Asia Inside Out Project resists history’s attraction to national borders by studying shifts over five centuries
By Peter C. Perdue*
When Chinese Communist Party Secretary Xi Jinping met Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year, he proposed a joint project, a “Southern Silk Road” linking China with India by land through Yunnan and Myanmar and by sea across the Indian Ocean. Many media commentators referred to ancient Sino-India connections, from the export of Buddhism to the ancient Silk Road, to promote cooperation on contemporary issues such as border disputes, investment and global warming. A historical study of the links fostered by the ancient routes cannot be expected to have immediate political effects, of course, but in an age of narrow-minded xenophobic protests any attention to a broader view is welcome.
Certainly historians have a lot to offer even to the most shortsighted politicians about the deeper roots of their current concerns.
Historians and social scientists, however, have not done enough to develop research across disciplinary, regional and national boundaries. As a result, political leaders and the global public have trouble connecting historical processes with their daily lives. My discipline, history, finds itself today in a puzzling quandary. Everyone knows that we live in a globalized world, but the history profession stands out among academic disciplines for defining its topics of research and “slots” for new positions almost exclusively according to national boundaries. Social scientists have long favored comparative and theoretical definitions over national ones, and even literature and foreign language departments no longer confine their canon to a single nation. East Asian literature departments include “Sinophone” writers from as far away as Malaya, Russia and the Americas. But historians cling tenaciously to national boundaries, even as they recognize the need to reach farther.
Historians still need, however, research based on mastery of primary sources in local languages, which is the hallmark of historical study. No universal theory will eliminate the crucial value of grounded ethnographic and archival research. How can scholars devoted to the local and national reach beyond the current limits of the discipline while maintaining the foundation of their craft.
The editors and authors of the Asia Inside Out project, a three-volume series now in production at Harvard University Press, present original research following inter-Asian connections over long stretches of time. Based on a planning workshop at Yale, followed by conferences in Hong Kong and Doha, Qatar, the volumes bring together scholars from anthropology, history, geography, and literary studies covering the region from Japan to Yemen over the past 500 years.
The project views Asia not as a region with clearly defined regional and national boundaries, but as “spaces of flows,” arenas in which multiple processes, peoples, commodities and cultural formations interacted dynamically over long periods of time. States, empires and nations shaped the direction of these flows, but did not contain them. The globe has been a connected unit since the linking of the north and south American continents to Asia and Europe in the 16th century. Now researchers need new historical and social scientific methods to grasp this totality.
In the first volume, each author selected a single year that represented a significant turning point in the region of his or her specialty. In the second volume, each author selected a single place or region. Volume three focuses on transnational processes and the movement of peoples. The editors anticipate that each volume will create a new lens for creative study of the fluid interactions that have shaped the contemporary world.
In the first volume, Heidi Walcher argues that the year 1501, which at first seems to be the conventional date for the establishment of the Safavid dynasty in Iran, looks different when viewed as part of wider Asian histories, including those of Central Asian and Chinese empires, Shiism, and European states. Victor Lieberman singles out the mid-16th century as a time of critical state transformation in Burma, Russia, Japan and India. Peter C. Perdue likewise argues that 1557, the year the Ming granted the Portuguese a leasehold in Macau, also coincided with the expansion of trading relationships on the northwest frontier with the Mongols and the penetration of the Chinese diaspora into Southeast Asia. Silver flows from Latin America powered all these trade routes. Nancy Um, Charles Wheeler and Kerry Ward examine three maritime polities from the 17th through 18th centuries: Yemen’s role in global coffee trade, Vietnam’s religious and economic linkages to Qing China, and Indian Ocean trade viewed from Pondicherry.
The volumes follow the story up through the 19th and early 20th centuries, as Robert Hellyer analyzes the promotion of tea exports from Meiji Japan, Anand Yang examines the views of an Indian soldier sent to repress the Boxer Rebellion in Beijing in 1900, and Eric Tagliacozzo surveys the apparently secure but actually fragile structure of Dutch colonialism in 1910. Finally, contemporary ethnographic studies of Bangalore in 1956 by Andrew Willford and of Filipino workers in Dubai in 2008 by Naomi Hosoda show that current flows of people and the friction of ethnic conflict follow upon lengthy historical developments.
The second volume includes topics such as personal connections and comparisons between Korea, China and Japan, the settlement of the Canton delta, trade in the Gulf of Tongking, intelligence agents in Kashmir and the Himalayas, commerce in Burma, the transformations of Chittagong, British surveillance of Iraq’s deserts, family relations in Southern Arabia, and Chinese speakers in Soviet Central Asia. Each of these places lies on a boundary between multiple flows of people, goods and culture. The convergence of state power, capital investment and religious and kinship networks in these places defines specific nodes in global systems. As in the first volume, the studies cover a long period and wide geographical area, but what unifies them is a common interest in tracing wide-ranging networks, based on intensive local ethnographic research and primary sources, over large scales of space and time.
Modern states have not dissolved in the beneficent bath of neoliberal consumerism, nor have ethnic divisions withered away into homogeneous individualism. Age-old legacies of political and economic domination and community formation still shape our modern world. Large theories and parochial histories fail to grasp the individual and local characteristics which weave the threads of this world.
Despite Modi and Xi Jinping’s optimistic declarations of inter-Asia cooperation, China and India are now fighting for control of the border region of Arunachal Pradesh. China’s claims to islands in the South China Sea have generated conflict with Vietnam, the Philippines and others. China, Japan and Korea each make irreconcilable claims to small uninhabited islands with no usable resources. What causes these violent conflicts? Ultimately, it is misguided history. Truncated, self-serving nationalist histories, sponsored by xenophobic states seeking popular legitimacy, have erased all the long-lasting interconnections of the past. To contribute to a more peaceful world, historians must insist on the persistence of links beyond the nation-state.
Although we know that the world is connected, what kind of network is it? Is it a nested hierarchy, a flat plain, a tangled ball of string or a beautiful brocade? Only specific historical and ethnographic studies, juxtaposed under coherent conceptual definitions, will reveal the true contours of the historical and contemporary world. National history no longer suffices, but transnational, global, and world histories need to extend their explorations. The Asia Inside Out project is one step in this direction.
About the author:
*Peter C. Perdue is a professor of history at Yale University.
Tagliacozzo, Eric, Helen F. Siu, and Peter C. Perdue, eds. Asia Inside Out: Changing Times. 3 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015. The editors gratefully acknowledge the support of the Yale Council on East Studies and the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences for this project.
Read an excerpt from Asia Inside Out: Changing Times.