As someone who has studied history for much of my life, I have found the past fascinating. But it has always been some grand and even intimidating universe that I wanted to unpick and explain to myself – Wang Gungwu
This book is an autobiography of Prof Wang Gungwu, a renowned historian acclaimed for his works on Chinese history and the Chinese diaspora. It describes a series of events from his childhood up till his early adulthood. It also contains his recollections of the stories told by his mother, which provides a good insight into the hardships of daily life during World War II.
In this volume, Wang talks about his multicultural upbringing and life under British rule. He was born in Surabaya in Java but grew up in the multi-ethnic mining town of Ipoh in Perak, home to a significant Chinese population. He then went to university in Nanjing during the final years of Republican China. This period of his life is an extraordinary time, encompassing, first, the Japanese invasion of British Malaya during World War II, and then the Chinese Civil War that threatened and then ended his university studies in China.
Wang’s parents were from the Yangtze River province of Jiangsu, making them different from most of the other Malayan Chinese, who hailed mainly from Fujian and Guangdong. Wang’s father was a highly-educated Chinese school teacher who introduced Wang to the Chinese classics and history. He describes how he was pulled to his Chinese roots and culture due to his parents’ influence and yet he met many people who were different from him at his English school.
During the civil war in China between the Republican government and the Communists in 1947, his family returned to China. He entered the National Central University in Nanjing but was forced to abandon his studies at the start of his second year of studies in December 1948 when advancing Communist forces captured Xuzhou, a major town to the north. The book ends with Wang leaving Nanjing and soon to resume his tertiary studies at the newly established University of Malaya in Singapore.
In the book, Wang grapples with what it means to be Chinese, something that may still resonate with many in the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia today.