[About this blog] Inspired by local soccer player Mike Lim during my rookie reporter days at Singapore Polytechnic, I set up this blog in August 2002. I feel that blogging is a novel platform to document interesting facets of my life and my thoughts on certain issues. [Email blogger] ephraim@singnet.com.sg

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

[Professor Wang Gungwu's speech at the inauguration of the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre]
Professor Amartya Sen has spoken for those of us who have been involved for the past three years in the project to see Nalanda University restored as an international hub of learning. His is the voice of all those who recognize what Nalanda stood for and can stand for again. Minister George Yeo took a key initiative about Nalanda with the exhibition in the Asian Civilizations Museum in Singapore called, “On the Nalanda Trail”. I believe his interest further encouraged the Indian Prime Minister to approach the East Asia Summit with his proposal. Another initiative was to get this Nalanda-Srivijaya Centre going in Singapore. So it really should be Minister Yeo who should be speaking today. But he has modestly declined to do so.

Two recent events can be linked to what we are doing today. The first is the launch of the book, entitled Impressions of the Goh Chok Tong Years in Singapore, published by the Institute of Policy Studies. Among the things that Goh Chok Tong did as PM, what has been seen as remarkably bold was his “look to India” policy in 1993. This happened when George Yeo was the Second Minister of Foreign Affairs. I would like to think that his participation in that historic shift is not unrelated to his initiatives to move the policy deeper into the realm of cultural history and the human condition that Nalanda signifies.

The second is a link to the Chinese monk Xuan Zang, the man who recorded Nalanda for us over 1,350 years ago. I refer to China’s great Indologist, Ji Xianlin of Beijing University, who published in 1985 the annotated edition of Xuan Zang’s Records of the Western Region. Sadly, Ji Xianlin died last month, on July 11. Just four days ago, on August 6, he would have celebrated his 98th birthday. I first met him at Peking University when he was rehabilitated after the Cultural Revolution. He was unbowed and resumed his work to prepare the Xuan Zang book for publication. His student, Wang Bangwei, is a member of Professor Sen’s Mentor Group. He followed his teacher by producing a new edition of two books by another famous monk, Yijing. Yijing’s books provided the most detailed information about the monks of East Asia who stopped at the Buddhist centre of Srivijaya on their way to Nalanda. When Ji Xianlin died in Beijing last month, China’s premier Wen Jiabao publicly acknowledged his contributions to Chinese awareness of Indian civilization.

I shall not dwell on the contributions of Goh Chok Tong and Ji Xianlin. They provide different perspectives of how the spirit of Nalanda has shone through centuries of diminishing contacts between India and the east. Buddhism blossomed in China, Korea and Japan during that time. It took different forms in Southeast Asia, especially in the mainland states and among the peoples of Yunnan province. More recently, after decades of Western dominance, new minds of India and eastern Asia have met. Rabindranath Tagore’s trips to Japan and China and later to Southeast Asia did much to clear the way to a restored recognition among local leaders and scholars. Tagore personified the modern face of India and a new generation of Chinese Buddhist thinkers found him an inspiration.

Singapore has its own focus. It was a small part of Srivijaya for centuries. As Kwa Hock Guan outlined yesterday in The Straits Times, the need for a trading and cultural hub in Southeast Asia cannot be separated from the region’s past. And the need for such a hub remains at the heart of Singapore’s future. In the 1980s, the leaders here recognized the vitality of China’s renewal and, in the early 1990s, they were quick to discern the powerful impulses behind India’s transformation. We now see the possibility of ASEAN acting as a new platform for what is emerging across the oceans of Asia, from Japan to the Arabian Sea.
If only in the imagination, Srivijaya stands as a symbol of the revitalization of all the interactions that had taken place. Two examples are noteworthy. The Chinese had organised an inclusive concept of tianxia (All Under Heaven) into a formal tribute system. The Indians depicted the world differently through images of overlapping mandela that defy political borders. In today’s world of sovereign nation-states, one might ask, can a Srivijayan-type future soften the structure of one and sharpen the lines of the other? Can new kinds of relationships then flow between the Indian and Pacific Oceans?

