The Newsletter 81 Autumn 2018

An African perspective on African Studies in China

Kwesi D.L.S. Prah

<p>‘African Studies’ in China is a relatively recent scholastic initiative and tradition.[qtip:1|I put African studies in inverted comas because although it is commonly used to demarcate an area of scholarship, it is also subject to intense criticism from African scholars regarding its scholastic traditions and epistemologies.]&nbsp;This is not to say that general knowledge on, or interest in Africa is new in China. Nevertheless, the recent pursuit to build and grow expertise in ‘African Studies’ has become a source of interest and focus of the Chinese academic community and government over the past 60 years. However, the challenges Chinese scholars face with regard to the tradition and relevance of ‘African Studies’ mirror those faced by Western scholars.</p>

Despite the major strides being made in adding to the repositories of knowledge at various higher learning institutions across China, and the growing number of scholars interested in engaging in scholarship on Africa and about Africans, there is a continued ‘othering’ of Africans, their ideas, realities and scholastic traditions. Maurice Duverger, Edward Said, and Archie Mafeje all argued that researchers engaged in the social sciences are bound by particular value systems which are then reflected in the way they conceptualize and frame their research, hypothesize, or collate information.2 Duverger, M. 1968. Sociologie Politique. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, pp.11-12; Mafeje, A. 2008. ‘Africanity: A Combative Ontology’, CODESRIA Bulletin 3&4:59-115;109-110; Said, E.W. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon, pp.2-4.  This is no different in China, where most Chinese scholars studying Africa, African peoples and their thoughts or realities are primarily informed by Euro-American scholarly traditions. Furthermore, some of them are funded by, and follow, policy directives from government. The totality of these experiences means that a lot of time is spent regurgitating, reformulating, or replicating often biased, racist, and outmoded epistemological and empirical research frameworks.

Scholars such as Tandeka Nkiwane and Paulin Hountondji make it very clear that social sciences such as Ethnology or International Relations need to strip off the Eurocentric epistemic lens upon which they heavily rely.3 See footnote in Hountondji, P. 2009. ‘Knowledge of Africa, Knowledge by Africans: Two Perspectives on African Studies’, RCCS Annual Review 1, National University of Benin, African Centre for Advanced Studies, p.4; also see, Nkiwane, T.C. 2001. ‘Africa and International Relations: Regional Lessons for a Global Discourse’, International Political Science Review 22(3):279-290; Zondi, S. 2015. ‘Decolonial Humanism and Africa’s Presence in International Diplomacy’, CODESRIA Bulletin.  This is exemplified in research on Africa-China relations, through an over-reliance on ‘experts’ who are divorced from the political, social or economic realities of Africa, but who then claim to speak on behalf of all Africans. It is also crucially important that Chinese scholars preserve a sense of academic freedom, in order to provide more incisive critique, research and debate on the political economy of Africans around the world.

Most importantly, although Mafeje was optimistic that ‘African Studies’ would open paths for the veracity and value of Africanity and African scholarship, there are still indications that efforts to develop this field of study within Chinese academic discourse serves particular interests. As an African scholar in China, I can only hope that these interests are mindful of the subjective bias, epistemological flaws, and often racist nature of ‘African Studies’ and its traditions worldwide. This mindfulness would create a healthy culture of self-reflexivity and critique within Chinese academic discourse, which would complement scholarship by Africans, African and Africanist ideas, histories, and realities.

Kwesi D.L.S. Prah, Senior Lecturer in History, East China Normal University,