Michael O’Sullivan on Vernacular Capitalism and Intellectual History

Cover of the May 2021 issue of the Journal of Asian Studies.

Michael O’Sullivan is a Junior Research Fellow in the Center for History and Economics at Harvard University and author of “Vernacular Capitalism and Intellectual History in a Gujarati Account of China, 1860–68,” which appears in the May 2021 issue of the Journal of Asian Studies. O’Sullivan’s article discusses a travelogue published in 1868 by Damodar Ishwardas, a Hindu resident of Bombay and a clerk for a Sunni Khoja commercial firm, who wrote about his three-year sojourn on the China coast. In this JAS Author Interview for #AsiaNow, O’Sullivan discusses his piece, which is one of several articles in the May issue of JAS about India-China connections, with Tansen Sen (NYU Shanghai).

This is Number 10 in the “JAS Author Interviews” series at #AsiaNow. Click here to see all posts in the series.

Tansen Sen: Where does the article on Damodar Ishwardas’ fascinating account of nineteenth century China fit into your current and future research plans?

Michael O’Sullivan: The article is actually a brief detour from my main project. I am currently writing a book on the economic and religious histories of the Gujarati Muslim commercial castes, and I came across Ishwardas’ account while looking for material on Khojas and Bohras in the China trade. It was one of those thrilling discoveries that made me completely rethink one of the core arguments of my project—a detour that re-routed my original itinerary. Much of the work on Indian merchant communities—and the scholarship on Gujarati Muslims more generally—assumes that they are self-enclosed communities who tend to employ only those from inside the caste. Yet Ishwardas was a Hindu clerk involved in a number of local associations and employed by a leading Khoja firm, the proprietor of which was involved in the bitter controversy over the Agha Khan Case. Ishwardas’ account was a crucial reminder for me that any historian of Indian capitalism has to cast a very wide net—pulling in hard-to-access travelogues, commercial ephemera, and vernacular newspapers, to name a few—in order to best capture the vibrancy of Indian commercial networks and their concomitant intellectual productions.

Sen: How did you find Ishwardas’ travelogue and what difficulties, if any, did you encounter reading and analyzing it?

O’Sullivan: Ishwardas’ travelogue is one of the innumerable array of Indian vernacular texts housed in the British Library that were catalogued well over a century ago and still remain unstudied. (One can also find a poor quality scan on archive.org.) There were several practical difficulties involved in translation, including the fact that Gujarati spelling has changed a good deal since the 1860s. However, I was lucky enough to have a first-rate Gujarati teacher to help me when I got stuck with especially tricky sections. The biggest challenge—which is general to all Indian vernacular accounts on East Asia—was deciphering the transliteration of Chinese words into Gujarati. Usually, the author provides a gloss on the term, but no Gujarati dictionary will contain entries of Chinese words. That makes Ishwardas’ powers of description all the more impressive, and made me all the more enthusiastic about sharing his book with a wider audience.

Sen: Could you explain Ishwardas’ travelogue and his “vernacular capitalism” in the context of the more famous Parsi trader Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy and his writings?

O’Sullivan: That is a fantastic question. Of course, there are many similarities between Ishwardas and Jejeebhoy: both were non-Muslims who collaborated with Muslim entrepreneurs in the China trade, pursued projects of religious reform in India, linked to colonial officialdom in some capacity, and were members of several civil associations in Bombay. But we must remember that the decades that separated them witnessed a drastic change in the character of the India-China trade. For one, Parsis no longer dominated the China trade by the time Jejeebhoy died in the 1850s, and the enormous commercial fortunes won by Jejeebhoy and his partner Rogay in China were largely a thing of the past by the time Ishwardas set sail in 1860 (for Indians at least). To be sure, Indian capitalists continued to be active in the China trade, but as I argued in the piece, Ishwardas’ text was published at the moment when China’s share in Bombay trade was soon to be supplanted by other parts of Asia and Africa. Finally, I think Jejeebhoy was representative of a very different moment in the history of vernacular capitalism. Towards the end of his life, he and his colleagues were slowly being subordinated to the political structures and economic inequalities of colonial capitalism, but exercised a degree of leverage in the commercial and even political spheres that made them the equals of Jardine and Matheson. Commercial cooperation with the East India Company before 1857 was a different ball game than commercial activity in the high colonial period. Indeed, many Indians in the China trade from the mid-nineteenth century had to content themselves with smaller pickings, thanks to the stricter racial divides in commercial life and the diminution of Indian enterprise to a second-tier status with the influx of European firms. Although Ishwardas’ employer (Cassumbhoy Nathubhoy) was no shoestring operation, it was hardly on the scale of Jardine & Matheson, and along with many leading Indian firms, it had a short life-span owing to the general precarity characteristic of Indian firms. The challenge of the historiography is to do more to people our accounts with the likes of Ishwardas and Nathubhoy since the Jejeebhoys have long had their due.

Sen: Methodologically, how does your analysis of Ishwardas’ travelogue contribute to the field of China­­­–India studies and the study of intra-Asian interactions?

O’Sullivan: I hope readers will agree, but I think it does several things. Above all, the piece makes the case that Indian vernacular accounts of China not only give us insight into the worldview of Indian travelers in China, but allow us to write novel, integrated economic histories of these two regions that do not put the colonial archive at the center. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to dismiss Ishwardas’ account as nothing but a quaint artifact of cultural history; if not a one-off, then a text that fills in only the outer edges of a narrative of colonial capitalism that has already been worked out to our satisfaction. Yet his source and the world it points to shows that Indian capitalists were not merely mimicking colonial capital or parroting the categories of European political economy. Rather they were thinking about exchange, race, and ethnography in various registers. Ultimately, the point is that more needs to be done to marry sociological theories of capitalism taken from Euro-American paradigms with vernacular materials from the Indian Ocean and South China Sea, and to let the latter speak more. Considering how inspired I’ve been by your own collaborative work with Brian Tsui, it might also be worth adding that I am convinced that texts like Ishwardas’ permit us to transcend some of the limitations of the scholarship on pan-Asianism. Put another way, books like Ishwardas’ point to other imaginaries, by no means pre-political or apathetic about the injustices of colonial rule, but which do not conform to the model of primordial Asian solidarity put forward by pan-Asianists.

Sen: As you point out in your article, there were other Indians who visited China during the late-Qing period. How does Ishwardas’ perspective of Qing China differ from theirs?

O’Sullivan: What is exciting about this question is that any answer given now must be provisional, and will likely be revised as we get a better sense of the scale of Indian writing on Qing China over the next few years. Even as the article was about to go to press I found a new Gujarati text on China that pre-dated Ishwardas’. I am certain more will follow. With that said, I can safely say now that Ishwardas’ book is a moment of transition between the precocious effort in the 1840s by Indians to compose the first full-length treatments of China—but which remained hamstrung by a dearth of available vernacular material—and the late-century moment which saw complex ideas of pan-Asianism and Sino-ambivalence mixing with traditions of colonial sociology. That early moment shows an Islamicate proclivity for chronicling the strange and wonderful (ajib-o-garib) and sometimes falls victim to an enthusiasm for all things Chinese, a temptation which Ishwardas found hard to resist. Speaking very generally, the later period is more sober in its evaluation of China and the Chinese. As I mentioned in the piece, at least one Indian author at the turn of the century felt compelled to write a text on China to counter negative stereotypes of the Chinese among Indians. On the other hand, Ishwardas largely had a tabula rasa upon which he could paint his canvas, although his admission that he had long wished to visit China before embarking in 1860 suggests a percolating interest in China’s history and economy among Indian capitalists in Bombay. He was the one to give textual expression to that interest. Lastly, Ishwardas is a transitionary figure because he exemplifies that ambition to construct objective vernacular accounts of the Chinese, while simultaneously gesturing toward a vision of Indians and Chinese as faced by similar predicaments, all the while never making the interpretive leap that the pan-Asianists did.