The Chinese have an idiom, zhusi maji (thread of spider, trail of horse), that is, fine traces that are connected although they are barely visible. My association with the Nalanda project has made me aware how such traces are in all of us. Take my own experience when Minister George Yeo asked me in August 2006 to organize the first international meeting to discuss the Nalanda proposal. We met that November. Professor Amartya Sen was unable to come but he was with us in spirit. As I prepared for that meeting, I was surprised by the traces that came to my mind at the mention of Nalanda.

I immediately thought of my late friend Dr Devahuti whom I met 50 years ago in the history department of the University of Malaya in Singapore. She told me that she was using Xuan Zang’s Records of the Western Region to complete her study of the reign of King Harsha Vardhana, who had supported Nalanda University and met Xuan Zang. By chance, a new book published in New Delhi in 2005 had just reached me. It was entitled India and China, a volume that collected all references to Sino-Indian contacts in history. One of its editors, Geng Yinzeng, was a student at Peking University of the late Ji Xianlin. The other, Tan Chung, was a close friend of Devahuti at the University of Delhi. I had also just read his moving foreword to her posthumous study of Xuan Zang, called The Unknown Xuan Zang. This reminded me of meeting Romila Thapar in Delhi in 1951 when we were both undergraduates. In the midst of celebrating an independent India and a newly reunified China, we talked about ancient India-China culture contacts. When Romila and I met again at the School of Oriental and African Studies a few years later, it was she who told me of Devahuti’s interest in Xuan Zang.

A few more traces followed. I recalled my father speaking admiringly of Tan Yun-shan, the father of Tan Chung. Tan Yunshan, like my father, had also been a teacher in Chinese schools in British Malaya in the 1920s. My father described Tan Yun-shan as the man who met Tagore and worked in Visva Bharati in Santiniketan. Tan Yun-shan worked tirelessly for close relations between China and India, and brought Tan Chung to India to continue his work. Despite the difficulties for Chinese in India after 1962, Tan Chung went on to teach Chinese to generations of Indian students. My father was not a religious man, but when he talked about Tan Yun-shan, he showed me the Buddhist sutras that his grandfather and grand-uncles had annotated at the end of the 19th century.

So much for traces of Nalanda: zhusi maji, spider threads and horse trails. In a few minutes, that name had filled my mind with people whose civilizations had not been interacting for over 1,000 years. How many myriads more of such traces would be found if we set out to look, not only for historical ruins and artifacts but also for the various levels of response as people hear the call of Nalanda. I have no doubt that the Indian genius that was Nalanda connects with all of you or you would not be here.

The modern rediscoveries linked with Nalanda are no less exciting. From Angkor and Champa to Borobodur and Prambanan, and to the multiple references in Chinese historical documents, explorers and officials from all over the world have been involved. The British official who identified Nalanda and worked on its reconstruction, the French philologist who recovered the history of Srivijaya, the archaeologists who dug up Chinese trade goods in the midst of Hindu-Buddhist monuments, all of them helped to inspire people to appraise afresh their own neglected pasts.

Today there are scores of local scholars who are ready to lead and guide the new work to be done. But the basic pattern is set. There are no borders to learning, research and discovery. The Nalanda tradition shows us that this was the principle that moved people to travel thousands of miles, braving hostile terrains and stormy seas, in their search for knowledge. Singapore inherited one such tradition from the West. Our Nalanda-Srivijaya Centre now seeks to associate closely with another tradition, one that is rooted in our past, but has the potential to redefine our future. The Institute of Southeast Asian Studies is proud to provide a home for a small part of the new Nalanda University that is about to be reborn. As chairman of the ISEAS Board, I congratulate Professor Amartya Sen and his colleagues for setting this venture in motion. It is early days yet, but I believe that the spirit that has been released is an infectious one, one that inspires all those concerned to ensure that the mission will be completed. Thank you.

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