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The period between the mid-1830s and early 1920s witnessed the migration of some 3.7 million Africans, Chinese, Indians, Japanese, Melanesians, and other peoples throughout and beyond the colonial plantation world to work as laborers under long-term written and short-term oral contacts. Studies of this global labor migration over the last forty years have been heavily influenced by Hugh Tinker’s 1974 argument that the indentured labor system was essentially “a new system of slavery.” There has also been a propensity toward specialized and compartmentalized studies of the indentured experience in various parts of Africa, the Caribbean, the southwestern Indian Ocean, India, Southeast Asia, and Australasia, with a particular emphasis on systems of labor control and worker resistance. Recent scholarship reveals that this labor system began two decades earlier than previously believed, and illustrates the need to explore new topics and issues in more fully developed local, regional, and global contexts.

Article

Astrakhan and Orenburg were the Russian Empire’s two “official” entrances from Asia in the early modern era. Russia’s “Asia” was conceived broadly as the expanse of Eurasia from the Ottoman Empire to the shores of the Pacific. Russia’s control of the Volga River, culminating in the conquest of Astrakhan on the shores of the Caspian Sea in the 16th century, was intended to open direct access for Russia’s merchants to reach Asia. Throughout the 17th century, trade with the Middle East and Central Asia increased, followed by an important breakthrough in relations with China culminating in the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689. In the 18th century, Russia’s Asian trade increased; Astrakhan’s customs fees collected from Asian trade goods surpassed the revenue generated by Russia’s Baltic ports in the first half of the century. A growing trade with the Central Asian Khanates of Bukhara, Khiva, and Khoqand led to the creation of Orenburg as the entry point for overland trade from the steppe in 1753. In theory, the new outpost separated Russia’s “Asia” into separate zones for increased regulation: Astrakhan for goods arriving from the Caspian Sea, imported from Iran and India, and Orenburg for the increasing steppe traffic. This is not to suggest that increased regulation produced better control over Eurasia’s trade networks, but rather to reveal Russia’s significant investment in profiting from Asia’s trade as much as its competitors in Britain or the Netherlands did. While overland Eurasian trade remains plagued by a historiographical assumption of its decline in the 18th century, Astrakhan and Orenburg were vital centers of Eurasian commerce, revealing the robust overland trade that remained outside of West European observation.

Article

Paul A. Van Dyke

In 1684, China reopened its doors to trade with the outside world, which had a huge impact on the development of global commerce. Canton quickly emerged as one of the few ports in the world where everyone was welcomed and where everyone (except Japanese and Russians) had access to everything including tea, silk, and porcelain. Unlike other ports, individual traders in Canton could buy and sell the same high-quality products as those handled by the East India companies. As the Canton trade grew, international networks became more sophisticated; as more ships went to China, new forms of remittance such as Letters of Credit and Bills of Exchange became standard, which streamlined international finance; as more money flowed into Canton, more goods were distributed worldwide, which gave rise to globalization; as economies in both the eastern and western hemispheres became more integrated with the Chinese market, there was a parallel decline in the risks of conducting trade, which encouraged the advancement of private enterprise. One by one the large East India companies found it increasingly more difficult to compete and went broke. However, the success of the Canton trade was also its weakness. Because the legal trade was so dependent on silver collected from opium sales, and because a decline in opium sales would likely lead to a decline in rice imports, only minimal efforts were made by local officials to stop the smuggling. Foreigners were eventually able to overcome the system with the outbreak of war in the late 1830s, but this happened because the system had already defeated itself.

Article

The five republics of Central Asia—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—spent the majority of the 20th century as part of the USSR and the Soviet command economy. Over this period, their economies grew significantly, as did the standard of living enjoyed by their populations. At the same time, the Soviet command economy, along with its particular application in Central Asia, created both significant barriers and long-term economic damage in the region. Local salaries and access to goods remained far below the Soviet average; agricultural production took precedence over industrialization and modernization; the combination of expansionist planning and resource extraction meant that over decades little was done to change the system even as ecological disaster loomed. When the Soviet command economy receded in 1991, it left an ambiguous detritus, one remembered as violently forced and perhaps unwanted.

