Glocal Asian Studies Lecture Series: Lecture 2 | Zomia in Motion: The Southeast Asian Highlands and their Tibetan Implications

On October 12, 2019, Prof. Shen Weirong from Tsinghua University and Prof. Willem van Schendel from the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands as the main lecturers, and Prof. Cao Yin, Associate Professor from Tsinghua University as the host, brought the lecturer of “ Zomia in Motion: The Southeast Asian Highlands and their Tibetan Implications” to the Institute of International and Area Studies (IIAS) of Tsinghua University.

In the first part of the lecture, Prof. Shen Weirong started with “Shangri-La” to explain the process by which the Western world, Mainland China and Tibet have romanticized “Shangri-La” as a concept that cannot objectively reflect regional reality. He recommended the classic book “Prisoner of Shangri-La”. Through the discussion of “Shangri-La”, Prof. Shen raised a serious academic question: If a region and its identity are artificially constructed by different groups for political and economic purposes, and its objectivity is very suspicious, as scholars of area studies, how do we solve the problem?

In the second part of the session, Prof. Willem van Schendel used his own research area as an example and proposed his own solution to Prof. Shen’s question. As the proponent of the concept of “Zomia”, the professor reviewed the changes in geography, history and culture from ancient times to the present in India and China. Through vivid metaphor concepts, he advised scholars to break the traditional concepts of countries or regions and build a more objective and accurate understanding and interpretation of a region through overlap, contrast and correction.

The question and answer of the two professors aroused the thoughts and heated discussions of the doctoral students on the spot.

The Glocal Asian Studies Lecture Series hosted by IIAS of Tsinghua University was launched in Fall 2019. It aims to provide scholars participating in the events with a platform of dialogue and learning with top scholars studying Asia history and culture from all over the world. China’s area studies have been vigorously developed in the context of the “Belt and Road” Initiative in recent years. However, the current area studies are often a rigid superposition of country studies and lack intra-regional and inter-regional connections and comparative studies. The root cause is the missing of a long-term historical/cultural perspective in current area studies in China. The lecture series will invite top-notch and young scholars in the field of Asia studies at home and abroad to give special lectures on their latest research findings and communicate with participants. This will serve as an opportunity to cultivate area researchers’ transnational and global perspectives, and encourage them to reflect on the traditional research paradigm based on country.

By Cheng Yao