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Article

Bengal Delta  

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

Kachin Communities in Myanmar  

Mandy Sadan

The term “Kachin” is an exonym that references several subcommunities, all of which have traditionally resided in the northernmost region of Burma (modern Myanmar). The name “Kachin State” for this region evidences this historical connection. Kachin communities are identified as comprising six main subgroups, but the boundaries of these are often contested. Identity politics in Myanmar is complex and highly sensitive, given the ongoing conflicts in which many communities, including those identified as Kachin, have been involved for many decades; it is also ongoing. Kachin communities also have strong cross-border relations with cognate groups of people residing in northeast India, Yunnan, and Thailand, as well as a globally dispersed diaspora, which is particularly large in the United States, Japan, and Thailand. Kachin communities were impacted directly by the experience of British colonial rule from its beginnings in Burma in 1824, even though they were not brought under any administrative system until after full British control over the Burmese kingdom was established after 1885. However, neither British nor Burmese (later, Myanmar) administrations have been able to bring the Kachin region fully under their control. At independence from British rule in 1948, many Kachin elites hoped that there would be a federal system, but as hopes for this diminished with the emergence of a military dictatorship, the movement for resistance gained ground. As many other parts of the country fell into civil war, so too did the new Kachin State. The Kachin Independence Army was founded in the early 1960s and by 1963 had declared open conflict with the Burmese military regime. A ceasefire was signed in 1994 and provided some respite, but as the situation again deteriorated through exploitative resource extraction, environmental degradation, and the social harms caused by the widespread availability of narcotics and opiates, considerable popular support for a return to war was felt. The ceasefire collapsed in 2011 leading to more active conflict. This social and political upheaval over many decades has resulted in dramatic changes to Kachin communities and has impacted their tangible and intangible heritage irreparably. There is a great deal still to learn about the histories of Kachin communities in Myanmar, but to do so will require creativity and long-term support for and engagement with local scholars and researchers.

Article

Global Mobile Afghanistan c. 1900–Present  

Magnus Marsden

Afghanistan has long been associated in scholarly and more popular work with images of remoteness and isolation from the modern world. Over the first two decades of the 21st century in particular, however, scholarship on the country has increasingly brought attention to Afghanistan’s multiple connections to a wide range of contexts, both regional and global. This work has focused on the agency that mobile people from Afghanistan have exerted by connecting the country to global transformations, and shaping the influences these have had on its dynamics. Scholars have brought attention to the importance of social networks made of traders and merchants, students, religious scholars, as well as refugees and exiles in mediating Afghanistan’s connection with the global world over the 20th century.

Article

The Umbrella Movement of Hong Kong  

Edmund W. Cheng

The Umbrella Movement, emerging from the planned Occupy Central, was a spontaneous mass movement that erupted in Hong Kong between September 26 and December 15, 2014. While the planned occupation campaign derived from frustrations over a protracted democratization process and the rise of a radical political force since the late 2000s, the movement’s spontaneous outbreak was a backfire against protest policing in September 2014. People from all walks of life, often with no organizational affiliations, rallied to occupy three business districts for seventy-nine days. Throughout the occupation sites, the prevalence of formal and informal leaders facilitated a wide range of innovative repertoire and plebian experiences but also hampered decision-making. Meanwhile, the state responded with an attrition strategy that tolerated protests ostensibly but adopted proactive means to increase the cost of participation. The purpose was to wear out protest strength and appeal to the public’s desire for law and order without making political concessions. When the movement reached a deadlock, the leadership of the veteran democrats and student activists was challenged by a radical political force known as the localists. The complex interactions within civil society and between state and society nonetheless marked Hong Kong’s departure from its moderate political culture and deprived the democratic opposition of its legitimacy and authority to broker the prodemocracy movement. The Umbrella Movement’s profound impacts in deepening political cleavages, fostering movement networks, and triggering state control were not fully manifested until another peak of street mobilization in the summer of 2019.

Article

Russia in Asia  

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: Making a Nation  

David Brophy

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

Commodities and Consumption in Modern China  

Karl Gerth

How did the introduction and spread of countless new commodities and their consumption shape modern Chinese history? The intersection of commodities and consumption provides the flipside to the better-studied history of production and underlies countless topics at the center of Chinese and world history since the 19th century, such as imperialism, trade, industrialization, revolution, social hierarchies, and the ascendance of China as a global manufacturing and export superpower. Consumption includes the introduction and spread of mass-manufactured consumer commodities, the proliferation of discourse about these goods in new forms of mass media, and an ongoing shift toward creating and communicating hierarchical social identities through the consumption of mass-produced commodities. While consumption is often viewed as an individual matter, one related to creating personal identities, a key theme that emerges throughout modern Chinese history is that the Chinese states and elites have long sought to link commodity consumption with ideas of patriotism and national strength, helping shape what it means to consume commodities right down to the present.

