Wang Gungwu

Singapore Infopedia

by Sheena Kumari


Wang Gungwu (b. 9 October 1930, Surabaya, Indonesia–)1 is an internationally renowned historian famed for his scholarship on the history of the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia, as well as the history and civilisation of China and Southeast Asia. In his illustrious academic career, Wang has held eminent appointments in various universities and organisations around the world. He was a history professor at the University of Malaya (1963–68) and the Australian National University (1968–86), and the vice-chancellor at the University of Hong Kong (1986–95). Wang was conferred the title of Commander of the British Empire in 1988. He is currently a professor emeritus at the Australian National University, and University Professor of the National University of Singapore (NUS), the highest academic title conferred by NUS.

Early life and education
Wang was born in Surabaya, Indonesia, and raised in Ipoh, Malaysia. His father, Wang Fo Wen, was an educator whose career as a teacher, principal and inspector of schools led the family to move from Surabaya to Malaya and then Singapore.2 He began his early education in 1936 at Anderson School, a government English school in Ipoh.3 When the Japanese Occupation (1942–45) disrupted his studies, he attended a class started by his father, who taught classical Chinese to children.4

Wang’s father and his mother, Dian Yan, were influential in inculcating in him a passion for scholarly research, Chinese culture and literature. Both strongly believed in the value of education, the importance of preserving cultural traditions and the need to uphold Chinese heritage.5

Tertiary education
Wang resumed his studies after the war, taking the Cambridge School Certificate examinations in 1946. He then moved to China with his parents and enrolled in the National Central University in Nanjing, where he was accepted into the Department of Foreign Languages.6 However, his studies were disrupted by the outbreak of Chinese civil war, and Wang and his parents left for Malaya in 1948.7

Resuming his undergraduate studies at the University of Malaya in 1949, Wang majored in English literature, history and economics. He received his bachelor’s degree with honours in 1953 and obtained his master’s in history the following year. His graduating thesis was entitled The Nanhai Trade: A Study of the Early History of Chinese Trade in the South China Sea.8

Besides academic pursuits, Wang was heavily involved in student activities. He was the secretary and editor of the student newspaper, The Malayan Undergrad; president of the University of Malaya Students Union (UMSU; 1951); chairman of the UMSU Council (1952); and founding president of the University of Malaya Socialist Club in 1953, which started the publication, Fajar. Wang, then an aspiring poet, also published a poetry collection, Pulse, in 1950.9

In 1957, Wang obtained his doctorate in Chinese history with his thesis, The Structure of Power in North China during the Five Dynasties, from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.10

Wang began his career as a lecturer at the Singapore campus of the University of Malaya in 1957 before moving two years later to the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur. He rose to the position of dean of the arts faculty (1962–63) and became a professor of history in 1963. He became known as an eminent scholar on the Chinese diaspora and China–Southeast Asian interactions.11 Wang then spent the next 18 years at the Australian National University, where he headed the Department of Far Eastern History (1968–75; 1980–85).12

In 1986, Wang accepted an appointment as vice chancellor of the University of Hong Kong (1986–95). Apart from administrative responsibilities and research work, he was also a member of several governmental councils, for instance, serving as an executive councillor of the Hong Kong government’s executive council (1990–92) and as chairman of the Council for the Performing Arts of Hong Kong (1989–94).13

His next appointment took him back to Singapore: He became executive chairman at the Institute of East Asian Political Economy (later renamed East Asian Institute) (1996–97).14 Wang remained as its director until his retirement in 2007, but was appointed as chairman of its management board.15 His other current appointments under NUS include: chairman of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.16

Besides his academic-related positions, Wang was also appointed as a member of the National Library Board (NLB; 1997–2003), as well as chairman of NLB’s advisory panel for the national collection on China and the Chinese diaspora (1997–2000) and the advisory panel for Chinese library services (2000–03). He was also a member of the National Heritage Board (NHB) (1997–99), adviser of the NHB (1999–2002) and member of the National Arts Council (1996–2000).17

In 2005, Wang was bestowed the Outstanding Service Award from NUS for his dedication in establishing the East Asian Institute as a leading research centre on contemporary China.18 In recognition for his service to the community, contributions to Chinese historiography and for achieving the highest standards in research excellence, NUS appointed him University Professor in 2007, the highest academic title conferred by the university.19

