Often subsumed within narratives of political “transfer of power” from colonial empires to postcolonial nation-states, decolonization was a longue durée sociocultural process that traversed the long 20th century. Its trails were global and intertwined with parallel metapolitical processes like the Cold War, and it cast long shadows that revealed the afterlives of political decolonization beyond the events that marked the arrivals of independence. South Asia is a particularly fertile ground for studying such expanded temporalities, sociocultural structures, and shadows of decolonization. While the late 1940s saw the retreat of the British Empire from India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka after 1972), as well as the climactic partition of India and creation of Pakistan, decolonization itself remained an unfolding process. It manifested in continuing struggles around cultural sovereignty and the liberation war of 1971 that birthed Bangladesh from the former East Pakistan, and continued in unresolved ethnic conflicts and regional struggles for autonomy and social democracy. The cultural field offers a unique lens for reading the more quotidian and less spectacular sites where such longue durée trails of decolonization were experienced, negotiated, and imagined via artistic forms. Aesthetics of decolonization can be read as the sensorial, imaginational, and ethical negotiations of postcolonial freedom, as well as the micropolitical and contradictory dynamics that lay therein. It can loosen the metaframe of the nation-state and the nation-form to reveal both locational and subnational differences, as well as the multiple ways in which the global itself was filtered, invoked, or negotiated from below. Aesthetics of decolonization, in other words, is the imagination of a new historiographical modality for thinking through how freedom was visualized in the postcolonies, how such visions produced new cultural modernities unique to such transitional polities, and how such modernities can be read in their transnational trails in the long 20th century.
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- Asian History x
The Aesthetics of Decolonization in South Asia
Afghan Circulations in the Persianate World, c. 1000–1800
This article traces the movement of Afghan peoples across the Persianate world between 1000 and 1800 ce. Afghans rose to prominence with the rise of the Delhi Sultanate, the first Muslim-ruled polity in northern India. Over the following centuries Afghans moved throughout the Persianate world, a region stretching from the Ottoman territories in the west to the courts of Southeast Asia and as far north as the trading center of Astrakhan. In the territories of what is now the modern nation-state of Afghanistan, a series of Muslim dynasties, including the Ghaznavid (c. 977–1186) and Ghorid Sultanates (c. 1011–1215) as well as a Timurid court based in Herat (c. 1405–1507) and regional representatives of the Safavid and Mughal Empires, were all led by Turkic, Tajik, and other Turco-Mongol lineages. It was not until the 18th century with the Durrani Empire (c. 1747–1842) that an explicitly Afghan-led government came to power in Afghanistan itself. Instead, the main focus of Afghan society and activity was centered within the Indian subcontinent and its mountainous northwestern frontier. As with many other premodern communities, Afghans built their careers around mobility. From humble origins as pastoral-nomadic peoples based in the Sulayman Mountains and their environs, they built careers as peripatetic merchants and as soldiers, ruled as kings, and traveled India’s highways and byways as mendicants. Afghans also became specialists in frontier zones, cultivating relationships across cultural and political frontiers that helped to facilitate integration across regions. Their political interests were informed by their economic interests, and many moved fluently between roles as merchants and as courtly and military officials. Afghans served and eventually ruled the Delhi Sultanate, became nobility within the Mughal Empire and organized its opposition, and established regional centers of Afghan power across the subcontinent. At the end of the 18th century, it was the rising influence of the British East India Company authority and their efforts at controlling the circulation of peoples, ideas, and materials that eventually marginalized Afghans in Indian society, reconstructing them as outsiders.
Afghan Trading Networks
Magnus Marsden and Benjamin D. Hopkins
Afghanistan has long been conventionally regarded as a remote space peripheral to the wider world. Yet scholarship produced in the 2nd decade of the 21st century suggests its multiple connections to a wide array of regions and settings. Such connections are especially visible when viewed through the lens of the trade networks originating from the territories of modern Afghanistan. Scholars have come to recognize that Afghan traders have long been active players in many contexts across Asia and beyond. Such traders and the networks they form play a critically important role in connecting different parts of Asia with one another, including South Asia and Eurasia, as well as East and West Asia. The connective role performed by Afghan caravanners and religious minorities in the trade between India and Central Asia are especially well documented by historians. Increasingly so too are the activities of Afghan merchants in Ottoman territories. The trading networks Afghan traders have participated in are historically dynamic. Their orientating values shift across time and space between various forms of religious, ethno-linguistic, and political identity. The capacity to adapt to changing circumstances is helpful in understanding the continuing relevance of Afghan traders to 21st-century forms of globalized capitalism, in contexts as varied as the former Soviet Union, China, and the Arabian Peninsula.
