Liu Hong on Southeast Asian Studies in Greater China

Liu Hong

China has a long tradition of studying its southern neighbors in the region often called the “Nanyang” (南洋) or Southern Ocean. Writings on Southeast Asia by Chinese envoys and traders can be traced back to the third century A.D. These travelogues and official records, though by no means scholarly studies, contain a diverse range of indispensable materials for studying the region prior to the advent of Western colonialism. Even in the early twentieth century, there were still relatively numerous Chinese scholars focusing their research on Southeast Asia. Some of them had trained in Japan and were influenced by that country’s “South Seas Fever” of the time. In 1908, some Chinese students and officials in Tokyo formed an association devoted to issues of Southeast Asian commerce and published the Magazine of the Research Association for Commerce in the Nanyang Archipelago (《南洋群島商業研究會雜誌》). Two decades later, the Bureau of Nanyang Cultural Affairs (南洋文化事業部) was established at Jinan University in Shanghai and published a scholarly journal on Southeast Asia. In 1940, a group of Chinese scholars and men of learning exiled in Singapore established the China South Seas Society (中國南洋學會), which has continued to publish the Journal of the South Seas Society and monographs.

The development of Southeast Asian studies in the People’s Republic of China after 1949 has seen mixed progress. While there was much disruption during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the past two decades have witnessed a remarkable revival of scholarly interest in the region, which has been strengthened by some newly developed programs on Southeast Asia in Hong Kong and Taiwan. This essay briefly describes the major institutional settings in Greater China and research concerns pertaining to Southeast Asia. In addition to some written sources and my past experience as a graduate student and lecturer in Southeast Asian studies in the PRC, this essay relies primarily on my research trips to China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan over the past few years and my interaction with faculty members there. It should be emphasized that my preliminary observations do not in any way reflect the official views of these institutions. 

Major Institutions in the PRC

Like research institutes dealing with other foreign countries and regions, China’s institutes on Southeast Asia can be divided into two types: those affiliated with universities and the academies of social sciences at various levels; and those attached to government agencies. The latter are primarily concerned with policy matters and act more like think tanks in the West. (For instance, there are Southeast Asian or Asian sections in the China Institute of International Studies [中国国际问题研究所] under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations [中国现代国际关系研究所] under the Ministry of State Security). This essay is mainly concerned with the former type – research institutes that are exclusively or predominantly devoted to Southeast Asian studies. In mainland China, there are five major institutes: 

Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Research School of Southeast Asian Studies, Xiamen University
Xiamen University (, located in Fujian Province and founded in 1921 by Tan Kah Kee (陈嘉庚), one of the most famous overseas Chinese entrepreneurs and social activists, has an established tradition of studying Southeast Asia. In addition to faculty members in the History Department, Faculty of Economics, and Institute of Anthropology whose studies are concerned with Southeast Asia, the majority of researchers on the region are housed in the Research School of Southeast Asian Studies (南洋研究院). Its predecessor, the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, was jointly founded in 1956 by the National Central Committee of Overseas Chinese Affairs and Xiamen University, making it the PRC’s first research institute on Southeast Asia and the Overseas Chinese. The Institute was restructured in 1996 to become the present Research School, comprising four institutes with some 45 full-time staff members: the Institute of Politics and Economy in Southeast Asia; the Institute of Overseas Chinese Studies (concerned with both the history and current status of ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia); the Center for the History of China’s International Relations (primarily concerned with interactions with Southeast Asia); and the Center for Chinese Literature in Southeast Asia (concerned with Chinese-language literature). The Research School offers MA and Ph.D. programs and publishes two quarterly journals, Studies of Southeast Asian Affairs (南洋问题研究) and Southeast Asian Studies (A Quarterly Journal of Translations; 南洋资料译丛).

In 2000, as a part of national efforts undertaken by the Ministry of Education to pull limited resources together and strengthen selected research institutes in the humanities and social sciences, the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Xiamen University, drawn primarily from staff of the Research School but also enlisting adjunct researchers from other universities in China and overseas, was designated one of 100 key national institutes for the humanities and social sciences. 

Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Zhongshan University

This Institute grew out of the Research Unit of Southeast Asian History at the Department of History of Zhongshan (Sun Yat-Sen) University ( in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province. The Unit was reconstituted as an independent research institution in 1978, though today some researchers have returned to teaching positions in either the History Department or School of International Studies. With about 15 full-time researchers, the Institute has four divisions: Southeast Asian History, Overseas Chinese Studies, Contemporary International Relations in Southeast Asia, and Southeast Asian Economy. Like its counterpart at Xiamen University, the Institute offers a graduate studies program. It began publishing a journal called Southeast Asian Studies (东南亚研究) in 1983. After 26 issues, the journal was renamed Asia-Pacific Studies (亚太研究) in 2000.

Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Jinan University
The predecessor of this institute, also located in Guangzhou, was the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, South China Branch of the Chinese Academy of Science, established in 1960 in the campus of Jinan University ( The university is under the National Office of Overseas Chinese Affairs and caters mainly to Chinese students from overseas and children of returned overseas Chinese. Its 25 full-time researchers are housed in five different divisions: Economy, International Relations, Culture and Education, Overseas Chinese, and Information. It publishes a quarterly journal called Southeast Asian Studies (东南亚研究).

Yunnan Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences
The history of this institute (located in Kunming, Yunnan Province) can be traced to 1963 when the Southeast Asia research unit was formed within the Yunnan Institute of History. In 1981, it merged with the South Asia research unit to form the current institute under the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences. It has about 38 researchers who are divided into largely geographic research divisions: Thailand, Burma, Indo-China, South Asia, and Southeast Asian political economy. Since 1983, the Institute has published the journal Southeast Asia (东南亚).

Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Guangxi Academy of Social Sciences
Located in Nanning, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, this institute was established in 1989 out of the Research Division on Indo-China of the Guangxi Academy of Social Sciences (formed in 1979). Its divisions include Comprehensive Research, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, and Overseas Chinese. It publishes a journal called All-Around Southeast Asia (东南亚纵横).

In addition to these institutes that are devoted exclusively to Southeast Asia, there are others that have committed an important segment of their staff and resources to the region. For instance, at Peking University (, the Institute of South and Southeast Asian Studies was formed in 1985 and incorporated into the Institute of Asian and African Studies six years later; the latter institute is now part of the School of International Studies. In August 2002, the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Peking University (北京大学东南亚学研究中心) was founded as one of the constituting members of the University’s Institute for Asian-Pacific Studies. Unlike the Southeast Asian Centers/Institutes mentioned above, this Center is a “virtual” program of the North American style, which draws its researchers from different faculties within the University. One of its main missions is to organize and coordinate Southeast Asia-related research activities engaged by different institutes, departments, and centers within the university in order to push forward interdisciplinary research.

 Other institutes include the Institute of Asian and Pacific Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing; the Institute of Asian and Pacific Studies, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences; and the Institute of Overseas Chinese Studies, Jinan University, Guangzhou. A few years ago, the Center for Overseas Chinese Studies was formed at Peking University (mainly by faculty members from the Institute of Asian and African Studies and the School of Oriental Studies). A similar Center was established within the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in November 2002. A significant amount of the research in the last three institutions is focused on the ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia.

A few observations can be made about the PRC institutions described above. In the first place, the institutional setting reveals a strong regional bias, with all five major Southeast Asia institutes located in southern China. This regional concentration results not only from geographical proximity, but also reflects historical and cultural linkages between southern China and Southeast Asia, partly through long-standing trade ties and partly through large-scale migration. More than 90 percent of ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia trace their origins to Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi, and Yunnan, the provinces in which the five Southeast Asia institutes are located today. (In contrast, studies on North America, Europe, and Japan are fairly underdeveloped in southern China and are mostly centered in Beijing and Shanghai). Secondly, and closely related to the previous characteristic, studies of Southeast Asia as a geographical region and socio-political construct have often been mixed with research on the region’s ethnic Chinese population. This is a legacy of long-standing Chinese historical tradition of writing about Southeast Asia, which displayed a strong predisposition to treat the region in conjunction with Chinese migration and/or its ties to China. The economic success of the ethnic Chinese in the region since the 1960s and their pioneering role in investing China since the 1980s further strengthen this tendency to mix the region with the region’s ethnic Chinese. Finally, while there is a certain degree of duplication of research efforts in the five institutes, there are also some divisions of labor among them. The Xiamen Center, for instance, is better known for research on Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia, while the Yunnan Institute is strong on Thailand and Burma and the Guangxi Institute covers the affairs of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia quite extensively. 

