- China Reconnects: Joining a Deep-Rooted Past to a New World Order by Gungwu Wang
Wang Gungwu is the "dean" of overseas Chinese historians, not only in the academic sense (where in addition to serving as a dean, he spent ten years as the vice chancellor of the University of Hong Kong), but also in the broader sense, as the unofficial leader of the profession. He certainly has been a leader in the profession longer than just about anyone else. Born in 1930 in what is now Indonesia, his high school studies were aborted when the Japanese occupied Malaysia and closed the Chinese schools there. A few years later, his university studies in Nanjing were cut short by the communist victory in the civil war. He ultimately graduated from the University of Malaya, Singapore campus, which became the National University of Singapore only after Singapore gained its independence.
His academic career followed his personal trajectory, as he researched topics like revolution, civil war, the overseas Chinese, China's international relations, and, of course, Chinese history. If anyone is biographically well-placed to speculate on how China's "deep-rooted past" connects it "to a new world order," it is Wang. Thus, it comes as no surprise that his latest book, China Reconnects: Joining a Deep-rooted Past to a New World Order, is vintage Wang. Like several of his recent books, it is as much a biographical reflection as an analytical monograph. It is certainly not an academic tome: lacking formal citations or footnotes, it merely collects works mentioned (seemingly along with many others) in a bibliography. Nor is Wang's tone academic, although it is thoroughly intellectual. China Reconnects is a book to be read, not a reference to be consulted.
As so often throughout his long career, Wang focuses here on China's relationship with its south and the southern seas (and the lands beyond the seas). For the twelfth century, that means the Southern Song and their preservation (and revitalization) of Confucian traditions during a period when the homeland of Confucius himself was under foreign occupation. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, it meant trade into the Indian Ocean and the voyages of Zheng He. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it meant Portuguese and Spanish traders; in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the British. In the twentieth century, Sun Yat-sen born in Guangdong and educated in Hawai'i, rose up from the south to become the father of the country; his Kuomintang (KMT) successor Chiang Kai-shek briefly unified the country in a military campaign launched from the KMT home base in Guangzhou. Near the end of the century, Deng Xiaoping would relaunch China's stalled economic reforms in his Southern Tour of 1992. The special [End Page 293] economic zone of Shenzhen became the symbol of China's reentry into the global economy.
Wang does not tell these southern stories as a chronological history but weaves them into an exploration of the historical and philosophical roots of Xi Jinping's (but not only Xi Jinping's) "China dream." He writes that he takes "every China dream to have something to do with reviving China" (p. 21). With his family origins in the overseas Chinese communities of Southeast Asia, Wang is especially sensitive to the Chinese dreams of Chinese people outside China and even of China's non-Chinese neighbors, many of whom, if you look far enough back in history, ultimately became Chinese themselves. He asks "whether the less than Chinese northerners are more Chinese than the southerners who were not fully Chinese" (p. 144), pointing out that "[w]hat is significant is that both northerners and southerners had become Chinese at different times and in different ways." Wang's humane sense of unity in difference is what makes his work so inspiring, and China Reconnects fits squarely in this tradition.
The "new world order" of the book's subtitle refers to the Eurocentric system of international law...