African America and Japan
African American and Japanese people share a rich history of nearly two hundred years of transnational engagement and activity. African American writers discussed Japan as early as 1828, and, in the African American and abolitionist press, the 1860 Japanese Embassy to the United States inspired a perception of transnational solidarity between African American and Japanese people based on the shared experience of racial prejudice and the right of all men to participate in the affairs of the world. From the 16th century to the early 19th century, Japanese ideas surrounding Blackness were very different from the racial ideologies prevalent in Europe and later the United States. Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War inspired African American admiration for Japan as a global leader in the fight against racism and imperialism, although Japan expanded its imperial activity across Asia throughout the early 20th century. At the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, the Japanese racial equality bill made Japan even more of a symbol of the fight for racial equality to African American civil rights leaders and writers. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, many Japanese intellectuals were inspired by the African American struggle for civil rights, as well as their transnational engagement with African American people, to promote anti-imperialism within Japan. Meanwhile, in the 1930s, pro-Japanese organizations proliferated across the United States and influenced tens of thousands of African American people. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor ended much, but not all, African American sympathy for Japan. The FBI was concerned that Japanese military agents would racially agitate African American people into subversive activity. As part of the war effort, the Japanese military did plan pro-Japanese racial propaganda targeted toward America’s Black people. During the Occupation period, many Japanese people adopted negative racial attitudes toward Black people. At the same time, during the postwar period, many Japanese and African American people shared transnational relationships free from the increasing racial prejudice perpetuated by the American state. Japanese and African American relations, as well as representations and perceptions of Black people in Japan, have continued to change throughout the 21st century.
African Diaspora in Asia
The presence of Africans in Asia and their migration around it is one of the least-studied subjects in all of Asian history. The same is true for studies of the African diaspora, but that does not mean that African migration lacks significance in either field. Existing scholarship reveals that Africans traveled to and settled in various regions in Asia, from the Arabian Peninsula to Nagasaki. While there were free African migrants in Asia, a larger number of them arrived as slaves, transported there by both local and European traders. Conditions for the forced immigrants varied and not all of them remained permanently un-free, with some even eventually coming to obtain political power. To understand their dispersal and presence in Asia does more than simply broaden our current understanding of the African diaspora; it also enables us to understand that the African diaspora is a global phenomenon. That improved understanding can in turn break down the geographical boundary of Asian history and connect it not only to African history but to European history too. To do that, the topic requires scholars to challenge the methodological limits of current historical studies.
A Historical Sketch of Buddhism in Tibet
Dan Smyer Yü and Sonam Wangmo
With the available historical Tibetan written records from late 8th century on and the existing scholarly works on Buddhism, this historical overview recounts how Buddhism was Tibetanized and how it became both the national religion of Tibet and a world religion spread to Inner Asia, East Asia, and other parts of the world. It also adds interpretive commentaries leading to more historical inquiries and suggestions for alternative historiographical approaches to the formation of Tibetan Buddhism, adopted from disciplines other than history of religion and Buddhist studies. An emphasis is placed on the significance of folk accounts that reveal “the geomythological reorientation” of Buddhist conversion in the historical Tibetan context not merely as an intellectual and doctrinal acceptance of Indian Buddhism but also as a symbiotic process in which Indian Buddhism and indigenous religious practices mutually transformed each other. The emergence of the different Buddhist schools in Tibet is also a result of the politics of the sect-specific powers throughout Tibetan history. It is thus essential to recognize the formation of the five schools also as a set of religio-political occurrences, particularly since the formation of Gelug (dGe lugs) School in the 15th century and later becoming a Gelug-based Tibetan polity in the 17th century. The Gelug School dominated Tibetan Buddhism, and successive Dalai Lamas ruled Tibet from the mid-17th to the mid-20th centuries. Given the regional and global status of Tibetan Buddhism, emphasis is placed on Tibetan Buddhism as a transregional religion in Inner Asia and later as a form of modern Buddhism since the middle of the 20th century. With these emphases, the historical overview presented here is intended to generate more scholarly discussions and inquiries into the history of Tibetan Buddhism in both monastic and lay spheres in and outside Tibet.