Article

In the mid-19th century, Chinese merchants moved to the treaty ports of Japan and Korea to expand the domestic commercial network abroad. They made significant profits by importing and distributing British cotton clothes via Shanghai to Japan and Korea. While Chinese merchants in Japan remained purely economic immigrant groups, those in Korea took an active political role since their advance to Korea on business was part of an effort by the Qing dynasty to strengthen its influence in Korea. Before the Mukden Incident in 1931, Chinese merchants in Kobe, Japan, engaged in trade with China and Southeast Asia and continued to be a powerful commercial group in Asian trade. However, Chinese merchants in Korea suffered from business crisis earlier on. They were hit hard by the sharp decline in import trade from China, which was their primary business, due to Japan’s protective tariff policy introduced in 1924. Until 1930s, both Chinese merchants in Japan and Korea were forced to gradually revise their business strategies to sell Japanese products in Greater China and Korea. The outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937 turned out to be a decisive blow to the already struggling businesses of the Chinese merchants in Japan and Korea.

Article

Initially, commerce did not play an important role in ancient China. However, starting from the 6th century bce, China experienced unprecedented growth in this area. Land became privatized and a highly sought-after commodity, contracts began to be widely used in transactions, some sort of market network emerged, and merchants started to exert influence on society. This transformation was due to the various reforms and policies that reshaped the overall structure of ancient Chinese economy and emancipated the strength of merchants. Furthermore, the sophistication and advancement of agriculture meant ordinary farmers had a surplus of labor and products, providing them with incentives to go to market.

Article

Because Japan was overwhelmingly rural with few consumers, commerce did not play a significant role in the economy or most people’s lives during the six centuries from 600 to 1200. This period may be divided into three phases based upon the nature of commercial relations. The 8th century witnessed a construction boom led by a relatively centralized state. Besides building five capital cities and numerous other governmental and religious structures, the state minted copper cash. Low-ranking bureaucrats traded in lumber, cloth, and other commodities, often for profit. The commercially most advanced region in Japan was in and around the numerous capitals located in the Kinai (Kyoto-Osaka-Nara) region. Interregional trade bound local regions together and was a source of illegal profiteering for officials. Gift-giving and barter dominated the less developed provinces, mostly in eastern Japan. Across the ocean, Japan participated in exchange with China and Korea on a limited basis to 800. Beginning as early as 735, epidemics and famines decimated Japan’s population. The value of copper cash declined, as inflation commenced. Government revenues also dropped. Government-appointed tax farmers garnered tax items for the tiny elite at court, enriching themselves in the process. The Song Dynasty (960–1279) arose in China and began trading with the Japanese elite, providing a spur to Japan’s commercial development for the rest of period. Overseas merchants were forced by Japan’s ruling elite to stop at Dazaifu in northern Kyushu, where Chinese goods could be obtained for Japanese gold. Japan’s depopulation continued unabated, subject to particularly harsh epidemics between 990 and 1050. To reverse flight from the land, the court initiated a two-pronged land system consisting of tax-farmed provincial areas and estates cultivated by sharecroppers and paying rents to capital and local elites. The rents were paid in-kind, and to secure the value of goods such as rice, salt, lacquer, iron, tea, and many other products, values were pegged to a gold standard. Song merchants also received gold for their wares. To buy Japanese raw materials, the Chinese paid with their own copper cash, helping to remonetize the archipelago. By the 1170s, inflation took off in Japan. A Ningbo–Hakata trade route became established for Song merchants, with bulk items such as sulfur, lumber, and mercury traded from Japan to China. By the late 1100s, the warrior family known as the Ise Taira took control of overseas trade with China, bolstering the family’s power at the Kyoto court.

Article

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

A resurgence of writings on labor in India in the 1990s occurred in a context when many scholars in the Anglo-American world were predicting the end of labor history. Over the last three decades, historical writing on labor in India has pushed old boundaries, opened up new lines of inquiry, unsettling earlier assumptions and frameworks. Teleological frames that saw industrialization leading to modernization were critiqued starting in the 1980s. Since then, historians writing on labor have moved beyond simple binaries between notions of the pre-modern/modern workforce to critically examine the conflictual processes through which histories of labor were shaped. With the opening up of the field, a whole range of new questions are being posed and old ones reframed. How do cultural formations shape the specificity of the labor force? How important are kinship, community, and caste ties in the making of working class lives and work culture? What defines the peculiarities of different forms of work at different sites: plantations and mines, factories and domestic industries, the “formal” and the “informal” sectors? What were the diverse ways in which work was regulated and workers disciplined? What were the ritual and cultural forms in which workers negotiated the conditions of their work? How does the history of law deepen an understanding of the history of labor? Studies on mobility and migration, on law and informality, on culture and community, on everyday actions and protest have unraveled the complex interconnections—global and local—through which the lives of labor are made and transformed.