Hong Kong and Taiwan

In addition to these five major Southeast Asia-related institutes in the PRC, there are a number of institutes in Hong Kong and Taiwan that have devoted significant attention to Southeast Asia. Unlike their mainland counterparts, they were, with one exception, established in the mid-1990s or later and are more concerned with contemporary political and economic issues at this time of regional integration and globalization.

 The Centre of Asian Studies, Hong Kong University (香港大學亞洲研究中心) ( was established in 1967. While it has traditionally focused on China and Hong Kong, Southeast Asia has recently gained greater prominence in its research agendas. In 1996 the well-endowed China-ASEAN Project was established to promote Southeast Asian Studies, and it has since organized a series of China-ASEAN Roundtables and published monographs of selected papers presented at these events.

 The Southeast Asia Research Centre, City University of Hong Kong (香港城市大學東南亞研究中心) ( was established in September 2000. It is within the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and hosted by the Department of Applied Social Sciences. The Centre’s current core research theme includes “Remaking Southeast Asia in a Global Context: Cultures, Development, Challenges.” It comprises three sub-themes: Southeast Asia and Globalisations: environment, people, markets; Southeast Asian Fault-lines: schisms, convergence, conflicts; and Southeast Asian Interactions: cross border and inter-ethnic relations.

 In Taiwan, the development of Southeast Asian studies has been facilitated by the government’s Southward Policy of the mid-1990s and the island’s increasing investment in the region. The Center for Asia-Pacific Area Studies (CAPAS), Academia Sinica (中央研究院亞太研究計劃) ( is the newly reorganized (January 2003) Asia-Pacific Research Program (APARP), the 2002 merger of programs focusing on Southeast Asia (dating from 1994) and Northeast Asia (from 1998). The Center maintains its focus on these two areas. Its four major research directions include Asia-Pacific history and prehistory; languages, religions, ethnic groups, and indigenous cultures in Asia-Pacific; post-colonial political, economic, social transformations and developments in Asia-Pacific; and the interaction of ethnic Chinese and local societies in Asia-Pacific.

 The Graduate Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Tamkang University (淡江大學東南亞研究所) ( was established in 1996 and aims to “increase the integrated understanding of regional strategies and security, politics, societies, histories, humanities, and international relations in Southeast Asia.” It currently has 10 full time researchers and provides various courses for graduate students.

 The Graduate Institute of South East Asian Studies, National Chi Nan University (國立暨南國際大學東南亞研究所) ( was founded in 1997, aiming at “promoting teaching and researching in Southeast Asian politics, economics, society, culture and ethnic relations as well as building the resources in this field to meet the needs of national policy on Southeast Asia.”

 The Center for Southeast Asian Studies, National Sun Yat-Sen University (國立中山大學東南亞研究中心) ( was established in 1998, with three research divisions: Southeast Asia (covering the economy, society, culture, and political development of each Southeast Asian country); Taiwan and Southeast Asia (focusing on Taiwan’s political, economic, and security relations with the region, bilaterally and multilaterally); and Regional Relations (concentrating on regional political activities, economic integration, humanities, and cultural interactions). 

Researchers and their Disciplinary Backgrounds

 While there is a significant degree of diversity with respect to the backgrounds and research concerns of Southeast Asia scholars and institutes in Hong Kong and Taiwan, the background of researchers in the mainland institutes is much more homogeneous. There it is estimated that some 600 full-time researchers are entirely or partially concerned with Southeast Asia. They can be divided roughly into two generations. First are the Returned Overseas Chinese (归侨) who were born in Southeast Asia and returned to China in the 1950s and 1960s, some attracted by the promise of the New China and some repelled by anti-Chinese riots, especially in Indonesia and Malaysia. Familiar with local cultures and languages and having first-hand experience in Southeast Asia, they nevertheless rarely had the opportunity to return for further fieldwork due to the circumstances of the Cold War. Hence they relied heavily on texts and published materials for their analysis. Many were trained in history or international relations; according to an early 1990s survey, 43 percent of China’s Southeast Asianists were trained in history, 14 percent in economics, and 12 percent in international relations/politics. Accordingly, the work of these scholars tends to manifest a historical and nation-state perspective. The second generation was trained in China’s universities in the 1980s and 1990s. They are more familiar with current theoretical debates in the humanities and social sciences and some have had opportunities to do field research in Southeast Asia or library research in the West, but many lack the indigenous language capacity and intimate local knowledge possessed by their predecessors.