Ancient Steppe Nomad Societies
Throughout more than two millennia, the extensive droughty areas in East Asia were occupied by pastoral nomads. A long history exists of hybridity between steppe and agricultural areas. The ancient nomads had a specific pastoral economy, a mobile lifestyle, a unique mentality that assumed unpretentiousness and stamina, cults of war, warrior horsemen, and heroized ancestors that were reflected, in turn, in both their verbal oeuvre (heroic epos) and their arts (animal style). They established vast empires that united many peoples. In the descriptions of settled civilizations, the peoples of the steppe are presented as aggressive barbarians. However, the pastoral nomads developed efficient mechanisms of adaptation to nature and circumjacent states. They had a complex internal structure and created different forms of social complexity—from heterarchical confederations to large nomadic empires. The different forms of identity in pastoral societies (gender, age, profession, rank) are presented in this article. Special attention is given to how ethnic identity is formed from small groups. The ethnic history of the ancient nomads of East Asia is described, particularly for such pastoral societies as the Xiongnu, the Wuhuan, the Xianbei, and the Rouran.
An Indian Trading Ecumene? On the Global Ecology of South Asian Commerce
The circulation of merchants between South Asia and the rest of the world combines a unique temporal depth, as a continuous presence of South Asian merchants outside the subcontinent is attested since at least the 9th century ce, and an impressive spatial range, as by the late 19th century Indian merchants, mostly Gujaratis and Sindhis, were to be found practically across the entire globe. Ecological factors, including the contrast between, on the one hand, the vast “dry zone” of northwestern South Asia and, on the other hand, riverine areas of permanent moisture in the rest of the subcontinent, played an important part in its genesis; they remained important as the movements of South Asian traders were extended beyond the subcontinent before the colonial era. In the colonial period, while political factors also became significant, the role of ecological factors was somewhat residual but still visible.
The Appropriation of Islam in the Maldives
The Maldives is one of four Muslim majority countries in South Asia. The contemporary Islamic Republic of the Maldives frames itself as a “100 percent Muslim nation.” The state religion is Islam, all 380,000 citizens are Muslims by law, and the practice of other religions is prohibited. Ever since the first Muslim exposure, probably in the 10th century, Islam has gradually evolved into a sociocultural configuration that affects most domains of archipelagic society and culture. It shapes foreign relations, informs legislation, and influences arts and architecture, as well as language and scripture. Scholarship of Islam and Islamization in the Maldives acknowledges the historical trajectories of the appropriation of Islam as well as its contemporary relevance in Maldivian identity and state politics.
Archaeology of Buddhism in Asia
Himanshu Prabha Ray
The eightfold path shown by the Buddha in the middle of the first millennium bce was founded on wisdom, morality, and concentration. Like other contemporary Indic religions, Buddha dhamma had no central organization, nor did it follow a single text as its guiding principle. Its core principle was refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha, though as it expanded across Asia, it absorbed local traditions, responded to historical factors, and evolved philosophically. The physical manifestations of the dhamma appeared in the archaeological record at least two hundred to three hundred years later, in the form of inscriptions, stūpas, images, and other objects of veneration. Relic and image worship were important factors in the expansion of Buddhism across the subcontinent and into other parts of Asia. This essay is framed. Four themes are significant in the archaeology of Buddhism: the history of archaeology in Asia with reference to Buddhism; defining a chronology for the historical Buddha and sites associated with Buddhism; identifying regional specificities and contexts for Buddhist sites as they emerged across Asia; and finally addressing the issue of interconnectedness and interlinkages between the various sites within the Buddhist sāsana. The active participation of learned monks and nuns in the stūpa cult and their mobility across Asia is a factor that is underscored in this paper.
Archaeology of Northeast India
The northeast region of India encompasses the states of Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim to the north; Manipur, Mizoram, and Tripura to the south; Nagaland to the east; and Assam and Meghalaya to the west. The region is unique not only geopolitically but also in terms of its ecological diversity, culture, and history, with the states of Mizoram and Tripura falling well within the 23° N tropical zone. Northeast India is characterized by uplands and high-altitude mountains in the north, northeast, east, and southeast, while the southwest and western regions comprise tablelands and low-lying floodplains. Early archaeological initiatives began with the colonial administration of the region, but such early reports were confined to surface sites. The first excavations in the region began in the post-Independence period and delved into some of the archaeological problems relevant to the area. Some of these problems concern identifying possible hominin dispersal routes; the scenario of Paleolithic research and what the associated archaeological and geological data yields; the importance of the region as a potential area for early plant domestication; and the archaeological evidence for early agriculture, particularly rice, millet, and tuber crops. Despite immense potential for historical archaeology, empirical research toward an understanding of the rise of early urban centers and early state formations, the emergence of village settlements marked by ancestral sites, and the later historical periods has only been marginal in nature.