Sen: Are there interesting episodes from the travelogue that you could not include in the article?

O’Sullivan: There are indeed many, and the sad reality of article word limits ensured that many of these were left out of the printed version. I spoke at some length in the article about Ishwardas’ observations of Chinese family life and commercial habits, but the text is littered with many more. One aspect of his text I did omit were his many compelling reflections on Chinese government institutions and religious practice. On the subject of the latter, it is utterly fascinating to see a Hindu librarian and commercial clerk attempt to make sense of Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism and render it comprehensible to an audience that knew close to nothing of these traditions. To see Confucius described as a pandit, and Daoist practices of meditation linked to samadhi, is a crucial reminder of just how much intellectual work remained to be undertaken to make India-China intellectual and political connections commensurable and meaningful before the onset of formal Pan-Asianism.

Sen: Are you planning to translate Ishwardas’ travelogue?

O’Sullivan: Rather than a full translation, I think the best option would be an anthology comprising selections of Indian vernacular writing on East Asia, with Ishwardas one among many contributors. That would give the best sense of the rich material out there demanding attentive study, and the range of opinions that intellectual exchange with Asia elicited among Indian commentators.

Durba Mitra on the Sexuality of Endogamy

Cover of the February 2021 issue of the Journal of Asian Studies

Durba Mitra, assistant professor of Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality and the Carol K. Pforzheimer Assistant Professor at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University, is author of “‘Surplus Woman’: Female Sexuality and the Concept of Endogamy” published in the February 2021 issue of the Journal of Asian Studies. Mitra’s first book, Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and the Colonial Origins of Modern Social Thought, was published by Princeton University Press in 2020. In the Q&A below, Mitra discussed her essay in conversation with Kelvin Ng, a Ph.D. student in History at Yale University who works on unfree labor migration in the Indian Ocean.

This is Number 9 in the “JAS Author Interviews” series at #AsiaNow. Click here to see all posts in the series.

Kelvin Ng: Let me begin by asking about your broader research interests in intellectual history and histories of sexuality. Your acclaimed monograph, Indian Sex Life, provides a fine-grained concept history of the “prostitute,” which emerged as central to both colonial and nationalist knowledge projects. How does the present article stem out of this constellation of interests, and how did you come to be interested in the conceptual history of “endogamy” specifically? 

Durba Mitra: My research analyzes the intimate relationship of sexuality and disciplinary knowledge and asks how deeply normative ideas of gender and sexuality shape the modern study of social life. In turning to the history of the concept of endogamy after the publication of Indian Sex Life, I wanted to make a methodological statement about how we might differently approach foundational theories that have shaped the modern Indian social sciences through a feminist genealogy of key concepts that appear as commonsense in the study of society. This essay on the concept of endogamy is part of an ongoing project of reimagining the lexicon of terms we use to study of social life in decolonizing societies. This project of imagining social scientific concepts anew, what I have termed a “femme-glossia,” critically engages the history of key social scientific terminologies that have often been used uncritically to describe social worlds in South Asia and beyond, terms like “endogamy,” “kinship,” “rank,” and “marriage.”

This approach to this history of key terms in the social sciences undoes any easy dichotomy between colonial and Indian epistemologies. Instead, I reveal the central place of gendered violence and the sexual subordination of women in modern social theories across dominant intellectual traditions of colonial military men, British ethnographers, and Indian social scientists. Evolutionary theories of the imminent promise of modern patriarchal civilization became a site of collusion for colonial and Brahmanical patriarchies, an epistemological resource that was used to justify colonial racial imaginaries of colonized social life as well as the deep history of Brahmanical domination and power. Even as I document modern epistemologies of dominance, I foreground powerful modes of dissent that contest these structures of knowledge in the Indian social sciences, most strikingly in B.R. Ambedkar’s earliest publication, “Castes in India” (1917). Ambedkar’s anti-caste thinking undoes the primacy of ethnological and Indological racialized ideas that pervade Indian social science. Yet his novel critique was all but ignored in most modern sociological studies that followed, perhaps because what Ambedkar called for made the modern study of caste as endogamy all but impossible except as a project of political unknowing.

Ng: Building on an earlier historiographical tradition on the colonial politics of knowledge (e.g. works by Nicholas Dirks, Ronald Inden, Bernard Cohn), recent scholars of Dalit history, feminist theory, and histories of gender (e.g. Sharmila Rege, Aniket Jawaare, Shailaja Paik, Lucinda Ramberg, Anupama Rao) have importantly highlighted the gendered, intimate, and familial violence constitutive of caste subordination. How would you situate your work within this historiography, and what are the stakes of returning to the concept of “endogamy” today? 

Mitra: I feel a strong resonance with theorist Katherine McKittrick’s approach to citation in her book Dear Science and Other Stories (Duke University Press, 2020), where she describes citation as a kind of collective assembly that “breaches” norms and creates new possibilities of storytelling that “risks the sovereignty” of individual expertise. Citations are for me a form of alliance, a way to undo any singular claim to expert knowledge, and I say alliance here as a purposeful inversion of the “traffic in women” that structures social alliance theory. The story I tell in this one essay is built through rich and complicated historiographies on caste and knowledge, most especially through interdisciplinary scholarship on the gender of caste subordination. The story in this essay focuses on an unresolved problem: how have the modern social sciences in modern South Asia centered marriage in the study of “Indian society,” yet they have disappeared the problem of gendered violence and sexual control that sit at the heart of modern social theory of the evolution of societies?

I cite a wide range of thinkers as you note in your question, in particular scholars who have documented how gender and sexuality shape the workings of caste power. These feminist ideas have been transformative for me in this genealogy of the term “endogamy.” In particular, this essay for me builds on the wide-ranging insights of Sharmila Rege, who in her editorial introduction to Ambedkar’s “Castes in India” in her brilliant Against the Madness of Manu (2013), argues that Ambedkar laid the foundations for the feminist critique of caste. This essay follows this line of inquiry to argue that the control of women’s sexuality is the very genesis of the concept of endogamy and places Ambedkar’s early publication in a long genealogy of theories that naturalize endogamy that came before his essay and thrived long after Ambedkar’s intervention. These theories of endogamy, from McLennan to Risley to Ketkar to Ghurye and more, saw endogamy as a neutral descriptor and foundational concept that was a true reflection of caste difference. Today, the supposed neutrality of endogamy as the primary organizing principle for Indian society has been fully upheld as it has been incorporated as a keyword into contemporary Hindutva projects of the racial genetics of caste.

The stakes of such a feminist history of social scientific concepts are high, and such a project of rethinking is collective. Terms like endogamy perpetuate the idea that communities, castes, subcastes, religious groups are hermetically sealed entities, contained and discrete units that reflect the static timelessness of custom in Indian social life. Our inherited social scientific vocabularies naturalize these ideas, and today, dominant social groups and state governments are sanctifying these interdictions into law. When scholars write about inter-caste and inter-religious marriage now, they continually confront the inadequacy of concepts like endogamy. In rethinking this ethnological lexicon built on the control and erasure of women’s sexuality, I am, like so many scholars, thinking about what kind of social science might need to be thought now, in the crisis of our present.

Ng: Your article traces the emergence and development of “endogamy” as a social-scientific concept across both British colonial administrators (e.g. John F. McLennan and Herbert H. Risley) as well as Indian intellectuals (e.g. S. V. Ketkar, B. R. Ambedkar, Govind Sadashiv Ghurye, M. N. Srinivas, and Irawati Karve). What accounts for the mutability and translatability of this concept across distinct fields of knowledge and disciplinary traditions? What are the afterlives of this concept of “endogamy,” either within the social-scientific disciplines or in social life writ large? 

