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Changes in Area Studies

By Cho-yun Hsu

The Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange is now celebrating its tenth anniversary. One decade is not a short time-span; this is probably an appropriate occasion to review our mission, which is always the promotion of Chinese studies in international scholarly communities. I do not intend to give an account of our tasks in the past decade, since various charts and tables about our grants are included in this volume and can be used for evaluation. Instead I prefer to report some of my observations on changes taking place in the field of area studies in general and that of Chinese Studies in particular. Although the applications received by this Foundation by no means represent sufficient samples of development in area studies on China and Chinese culture, some trends of change in this field are visible.
Institutional Enhancement has always been one of the most important categories in our grant program. A sizable number of new tenured-track faculty positions have been create at colleges and universities in North America. During earlier years, applications were mostly for teaching positions in Chinese language and literature. As time went by, there were more requests for slots in social sciences, such as history, sociology, and anthropology. Then, in recent years, cultural studies, religious studies, intellectual history, and art history appeared to be the new positions which institutes of higher education wished to add to their faculties. Such a trend demonstrates moves in a period of one decade, which are visible in schools of various sizes and at different locations, and probably reflects a general shift of the intellectual atmosphere in this part of the world rather than changes in any particular area studies per se.

Another trend we observed is in the themes of research projects. In the earlier years, it was fairly easy to assign an application to a certain sub-committee to review, because the disciplinary identity was rather obvious. Now, a good proportion of applications, including research projects or conference requests, need to be reviewed by more than one sub-committee in order to have a fair and just evaluation. This trend of development toward multidisciplinary inquiries clearly is a common feature in both the humanities and the social sciences.

Obviously, other foundations, such as the Ford Foundation and the Henry Luce Foundation, with whom we have maintained close communications, have also responded to such patterns of change. Inter-area studies are being encouraged to investigate issues that only now are noticeable in a larger context. These issues include, but are not limited to, the interflow of population, resources, and ideas between areas and across national or cultural boundaries.
Colleagues at my campus, for instance, are joining those in neighboring universities to conduct research on trade and migrations across the Atlantic. Such projects involve scholars whose special research interests are variously in European, American and African studies. Likewise, their academic disciplines vary in a broad span of humanities and social sciences. Diaspora, a term originally referring to the dispersion of the Jewish population, now is adopted by scholars to study dispersions of Africans, Europeans, and peoples of the Pacific islands, etc. Indeed, some colleagues in Chinese studies also use the Diaspora term to describe not only the long history of Chinese migration to Southeast Asia, but also the recent dispersion of Chinese to various places after World War II. Chinese Studies also seems to be sharing with other area studies a similar pattern of the expansion of geographic delimitations.

Fundamental changes are taking place in our intellectual pursuits. Cross-disciplinary, cross-religion, and interpretative approaches are to be the trend of developing research projects and pedagogic perspectives for the next decade or even beyond. The Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation, being concerned with a particular area studies, must face such a pattern of research interest.

First, we need to define the boundaries of the concept of "China" ("Chung-kuo"). In the recent century "Chung-kuo" has been considered to be a state (which is a political entity), a nation (which is an assembly of population), and a cultural system. In the past "Chung-kuo" was identical with "tien-hsia", which is virtually a world system by itself. As a concept, "tien-hsia" was a political order with a hierarchy of power and a universal cultural system. Extension of Chinese culture differentiated the core and the peripheries, as well as the degree of Chinese-ness and non-Chinese-ness. But by the last century, China entered a multi-state world system. The concept of nation-state displaced that of the Chinese world system. The significance of a Sino-centric "tien-hsia" suddenly lost its meaning. The trinity of China as a culture, a nation, and a political entity needs to be redefined. Ironically, at this moment when the Chinese are barely beginning to rethink the concept of China, the tide of globalization is now turning around to other directions which will have an impact upon many aspect of our life. Scholars have to face such a change and are doing so. Recently, for instance, a symposium was organized at my campus to discuss post-national Europe. A new order with a certain resemblance to the "tien-hsia" in Chinese history now seems to be in the process of taking shape.

We are now in an age of re-defining our identities. In this new global system, how do we deal with the issues of multi-ethnicity, and cultural pluralism? How do we compromise between nationalism and the concept of the global village? To Chinese who lived in a "tien-hsia" universal cultural system, the Chinese experience has some special significance. But how can such an experience be interpreted and even transferred creatively?

The content of a culture also demands re-thinking. The elite culture includes ideology and religion, political institutions and refined cultural activities (such as literature, fine arts, etc.). Anthropologists, however, define culture much more broadly to include anything created by human minds and human hands. Recently, scholars who are interested in cultural studies have discovered a whole array of research topics such as studies on popular cultures and their interaction with the elite culture. The assemblage of Chinese culture now can be investigated from perspectives quite different from those we are used to.

The boundaries of China, and those of Chinese culture, should be redefined so that both can be discerned in a better perspective to answer questions which are now being raised by a new generation of students. In the world today, where democratization is a universal aspiration and the market place is almost the entire reflection of everyone's economic behavior, the anthropological definition of culture seems especially appealing to an ordinary member of any society. Chinese culture needs to be viewed from the perspective of commoners rather than that of the elite. Nevertheless, the former should not elbow out the latter, because the interaction between these two respective levels must be understood so that the dynamics of cultural formation, and cultural change, can be properly appreciated.

In a previous paragraph, inter-area and inter-cultural studies are noticed as a current tendency of expanding the content of area studies. In the field of Chinese studies, for too long have we posed questions completely within China and the Chinese cultural sphere. Yet, China has always been surrounded by neighbors and Chinese culture has been the product of interaction with other cultures. Just as in the Atlantic world, there is a world around the Pacific, which needs to be perceived as an integrated region. Only by broadening the horizons of our view points, is it possible to have a better understanding of others, as well as of oneself.

Thus, comparative studies should serve the function of identifying characteristics of any particular culture and, also, of demonstrating some commonalities that are shared by different human societies. To carry out such functions, inter-disciplinary collaborations are indispensable in order to comprehend the multi-dimensional complexity of a given culture.

Chinese studies, just s other area studies, is now entering a new era, because the scope and content of cultural studies are more broad and more complicated than earlier area studies has been. Methodology for area studies needs to involve all these steps: analysis, description, interpretation, and presentation so that we are able to reach a better discerning of the current state of the development of human societies.
Scholars in humanities and social sciences are committed to intellectual endeavors which, hopefully, are helping to enrich human experiences. However, for every generation, specific sets of questions demand answers. Scholarship needs constantly to adapt to the specific need of a given space and time. Our mission of promoting Chinese studies, therefore, also must be prepared to be adjusted.

Looking into the lit of programs which our North American Committee supported in past years, we are pleased to take note that, for illustration, some of the grant programs are designed to meet such changes. The series of conferences and research on "Becoming Chinese", organized by scholars at the University of California (Berkeley), represent an effort to chart the course of changes that Chinese experienced in the recent century. Our concentration of resources to support the development of a multi-year program of Chinese Studies at Duke University has led to the growth of a strong team of inter-disciplinary collaboration as one of the top universities in the U.S.A. A multi-media teaching module project at the University of Pittsburgh is designed for college students to comprehend Chinese culture from various view points. These modules are easily organized and reorganized to make several possible combinations so that the users are able to appreciate the complexity of the content of Chinese culture. We hope, in the future, that applicants will bring to our attention intriguing projects which will cast a new light on the appreciation of Chinese culture. And we believe such wishes will be fulfilled!