Article

The expansion of travel transformed Japanese culture during the Edo period (1603–1867). After well over a century of political turmoil, unprecedented stability under Tokugawa rule established the conditions for men and women from all levels of the hierarchical society to travel safely for purposes as varied as the cultural consequences of a country increasingly on the move. Starting in the first half of the 17th century, institutionalized forms of compulsory travel for the highest-ranking samurai and a limited number of elite foreigners made for conspicuous political spectacle and prompted the Tokugawa shogunate to develop and maintain an extensive system of roads, post-towns, checkpoints, and sea routes. Prompted by the economic prosperity of the Genroku era (1688–1704) in the late 17th century, an ever-growing portion of the population, including commoners from cities and villages, took advantage of newfound leisure to embark on journeys for pilgrimage, medical treatment, and sightseeing. This change was accompanied by the expansion of tourism, which grew into a sophisticated commercial enterprise in the 18th century. Poets, writers, painters, performers, and scholars took to the road throughout the Edo period for artistic and intellectual pursuits, often as teachers or students, generating and spreading culture where they went. With an astonishing output of travel literature, guidebooks, maps, and woodblock prints featuring landscapes, a thriving commercial publishing industry, which first blossomed in the Genroku era, used woodblock printing technology to popularize travel in increasingly diverse ways. Together with such influential forms of print, the things that people wore, packed, bought, enjoyed, and rode while traveling formed a rich body of material culture that reveals the lived experience of travel for the duration of Tokugawa rule.

Article

Under Pax Tokugawa, a wide variety of social, political, and economic factors coalesced to allow commerce in Japan to flourish to a theretofore unprecedented degree. The preceding century of civil war had had relatively little impact on the economy, but the removal of barriers to expansion such as toll roads that had been erected by warring daimyo (feudal lords) allowed the mechanisms of commerce that already existed in domanial economies to expand exponentially. Increased agricultural productivity and prosperity engendered a population boom in the 17th century. In 1635, the formal institution of sankin kōtai—a hostage system designed to ensure peace and prevent excessive accumulation of wealth in the provinces, usually translated as “alternate attendance”—created a movement of people and goods across the country that stimulated urbanization. The number of cities increased as did their sizes, with the largest of them, Edo, reaching an estimated million inhabitants by 1700. Robust distribution networks proliferated to support this urbanization, leading to greater monetization and consumerism. To support improving living standards and the need for revenue, the daimyo promoted the development of regional specialties, many of which flourished, buttressed by increased travel among all segments of society. Competition led to the development of branding and marketing. Merchants, who, according to Confucian ideals, were at the bottom of the social structure, became a larger and more important part of society in this period, resulting in the creation of unique ethical codes, religious sects, and philosophies geared to their specific needs and anxieties. Merchant houses, monopolies, and trade organizations formed. Some of the more successful—such as Mitsui and Sumitomo—would, in the late 19th century, form zaibatsu, and they still continue to exert influence on Japanese commerce.

Article

Armin Selbitschka

Much has been said and written about the “Silk Road” since Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen coined the phrase in 1877. Fostered by spectacular discoveries by so-called explorers such as Sir Aurel Stein, Paul Pelliot, Sven Hedin, and others, the Silk Road soon became the subject of countless articles, books, museum exhibitions, and even legends. In times when almost any location—virtual or real—is but one mouse click away, the catchphrase Silk Road has not lost any of its original appeal. On the contrary, the term is almost constantly present in all kinds of media. Yet, it is never quite clear what exactly the Silk Road concept really entails. When was it established? Was it even formally established? What was its purpose? Was there but one function? And, more importantly, how useful is it as an analytical concept in the first place? These are the main questions this article seeks to answer. Its arguments are based on an analysis of the earliest available sources: archaeological finds from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region, indigenous documents written in Kharosthi script, and early Chinese historiography. The article will argue that the history of the early Silk Road (and its so-called prehistory) was considerably more complex than generally claimed. For instance, we can certainly not pinpoint a fixed date on which the Silk Road was established; neither were the intercontinental land routes primarily traveled (and populated) by traders. China’s initial forays into Central Asia in the 2nd century bce were politically motivated and had little to do with silk trade. The exchange of the famed fabric was at best a corollary of political interactions between the Western and Eastern Han Empires and powerful steppe nomads such as the Xiongnu. The latter extorted copious amounts of luxury goods from the former and redistributed them throughout Central Asia and Eurasia. Thus, this article claims that the Silk Road as an analytical concept does not do justice to the intricacies of prehistorical and historical realities. It therefore introduces the concept of movement as a heuristic tool to analyze cross-cultural interactions.