Mitra: I think endogamy has an enduring life in the study of South Asia across European ethnology, colonial ethnography, much of Indian sociology and anthropology, and now Indian genetics because it functions as both as a mode of description, i.e., a group practices endogamy, and as an explanation, a form of reasoning used to “prove” the historical durability of caste hierarchy and social difference. From John F. McLennan’s invention of the terms endogamy and exogamy in his ethnological theory of “primitive marriage” in the 1860s, he claimed endogamy to be a universalist, “scientific” concept that could be used to assess the primitivity of any society. The term was structured through its opposing term “exogamy.” Together, endogamy and exogamy were be used to diagnose all social structures in an either/or scheme of social practice. And then H.H. Risley established the terms as essential to the modern study of caste through his comprehensive studies of castes and tribes and the Indian census, organized through the assessment of groups as endogamous or exogamous. Risley sets the terms for studies of caste that follow, even for Indian scholars who set out to dispute Risley. Endogamy is used again and again by upper-caste Indian social scientists like the Marathi Brahman S.V. Ketkar who created a complicated justification for caste through the racialized language of ethnological evolution. In tracing the origins of these terms in social theory, I point out that both endogamy and exogamy are premised on the control and erasure of female sexuality from the very inception of these terms. By control, I mean the structures of social enforcement from compulsory patriarchal marriage to sexual violence in the rape of women in the stage of “bride capture.” By erasure, I mean quite literally the erasure of women through the social death of widowhood and femicide, the killing of girls and women in social theories that justified female infanticide through the language of “population control.”

B.R. Ambedkar’s 1917 critique offers an innovative intervention in the genealogy of the term “endogamy” in direct opposition to studies like Ketkar’s that came before, but using Ketkar’s citational apparatus. Ambedkar proposes a third possibility for endogamy, not as a social scientific description or explanation, but as a political imposition, an intentional act of upper-caste enforcement. And with the introduction of that third possibility of understanding endogamy, Ambedkar subverts the power of endogamy as a neutral social scientific term that explains caste to instead function as a system of violent caste power enforced by upper-castes through interdictions that control women’s sexuality. Yet Ambedkar’s recasting of endogamy as political superposition is largely overlooked in the Indian social sciences that follow. I suggest we might turn back to Ambedkar’s critical call to radically re-imagine the sociological lexicon that shapes the study of Indian societies.

Ng: Ambedkar’s study of endogamy, in many ways, posed a radical break with earlier Indological studies of caste by inaugurating a powerful critique of caste hierarchy. How did the framework of “surplus” enable his critique of sexual violence vis-à-vis the political enforcement of endogamy? How was his study of caste informed by his disciplinary training in economics and philosophy? In what ways are there continuities between his early 1917 study with his later Annihilation of Caste (1936) or Who Were the Shudras (1946)? 

Mitra: For me, the concept “surplus” reflects Ambedkar’s disciplinary transgression, the way Ambedkar’s critical thought inverts norms by uniting economic, sociological, legal, religious, philosophical and political thought into a single epistemic field. In his concept of the “Surplus Woman,” Ambedkar diagnoses how a strange calculus of compulsory heterosexual reproduction pervades the study of Indian society, a calculus that has an enduring presence in the study of post-colonized societies today in the language of sex ratios and birth rates. Ambedkar’s novel interdisciplinary analytic reflects the breadth of his knowledge and training in everything from philosophy to economics to ethnology. It also reflects the immense difficulties faced by non-Brahman intellectuals who sought to challenge claims to objectivity in the Indian social sciences, because Brahmanism appears in such a wide range of social science as the natural and neutral language of social science. My goal in this essay was to trace endogamy from its invention in ethnology as an idea that was always Malthusian and steeped in sexual control and violence at its inception, and then situate its place in Ambedkar’s field-changing essay and in the social sciences that followed in the twentieth century.

The economic in Ambedkar cannot be disaggregated from the social and political, and he regularly insists in his writings that scholars must assess socio-economic, political, and religious institutions through intersecting issues of class and caste subordination. For example, in Who Were the Shudras? (1946) Ambedkar offers a theory of labor subjugation and occupational power in his critiques of the Indological origins of the history of caste. Traces of his early critique of endogamy can be found in his later condemnation of eugenics and racial theories of caste, as Ambedkar insists across his corpus of work that there is no racial difference between castes. As he argues in Annihilation of Caste (1936) and again in Who Were the Shudras?, Indian society was always but one racial group. In doing so, he reveals the perpetuation of the myth of endogamy in South Asia, arguing that endogamy and its attendant social interdictions of intermarriage were not natural divisions, but upper-caste ideologies of caste domination recast in the false language of racial difference. As he argues in Annihilation, caste is always a negation, a system of violently enforced prohibition, never a positive mode of choice. Again and again, Ambedkar undoes any static social scientific idea of caste through an interdisciplinary exegesis of caste as a system of political enforcement and violence. An extraordinary exegesis of Ambedkar’s thought regarding endogamy in this essay and over his oeuvre can be found in the deeply thought lectures of V. Geetha, entitled “Let’s Read Dr. Ambedkar” published in March of 2020 by the Ambedkar King Study Circle USA (see especially V. Geetha, “Lecture 2 – Caste: A New Vocabulary”). V. Geetha offers some of the most innovative and learned readings of Ambedkar’s many writings in these comprehensive lectures.

Ng: Toward the end of your article, you take up Ambedkar’s call to “kill the ghost of Manu” with reference to recent theorizations on the embodied phenomenology of caste (e.g. Aniket Jawaare’s conception of touching/not touching). This turn finds resonances in cultural studies and literary theory on hapticality, embodiment, and affect. How might these methodologies offer a new conceptual vocabulary for thinking caste?

Mitra: In the essay, I argue that the modern social sciences in India naturalized patriarchal Hindu caste supremacy through the seemingly neutral language of the social sciences of marriage based in the overlapping fields of ethnology and Indology. Ethnological theories of caste and marriage posited patriarchal power and sexual violence as inevitable stages in the making of modern civilizations. Ethnological terms like “endogamy” have historically been used in Indian social science to conceal the mechanisms of political enforcement and upper-caste interdictions that shape caste supremacy. In doing so, both colonial social science and much Indian sociology constituted caste hierarchy as a historical inevitability with racial origins that could be traced in Sanskrit text.

At the end of my article, I open up the question of what is at stake now in returning to Ambedkar’s critique of endogamy that undoes the seeming inevitability of caste difference. Ambedkar’s essay is a call for an epistemic abolitionism. This critique of the neutrality of social science is largely ignored by upper-caste Hindu scholars who write sociology and anthropology in the decades that followed Ambedkar’s “Castes in India” (1917). This immense task, to “kill the ghost of Manu,” shapes Ambedkar throughout his life, quite literally in his public burning of Manu on December 25, 1927 in a “crematorium for Manusmriti.” It is this challenge of annihilation that is taken up by wide range of anti-caste thinkers in the twentieth century, in Dalit feminist critiques of the dominance of Manu in contemporary India, including today in ongoing demands for the statue of “Manu” to fall in front of the Rajasthan High Court. The philosophical works of scholars like Aniket Jaaware present another site for the project of abolishing Manu. Jaaware’s phenomenological approach starkly critiques structuralist theories of caste as wholly inadequate. He puts them aside and instead radically reframes caste through the question of touching and not touching. Jaaware’s text offers an alternative framework for thinking the intricate workings of institutions of caste dominance, exclusion, and humiliation at the intersections of capital and Hindu patriarchal upper-caste power. From the long genealogy of the term “endogamy,” we learn that the abolition of patriarchal caste supremacy requires the systematic undoing of the Hindu Brahmanical patriarchal vocabularies that undergird modern disciplinary knowledge about South Asian societies. The conceptual vocabulary that such a project might yield must undo exclusionary patriarchal claims to expertise and scientificity that made terms like endogamy indispensable. It is a collective political project, not only of critically tracing and undoing inherited concepts like endogamy, but of imagining other ways of knowing.