Asia in the Gunpowder Revolution
Scott C. Levi
Contrary to long-held notions that gunpowder weapons technologies were devised in the West and gradually transmitted eastward into Asia, more recent scholarship indicates that innovations flowed in both directions. Scholars have also come to recognize that there was no uniformity in the ways that states implemented gunpowder weapons, and that multiple factors relating to environment, demographics, and cultural preferences informed decisions about when and how to embrace the new technology. The major Asian agrarian states of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals (the so-called Gunpowder Empires) and the Ming and Qing dynasties in China implemented gunpowder weapons differently. The Ottomans were the most aggressive in this regard, the Mughals preferred a hybrid force, and the Safavids long favored cavalry. Chinese militaries employed hybrid forces to great effect, but in later years a lengthy peace during the Qing era slowed the implementation of new technologies. In Central Asia and other places where rulers could rely on large numbers of well-trained, fast-moving mounted archers and a nearly endless supply of horses, they found little reason to rush to embrace what for several centuries represented an expensive, slow, and unreliable technology.
Asian Indentured Labor in the 19th and Early 20th Century Colonial Plantation World
Richard B. Allen
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.
Sebastian R. Prange
Piracy has been an important and persistent feature of Asia’s maritime history. In fact, the largest pirate organizations in all of history were found in Asia. Although often regarded as the antithesis of trade, piracy is actually closely related to the world of commerce. Pirates were themselves often traders (or smugglers) and relied on merchants to outfit their ships and sell their plunder. Despite the obvious and primary economic dimension of piracy, pirates were also political actors. This observation is significant because piracy has traditionally been distinguished from other forms of maritime predation (especially privateering, but also naval warfare) by stressing its supposedly inherently private nature. In Asia, however, the history of piracy is very much defined by its political contexts. Pirates themselves formed polities, whether as part of established coastal communities or in their endeavors to build their own states. What is more, as was the case in Europe, pirates often colluded with territorial states that used them as an instrument of state power, in order to harass and weaken their rivals. The political dimension of Asian piracy has long been overlooked due to the preponderance of European concepts and sources, which tend to depict all Asians involved in maritime predation as mere criminals. More nuanced studies of Asian pirates, especially when based on non-European sources, promise fresh insights into the commercial, social, and political worlds of maritime Asia.
Astrakhan and Orenburg: Russia’s Asian Trade in the 17th and 18th Centuries
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.
Aviation and Asian Modernity 1900–1950
Between 1903 and 1950, aviation technology was spread around the world and became a key concern of governments and a cultural marker of modernity. After 1903, Asia had to be explored again. Almost as soon as heavier than air flight became possible, French and British fliers began pioneering new routes to Asian cities and developing new maps and new airports along the way. With these new forms of knowledge, the colonial powers quickly moved to tie together their empires. New mapping techniques allowed for new forms of control, including what the British called “air policing,” the idea that judicious use of aircraft, and in some cases bombs and poison gas, could cheaply pacify far-flung colonial populations. Aviation was one field, however, where the Europeans did not have a long lead on Asians. Just as Europeans were using aviation to express their dominance, Asians were using it to express their modernity. Feng Ru was making and flying his own planes in San Francisco by 1912, and Siam had an air force by 1913. Asian social and political elites, who had once traveled by rail and steamship, now preferred to fly instead. “Air-mindedness” became a marker of global citizenship. Japan was the first Asian country to have an aviation industry. They proved their technological prowess to the rest of the world when they entered World War II. Their pilots bombed cities and fleets across Asia between 1937and 1945. The experience of being bombed as well as the drills and community organizations that grew out of experience ushered in a societal awareness of the military power of airplanes. The war culminated with two atomic air raids and was followed by a scramble to occupy and connect the newly liberated and independent parts of Asia. The post–World War II period led to an intensified effort to tie Asia together with faster transportation
Beer and Whisky in Japanese Marketplaces
Jeffrey W. Alexander
Japan has a local, centuries-old tradition of brewing sake from rice and distilling spirits from ingredients such as grain and sweet potatoes, but pioneering entrepreneurs began producing imported “Western liquors” (yōshu) in the late 19th century. This Western liquor marketplace was driven chiefly by beer brewing and whisky distilling. Western liquors were marketed, advertised, and consumed with rising popularity through the early 20th century, as living standards rose and ordinary Japanese came to afford them regularly. Following the Second World War (1939–1945), these Western commodities were no longer viewed as foreign imports, and were instead broadly regarded as domestic, if not indigenous, products. The impact of wartime rationing transformed beer into a lighter-tasting beverage that became very popular with women and young people, and whisky advertising focused closely on professional “salarymen” seeking increased prestige as well as escape from their demanding jobs.