Article

The period between the 9th and the 13th centuries in China, a largely temperate climate span that followed an interval of punishing droughts, was a time of pivotal economic and environmental transformation. The Song dynasty, chronologically divided into the Northern Song (960–1127) and the Southern Song (1127–1276) periods, dominated the era, but numerous other regimes and societies prospered in eastern Asia as well. Over the course of these centuries, China’s recorded population rose from sixty to one hundred million people, and perhaps 20 percent of them lived in cities. Technological innovation transformed numerous landscapes and areas of human activity, and market relations came to play a significant role in the exchange of land, labor, and goods. When deforestation caused a crisis in timber availability, some Song metalworkers shifted from charcoal to coal to power forges for iron and steel. The amount of land under agricultural cultivation expanded dramatically. In the Yangtze delta, the economic core of south China, farmers drained wetlands and constructed terraces and polders to support paddies on which they grew new strains of fast-ripening rice. Elsewhere, they turned grasslands and forests into fields, with consequences for herders and foragers, nonhuman animals, and soil stability. To the north, on the Yellow River watershed, deforestation and grasslands degradation caused major erosion that initiated an era of inundation and avulsion that transformed floodplain landscapes and modes of subsistence downstream. New maritime technologies ensured that the environmental consequences of the Song economic revolution extended beyond the borders of the realm and into distant Pacific and Indian Ocean worlds as well. Nevertheless, many Song landscapes lay outside human exploitation, and many Song practices allowed for sustainable relationships between people and the ecosystems that they inhabited.

Article

Japan’s experience with modern capitalism and finance is characterized by a remarkable combination of shocks and adaptation. After being steamrolled by Western institutions and financial technologies, the country attempted to retaliate against this intrusion. However, regaining financial sovereignty proved a protracted process of trial and error. In the 1880s and 1890s, under the auspices of Matsukata Masayoshi, Tokyo seemed to get it right. The establishment of the Bank of Japan and related institutions, on the one hand, and the adoption of the gold standard, on the other, appeared designed to lift Japan out of its peripheral status. In reality, however, they mostly served to emphasize its role as an enabler of the British-led international order. Only in the 1930s, during the worldwide Great Depression, would it break with this role, if only to find that its autonomy had been compromised from the very beginning. Japan’s disastrous loss in World War II drove the country into the arms of the newly arisen global hegemon: the United States. In the early 21st-century, Japan remains a linchpin in the still surviving American-led world order and the corollary “dollar standard.”

Article

Up until the final four decades of the Qing Dynasty, fiscal extraction in imperial China was primarily a matter of taxing agricultural production, generally in the form of an annual property tax assessed on the basis of landholding, and collected in either grain or cash. All major dynasties prior to the Qing wielded this fiscal instrument somewhat flexibly, with large-scale reforms, usually leading to significantly higher taxes, occurring around mid-dynasty, but the Qing broke this trend: the absolute volume of agricultural taxes remained locked in place for the great majority of its 278-year life span, despite a near tripling of both the population and the economy. This eventually rendered the Qing fiscal state an extreme outlier in both horizontal and vertical comparisons: relative to the economy it governed, not only was it much smaller than its major early modern competitors, ranging from Japan to Western European states to other central Asian empires, but it was also probably the smallest post-Qin dynastic state by far. Preexisting scholarship has largely failed to identify, let alone explain, this sudden and dramatic shift in fiscal policy towards the end of China’s imperial history. There are a number of possible explanations for it, some of which have appeared in the extant literature, but the most promising one—which has not appeared—seems to be that the extraordinary circumstances of the Ming–Qing transition served as the catalyst for a decisive conservative turn in Chinese fiscal thought, pushing the Qing state into a fundamentally different political and institutional equilibrium than its predecessors.

Article

The export of silk products created a regional trade surplus for eastern Japan, centered on Tokyo. In producing raw silk, the people of eastern Japan created factories to lead rural industrialization. This regional trade surplus was used to fuel growth in the consumer economy of Japan, as it pushed western Japan, centered on Osaka, to develop its cotton industry. These two industries and the Yawata Steel Works in northern Kyushu transformed Japan from an agricultural country to an industrial country in the late 19th century. In this story, the role of government is both central and peripheral. Without the decision by the Tokugawa shogun’s government to open Japan to external trade, this development would never have happened. However, once Japan was opened to trade, the Tokugawa government did not do much to help the trade, while the Meiji government, though desirous of fostering trade, did not always succeed in its efforts. Ultimately, it was the producers and merchants, the people, who transformed the rural economy and the country itself.