“Modernization” and Agrarian Development in India

This is Number 7 in the “JAS Author Interviews” series at #AsiaNow. Click here to see all posts in the series.

The August 2020 issue of the Journal of Asian Studies includes “‘Modernization’ and Agrarian Development in India, 1912–52,” a research article by historian Prakash Kumar (Pennsylvania State University). Drawing from his current book project, in this article Kumar examines India’s agrarian modernization during the twentieth century, giving particular attention to the role American actors played in such efforts. Here, Cheri Kuncheria (Jawaharlal Nehru University) interviews Kumar for #AsiaNow, in a discussion ranging from agriculture under British colonialism to U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War era.

Cheri Kuncheria: What you bring up in your article is a twentieth century version of what David Arnold (2015), for the nineteenth century, termed “contingent colonialism,” wherein British colonialism allowed, and even encouraged, extra-imperial presence in India. How do you situate the colonial-era connections between India and the United States in your broader research, and how did they pave the way for an Americanist inroad after independence?

Prakash Kumar: American missionaries of multiple denominations had a deep, widespread presence in colonial India. Their archives are replete with an institutional memory of Indian rurality over generations that can be contrasted with the patchiness of impressions among chance travelers to India and their perceptions of colonialism, or with the nineteenth century imaginaries of India in American literary works generally.

Scholars of global imperialism have emphasized the lateral connections between British and American imperialisms, which speaks to the plausibility of Anglo-American networks at work in the South Asian colonialism. The American missionaries operated at a sub-imperial level beneath the grid of colonial governance. Their “difference” with colonial measures, if articulated, was clothed in a friendlier tone. The colonialists, on their part, tolerated their presence and occasionally helped them as long as their activities did not create problems with administration. The Allahabad Agricultural Institute, which I refer to in my JAS piece, is a prime example of their liberality in this regard, where an institution primarily supported by American donations was allowed to exist and was even approvingly seen as aiding the colonial effort towards agricultural improvement.

The American presence in India became more robust in the twentieth century and even more explicit after independence as the U.S. State Department and the Government of India formalized alliances to undertake a variety of projects. There is an argument to be made that the earlier missionary presence constitutes the genealogy of American interventions in post-colonial South Asia, aside from the fact that it was relevant in an instrumental way as Cold War-era actors tapped into older missionary accounts of India and indeed some of the significant cold warrior diplomats and technocrats were affiliated with American evangelism. I delved into the theme of Indo-U.S. entanglements in the colonial era with the intent to point out that the much better-known American investment in India’s agrarian modernization after independence had a precedent in the colonial period.

CK: Agriculture and agricultural development in colonial twentieth century India is a bit of a blank spot on the historiographical map. Could you tell us how your work addresses this gap?

PK: You are correct in pointing out that twentieth century agrarian India is a neglected era in the South Asian historiography. The first round of definitive, granular agrarian histories of regions like Bengal, Bihar, the Bombay Presidency, the United Provinces, and the Punjab were focused overwhelmingly on the nineteenth century. The truth is that there is much to examine and analyze for the twentieth century as a whole. A focus on the early decades of the twentieth century allows us to see the early modes of the decolonized perspectives in nationalist demands. Some of the prominent nationalist voices were very open to and invested in the task of village improvement and welcomed colonial state measures or operations such as that at the Allahabad Agricultural Institute. The second temporal thrust of my work on the decades before and after independence sheds light on the transitional period in which efforts by the postcolonial elites on the subcontinent were both a legatee to colonial patterns and marked new directions.

CK: Could you talk about the connections and disjunctions between colonial and postcolonial agrarian developmentalism in India?

PK: In his discussion of agrarian change in colonial South Asia, David Arnold (2005) has drawn parallels between later-day “development” and the prior colonial project of “improvement.” That can be a good starting point for a reflection on the similarities and dissimilarities between colonial and postcolonial variants of developmentalism. Arnold’s effort to find the precursors of development in early colonial economic theory and practice leads him to see development’s lineage in the creation of property regimes through state-directed revenue measures going back to the late eighteenth century as well as in the colonial state’s backing of specific institutions dedicated to agricultural improvement.

The central traits of developmentalism started to emerge in the late nineteenth century with the emergence of the conceptual apparatus of an Indian political economy. The self-definition of an Indian political economy by the nationalists and Indian economists definitely marked a new stage. The nationalist inflections on agricultural and rural growth and livelihoods, and debates over questions of agrarian transformation and rural productivity provided a certain characteristic to such imaginaries. That does not mean that state action and nationalist imaginaries exhausted all possible avenues of developmental desires. Resistance to strictly colonial and nationalist developmentalism could go hand in hand with the desire for positive change and transformation. It is in these spaces that one could go looking for the genealogies of postcolonial political society and of “people’s demands.”

That said, the independence divide is a major point of disjuncture. Political sovereignty and electoral democracy offered several channels for the different strata of society to operationalize differentiated methods of claim-making. While post-colonial development cannot be absolved from the insidious project of state-making, from a demand-side perspective, development aspirations constantly tangled with state-making and law-making. The complicity of development and state-making aside, development imaginaries also rose as a capillary force and engaged processes of resource distribution by the state in a clear struggle for citizenship, and over process of inclusion and exclusion. If one were to extend investigation to literary fields, one would also find evidence of imagination and articulation of development on terms that defied plain and simple narratives of state-building or the normative prescriptions of the state. The bottom line is that the postcolony was not only a site for exclusion but also one of aspiration.

CK: It is pertinent that the first generation of independent India’s scientists and science administrators turned towards American expertise, rather than to the ex-metropole Britain, as they developed the postcolony, especially its agriculture. Can you tell us more about this new moment in the emergence of transnational alliance for expertise?

PK: The Americans emerged from World War II with a sizeable agricultural research and extension network. The new dominant power that the United States was in the postwar global order boasted a surplus in agricultural expertise whose depth and size were unmatched by any other country. It is therefore no coincidence that as the post-World War II global order unfolded, American experts found relevance among a number of decolonizing nations. This process was actively galvanized by the U.S. State Department, as the goal of agricultural modernization among “hungry” nations became a tool of American foreign policy in the Cold War era.

The contest between an American imperial formation and national sovereignty in India is mirrored in the contested legacy of agrarian modernization in my research. There is an opportunity to look at the postcolony as a decolonizing space in which Indians engaged, created, and made sense of patterns of knowledge forms. From the perspective of my research, what is unique about this moment is the identification of the past efforts as a distinct “traditional,” meaning that the modernity proffered by the colonial and nationalist predecessors thus far was in need of a recasting. This signaled a new moment in the development imagination in India.

I can illustrate this with an example, if I may, from another part of my research that details the establishment of India’s “rural universities” in the 1960s and 70s under a partnership with five Land Grant universities in the United States. The first university came up at Pantnagar during the Second Five-Year Plan (1956–1961) and six more at Ludhiana, Udaipur, Jabalpur, Hyderabad, Bangalore, and Bhubaneshwar during the Third Five-Year Plan (1961–66). The active emulation of the Americanist “Land Grant model” played out as India started to roll out these institutions along with the consolidation of an epistemic community that activated a specific vision of India’s agrarian futures. There was a conscious effort to break away from the past patterns. Indian agricultural educationists like K. C. Naik, the founding Vice Chancellor of the university in Bangalore and a representative of that voice, saw the new universities as portraying a new modern. Naik was explicit in emphasizing that India had to break away from the British system of universities and research institutions that it had inherited. The postcolonial nation, Naik and others argued, had to actively and consciously imbibe the American land grant system for agricultural modernization, which Naik called, “a process of liberation” for India.

CK: Could you talk briefly about the sources for your book project?