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.
Bengali Communities in Colonial Assam
The history of the Bengali community in Assam, along with many other communities such as the Marwari traders and the Nepalis, can be dated to the early decades of British rule in Assam when the East India Company found itself relying on Bengali amlahs (court officials) for its policing, legal and revenue administration of the newly acquired kingdom of Assam. The Bengali community grew partly due to the encouragement that the Company gave the Bengali language by using it in its courts, administration, and schools. While in 1873 Assamese replaced Bengali as the medium of instruction and language of the court, with some caveats and exceptions, the province of Assam, which was formed in 1874, brought together four historically distinct spaces in the region, including the two Bengali-speaking districts (Sylhet and Cachar) of the Barak-Surma Valley. The decades leading to Partition witnessed various factors, including employment opportunities and cultural and linguistic belonging, leading to contradictory pulls in Sylhet and Cachar on the question of whether it should be integrated with Bengal or Assam. Another important factor was the growth of linguistically based Assamese nationalism whose politics lay in the articulation of a unique Assamese literary and cultural identity along with the securing of employment opportunities. The latter would lead to a demand of an Assamese homeland free of competition from the Bengali middle class. A referendum in July 1947 based on limited franchise led to Sylhet being integrated to Pakistan while Cachar remained part of Assam and India. Other than the Bengali-speaking communities of Sylhet and Cachar, a history of the Bengali-speaking communities in Assam involves the story of peasant cultivators from East Bengal who continuously migrated into Assam in the early decades of the 20th century. While earlier pre-colonial patterns of migration were seasonal, the colonial state’s primary aim of acquiring high agrarian revenue led to specific policies and schemes that encouraged peasant migration into Assam from East Bengal. This further encouraged an intensification of commercial agriculture especially jute, changes in the transport network in the Brahmaputra valley, a developed credit network, and some local elements such as Marwari businessmen and Assamese moneylenders. However, with time this migration created conditions of insecurity for Assamese peasants who faced ejection from their lands as a result of the growing competition for cultivable land and higher rents. The colonial state’s attempt at regulating the migration—such as through the Line System in the 1920s—became a site of contestation among many emerging nationalist and political perspectives, whether of the Congress, the Muslim League or others. The tussle between the preservation of the rights and claims of indigenous peasants over grazing and forest reserves and those of Bengali Muslim immigrants over land defined the politics of the 1940s in Assam until Partition.
Bengali Literature of Arakan
Between the 16th and the 18th centuries, Middle Bengali became a major idiom of literary expression in the kingdom of Arakan. It is within the domain of this coastal kingdom, which then comprised the region of Chittagong in today’s Bangladesh, that Muslim subjects of the Buddhist kings started using the courtly vernacular that was previously cultivated by Hindu dignitaries of the Ḥusayn Shāhī sultans of Bengal. By the mid-17th century, which constituted a moment of economic prosperity and maximum territorial expansion, all genres of Middle Bengali poetry were represented in the corpus of texts written by authors living in the urban and rural areas of the kingdom. The many treatises on Muslim beliefs and meditative practices, the hagiographic literature, and the courtly romances testify to the formation of a local Islamic cultural ethos. After the Mughal conquest of Chittagong in 1666, local literacy was still cultivating standards set by authors of the Arakanese period such as Saiẏad Sultān and Ālāol. In Arakan itself, Bengali Muslim literature continued to be produced and transmitted until at least the first half of the twentieth century. A large number of manuscripts was collected in the first decades of the twentieth century and these are preserved in various institutions in Bangladesh. The Bengali literature of Arakan is characterized by its Indic religious idiom and Sanskritized poetics, but also by its complex intertextuality that reflects the region’s connections with north India and the Persianate trading networks of the Bay of Bengal. Up to the 2000s, the Bengali literature of Arakan has mostly been discussed within the framework of the national literary history of Bangladesh, but subsequently scholars have relocated this corpus within the cultural domain of the Bay of Bengal and the Islamicate literary traditions of South and Southeast Asia.