Wang Gungwu turns 90

The man who studies China via Chinese philosophy, language, literature, culture and history.

Darryl Laiu | October 09, 2020, 06:53 PM

Professor Wang Gungwu turned 90 on Oct. 9, 2020.

He might not be a household name, but among the intelligentsia, he is one of the most sought-after thinkers for his views and analyses on China amidst our current global socio-political climate fraught with tension.

Based in Singapore

Wang has been based in Singapore for quite a while.

He was the founding chairman of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and the former chairman of the NUS East Asian Institute.

He was also the third person to be awarded the title of University Professor at the National University of Singapore. There are currently only five professors with that title.

Paying tribute to Wang on his big day was veteran diplomat Tommy Koh, who personally dedicated a birthday post to him on Facebook:

Go-to person on China

Wang is first and foremost a historian, but he did not consciously choose to pursue the subject as an undergraduate, by his own reckoning.

"It came upon me by elimination," Wang said in an interview with NUS.

"But one thing struck me, that in the end, why history was the least of an obstacle to my curiosity about the world was that I discovered that everything had a past."

He acknowledged that he was lucky his parents never told him what he was "supposed" to do.

Wang said: "And that's one thing I'm very grateful for... nobody actually told me, 'Don't bother about that, that's irrelevant.'"

But his knowledge and expertise is far from irrelevant now.

As a Sinologist, he studies China through Chinese philosophy, language, literature, culture, and history.

In 2020, he was awarded the prestigious Tang prize for his contribution to the discipline.

And in the past few years, he has lent this insights to help the rest of the world and the curious make sense of China and Chinese people.

In an email interview with ThinkChina this year, he said:

"At least two generations of Chinese have learnt to appreciate that the modern West has valuable ideas and institutions to offer, but the turmoil of much of the 20th century has also made them feel that the Western European versions of democracy might not be that important for China’s national development."

In response to a question about whether the world will seek to develop mutual understanding, Wang said: "The fact that the Covid-19 pandemic has failed to bring about mutual aid and cooperation but is being politicised instead suggests that neither side will give an inch to work together for global peace and recovery."

"Fortunately, the leaders of both sides are still doing what they can to prevent the conflicts from becoming a disastrous hot war," added Wang.

Happy birthday, Professor Wang.

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Top image from NUS/YouTube.