PK: My archives are an admixture of collections in India and the United States. I have looked at national, regional, and local archives in India. I have also reviewed a number of published reports, agricultural journals, private papers of experts and other political actors, and Hindi tracts. Geographically, these archives in India are largely based in Uttar Pradesh and Delhi.

Over the past decade, I have also looked at scores of university archives in the United States. These store voluminous accounts left by many American faculty—agronomists, social and cultural anthropologists, communitarians, and sociologists—who spent several years sojourning in India. Some of the latter were the so-called early “area studies” experts for South Asia. Somehow their accounts have not found representation among the official files of the Government of India. These records fill up gaps or complement information appearing in the official records in India. Indeed, these are sometimes critical in providing descriptive accounts of events that are amiss due to the scattered state of regional archives in India for the 1960s and 70s.


Arnold, David. “Agriculture and ‘Improvement’ in Early Colonial India: A Pre-History of Development.” Journal of Agrarian Change 5, no. 4 (October 1, 2005): 505–25.

Arnold, David. “Globalization and Contingent Colonialism: Towards a Transnational History of ‘British” India.” Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 16, no. 2 (2015).

“Decoding Publication Records”: A Digital Humanities Approach to Taiwanese Literary History

This is Number 6 in the “JAS Author Interviews” series at #AsiaNow. Click here to see all posts in the series.

Táňa Dluhošová is a research fellow at the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic and author of “Decoding Publication Records: Ruptures and Continuities in 1940s Taiwanese Literary History,” which appears in the May 2020 issue of the Journal of Asian Studies. Here, Dluhošová discusses with Bert Scruggs (University of California, Irvine) the methodologies she drew on to carry out her analysis of publications and literary figures in 1940s Taiwan.

Bert Scruggs: In a nutshell, your essay forced me to reconsider conventional narratives of twentieth-century Taiwanese literary history. Could you more abstractly explain from which disciplinary nodes your research grows, and which edges, or connections, amongst those nodes you plan to explore in the near future?

Táňa Dluhošová: The way I look at literature is strongly influenced by the Czech structuralist school. This inspiration from such a text-centered theory might at first blush appear surprising, because what I originally attempted in my PhD thesis and later carried out a little more systematically in the JAS article was what Franco Moretti calls “distant reading,” an approach seemingly detached from the specifics of the literary text itself. Felix Vodička, a Czech structuralist, proposed a gradual, hierarchical study of literary writings. Starting from the most basic linguistic level, the syllable, he suggested to proceed to words, individual verses, entire poems, series of poems, the collected works of individual authors, groups of authors, and finally entire periods in literary history. I then became attracted by the idea to study the larger ones of Vodička’s units and eventually ended up doing distant rather than close reading.

Sociology of literature, as outlined by Pierre Bourdieu in his theory of the literary field, offered me a fresh approach to literary production and a way to understand it from a contemporaneous perspective, not from a point of view that would be only important for us in the 21st century. So, I attempted to find out how literature was produced in Taiwan, and I set out to reconstruct the literary field in as much detail as possible by unearthing contemporaneous norms of literary production. I started by reading periodicals from cover to cover and realized that some authors appear in groups in several periodicals. First, I noted down appearances of this phenomenon with pen and paper, but as the number of periodicals I read grew bigger, I decided to record my findings in an Excel table. After that, the path of data analysis was set out for me, and I looked around for suitable tools to analyze the dataset I had collected. After trying out several possibilities, I realized that Social Network Analysis with its particular means of visualization can be applied. Social networks usually deal with direct (e.g., correspondence, family or friendship networks) or indirect (e.g., shared memberships in clubs or associations) human interactions. Frequencies and distributions of publications in journals could be treated as indirect relationships in my analysis.

My ultimate goal was to find out who the most important figures in the field were, and what made them important. But one cannot apply the method naively. I have to emphasize that I did not measure something that was simply out there before I started my analysis. In other words, I treated the distributions and frequencies I had recorded as proxies for abstract concepts like “popularity” or “symbolic capital.” Other scholars may find other literary features, quantitative or qualitative, more suitable for reconstructing the literary field.

Relationships between authors, publishers, patrons of literature, the state, and other actors have, of course, been discussed both with regard to other literary traditions as well as, to some extent, in the context of Taiwanese literature. What I think is novel about my approach is that one can actually see some parts or aspects of the literary field—a set of relationships among social actors—when some of these relationships are singled out and tracked numerically. Quantitative analysis helped me to reduce the literary field as an abstract totality to a specific set of relationships. On the basis of a concrete dataset, I could then analyze patterns among these relationships, assuming that, taken together, my proxy values added up to a larger representation of the field that reflected the characteristics I was interested in. In a way, this is a reductionist approach, and one has to be cautious not to jump to far-reaching conclusions on the basis of data analysis alone. After all, the analysis is limited by the method of analysis as well as the scope of the data.

Furthermore, the results of quantitative methods, which can be subsumed under the umbrella term of Digital Humanities, has to be contextualized. There is software available which allows one fairly easily to create interesting images displaying various relationships. If one does so without concrete research questions, however, and an adequate historical understanding of the period under consideration, the resulting graphs will just be visually appealing but ultimately meaningless pictures with a colorful, cloud-like appearance somewhat resembling jelly-fish, and equally difficult to pin down interpretively. It was during some detours I took in my research that I came to truly appreciate the importance of historical context. For example, only because I studied censorship in early post-war Taiwan based on archival material, was I able to understand why there was a considerable increase of literary supplements in late 1947 and in 1948. From correspondence between the Provincial Committee of Propaganda and the Ministry of Interior it emerged that newspaper supplements were not obliged to register separately. They could be freely created within an existing newspaper, and so they enjoyed a certain degree of independence.

In the near future I would like to use a historical approach based on archival material to study the roles of certain writers and editors who, according to my findings, remained prominent in multiple historical periods. I would like to find out what helped these figures gain prominence, and what their contribution was in each period.

Bringing history and literature into a conversation can be very fruitful. Literary historians might find it beneficial—as well as genuinely exciting—to spend a little more time in historical archives to understand certain trends on the literary scene. Conversely, literary critics can help historians to get a fuller grasp of certain social phenomena. For example, Taiwanese historians working on the Taiwan Biographical Database under the direction of Professor Chang Su-bing (National Taiwan Normal University, NTNU) recently realized that poetic societies were important venues for many members of political and business elites—a phenomenon literary historians have been well aware of for a while. I believe that if historians cooperated with literary scholars a bit more, they would realize more clearly that membership in poetic associations may not just generate economic, political, or social gains for their members. Not surprisingly, perhaps, such memberships could also express stylistics and broader literary preferences, predilections which are not usually accorded great relevance in historical studies. I tried to emphasize this aspect for the case of early post-war literary journals and supplements in the JAS article.

Historical context is crucial, but of course the findings of quantitative analyses need to be situated within the discourse and problems of literary studies as well. I believe that we can detect the prevalent literary styles and genres of a journal if it reflects on some level the preferences of its editors. Keeping Vodička’s progression from smaller to increasingly larger literary units in mind, we may attempt the same for clusters of journals. If we do this more extensively and systematically, we can approach something like a comprehensive description of styles of literary production in a given period, as far as that is possible. But how can one determine the important writers, journals, and publishers as well as the prevalent styles of writing? I believe that publication data (e.g., frequency of publication, distributions, publishers’ data) and close observation of different actors participating in the production process (like officials involved in censorship, for instance) can give us hints as to where to look. I am planning to use a “big data” approach, expand my scope of research, and describe long-term structural changes underlying the history of post-war Taiwan literature in an English-language monograph.