Wang authored and edited many books of history and has received numerous accolades from several universities, including Chinese and Hong Kong universities. In 2009, he was conferred an honorary Doctor of Letters degree by Cambridge University, which, according to Wang, held special meaning for him as it was an indication of the emphasis that the university placed on Chinese history as an important field of study and that his work was “worth honouring and rewarding in some way”.20

Wife: Margaret Lim Ping-ting
Children: Wang Shih-chang (Hsin-ming), Lin-chang (Hsin-mei) and Hui-chang (Hsin-lan)

Selected bibliography
1959: The Nanhai Trade: The Early History of Chinese Trade in the South China Sea22
1959: A Short History of the Nanyang Chinese23
1963: The Structure of Power in North China during the Five Dynasties24
1977: China and the World since 1949: The Impact of Independence, Modernity and Revolution25
1987:《东南亚与华人: 王庚武教授论文选集》(“Southeast Asia and the Chinese: An anthology of essays by Wang Gungwu”)26

1991: The Chineseness of China: Selected Essays27
1991: China and the Chinese Overseas28
1992: Community and Nation: China, Southeast Asia and Australia29
1995: The Chinese Way: China’s Position in International Relations30
1999: China and Southeast Asia: Myths, Threats and Culture31
2000: The Chinese Overseas: From Earthbound China to the Quest for Autonomy32
2000: Joining the Modern World: Inside and Outside China33
2001: Don’t Leave Home: Migration and the Chinese34
2001: Only Connect! Sino-Malay Encounters35
2002: Bind Us in Time: Nation and Civilisation in Asia36
2002: To Act is to Know: Chinese Dilemmas37
2003: Anglo-Chinese Encounters since 1800: War, Trade, Science and Governance38
2005: 《移民与兴起的中国》(“Migrants and the Rise of China”)39

2007: 《离乡别土:境外看中华》(“China and its Cultures: From the Periphery”)40
2007: Divided China: Preparing for Reunification 883–94741

Selected awards and honours
Commander of the Order of the British Empire

1991: Honorary professorship, University of Hong Kong42
1994: International Academic Prize of the Fukuoka Asian Cultural Prize43
1995: Honorary professorship, Fudan University, Shanghai; and Peking University, Beijing, China
1996: Honorary fellow, School of Oriental and African Studies, London
1998: Honorary professorship, Jinan University, Guangzhou, China
2001: Honorary professorship, by Nanjing University, Jiangsu, China
2004: Public Service Medal, Singapore
2004: Honorary professorship, Tsinghua University, Beijing, China
2005: Distinguished Service Award, NUS
2006: Honorary professorship, Xi-an Jiaotong University
2007: University professor, NUS
2009: Honorary doctor of letters, University of Cambridge44


