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Reviewed by:
  • Southeast Asian Studies in China
  • Liam C. Kelley (bio)
Saw Swee-Hock and John Wong, editors. Southeast Asian Studies in China. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies and East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore, 2007. xii, 204 pp. Hardcover $32.90, isbn 978-981-230-404-9.

This volume consists of a collection of papers that were presented at a conference in Singapore in 2006 on Southeast Asian studies in China. Sponsored by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) and the East Asian Institute (EAI) of the National University of Singapore, the goal of the conference was to create greater awareness between scholars in China and Southeast Asia at a time when China's influence in, and importance to, the Southeast Asian region is growing. The bigger concern appears to have been that Chinese scholars should be as knowledgeable about Southeast Asia as some scholars in Southeast Asia are of China. As the editors note in their preface, "Whilst many universities and research institutes in the ASEAN region are conducting studies on various aspects of China, it is equally important to promote a better understanding of Southeast Asia among the people and the Government of China" (pp. xi–xii). With this goal in mind, the conference brought together scholars from these two areas. Over the course of two days—one day on which papers were presented in English and the other in Mandarin—they reviewed the development of Southeast Asian Studies in China and discussed the future prospects for this field. The essays in this edited volume are some of the papers that were presented during the English-language day of this conference.

In the first chapter, Saw Swee-Hock, an economist at the ISEAS, provides an overview of the three main issues that were discussed at the conference: the history of Southeast Asian studies in China, its status, and its future prospects. While the [End Page 564] Chinese began to record information about Southeast Asia centuries ago, and while courses on the Chinese in Southeast Asia were taught at Jinan University in the first half of the twentieth century, only in the 1950s did the serious study of the region get underway in China. At that time, research centers for the study of Southeast Asia were established in Guangzhou, Kunming, and Xiamen, and policy-related research units were set up to assist the central government. These developments came to a halt for the decade of the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976. Since that time, the field of Southeast Asian studies has revived and expanded, with twelve research centers now established. Currently, scholars are actively engaging in research on a wide range of topics. Nonetheless, Saw Swee-Hock notes that much of the scholarship lacks "academic rigor" (p. 6), a result, among other factors, of limited resources and poor training.

Several of the subsequent chapters in this book follow a similar pattern in that they trace a specific issue in the field of Southeast Asian studies in China through the various phases of its development from the 1950s to the present. In chapter 2, for instance, John Wong, an economist from the EAI, and Lai Hongyi, a political economist from the same institute, analyze the content of articles on Southeast Asian topics that have been published during this period. They note a change in research focus from the topics of history, the overseas Chinese, and anti-colonialism in the 1950s, to issues based more on social science research since the 1990s. While Wong and Lai argue that research on Southeast Asia has become more professional in China, they maintain that it is hampered by the fact that scholars employ theoretical approaches that are not sufficiently rigorous, and that scholars lack facility in Southeast Asian languages.

Suryadinata, an author of numerous academic works on the Chinese in Southeast Asia, seeks to identify and assess the work of individuals in China over the past three decades whom we might label "Southeast Asianists." While many professionals in China have produced information about Southeast Asia during this period, Suryadinata's survey establishes a narrow definition of Southeast Asianists as "those researchers and scholars who have engaged in academic pursuits...