In addition to clustering actors in the literary field according to their economic, social, and literary preferences there are some other aspects that require attention, e.g., shared world views. Politics and ideology are never entirely distinct from literary concerns in the period I am working on. Together with a corpus linguist, Dr. Alvin C. H. Chen (NTNU), I developed a new method to explore this phenomenon (our work is currently under review). We constructed a corpus of early postwar articles of a cultural orientation (1 million characters). Based on word frequencies and collocations of distinctive keywords we identified three main networks of ideologically loaded vocabulary in this corpus. We traced these semantic networks back to journals and authors which we treated as different networks. This allowed us to pinpoint core elements and follow their relationships to other words, journals, or individuals. Because this analysis pointed us toward groups of authors who supported certain world views, we applied positional analysis as used in the study of political elites to identify different types of organizations with which the authors were involved. In this way we arrived at partial sociological characterizations of these groups and were thus able to put their ideological standpoints into a broader perspective. In this respect, our research combines elements of corpus linguistics, intellectual history, literary studies, and sociology. Which, unfortunately, can also result in certain difficulties to find a place to get it published.

As suggested by our approach to the study of semantic networks, I see authors, editors, and journalists as elite members. Elite studies straddle history and sociology, a fortunate circumstance which has given me new methods and research questions to work with. To pursue these questions, I am building a database of Taiwanese elites, the Taiwan Biographical Ontology (TBIO). It currently includes 28,406 individuals but keeps growing. It will hopefully help me to understand how cultural elites related to other social groups. For example, in my recent study (under review) of old and new Taiwanese elite families from the Japanese and early postwar period (altogether about 4,065 individuals), I found out that one of the characteristics of the older families, whose history can be traced back to the Qing dynasty, was their close interaction with the cultural field through such activities as participation in poetic societies, their literary patronage, and the sponsoring of periodicals. This finding then prompted me to think about how these families, through their cultural activities, combined various types of prestige, “portfolios of prestige,” as I call them. These allowed individuals and social groups to occupy important, at times dominant positions in certain fields during different time periods. I am planning to expand this study, which is concerned with the Japanese and early post-war periods, into more recent times, hoping that this will allow me to observe the interaction between economic and political elites with the literary field.

There is a larger motivation behind this reorientation, one which goes beyond an interest in the relationship between literature and forms of influence, or power. The study of elites tackles such issues as social mobility, inequality, the structure and legitimacy of the economic order, political power structures, and multiple forms of social domination––all of these hotly contested issues in contemporary discussions among historians, sociologists, and political scientists. Recently, the historian Walter Scheidel (2017) and the economist Thomas Piketty (2014) both forcefully noted that the accumulation of wealth at the top of society is a source of persistent and potentially accelerating material inequality––a pervasive trend across most known settled societies that, according to Scheidel, is only reversed by cataclysmic events. Gregory Clark’s 2014 study of long-term social mobility across centuries and different regions concludes, in a similar vein, that social status is inherited “as strongly as any biological trait” and that even the arrival of free public education, the reduction of nepotism through the strengthening of institutions, and the invention of private companies did not, in fact, significantly increase social mobility.

The manuscript under submission that I mentioned, “Portfolios of Prestige,” traces the history of Taiwanese elites across the political and societal rupture of 1945. By analyzing portfolios of prestige which encompass political, economic, and cultural capital, the project addresses the question of what kinds of capital, in Bourdieu’s sense, allowed the old and the new Taiwanese elites to obtain leading social positions, and how the old elites maintained their dominance before and after the war. In this respect, my study of elites resembles the problem of contested ruptures and continuities within the literary field as discussed in the JAS article, but the scope has now grown to include broader questions about Taiwanese society as a whole, questions which, as the insights and hypotheses of Scheidel and others suggest, are also of great concern to societies elsewhere, in the face of the economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic perhaps even more so than before.

Scruggs: Could you explain more concretely how anonymous authors create noise, and the possibility or impossibility of forming hypotheses on censorship by visualizing anonymous authors?

Dluhošová: Anonymous entries in my case usually represented editorials, entitled, for example, “After Editing” (編後). It is likely that they were written by the editors-in-chief or editors. But there were two reasons why I did not include these anonymous authors. First, I was reluctant to add information which I was not sure of. Sometimes multiple editors were active at a given moment, as in the case of Zhengjing bao, and I could not attribute each entry properly. When one decides to use quantitative methods, one has to ensure that one follows clear rules as to what data is included and what is left out, as decisions based on guesswork can undermine one’s argument. Second, every node (author) has to have a unique name. I couldn’t use one node called “anonymous” because all articles without author attribution from all other periodicals would be linked to that single node. That would result in an unwanted distortion of the network, suggesting, quite wrongly, that the “anonymous” super node was an important author contributing to all journals, and overshadowing all other authors. The alternative—assigning to each anonymous entry a unique ID—would create a host of one-off contributions by single authors, a kind of contribution not considered anyway.

Pseudonyms represent a very peculiar literary problem. We all know that authors were using different pen names to conceal their gender, to avoid harassment or criticism, or to get more texts published in the same journal (we should not forget that authors were paid for their contributions). We have learned about pen name practices in modern Chinese literatures from, for example, studies about Lu Xun’s pseudonyms. In the early post-war Taiwanese context authors also used pen names to avoid KMT censorship. Authors could, however, use a pseudonym to assume a new persona as well. The question is whether, in such cases, we should treat these distinct personas as one author or two. Either possible choice has its pros and cons. For one thing, the author made a deliberate decision not to publish under his/her real name, and we can treat his/her distinct personas as separate cases embodying, for example, diversity of opinions or style. I applied this reasoning with Dr. Alvin Chen in our co-authored article about ideology in the early post-war period (under review).

But identification of pen names is an important sub-discipline in literary history, especially if we want to understand the complexities of an author under scrutiny. If there is a large enough corpus of attributed texts, one can even use corpus linguistic/DH methods to authenticate unattributed texts or parts of texts with stylometry. There are, of course, well-known examples of such research as applied to works by, or suspected to be by, or attributed to Shakespeare or Dickens (e.g. Tomoji Tabata 2019 for Dickens).

As for my study of the Taiwanese literary scene, I identified authors behind pen names whenever possible and in biographical dictionaries or online resources and catalogues I checked all authors who published in four and more journals (64 names), and did the same for authors with the highest publication frequencies in respected periodicals. While I was quite successful at identifying authors who published anonymously in the supplement Qiao and the journal Taiwan wenhua, I failed in many cases for the supplement Haifeng. That is because this period is very sparsely covered in the history of Taiwanese literature, and both the early post-war period and the early 1950s witnessed the influx of a huge wave of new authors whose identity we simply do not know. Qiao and Taiwan wenhua were platforms where many later acclaimed authors published, therefore there is more literature about them.

I tried to pair the pen names and authors because the editors most probably knew the identity of the authors. There is a notification in one of the editorials of Zhengjing bao saying that authors should include their actual names and addresses in their submission because of the payment, and that the editorial office would not consider anonymous contributions. A very similar note appeared in the supplement Taiwan funü. So if the editors knew the authors’ identity, this knowledge could have influence their editorial decisions as to whether to accept or decline a submission.

There is also a reason why I did not exclude unidentified pseudonyms from the dataset. First, even if we do not know an author’s true identity, we can map the position of the pseudonymous name in the network creating the pattern I was interested in. With every newly identified pen name the pattern will change slightly, but I believe that the general structure would largely remain stable. Secondly, the SNA analysis (less the visualization as published in the JAS article) can indicate which “name” was active in more journals or in one particular journal (a proxy for symbolic capital) and is hence a potentially interesting object of further analysis. We can zoom in on these authors, analyze their work in comparison to more famous authors, and thus better understand the range of literary styles in a given period. So in this way, inclusion of pen names can help to find new perspectives for our research.

I can’t think of any way how the presence of pen names can help to form any hypothesis on censorship in the dataset I used for this analysis. One could perhaps assume that a high number of pseudonyms points to stricter censorship. But historical archives can, in my view, give us a better understanding of the contemporaneous situation, and of why and how published texts were censored.