Sheena Kumari Singh

1. "Chronology of Wang Gungwu," in Wang Gungwu: Educator & scholared. Yong-Nian Zheng and Kok Khoo Phua (Singapore: World Scientific Pub., 2013), 317. (Call no. RSING 378.5 WAN)
2. Lee Guan-Kin, “Wang Gungwu: An Oral History,” in Power and Identity in the Chinese World Order: Festschrift in Honour of Professor Wang Gungwu, ed. Billy K. L. So et al. (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press; Cardiff: Drake, 2003), 376, 378. (Call no. RCLOS 951 POW)
3. “Professor Wang Returns to His Roots, After 40 Years," Straits Times, 15 July 1996, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
4. “Chronology of Wang Gungwu,” 318.
5. Lee, “Wang Gungwu: An Oral History,” 376–77.
6. “Chronology of Wang Gungwu,” 318–19.
7. Lee, “Wang Gungwu: An Oral History,” 379–80.
8. “Chronology of Wang Gungwu,” 319–22.
9. “Chronology of Wang Gungwu,” 319–22.
10. “Chronology of Wang Gungwu,” 319–22.
11. Huang Jianli, “Wang Gungwu,” in Southeast Asian Personalities of Chinese Descent: A Biographical Dictionary, ed. Leo Suryadinata (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2012), 1251. (Call no. RSING 959.004951 SOU)
12. “Chronology of Wang Gungwu,” 330.
13. “Chronology of Wang Gungwu,” 330, 346.
14. “Chronology of Wang Gungwu,” 330.
15. “Chronology of Wang Gungwu,” 330.
16. “USP Rector (2010–2015),” National University of Singapore, accessed 26 August 2013,
17. “Chronology of Wang Gungwu,” 359, 361, 365, 367.
18. “Wang Gungwu Wins Top NUS Honour,” Straits Times, 9 April 2005, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
19. Ho Ai Li, “Top NUS Academic Title for China Expert,” Straits Times, 20 April 2007, 46. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Goh Sui Noi, “The Accidental – But Masterly – Historian,” Straits Times, 10 June 2009, 19. (From NewspaperSG)
21. “Chronology of Wang Gungwu,” 321, 322, 323, 325.
22. Wang Gungwu, The Nanhai Trade: A Study of the Early History of Chinese Trade in the South China Sea (Kuala Lumpur: Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1959). (Call no. RCLOS 382.0959 WAN-[RFL])
23. Wang Gungwu, A Short History of the Nanyang Chinese (Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, 1959). (Call no. RCLOS 325.2510959 WAN)
24. Wang Gungwu, The Structure of Power in North China during the Five Dynasties (Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 1963). (Call no. RCLOS 951.01 WAN)
25. Wang Gungwu, China and the World Since 1949: The Impact of Independence, Modernity and Revolution (London: Macmillan, 1977). (Call no. R 320.95105 WAN)
26. Wang Gungwu 王赓武, Dongnanya yu huaren: Wang Gengwu jiaoshou lunwen xuanji 东南亚与华人: 王赓武教授论文选集 [Southeast Asia and the Chinese: Selected papers of professor Wang Gungwu] (Beijing 北京: Zhongguo youyi chuban gongsi 中国友谊出版公司, 1987). (Call no. Chinese RSING 305.8951059 WGW)
27. Wang Gungwu, The Chineseness of China: Selected Essays (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1991). (Call no. RCLOS 951 WAN-[GH])
28. Wang Gungwu, China and the Chinese Overseas (Singapore: Times Academic Press, 1991). (Call no. RSING 327.51059 WAN)
29. Wang Gungwu, Community and Nation: China, Southeast Asia and Australia (NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1992). (Call no. RSING 305.8951059 WAN)
30. Wang Gungwu, The Chinese Way: China’s Position in International Relations (Oslo: Scandinavian University Press, 1995). (Call no. RUR 327.51 WAN)
31. Wang Gungwu, China and Southeast Asia: Myths, Threats, and Culture (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1999). (Call no. RSING 327.59051 WAN)
32. “Wang Gungwu and His Works,” in Wang Gungwu: Educator & scholar, ed. Yong-Nian Zheng and Kok Khoo Phua (Singapore: World Scientific Pub., 2013), 256–58. (Call no. RSING 378.5 WAN)
33. Wang Gungwu, Joining the Modern World: Inside and Outside China (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2000). (Call no. RSING 305.8951 WAN)
34. Wang Gungwu, Don’t Leave Home: Migration and the Chinese (Singapore: Times Academic Press, 2001). (Call no. RSING 304.80951 WAN)
35. Wang Gungwu, Only Connect!: Sino-Malay Encounters (Singapore: Times Academic Press, 2001). (Call no. RSING 303.482 WAN)
36. Wang Gungwu, Bind Us in Time: Nation and Civilisation in Asia (Singapore: Times Academic Press, 2002). (Call no. RSING 320.54095 WAN)
37. Wang Gungwu, To Act is to Know: Chinese Dilemmas (Singapore: Times Academic, 2002). (Call no. RSING 951 WAN)
38. Wang Gungwu, Anglo-Chinese Encounters Since 1800: War, Trade, Science, and Governance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003). (Call no. R 327.4105109 WAN)
39. Wang Gungwu, Yimin yu xingqi de zhongguo 移民与兴起的中国 [Immigration and the rise of China] (Xinjiapo 新加坡: Bafang wenhua chuangzuoshi 八方文化创作室, 2005). (Call no. Chinese RSEA 325.251 WGW)
40. “Wang Gungwu and His Works,” 269–70.
41. Wang Gungwu, Divided China: Preparing for Reunification, 883–947,  2nd ed. (Singapore: World Scientific, 2007). (Call no. RSING 951.018 WAN)
42. “Chronology of Wang Gungwu,” 351.
43. “Chronology of Wang Gungwu,” 356; “Wang Gungwu Wins Top NUS Honour.” 
44. “Chronology of Wang Gungwu,” 358–59, 369, 376, 379, 381, 388.

The information in this article is valid as at 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.


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