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Article

Iftekhar Iqbal

Located between the foothills of the eastern Himalayas and the northern shores of the Bay of Bengal, the Bengal Delta has been for more than a millennium a major frontier region of the subcontinent, a gateway to the Indian Ocean and an evolving cultural hub. Because of its frontier location, the region has experienced the interplay of domination and independence from northern Indian imperial powers. Its location also allowed it to connect with the western Indian Ocean as well as the Southeast Asian and South China maritime spaces, making it a long-term player in international trade. These spatially induced political and economic experiences and a remarkable mobility of people and ideas from and into the region shaped a culture that was regionally rooted yet open to cosmopolitan ethos. It was not until the arrival of late colonial national imaginations when the Bengal Delta’s regional integration was put to the test, which resulted in its splitting into two parts: West Bengal of India and Bangladesh.

Article

Alfred J. Rieber

Throughout Russian history, domestic and foreign observers have sought to define the similarities and differences between Russia and Asia, combining symbolic and physical geographies, often as a corollary of Russia’s relationship to Europe. Both concepts and boundary lines changed as the Russian state expanded from the 15th century forward, from a small territorial base on the Upper Volga south and east, to incorporate territories inhabited by Asian peoples. Conquest was accompanied by uneven patterns of colonization and erratic attempts at conversion to Orthodoxy and russification. These processes varied in encounters with different populations and landscapes along four major frontiers, Pre-Volga and Siberia, the Pontic Steppe, Transcaucasus, and Trans Caspia. By 1914, the Russian Empire was a multi-national state that had not solved the fundamental problems of its self-perception as a civilization or the stability of its rule.

Article

The Uyghurs comprise a Turkic-speaking and predominantly Muslim nationality of China, with communities living in the independent republics of Central Asia that date to the 19th century, and now a global diaspora. As in the case of many national histories, the consolidation of a Uyghur nation was an early 20th-century innovation, which appropriated and revived the legacy of an earlier Uyghur people in Central Asia. This imagined past was grounded in the history of a Uyghur nomadic state and its successor principalities in Gansu and the Hami-Turfan region (known to Islamic geographers as “Uyghuristan”). From the late 19th century onward, the scholarly rediscovery of a Uyghur past in Central Asia presented an attractive civilizational narrative to Muslim intellectuals across Eurasia who were interested in forms of “Turkist” racial thinking. During the First World War, Muslim émigrés from Xinjiang (Chinese Turkistan) living in Russian territory laid claim to the Uyghur legacy as part of their communal genealogy. This group of budding “Uyghurists” then took advantage of conditions created by the Russian Revolution, particularly in the 1920s, to effect a radical redefinition of the community. In the wake of 1917, Uyghurist discourse was first mobilized as a cultural rallying point for all Muslims with links to China; it was then refracted through the lens of Soviet nationalities policy and made to conform with the Stalinist template of the nation. From Soviet territory, the newly refined idea of a Uyghur nation was exported to Xinjiang through official and unofficial conduits, and in the 1930s the Uyghur identity of Xinjiang’s Muslim majority was given state recognition. Since then, Uyghur nationhood has been a pillar of Beijing’s minzu system but has also provided grounds for opposition to Beijing’s policies, which many Uyghurs feel have failed to realize the rights that should accord to them as an Uyghur nation.

Article

Steve Tsang

Hong Kong entered its modern era when it became a British overseas territory in 1841. In its early years as a Crown Colony, it suffered from corruption and racial segregation but grew rapidly as a free port that supported trade with China. It took about two decades before Hong Kong established a genuinely independent judiciary and introduced the Cadet Scheme to select and train senior officials, which dramatically improved the quality of governance. Until the Pacific War (1941–1945), the colonial government focused its attention and resources on the small expatriate community and largely left the overwhelming majority of the population, the Chinese community, to manage themselves, through voluntary organizations such as the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals. The 1940s was a watershed decade in Hong Kong’s history. The fall of Hong Kong and other European colonies to the Japanese at the start of the Pacific War shattered the myth of the superiority of white men and the invincibility of the British Empire. When the war ended the British realized that they could not restore the status quo ante. They thus put an end to racial segregation, removed the glass ceiling that prevented a Chinese person from becoming a Cadet or Administrative Officer or rising to become the Senior Member of the Legislative or the Executive Council, and looked into the possibility of introducing municipal self-government. The exploration into limited democratization ended as the second landmark event unfolded—the success of the Chinese Communist Party in taking control of China. This resulted in Hong Kong closing its borders with China on a long-term basis and the local Chinese population settling down in the colony, where it took on a direction of development distinctly different from that of mainland China. The large influx of refugees to Hong Kong in the late 1940s was transformed by a pragmatic colonial administration into a demographic bonus, as all were allowed to work freely and become part of the community. Those refugees, particularly from Shanghai, who arrived with capital, management knowhow and skills gave some industries, such as textile and shipping, a big boost. With the entrepreneurial spirit of the Chinese community unleashed and the colonial administration now devoting most of its resources to support them, Hong Kong became an industrial colony and developed increasingly strong servicing sectors. By the 1980s, local entrepreneurs had become so successful that they took over some of the well-established major British companies that had been pillars of the local economy for a century. As Hong Kong developed, it looked to the wider world—something originally necessitated by the imposition of trade embargos on China by the United States and the United Nations after the start of the Korean War in 1950—and eventually transformed itself into a global metropolis. In this process, the younger generations who grew up after the Sino-British border was closed developed a common identity that made them proud citizens of Hong Kong, and they became agents of change in reshaping how their parents’ generation felt about Hong Kong and China. The great transformation of postwar Hong Kong happened in the shadow of a dark cloud over its long-term future, which is a legacy from history. Hong Kong in fact consists of three parts: the island of Hong Kong, the tip of the Kowloon peninsula, and the New Territories, which amounts to 90 percent of the overall territory. The first two were ceded by China to Britain in perpetuity, but the New Territories was only leased in 1898 for a period of 99 years. As the three parts developed organically they could not be separated. During the Pacific War the nationalist government of China successfully secured an agreement from the British government that the future of the New Territories would be open to negotiation after the defeat of Japan. When victory came, the British recovered Hong Kong, and the Chinese government was distracted by the challenges posed by the Communist Party. After it won control of mainland China in 1949 the Communist government left Hong Kong alone, as it was a highly valuable opening for China to reach out beyond the Communist bloc during the Cold War. In 1979 the British raised the issue of the New Territories lease, as the remainder of the lease was getting too short for comfort. Formal negotiations started in 1982, and it took two years for an agreement to be reached. The British government ultimately agreed to hand over the entirety of Hong Kong as a going concern to China, which undertook to maintain the system and way of life there unchanged for fifty years. The transitional period saw controversies over democratic developments in Hong Kong, which were limited at China’s insistence. The formal handover went smoothly in 1997, and the colony became a Chinese Special Administrative Region. At first it appeared that Hong Kong enjoyed a high degree of autonomy, as promised by the Chinese government, but the scope for its autonomy was eroded gradually. The increase in interactions between the local people and the mainland Chinese, as well as the Chinese authorities’ refusal to let Hong Kong develop genuine democracy, nurtured a strong sense of Hong Kong identity, which started to transform into a kind of national identity that is different and distinct from that of China. By the mid-2010s this gave rise to a small but vocal movement that advocates independence.