I had a long conversation with a friend yesterday about knowledge, and I woke up today thinking about Thai historian and scholar Nidhi Aeusrivongse.
Our conversation yesterday was about the “problem” of the different types of knowledge that some scholars in “Asian” and “Western” countries have and the question of what, if anything, should be done about this “problem.”
One thing we agreed upon is that this is not a question of a difference between “Asian” and “Western” forms of knowing. There is no such thing as “Asian” or “Western” forms of knowledge anymore. The intense contact between peoples from different societies over the course of the past 200 years has transformed the way that everyone across the globe thinks.
And while these transformations have not led to homogeneity, the differences can not simply be explained away by referring to things like “Asian” forms of knowledge.
For instance, in Beijing this year it is the year 2013, while in Taipei it is the year 102.
102 years go, the Qing Dynasty was overthrown and the Republic of China was formed. Like “traditional” Chinese governments, this new government “started time” with its establishment, but what was established at that time was a new form of government, one that was deeply influenced by ideas about governance that came from “the West.”
As for the decision to adopt the Western calendar in the PRC, I don’t know the details but I would suspect that this is related to interactions with the Soviet Union and its intense emphasis on “scientific” knowledge.
So my point is to say that places like Taiwan and mainland China are the way they are today because of global interactions.
What does this have to do with the “problem” I mentioned above? The “problem” is that when scholars from “Asian” countries and “Western” countries disagree, or don’t understand each other, it is no longer because they have different ways of thinking. Instead, it is because people in some places have investigated some ideas further than people in others.
Let’s take my favorite topic of nationalism. In the 1950s, understandings of nationalism were quite uniform. At that time, academics in the Soviet Union, China, the Philippines, France, the US, Vietnam, etc. all could have talked to each other and had a healthy debate. And they could have done this because global interactions over the previous decades (brought about largely by colonialism and imperialism) had transformed the world and created a common way for scholars to think (there were still divisions and differences, but the way scholars around the globe thought at that time was much more uniform than it had been 50 years earlier).
Then in the 1980s there was an explosion in interest in the topic of nationalism in places like the UK and the US, and by the time a decade or so had passed, scholars in those places could no longer have a healthy debate with scholars in places like the Soviet Union or China.
Now, in the late 1980s if Soviet and American scholars did not agree or understand each other it didn’t really matter because Cold War divisions kept them apart. They didn’t really talk to each other.
This has now (theoretically) changed. With the end of the Cold War and with the internationalization of education, thousands of people are studying in foreign countries and getting exposed to ideas that developed there further than they have in their home countries. Meanwhile, “international conferences” are being held in every corner of the globe bringing people with different bodies of knowledge together.
And with all of these developments we have people like Thomas Friedman telling us that the world is becoming “flat.” While that may be true in terms of things like the development of IT (which is one of the topics he focuses on), scholarly knowledge in the Humanities and to a lesser extent in the Social Sciences is still far from being flat. Again, in terms of those forms of knowledge, I would argue that the world was much flatter in 1950 than it is today.
So this then gets me to the topic that my friend and I were talking about. What should be done about this? Or should anything be done about it? We didn’t come up with an answer, but we did agree that we have seen two prominent ways that scholars in/from Asia have been responding to this imbalance in knowledge in this age of “global flatness” – rejection and (total) acceptance of “Western” knowledge – and we didn’t feel that either of these approaches was ideal.
So I went to bed thinking about this issue, and I woke up thinking about Nidhi Aeusrivongse.
Ajarn (i.e., “professor”) Nidhi is a Thai historian and scholar who obtained a PhD from the University of Michigan in 1976. His dissertation was entitled Fiction as History: A Study of Pre-war Indonesian Novels and Novelists 1920-1942.
Already I think we can see something unique about Ajarn Nidhi. So many students who get PhD’s overseas do so by researching about their home society. Ajarn Nidhi chose not to do that, and this required learning an additional foreign language – Indonesian.
His advisors were some of the main scholars in the field of Southeast Asian history in North America at that time – John Whitmore, Benedict Anderson, etc. – and Michigan is a very good university, so I suspect that if Ajarn Nidhi had really wanted to, he could have found a way to stay overseas.
However, he didn’t. In fact, not only did Ajarn Nidhi not stay overseas, but he stopped writing in English. I know of one chapter that he wrote on Cambodia in an edited volume from (I think) the late 1970s, but basically from the time he finished his PhD onward, he wrote only in Thai.
And he wrote a lot, and his scholarship is respected by scholars both in Thailand and foreign scholars who can read Thai.
Beyond producing solid scholarship, Ajarn Nidhi also became what we could call a “public intellectual” and wrote articles for newspapers, and then later established a group and web site known as “Midnight University” to share critical ideas and scholarship with the public.
Again, all of this has been in Thai.
So essentially what Ajarn Nidhi did was to learn from his home society, to learn from his period studying in the US, and then to follow a unique path of his own. He didn’t reject the outside world, but he also didn’t worship it or reject his home society.
He just learned from both and produced scholarship that could be respected by people at home and abroad.
That’s cool. And it seems to me like one good way to navigate through the unequal bodies of knowledge in our flattening world.