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Anthropology and Area Studies

On March 31, 2023, the first Master Salon lecture in the series of activities marking the fifth anniversary of the establishment of Peking University's Institute of Area Studies was held in Building 66 of Yannanyuan on the PKU campus. Prof. Wang Mingming, a famous anthropologist from the Department of Sociology of Peking University, was invited to give a lecture on “Anthropology and Area Studies” and share about relevant research with the participants in the Salon. Prof. Zan Tao, deputy director of the Institute of Area Studies, hosted the salon.

At the beginning of the lecture, Prof. Wang related a few short anecdotes about his academic and ideological origins in area studies. Then, he discussed his understanding of area studies from three aspects.

First, he pointed out that, despite China’s economic and cultural advancement over the past two decades and the dramatic changes in its communication with the world, it has yet to form a mature knowledge system of the areas outside its borders. At present, more and more Chinese students are going overseas to study anthropology, but their research topics are still mostly “China in a comparative perspective”, without conducting research outside the region. More significantly, long-term study of China in a foreign education system may lead Chinese students to measure Chinese society against Western values.

Second, per Prof. Wang Mingming, in the current field of Chinese history, there is a great imbalance between the two forces of Chinese history and world history, which is mainly manifested by focusing on China and ignoring the world. The imbalance between the studies of China and the world is related to the existing dichotomy between China and the world, and more closely related to China’s habit of one-way communication with the world. If communication is only one-way, it will be different from, or even contradictory to, the historical tradition of the Belt and Road. Communication under the Belt and Road Initiative should not only tell Chinese stories well, but also foreign stories well.

Prof. Wang Mingming stressed that in the sense of high-level academic research, China’s area studies should simplify the quantity, improve the quality, maintain uniqueness and study “real” academic issues. In terms of academic research, China’s own academic characteristics should be maintained when carrying out area studies. In particular, Chinese researchers should focus on expounding and applying their own conceptual system to view and study the world, and conduct real cross-cultural studies from their own perspective. When we carry out area studies in China, we need to realize how, historically speaking, area studies in the US after World War II forced and interrupted the French tradition of civilization studies with backward things. When learning from the US, we should not repeat their path, but should put forward different theoretical content from the U.S. If we are not aware of the “dark history” of area studies in the US, it will be difficult for our scholarship to truly gain cultural autonomy, he said.

Finally, citing Prof. Qian Chengdan’s analysis, Prof. Wang Mingming expressed his belief that real anthropological research can make a unique contribution to area studies. Per him, Prof. Qian Chengdan believes that there are several problems in area studies in China, such as dispersed power, limited research targets, and the need to improve language skills. Prof. Wang Mingming pointed out that it is very difficult to truly understand the thoughts and ways of life of the people of another nation. In terms of whether we can overcome this difficulty, anthropology differs from other disciplines such as history, economics, law, and sociology. Anthropology was originally oriented toward regions and civilizations other than its own country. Some of the methods and theories accumulated by anthropologists could contribute to area studies, he said.

Prof. Zan Tao gave a brief overview of Prof. Wang Mingming’s lecture and shared his experience in area studies. Prof. Zan stressed that when we carry out area studies, we need to have our own problem consciousness and research agenda while introducing the Western method of area studies. Maintaining cultural consciousness is crucial. He pointed out that there is probably also the issue of how in contemporary China to bridge the three traditions in the field of area studies. Citing his own research on Turkey, he pointed out that the first tradition was ancient Chinese records of the surrounding people, such as Sima Qian’s writing about the Xiongnu. The second tradition arose during the period of the late Qing Dynasty and the Republic of China; in the process of Western learning, the Chinese people considered the fate of their own country and civilization in the course of world history mainly through foreign language secondary materials (e.g., in Japanese, English and French) in order to understand and interpret non-Western countries and societies and provide a mirror with which to see themselves. The third tradition was a series of discussions on Asian, African and Latin American countries by China’s local left-wing thinkers and political elites. The integration of the above three “traditions” is the way for area studies with Chinese characteristics to establish their own “virtues.”

Students asked questions about the academic concept of Sinicization and the integration of anthropology and area studies. Prof. Wang Mingming provided detailed answers. This Master Salon gave teachers and students a chance to gain a deeper understanding of the relationship between anthropology and area studies.

In December 2022, area studies officially became one of the first-level disciplines under China’s interdisciplinary disciplines. 2023 will see the fifth anniversary of the establishment of the Institute of Area Studies, Peking University. The holding of the Master Salon series is of unique significance to further promote the development of area studies at Peking University. Taking the fifth anniversary of the institute as an opportunity, the Master Salon series will invite renowned scholars from various disciplines to share their ideas.