 This disciplinary background has an impact on the scope of Southeast Asian studies in the PRC. A survey conducted in October 2001 found, from 1990 onwards, the appearance of 607 publications (including monographs, journal articles, reference works, etc.) on various aspects of Southeast Asia. Although there has been no specific content analysis of these publications, earlier observations provide clues to the major thematic and disciplinary concerns of the mainland’s Southeast Asianists. An extensive survey of 4,024 articles published in 334 journals in the late 1980s and early 1990s concluded that 31 percent belonged to “politics,” defined broadly to include domestic politics of Southeast Asia and international relations of the region. Articles on “economics,” particularly concerned with the economic development of ASEAN, took second place at 30 percent. These were followed by “history” (27 percent) and “culture” (11 percent).

This division of disciplinary category appears largely unchanged to today, though interest in more theoretical and regional themes is on the rise and there is a gradual increase in the number of scholars trained in anthropology and sociology. Meanwhile, the combination of Southeast Asia as a region with ethnic Chinese in the region remains a characteristic of China’s Southeast Asian studies. There seems to have been no serious attempt to date to conceptualize the convergence and divergence of these two separate yet closely related domains of analysis.

Obviously, Southeast Asian studies in mainland China has made important progress over the last two decades, evidenced in part by the increasing number of publications and the holding of major large-scale conferences (nearly ten in the 1990s). However, there are also many constraints, some structural and some intellectual. In a questionnaire distributed among Southeast Asianists in the early 1990s, 22 percent reported the major limitation in the field to be the lack of research funding, followed by deficiencies in research materials (18 percent) and competent researchers (16 percent), the lack of exchange with foreign colleagues (15 percent) and restrictions posed by government policy (14 percent).

By the turn of the twenty-first century, however, the constraints seem more intellectual than structural. Over the last few years, the Chinese government, in addition to loosening its control of the public sphere, has committed a sizable amount of research funding to the humanities and social sciences. The Center of Southeast Asian Studies at Xiamen University and the Institute of Overseas Chinese Studies at Jinan University have been evaluated and selected as key national institutes for the humanities and social sciences, receiving substantial funding from the Ministry of Education, the National Office of Overseas Chinese Affairs, and their respective universities. Researchers from other universities and institutions have also benefited from the nation’s greater interest in Southeast Asia and closer Sino-ASEAN cooperation, which bring corresponding increases in funding and expanding opportunities to liaise with foreign colleagues. More pressing problems were aired at a national convention of Southeast Asianists held in Beijing in October 2001. Attention there was drawn to deficiencies in the following areas: knowledge of local languages, substantial fieldwork in the region, good-quality publications encompassing solid empirical data, well-informed theoretical frameworks, and regional perspectives.

In conclusion, as Southeast Asia’s closest neighbor, Greater China has a long history of curiosity and writing about the region. Today, ASEAN is China’s fifth largest trading partner and also ranks highly in China’s regional security strategy. How to capitalize on long scholarly tradition, geographical proximity, and close economic ties constitutes a challenge for Southeast Asianists in China. For Southeast Asianists in the region and elsewhere, it is also quite obvious that constructive collaboration with Chinese partners on issues of mutual interest will not only benefit the involved parties, but also push the global enterprise of Southeast Asian studies to a new stage.

Liu Hong
Hong Liu is associate professor in the Department of Chinese Studies and assistant dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, National University of Singapore. Since 2000 he has served as a guest research professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Xiamen University, and the Institute of Overseas Chinese Studies, Jinan University, Guangzhou. He can be reached at

Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Issue 3:  Nations and Other Stories. March 2003


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