed an explosive trend in growth in recent years. However, generally speaking, policy-oriented research concerning current affairs constitutes the mainstream of the discipline in China. By contrast, original research with theoretical rigor based on long-term fieldwork and first-hand multilingual materials is relatively weak.

09.

What are exchanges and interactions between Chinese and foreign scholars in the field of Southeast Asian studies like? How do you think the development of this field in China has been influenced by foreign scholars through such exchanges and interactions? And conversely, has Chinese academia influenced international academia in the field of Southeast Asian Studies?

Before the pandemic, Chinese scholars in the field of Southeast Asian studies had regular interactions with foreign scholars: Chinese scholars obtained more opportunities to travel abroad to study, research and participate in academic conferences. There were also a number of Chinese students studying at universities in the West or Southeast Asia. Furthermore, such exchanges were not one-way, as foreign scholars were ‘brought in’ when Chinese scholars ‘went abroad’. The Internet also drastically improved the accessibility of materials. Yet, I think it is not quite accurate to use the word ‘frequent’ to describe the interactions between Chinese scholars and their foreign counterparts, and the pandemic has complicated the situation, creating more difficulties for academic exchanges. Beyond the pandemic factor, I think there are two issues hindering such academic exchanges. On the one hand, Southeast Asian studies in China is unique in its discourse, language preferences, theoretical approaches and academic ecosystem, which are consistent with the problems faced by Chinese academics in general. Southeast Asian studies in China has formed a huge academic community that is capable of the domestic circulation of ideas. Even when completely without international interactions, many Chinese scholars are able to publish their research in Chinese journals to prioritize domestic demand and establish themselves within the domestic community. On the other hand, compared with many Humanities and Social Science disciplines, the internationalization of Southeast Asian studies has fallen behind. For disciplines such as economics, political science, and sociology, ‘going abroad’ and ‘(foreign scholarship) coming in’ have already become the norm, but those scholars who are most keen to enter into exchanges with their foreign counterparts mostly study Chinese problems since such interaction enables them to contribute ‘Chinese perspectives’ or ‘Chinese voices’ to international academia.

Accordingly, those scholars who specialize in Chinese studies and are interested in engaging with their foreign counterparts are usually familiar with foreign academic discourses and aware of the state of the field globally. In recent years, many publications on Southeast Asian studies in the West have been translated into Chinese, but several scholars who translated these works were not from the field. They usually focused on specific disciplines and the state of international scholarship, which allowed them to quickly grasp the academic value of these works from the perspective of disciplinary theories. In comparison, most scholars in the field of Southeast Asian studies in China do not possess the academic sensitivity and capability to participate in international exchanges. It is worth pointing out that, even with these systematic obstacles, the influence of foreign scholarship on Chinese Southeast Asian studies has been extensive and profound. It is already very common to cite English academic works in Chinese journals when some scholars with Southeast Asian language abilities could even draw on a wide range of local materials in their research. Objectively speaking, the influence of Chinese research on Southeast Asian scholars outside China is quite limited. This is closely related to the aforementioned restrictive factors, language barriers among scholars and academic systems in western and Southeast Asian academia. However, I think it’s necessary for the international academia to learn about research undertaken in China. It is undeniable that China has a geopolitical impact on Southeast Asia, and research by Chinese scholars on relevant issues will enable their foreign academics to strengthen their understanding of these complicated issues. Deepening international exchanges in the field of Southeast Asian studies is extremely important.

Professor Barbara Watson Andaya’s lecture on Christianity and the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia.

A Panel discussion after Professor Barbara Watson Andaya’s lecture on Christianity and the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia. Participants from left to right: Barbara Watson Andaya (Asian Studies, University of Hawai’i), Ni Yun (English, PKU), Chen Boyi (History, Xiamen University), and Xie Kankan (Southeast Asian Studies, PKU).

10.

In Europe and the United States, scholars have been moving away from western-centrism and revaluating decolonization. In one of your seminars, you have argued that many local scholars are now focusing on China at the expense of neglecting the perspectives from Southeast Asian countries. How could these problems be addressed in the future?

It has been a long time since western academia started to call for decolonizing and criticizing western-centrism in the study of Southeast Asia. This has been a driving force in western academia, as it continuously self-reflects and corrects earlier scholarship to develop and make progress in the field. The decolonization of knowledge production and of politics, the economy and culture are closely related but distinct facets. For over half a century, ‘colonization’ has developed complicated connotations, which international scholars in the field of Southeast Asian studies have been reflecting on. Overall, the effort to decolonize Southeast Asian studies has resulted in dramatic progress, but there is still much to be done. This suggests a continuing need for further research and analysis. Similarly, it is not that the Chinese academic community is not aware of or has not reflected on so-called ‘China-centrism’. The transformation of ‘Nanyang studies’ into ‘Southeast Asian studies’ is indicative of this awareness. Many Chinese scholars increasingly take this issue of ‘China-centrism’ seriously in their research. However, for Chinese scholars specializing in Southeast Asian studies, there is no standard solution to ‘de-China-centrism’, nor a shortcut to achieve this goal. This is because the solution requires Chinese scholars to learn and borrow from western academia both comprehensively and intensively and to avoid presenting their research as derivative of western academic traditions. Chinese scholars have to both emphasize their innovative research with the use of primary materials, methods and concepts related to Southeast Asia, and avoid falling into essentialism. It is necessary for them to boost and strengthen their exchanges and interactions with foreign counterparts and, at the same time, insist on their own unique academic traditions. In the last few years, ‘domestic circulation’ and ‘external circulation’ are two buzzwords that have been used to discuss the development of the Chinese economy, which seems suitable for describing the field of Southeast Asian studies as well. With a long history, a solid tradition, a rich and special academic focus and a growing community of scholars and students, Chinese Southeast Asian studies forms an ecosystem that differs from those in other countries for its foundation of ‘domestic circulation’, which does not exist in many places. With this foundation, even during the pandemic, the academic community in the field of Southeast Asian studies in China remains active. However, blindly emphasizing ‘domestic circulation’ is problematic, as it will only lead to a lack of exchanges, rigid thinking and stagnant knowledge production. Therefore, in the post-pandemic era, there will be an urgent need for the field of Southeast Asian studies in China to restart and deepen ‘external circulation’ since it has to go global.

More on the authors’ reflections on Southeast Asian studies in China can be found in:

Xie, Kankan. “Experiencing Southeast Asian Studies in China: A Reverse Culture Shock.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 52, no. 2 (2021): 170–87. doi:10.1017/S0022463421000473

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