Asian Studies Scholars Meet in the Netherlands

Pamela Price and Harald Bockman, October 1998

The International Convention of Asia Scholars (ICAS), which met June 25–28, 1998, at the Leeuwenhorst Congress Centrum, Noordwijkerhout just outside of Leiden in the Netherlands, was the first Asian studies conference organized jointly by the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS), based in Leiden, and the Association of Asian Studies (AAS), based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. More than 750 scholars registered to attend the conference.

The format included panels with regional themes and interregional themes such as "Changing Asian Forests: Ecology, Markets, Livelihoods, and Symbolism"; "Citizens, but Second Class? Intersections between Women and the Nation in Asia"; and "Imperial Medicine? Smallpox and Vaccination in China, Indonesia, and Japan."

The proceedings also included cultural programs and special events that included keynote addresses by Goenwawan Mohamad, an Indonesian critic and former editor of Tempo magazine, and Anthony Reid, professor of Southeast Asian history at the Australian National University. Probably the most ambitious of the cultural programs was Film South Asia, which consisted of 32 documentary films and accompanying panel discussions, in which the makers of several of the films participated.

Special roundtable discussions took place in the congress center. On Saturday afternoon "The Eurasian Century? The ICAS Forum of Journalists" was held with brief presentations from five writers and journalists from Europe and Asia followed by general discussion. The term "Eurasian Century" refers to one of the central questions framed for debate: "Could the 21st century be construed as the Eurasian Century—one in which cultural, social, economic, and environmental concepts are fused, not into utopian systems, but into a fluid synergestic system that works in practice?" The previous day, in a similar format, two film directors and two organizers of a major screening in Kathmandu of documentary films talked on the theme, "The Viability of Critical Documentary Filmmaking in South Asia."

An approximate breakdown of panels by region indicates that participation weighed heavily in the direction of East Asia, especially China (25 panels) and Japan (13). There were also 8 East Asia regional panels. At the other end was the low number of South Asia panels (6). But a few South Asia scholars appeared on some of the interregional panels. The lack of South Asianists was commonly held to be the result of last-minute failures of conference funding to come through for scholars in South Asia and also because of the forthcoming European Conference on Modern South Asian Studies planned for this autumn in Prague. The Asian economic crisis also created difficulties for a number of scholars who had planned to attend.

The China panels tended to be the result of the initiative of American scholars and younger Europeans who have shown strong interest in communicating across national boundaries. John Wills of the University of Southern California, the organizer and chair of the panel, "State-building in Early Modern Asia," commented enthusiastically about the success of a number of panels at the conference in highlighting recent research on early modern state formation in China.

The ICAS is an interesting innovation for the international community of Asia scholars. Therefore, some parts of the European academic community believe that, if further initiatives can be taken to institutionalize the ICAS, its format and organization would benefit from a broad discussion among Asia scholars. One reason for this perception is that academic traditions and organizational cultures differ between the United States and Europe. For example, the panel format with just three to four readers of papers—given 20 minutes each—and one or two discussants, is a North American convention. In continental Europe, where there are somewhat generally formulated topics for workshops, a relatively large number of papers are presented. The workshop may last more than a day and up to an hour might be spent discussing a paper.

Another reason for discussion of institutionalizing ICAS is that there is a venerable old congress of "Orientalists," with a history going back to 1872, which appears to be still going strong, meeting every third year under the acronym of ICANAS or International Congress of Asian and North African Studies. If the ICAS and ICANAS present their views on future organization to their constituents, it would be a good beginning.

—Pamela Price and Harald Bøckman teach at the University of Oslo.

Editor's Note: The IIAS is a research institute jointly established in 1993 by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, the University of Amsterdam, and Leiden University. Since 1994 the IIAS has been appointed to run the secretariat of the European Science Foundation (ESF) Asia Committee (Strasbourg). The Asia Committee of the ESF was established in 1994 at the initiative of scholarly and ministerial-level circles in France and the Netherlands. In this capacity the IIAS provides economic support to the six European Associations for Asian Studies, organized according to Asian regions. It promotes cooperation among Europe-based scholars within these organizations. To find out more about the ICAS and the IIAS, visit the web sites: ICAS http://iias.leidenuniv.nl:80/conferences/icas/; IIAS: http://iias.leidenuniv.nl/.