Article

The Shifting Commercial Economy of Post-Soviet Central Asia  

Regine Spector and Aisalkyn Botoeva

Since 1991, commerce and trade in Central Asia have changed significantly. Prior to 1991, Soviet Central Asia had been incorporated into centralized production, distribution, and retail networks, and regional borders were formally closed to many outside products and exchanges. Upon independence in 1991, these integrated production, distribution, and supply chains collapsed, and the new Central Asian countries—to varying degrees—liberalized their economies and opened their borders to flows of goods and people. Domestic manufacturing and production slowed dramatically. Citizens of these countries initially turned to barter and trade of basic consumer goods as a survival strategy to feed themselves and their families in the midst of evaporating wages and disappearing jobs. While traders forged regional and global trading networks connecting local villages and cities in Central Asia with manufacturing and re-export hubs in China, India, United Arab Emirates, and Turkey, among other places, over time, the new post-Soviet elite gained ownership and control over lucrative bazaar land, cargo companies, airline agencies, and other logistics nodes. Soviet-era roads and railways initially dominated trade networks; later, airline routes and new land-based infrastructure built through intergovernment agreements and international development projects afforded new commercial possibilities. China became one of the central nodes in trade networks for consumer goods and has invested significantly into building regional infrastructure, while Russia has remained an important supplier of hydrocarbon and other commodities. Amid these changes, self-understandings of trade have shifted; for example, as Soviet-era stigmas against trade have receded, religious-based and other moralities condoning trade have ascended. While commercial activity was a significant survival strategy and served as a launch pad for other businesses in the region, trade and commerce patterns have been subject to financial crises, political upheavals, and border closures in the 1990s and 2000s, and in 2020, to a global pandemic, illuminating the precarity of reliance on trade and commerce in contexts that do not otherwise have robust state-based social support mechanisms.

Article

Trade, Ethnicity, and Identity in Island Southeast Asia  

Leonard Y. Andaya

Island Southeast Asia (ISEA) consists of Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia, East Timor, and the Philippines and was the midway point in the vibrant East–West international maritime trade route that stretched from Europe, Middle East, East Africa, and South Asia to its west; and China, Ryukyu, Japan, and Korea to its east. The favored stop was along the Straits of Melaka, a calm haven protected from the force of the northeast and southwest monsoon winds. The stream of traders in the Straits enabled local ports to develop into international port cities, whose inhabitants created mixed communities and cultures: commodities were re-fashioned or re-packaged into hybrid forms to accommodate the distinctive tastes of different groups, while frequent and lengthy sojourns by traders resulted in liaisons that produced mixed offspring and cultures. Enhanced economic opportunities encouraged mobility and establishment of diaspora communities in the littoral. More sinister were the forced mobility through wars and slavery that produced reconstituted ethnic communities and new ethnicities and identities in the early modern period (c. 1400– c. 1830s).

Article

Bukharan Trade Networks in Eurasia  

Erika Monahan

Bukharan trade networks functioned as significant conduits to the movement of goods and people throughout Eurasia. Evidence of trade activities of Bukharans in the early modern period extends from the northern shores of Russia, east to China, and south to the Caspian, Iran, and the Indian subcontinent. In the Russian Empire Bukharan merchants became a privileged diaspora community that played a significant role in commercial life of Siberia. In Siberia theyoften maintained commercial and religious ties with their Central Asian communities; they seemed in some cases to established close ties with the Siberian Tatar community as well. Bukharan merchants were not necessarily from the city of Bukhara per se, but rather, probably due to the prestige of Bukhara, the Russian imperial state applied the moniker Bukharan (Bukharetin–singular; Bukhartsy–plural) to merchants that hailed from a variety of Central Asian cities and towns. In Siberia, some Bukharans served the Russian imperial state not only as merchants but also in the service of Russian imperial commercial and diplomatic administration. They served the Russian imperial state in various roles, includingin the customs administration and diplomacy. Commercial and spiritual reasons brought this diaspora community to Siberia. While the Russian state courted Bukharan immigration to Siberia for the economic benefits they could bring, Bukharan immigration to Siberia predated the Russian conquest. Bukharans came as proselytizers to Islam at the behest of Siberian Khan Kuchum, if not earlier. State policy toward them reflected a larger state economic strategy of building and maintaining an expanding empire and the army necessary to the project through activist commercial policies. Bukharans played integral roles in Siberian life yet maintained a distinct Bukharan identity. While their integrated economic life resembled that of Russians enough to elicit strong pressures to rescind their tax advantages, Bukharans defended their rights before the state and before their neighbors with savvy and enjoyed various tax privileges into the early 19th century. Although Bukharans lost market share to the Armenians in Astrakhan and the establishment of direct Russian involvement in theRusso–China trade undermined their role in that trade, Bukharan trade networks continued to be an important part of Eurasian commerce. Bukharans may have increased the share of European wares in their trade portfolios, for example. . Meanwhile, Siberian and transit Bukharans continued to cooperate generations after Siberian Bukharans had been settled in the Russian Empire. In short, Bukharans provided simultaneously adaptive to their new homeland and changing market conditions while, at the same time, maintaining the mercurial distinctness of a mercantile diasporic community. Despite their long-standing roots and presence in the Russian Empire, the imperial state counted them as a distinct population as late as the empire-wide census of 1897. That Bukharans were only subsumed into the category of Tatars by the Soviet state testifies to their enduring presence as a distinct group in the Russian Empire.

Article

Modern Hong Kong  

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.