There was, however, one interesting observation. I noticed a surge of supplements with cultural contents after the 2.28 Incident—a period usually seen as a time of persecution of Taiwanese elites and a period of silence in the public sphere. I always found this inconsistency intriguing, but I could not explain it from the data itself. Only the study of historical materials, i.e. archival documents from the Committee of Propaganda and the Provincial Bulletin, where all newly published government decrees were promulgated, provided me with an understanding of the publishing process and the relationships between publishers and authorities engaged in censorship. Only then did I understand that editors had found a way around the Publication Law and the obligation to register the journal which would have made it subject to official control.

Scruggs: You noted that words and collocates tokenized and extracted from a number of journals by yourself and Alvin C. H. Chen revealed groups of authors which supported one or another ideology. Since national and local ideologies were in tremendous flux among mid-century Taiwanese literary coteries, could you share with us some of you findings? And, specifically relate them to your essay in JAS? Where are the notable edges and nodes among culturally local, Taiwanese writers and culturally national concerns of the Republic of China or simply China writ large? And, how do these findings resonate with the conventional historical narrative? Do they, like those in your JAS essay, force a summary reconsideration of the era?

Dluhošová: Both articles adapt quantitative methods to the study of the post-war Taiwanese cultural and intellectual scene. They use different types of data, though. Whilst the JAS article works with information about where and how often authors published, the article about semantic networks analyzes the vocabulary of 1,168 culturally oriented articles from the same set of journals as the JAS article. In a way, these two articles are therefore complementary.

The article about semantic networks links together authors who shared similar, often ideologically loaded, vocabulary. We identified three clusters which can be linked to contemporaneous ideological standpoints: (a) China-oriented Nationalist official discourse discussing the ROC’s international relations, alternative constitutional orders, and issues directly concerned with how to maintain patriotism, nationalism, and the Three People’s Principles both in China and in Taiwan; (b) local official discourse propagating the new Sinicization policies in Taiwan; and (c) oppositional literary discussions on Taiwanese subjectivity.

The first two are usually viewed as a single, official, KMT-backed ideology, but our analysis shows that they can be treated independently as they were introduced by different sets of authors with different agendas. In the study of post-war Taiwan we usually pay a lot of attention to the local Sinicization policies (i.e., local official discourse), but we often forget the bigger ideological framework encompassing the status and governance of the ROC as a whole. All too often, we neglect that bigger framework in our search for Taiwanese specifics. But this framework existed and had a vast impact on the lives of all inhabitants of Taiwan. This analysis thus reminded us of the close links between Taiwanese- and ROC-centered discourses, which we otherwise tend to separate.

We also investigated the association between official key terms and periodicals. The networks of periodicals we constructed represent one of the clusters which also emerged from the research I did for the JAS article. Through their authors, these journals had close connections to the field of power (various governmental agencies) and academia, as is shown in the JAS article and in the semantic network article, in an analysis of social backgrounds of the authors grouped in each cluster.

The third semantic network whose focal points were the keywords “Taiwan” and “literature” can be associated with the well-known debate about the character of Taiwanese literature (1948–49). Our article examines to which extent these three clusters were interlinked. We found that the cluster of literary debates has a closer relationship with the above-mentioned clusters of official ideological standpoints, but a rather loose relationship with other clusters, which were dedicated to discussions about concrete literary pieces or which were themselves pieces of literary writing. This observation points to the political character of the discussion which laid the foundation for the definition of Taiwanese literature in the 1980s. Texts in this semantic cluster mainly come from more autonomous periodicals.

The first two official clusters are dominated by Mainlanders—no surprises there. The third cluster, characterized by literary discussions, connects both Mainlanders and Taiwanese because they were engaged in a dialogue. This appears like a positive sign suggesting a fairly autonomous character of the field. Interestingly, the majority of the Taiwanese writers are among those whom I identified in the JAS article as authors who bridged the 1945 divide. The analysis of the semantic networks and the networks of authors derived from them, therefore, confirms the unique status of these Taiwanese and the actual weight of their symbolic capital in the early post-war period.

Elizabeth Chatterjee on “The Asian Anthropocene: Electricity and Fossil Developmentalism”

This is Number 5 in the “JAS Author Interviews” series at #AsiaNow. Click here to see all posts in the series.

Elizabeth Chatterjee is Lecturer in Regional and Comparative Politics at Queen Mary University of London. Chatterjee’s article, “The Asian Anthropocene: Electricity and Fossil Developmentalism,” appears in the February 2020 issue of the Journal of Asian Studies. In the interview below with Utathya Chattopadhyaya (University of California, Santa Barbara), Chatterjee discusses the wider research project the article is a part of, as well as the conceptual and analytical stakes of her argument.

Chattopadhyaya: Let me start by asking about the broader project that the article is a part of. How does your argument about fossil developmentalism prefigure, or open up space to explore other questions in your upcoming monograph? 

Chatterjee: It is in the huge, energy-hungry countries of Asia that our environmental future will be determined, and electricity generation is the single largest contributor to the region’s carbon emissions. Yet, much existing scholarship inaccurately treats Asian energy histories as a mere adjunct of narratives extrapolated from a narrow set of European and American examples. My research is motivated by the idea that accurately understanding the determinants of Asia’s energy regime can help us to understand both the region’s environmental predicament, and the factors that will constrain its sustainable energy transition in years to come. In the present article, I particularly foreground the role of postcolonial states in expanding the fossil economy across much of Asia—a trend I call fossil developmentalism—and how this opened the door to popular conceptualizations of cheap electricity as a national good and an entitlement.

My book, Electric Democracy, explores the political, economic, and environmental dynamics that have shaped the energy regime of India in particular since the first arrival of electricity utilities in the late nineteenth century. The leading role of the postcolonial state is one part of the story, and challenges the far-too-neat equation of colonialism, capitalism, and climate change that has achieved immense scholarly popularity in recent years. But the history of Indian electricity also unsettles some other tenets of environmental history and infrastructure studies. The history I tell refutes the common idea that the expansion of “the grid” automatically extends state power, revealing that state control over electricity flows is ongoing and contested. These contested flows also call into question the assumption that big business has successfully come to dominate Indian politics since the 1980s. In the end, I hope to show that energy deserves a central role in Indian political economy and environmental history alike.

Chattopadhyaya: In your article, I was struck by your attempt to capture the moral economy of state-led electrification in post-colonial contexts. Given the role of the popular in illuminating moral economies, I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about the relationship between state-building, movements for energy provision “from below,” and the moral and political axes of energy justice that inform your work? What kinds of popular movements or energy justice discourses would you place at the heart of post-colonial moral economies of energy?

Chatterjee: Thanks for pushing me to expand on this point. There has been an interesting interaction in postcolonial Asia between top-down drives for electrification and popular pressures “from below.” We might think of this in terms of the sociologist Michael Mann’s concept of infrastructural power: The modern state increasingly exercises power by penetrating society, but this is a two-way relationship—societal pressures then penetrate the state in turn. In building the electricity grid, the postcolonial state extends its reach, but the grid also opens up new opportunities for societal groups to compete for power.

European imperial powers did not simply gift electricity systems to their colonies; they were often surprisingly indifferent to the industrial significance of electricity outside the metropole. The perception of lagging behind encouraged many Asian nationalists to grant electricity enormous prominence in postcolonial state-building efforts, the moral valences of which were clear in Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous statement that hydroelectric dams were the temples of modern India. The notion that embracing the fossil energy regime was in the national interest—part of the widely shared state-led project that I call fossil developmentalism—is one that has received short shrift. This is especially from scholars who are more interested in blaming some undifferentiated force of global capitalism for our entry into the Anthropocene, the proposed new epoch in which humans are acting as a geological force on the level of the Earth’s systems.

