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A multicultural society in the heart of Beijing

Updated: 2022-07-22 08:44 ( China Daily )
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Many years ago, when I was a young, impressionable slip of a thing, I spent an enthralling afternoon adrift in the musty library of the Asiatic Society on Park Street, in the city then known as Calcutta.

Immersed in accounts of discovery-the society was formed in 1784 by Sir William Jones, a Sanskrit scholar and minor East India Company judge, whose "bounds of investigations" were the "geographical limits of Asia"-I dreamed of one day joining its ranks.

That didn't happen. Instead of returning to India, the focus of my degree, I ended up in Lebanon, a country at the farthest fringes of Jones' remit. Fast-forward some 30(*cough*) years, though, and the first thing I did after getting out of quarantine in 2020 was to join the Royal Asiatic Society Beijing.

"Finally," I exulted, the cynosure of self-congratulation. "I am a member!"

I wasn't though, not quite. You see, the RASBJ is not a branch of Calcutta's Asiatic Society, but of London's Royal Asiatic Society, which was founded in 1823 as its counterpart.

While that did knock some wind from my sails, I recovered as I browsed its list of events, which, in those early COVID-19 days, had migrated online. Though it no longer specialized in discovery-neither does the Asiatic Society, for times have changed-it was a feast of intellectual stimulation, an opportunity to learn more about my new home than I'd find in guidebooks, or even by talking to most people.

The RAS has a venerable history. Barely 20 years after it was founded, a branch was operating in Hong Kong, followed in 1857 by the North China branch in Shanghai, which eventually took up residence in the handsome Art Deco premises on Huqiu Lu now occupied by the Rockbund Art Museum. From there, it sponsored research, translations and expeditions, publishing its findings in a journal regarded as a key source of information on China up until operations were suspended in 1952.

It wouldn't resume for almost 50 years and, in 2013, the Beijing branch was formed, following a conversation over cocktails between American author and RAS Shanghai member Paul French, and Melinda Liu, Newsweek's long-standing Beijing bureau chief.

"It was serendipitous," Liu recalls. "We were having a drink after Paul's walking tour, when he asked me if Alan would be interested in starting a branch in Beijing."

The "Alan" in question is Liu's partner, Alan Babington-Smith, a consultant banker who has lived in China since 2000.

"I asked (Paul), 'why Alan?'" Liu says, smiling. "And he said because Alan was the most British person he knew."

The suggestion, while perhaps tongue-in-cheek, given that the society is very much a multicultural, multinational affair, was a solid one. Under Liu and Babington-Smith, the RASBJ, which carries the RAS name but is entirely independent of London, has made its name as a provider of insight into China's rich history and culture.

Politics and economics are eschewed, but everything else is fair game. Recent events have explored Peking man and trends in China's tech industry, the environmental impact of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and the Titanic's Chinese passengers, with talks presented by speakers as highly regarded as Rana Mitter, Valerie Hansel, Joanna Waley-Cohen (who spoke about the celebrity chefs of Qing emperors) and the late Ezra Vogel.

With membership tripling since the pandemic, the RASBJ has entered a new chapter, and since gaining official recognition, now has Chinese, as well as foreign members-a development both organizers welcome.

"We see it as an intellectual bridge between China and the rest of the world," explains Babington-Smith, "something that's needed maybe even more now than when we began."

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