In preparation for its scheduled Dec. 3 Annual General Meeting, the Council of the Royal Asiatic Society Beijing (RASBJ) reports that the society has surmounted the challenges of 2020 and managed to grow. Events have expanded in quality and quantity. Membership boomed after Zoom talks were launched in March. Finances are solvent.
RASBJ has held 40 events so far in 2020, with more in store. Upcoming events slated to take place before Spring Festival 2021 include talks on Beijing maps, traditional Chinese textiles, and the historical impact of monsoons and implications of climate change. In-person events are back on track, from a planned visit to a guqin studio in Beijing’s outskirts to our Nov. 25 discussion on “China’s poverty reduction: what comes next?” by the World Bank’s Dr. Martin Raiser and Dr. Roli Asthana of the British Embassy.
In contrast, earlier this year as the pandemic progressed across the globe, the RASBJ felt its world had suddenly become very small. COVID-19 had halted all in-person gatherings. Members were scattered across the globe. In a February Council meeting over Zoom, officers lamented the multiple calamities bedevilling China and other nations. Yet RASBJ should not have been totally surprised, noted Events Officer James Nobles. According to the Chinese zodiac, once every 60 years the new lunar year is traditionally seen as a “year of living dangerously”, he explained. “Terrible things always happen in the ‘Year of the Metal Rat’.”
It sounded like a perfect RASBJ talk in normal times and – suddenly — Council members realized it was equally appropriate in an era of Zoom. Anticipating that COVID-19 wouldn’t be disappearing anytime soon, the Council resolved to shift its events strategy online — grabbing the opportunity to reach beyond Beijing for speakers, members and inspiration. The result has been a hugely successful series of online talks – nearly three dozen since March 9 – with Nobles’ unique presentation on “China’s Year of the Metal Rat” as one of the many crowd-pleasers.
Online events are the latest vehicle for the Royal Asiatic Society Beijing’s brand of intellectual exploration to “enrich people’s understanding of the past, present and future of China and its role in the world,” says RASBJ President Alan Babington-Smith. “The pandemic gave us an opportunity to ‘go global’ while still maintaining high standards. For all events, we carefully curate the topic, the tone, and the personalities.”
Founded in 2013 by Alan Babington-Smith and Melinda Liu as a chapter of the Royal Asiatic Society China, the RASBJ five years later became an independent branch of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (founded in 1824). The society’s aim always has been to help bring China and the rest of the world closer together through cultural exchange. Until early 2020, the organization focused on in-person talks, tours to historical and cultural sites in and near Beijing, and unusual excursions, such as spending the night in a Buddhist monastery to learn about the lives of resident monks.
Little of that prior experience prepared the RASBJ for the popularity of its Zoom series. Attendees joined the online talks in numbers double or triple the pre-COVID rate of attendance. Membership surged. At RASBJ’s invitation, prominent speakers were persuaded to try their hand at Zoom. Many – including renowned Prof. Robert Bickers who recounted the Swire story and author Paul French who introduced his book “Murders of Old China” — took part in their first Zoom talks under RASBJ’s banner.
Today, it sounds quaint to recall a time before COVID-19 drove talks and conferences online. In February 2020, however, many Beijing-based organizations were anticipating a swift return to “normal”, and as a result were reluctant to spend time learning to Zoom.
The RASBJ was among the first of its peers to jump online and reap the benefits of going global. Based in the U.K., Prof. Peter Frankopan provoked lively debate in his online seminar “Why Study History?” From Shanghai, Dr. Michael Humphries explained China’s history of epidemic response. Beijing experts Jeremiah Jenne and Lars Ulrik Thom revealed fresh insights into the Chinese capital’s layers of history. On the anniversary of Japan’s official WWII surrender, Prof. Rana Mitter introduced his new book “China’s Good War”, sparking a lively discussion. Attendees logged in from China, Britain, the U.S., South Korea, India, Japan and Central and Southeast Asia.
RASBJ’s online discussions also seek to feature new angles on familiar topics, or unique perspectives such as “What Qing Emperors Learned from their Celebrity Chefs” and “Southeast Asian Wars through China-watchers’ Eyes.” In her first Zoom talk ever, Sinologist Frances Wood evoked the lives of U.K.-based Chinese intellectuals during the 1930s and 1940s. After talking on China-Japan relations Prof. Ezra Vogel — aged 90, and one of the world’s top East Asian scholars — said he felt the RASBJ’s Zoom event “helped bring out the best in me.”
The search for this type of intellectual engagement has always been intense in Beijing. It’s not only the epicenter of Chinese officialdom and policy-making but also a dynamic hub of diplomacy, academia, cinema, NGO’s, architecture, art, music, even birdwatching. Its residents, both expatriate and Chinese, are inquisitive, professionally varied, and keen to learn something new. RASBJ events represent an intellectual space “for people who never want to stop being fascinated,” says Council member Katrin Buchholz, who herself organized a fascinating Zoom talk on Puccini’s Turandot.
The Society has also resumed in-person events with a September Wild Wall weekend outing led by William Lindesay OBE. In October Amb. Nicolas Chapuis, head of the E.U. Delegation to China and a translator of Tang poetry, held an unforgettable talk on poet Du Fu’s depictions of “barbarians” and how they resonate in Chinese society today; about 80 people attended on Zoom and another three dozen took part in person.
To share the content of its Zoom series, RASBJ has invited members of the Royal Asiatic Society based in London and of branches in Shanghai, Seoul and Hong Kong to attend its online events for free, a collaboration that has enhanced intra-RAS liaison worldwide. These RAS partners generously reciprocated by inviting our members to their online talks, which has been much appreciated. Thanks partly to technology, interaction between chapters and individuals within the global RAS community has blossomed.
To sustain its expanding activities and membership, RASBJ has surveyed its members to gather feedback, refreshed its website, and conducted a strategic planning review and brainstorming on Nov. 21 to help RASBJ identify and anticipate the challenges and opportunities ahead. To be sure, the Year of the Metal Rat has seen a tragic degree of disease, death and disruption. This challenging year however has seen the RASBJ cutting through some of the gloom by bringing together intellectually curious participants with top-drawer speakers and unique content –- and extending its reach across the globe. Thanks to all for your support.
THE ROYAL ASIATIC SOCIETY BEIJING TEAM
This was adapted from a report submitted to the 2020 RAS China Annual Journal