Citations and Speeches


163rd Congregation (2002)

WANG Gungwu
Doctor of Letters

The Public Orator, Dr Elaine Yee-lin Ho, wrote and delivered the following citation:

To give an honorary degree to a former vice-chancellor might seem redundant, like pinning a campaign medal on a commander-in-chief; or at least an exercise in institutional narcissism and self-congratulation. But we might reflect on the 'honorary' nature of these degrees, which does not only indicate that their recipients are not required to pass an examination for the degree to be conferred. The degree is offered honoris causa, 'for the sake of honour', and in the case of a distinguished former vice-chancellor it can be the university's opportunity to return in some measure the honour its recipient has brought to the university.

Born in Surabaya, Indonesia, Wang Gungwu belonged by birth to the overseas Chinese community whose history and presence in Southeast Asia was to become the subject of his life-long scholarship and research. Like many members of these communities of his generation and before, he was drawn to mainland China. After secondary school in Ipoh, he attended the National Central University in Nanking before taking his first degree with Honours in History at the University of Malaya in 1953. In the classic trajectory of promising scholars of his time, he read for a Doctorate of Philosophy at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, and received the degree in 1957. It was also during these years in London, on December 21, 1955, that he married Margaret Lim Ping-ting with whom he has one son and two daughters.

On his return to Southeast Asia in the late nineteen fifties, Wang Gungwu began his academic career at the University of Malaya, quickly rising to the position of Professor of History, a post he held from 1963-68. It was during this time that Professor Wang began to publish his work on the history of trade and the economic and cultural life of the Nanyang Chinese. These publications established him as a pioneer in the study of the overseas Chinese, and won for him early regional and international recognition as the leading authority on the subject. His works have been published in English, Chinese, Malay, and also translated into Japanese, German and Spanish. In 1994, he won the prestigious international Fukuoka Asian Cultural Prize for the outstanding achievements of his research on the history of China and Southeast Asia.

Wang Gungwu's explorations of the overseas Chinese inevitably led him to research in traditional Chinese culture through a study of its history. These two mutually complementary orientations of his work have always been directed by his unique vantage as someone who is of Chinese ancestry and yet whom the accident of history has placed outside the Chinese geographical and cultural main. This vantage afforded special and valuable insights into the enduring bonds of affiliation which made China a real and imagined homeland for many overseas Chinese on the one hand, and a constant challenge to their self and collective identities on the other. In his publications, Wang Gungwu would address these issues from political and social perspectives, and in different time-frames from the distant past to the contemporary world. From his location in Southeast Asia, Wang Gungwu ranged deeply into the Chinese cultural hinterland, to return, time and again, with new knowledge and new ways of looking at self and society, nation and community.

Before becoming Vice-Chancellor at the University of Hong Kong, Professor Wang had already enjoyed a distinguished academic career not only in Malaya but also in Australia where he was Professor of Far Eastern History, and Director of the Research School of Pacific Studies at Australian National University during the years 1968 to 1986. His scholarly output continued despite his heavy administrative responsibilities as Vice-Chancellor of this university from1986 to 1995. His publications were historically opportune for the years of his Vice-Chancellorship were also years of serious private reflection and heated public debate among many in the Hong Kong community about precisely those questions of 'Chinese-ness' on which he had written, and continued to write, with such perspicacity. While in Hong Kong, Professor Wang also developed strong interests in local events. His scholarship and learning offered much-needed conceptual and historical frameworks from which contemporary events could be more dispassionately analysed and evaluated. Eloquent and scrupulous, his discourse, both oral and written, has a temper which engages friends and opponents alike.

With his vision and support, this university established the Hong Kong University Foundation for Educational Development and Research, the first foundation of its kind at the local tertiary education level, to foster stronger links with the community and enhance this university's capacity for teaching and research. He was also Chairman of the Council for Performing Arts, and the Chairman of Environmental Pollution Consultative Committee in Hong Kong, and in 1989, he was appointed a member of the Executive Council. Both inside and outside the university, Wang Gungwu committed himself fully to serving the Hong Kong community. On his retirement from Hong Kong University, he was appointed Chairman of the Institute of East Asian Political Economy in Singapore, and is currently Director, The East Asian Institute, and Distinguished Professorial Fellow, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. He continues to be a model of the intellectual in his role of critic and servant of the community.

Mr Pro-Chancellor, in the Chinese literary classic, the Book of Poetry, there is a description of the scholar and ruler:

As from the knife and the file,

As from the chisel and the polisher!

How grave is he and dignified!

How commanding and distinguished!

Our elegant and accomplished prince,

Never can he be forgotten!

As teacher, scholar and researcher, and in his governance as Vice-Chancellor, Wang Gungwu could be seen to embody those qualities celebrated in the Chinese classic. On behalf of the University, it is my privilege to present Professor Wang Gungwu for the award of the degree of Doctor of Letters honoris causa.

* Legge, J The Chinese Classics, with a translation, critical and exegetical notes, prolegomena, and copious indexes (Part IV The She King, or The Book of Poetry), 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1893), p.91.