Article

Medha Kudaisya

Merchant communities have dominated the Indian commercial landscape for centuries. These groups span different religions and regions across the country, and even beyond. They include the Marwaris, Banias, and Khatris in the north, the Chettiars and Komatis in south India; the Jains, Sindhis, Parsis, and the Bohras, Memons, and Khojas in the western parts of the subcontinent. While business activity was not restricted to these groups, they dominated it until at least the mid-20th century. These mercantile communities underwent a constant process of evolution in response to changing political and economic developments. They were not homogenous groups either and were divided internally by subcaste, region, religious affiliation, and language. Yet, they found it advantageous to function collectively and formed community organizations, which facilitated their economic interests. These communities played an important role in the 16th century in integrating India in the new trading networks, thereby helping in the making of a world economy. By the mid-19th century, many among them made the transition to industrial activity. These communities dominated commerce and industry till the late 1960s and 1970s, when new groups began to emerge.

Article

South Asia is the home of natural blue dye extracted from the indigo plant species indigofera tinctoria. Its production for commercial purposes began very early and peaked during the early modern period. Growing Asian and European demand for indigo in the 16th and early 17th centuries raised its status as a major commodity in Asian and Eurasian trade. Indigo production in South Asia increased, and Indian and other Asian merchants exported large quantities of it to West Asia from where some of it was re-exported to Europe via the Levantine trade of the eastern Mediterranean. From the mid-16th century, the Portuguese Estado da India exported large quantities of indigo to Lisbon. By the early 1600s, when the English and Dutch East India companies began trading with India, indigo had become a highly sought-after commodity in the markets of England and the Dutch Republic. Consequently, the English East India Company (EIC) and Verenigde Oost-indische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company or VOC) exported large quantities of it to Europe in the first half of the 17th century. With the rise of new indigo commodity chains in Europe’s transatlantic colonies, such as Guatemala, Jamaica, South Carolina, and Saint-Domingue, exports from South Asia declined. However, there was a substantial local demand, which kept the industry going well up to the end of the 18th century when indigo production would expand on an unprecedented scale in Bengal and some other parts of colonial India.

Article

Colonial Indonesia’s sugar industry, developed under Dutch and Sino-Indonesian auspices over a period of almost three centuries, beginning c. 1650, evolved into one which exhibited a unique configuration in which an industrialized sugar complex became embedded within much larger “peasant” economy of the farming of rice and “second” crops. It was on this agrarian and largely self-financed basis that Indonesia’s colonial sugar industry, located exclusively in the island of Java, became one of the leading sectors of the international sugar economy of the late colonial era, eventually even rivaling Cuba—the nonpareil of such producers—as an exporter to world markets. During the interwar Depression of the 1930s and subsequent decade of war and revolution, it lost much (and eventually all) of its international standing—yet managed to survive into Indonesia’s postcolonial era, albeit in an attenuated form. There were four main phases to the industry’s colonial-era history. The first, foundational phase, which saw the establishment of modern industrialized manufacture extended from the 1830s through to the 1880s. The second phase, from the 1880s to 1930, was the period of sugar’s peak expansion. The third phase, beginning in 1931 and ending in 1942, was one of retrenchment and (partial) recovery prior to the spread of the Second World War into Southeast Asia. The fourth phase, 1945–1958, was one of postwar reconstruction.

Article

For historians of the Indian Ocean, the stakes in thinking about law and economic life are very high. As a key arena of world history, the Indian Ocean world has emerged as a site for reflecting on issues of connectivity and circulation, and for writing histories that cover broad spans of space and time. Many of these histories—and indeed, the pioneering works in the field—have focused on matters of trade and empire, the twin pillars of world history more broadly. Since around 2000, research has taken on different forms of migration as well as matters of ideology, culture, epidemiology, and more, but many of these discussions are still built on foundations of trade and empire: people, books, ideas, and diseases primarily circulate through networks forged via trade or through imperial channels. All of it, however, requires a rigorous engagement with questions of law, which undergirded production and trade in the region. The history of law and economic life in the Indian Ocean might be mapped onto three arenas. First, law played an important role in the politico-economic constitution of empires (Muslim or otherwise) in the Indian Ocean. Beyond that, though, one must consider the legal dynamics of trade networks within this world of empires, examining the intersecting private-order and public mechanisms that merchants drew on to regulate their commercial affairs. And finally, the histories of law, empire, and economic life all intersected in courtrooms around the Indian Ocean world, as economic actors took their disputes to different tribunals, shaping the contours of the legal history of the region.