Due to the huge investments required to build electricity grids, national governments continue to play a leading role. However, postcolonial states have not always been able to retain control over the flows of electricity, nor direct it primarily towards industrial uses. The state-led developmentalist project took on new momentum as new groups of citizen-consumers have laid claim to a greater share of cheaper electricity. Protests over electricity shortages and tariffs have become ubiquitous across Asia, from Bangladesh to Myanmar and Cambodia. In rural India in the 1970s, farmers’ organizations successfully mobilized to secure lower prices for electricity. In rural China, farmers resorted to sabotaging electrical equipment to resist unfairly high prices. In Pakistan, an Islamabad resident told the sociologist Ijlal Naqvi that he steals electricity because “it’s our right.” In some South Asian cities, cutting such illegal connections is so unpopular that electricity officials must be escorted by armed police.

This is why I conclude that the expectation of cheap energy undergirds the moral economy of the modern nation-state. In all these cases, the idea that electricity is a commodity to be governed through a market logic—that tariffs should be set sufficiently high that utilities can make profits to reinvest—has been decisively rejected. Instead, cheap electricity is increasingly regarded as an entitlement, and states that fail to deliver it lose legitimacy. E.P. Thompson explained eighteenth-century food riots as the result of thwarted moral expectations that the price of bread should remain at a customary level, in the face of the cash nexus. As cheap energy begins to be seen as a necessity, scarcity and price rises can provoke somewhat similar protests—albeit directed at the state that is expected to provide it.

To call these movements for “energy justice” in the twenty-first-century sense—implying a concern with environmental sustainability as well as universal energy distribution—risks anachronism. The most effective movements have generally not been those of the most marginalized. The great beneficiaries of the electricity subsidies secured by India’s farmers’ movements were comparatively wealthy agriculturalists, who owned land and could afford tubewells. In Delhi, middle-class residents have similarly organized to resist tariff increases. Outside urban areas, it is less common to see protests of the poor for brand-new connections. The most marginalized tend to have low expectations of the state and its responsiveness at the best of times.

Chattopadhyaya: Thank you for laying that out so thoroughly. You also argue how the history of democratic re-allocation of energy away from commodification and capital accumulation towards consumption, while fraught and unequal, reveals the decommodification of electricity and its re-molding as a national good in the last half century. However, do the historical inequalities of access to electricity, coupled with the tense aspirational politics of entitlement, also limit the fuller possibilities of decommodification in your argument?

Chatterjee: At least in India, the big losers from the new “aspirational politics of entitlement”—I like your phrase!—have been large industrialists and commercial corporations. In most states, they pay much higher tariffs than everyone else does, and since the 1970s, state-level politicians have often preferred to divert scarce power away from factories rather than important electoral constituencies. This is something that ill fits the theory that Indian political life is now dominated by big business, or the popular notion that the global energy regime is underpinned by corporate capitalist interests in a simple and homogenous way. It also highlights a significant tension that has gradually emerged between the conception of electricity as a national good and its decommodification. Rising demands for subsidized energy—even the agricultural subsidies at first justified as crucial for India’s national food security—have drained many public utilities of both power and financial resources to reinvest, threatening the long-term prospects for India’s industrial and economic development.

Of course, inequalities of access remain glaring: as I say in the piece, the democratization of energy consumption has been partial and incomplete, and the right to cheap energy is one often honored in the breach. Huge numbers of rural households in Asia still lack electricity connections or reliable supply; World Bank data actually shows that access to electricity has fallen in rural Pakistan since 1998, due to the country’s longstanding electricity crisis. At the street level, these inequalities open up space for new, informal markets. City dwellers may pay professional electricity thieves or frontline utility workers to secure illegal electricity connections, for example, while wealthy farmers sell water from their subsidized electric tube wells in markets governed by existing social hierarchies of caste and kinship. These socially embedded markets were brilliantly documented by my sometime collaborator, Navroz Dubash, in his 2002 book Tubewell Capitalism. The fact that claims to cheap energy are often honored in the breach in this way helps to explain why electricity is so politicized across much of the Global South, while it remains essentially invisible in many high-income countries.

Decommodification is thus far from complete, as you suggest. My point is not that Asian countries have successfully liberated all their citizens from the cash nexus—that would be a ludicrous claim. I am arguing that it is, in part, the popular aspiration for and expectation of cheap energy that makes energy systems so difficult to change. Fossil-fired electricity is still cheaper than any other source across much of Asia, especially if the additional costs of transmission and backup power for renewables are included. If our histories ignore this positive case for fossil energy, they remain blind to the wickedness of the dilemma we face in trying to tackle climate change today.

Chattopadhyaya: This makes me think of infrastructure. Decarbonizing electricity today, as the article points out, highlights specific infrastructural problems and pressures in Asian countries. Could you flesh out some examples of how mega on-grid projects have squared up against micro-grid alternatives, and the challenges facing more decentralized supply infrastructures in light of the infrastructural priorities of electricity production?

Chatterjee: For a long time, its advocates have argued that renewable energy will bring a more decentralized and democratic future as we shift to local micro-grids. Micro-grid alternatives do have some purchase in remote areas. This optimistic prediction looks less plausible once we take into account the logics of state power and consumer demands just discussed.

On one side, Asia’s politicians and bureaucrats have often been reluctant to cede control over electricity supplies, and so favor centralized solutions. As early as 1958, Nehru himself warned of India’s “disease of gigantism” in the power sector. This has carried over into the renewable age. Governments like India’s have favored an approach that encourages the development of huge solar parks—like Charanka in Gujarat—rather than decentralized supply, even at the cost of mass displacement and local ecological damage. If renewable storage technology becomes feasible, this bias towards centralization may even become more pronounced.

On the other side, micro-grids often struggle to meet rising consumer expectations. A couple of years ago in Kolkata, I interviewed one of India’s early renewable energy pioneers. He was despondent about the way that the grid had chased out microgrids installed earlier in remote areas of West Bengal. Grid power is always better than off-grid for many consumers, he told me, because they are not content with merely running the lightbulbs and TV that small-scale systems can provide. So the off-grid solar schemes he pioneered became obsolete, because people preferred to receive subsidized power from the grid instead. In addition, we should not be naïve about just how democratic some of these schemes are in practice: entrepreneurs are often all too willing to cut people off from private micro-grids if they cannot pay.

Indeed, the biggest impact of micro-grids may eventually be a decidedly undemocratic one. Perhaps the most likely scenario is that wealthy industrial and commercial consumers, frustrated by the high tariffs they pay and the low quality of supply they receive from struggling public utilities like India’s, will choose to abandon the grid in favor of their own solutions. That will leave utilities facing what they fearfully call the “death spiral,” as lucrative consumers exit while only the poor and subsidized remain. This would not deliver the promised energy democracy, but a two-tier future—accompanied, I suspect, by intensifying protests.

Chattopadhyaya: Protests remind me of the association between water and power in India. How would you characterize the relationship between the complex politics of mass electricity consumption, whether hydroelectric or coal, and the emerging scarcity of water itself? What might look different if we put water at the center of analysis while looking at connections between poverty, resource-entitlement, and fossil developmentalism?

Chatterjee: The nexus between water, electricity, and food is critically important in understanding both the political economy of electricity and the ecological damage it has wrought in South Asia in particular. It was the Green Revolution—the great rise in agricultural productivity in the 1960s, thanks to the U.S.-sponsored rollout of new high-yield varieties of crops like wheat and rice—that helped to forge this nexus, a history that Sunil Amrith’s Unruly Waters (2018) recounts with characteristic eloquence. The new crops required vast inputs of water, and so South Asia’s first great wave of state-sponsored rural electrification arrived to energize the private tubewells that irrigated the fields of wealthier farmers. By 1980, India had overtaken the United States as the world’s largest consumer of groundwater; today, its consumption dwarfs the United States and China combined. Large swathes of both India and Pakistan are now contemplating the very real risk of water scarcity.

Meanwhile, coal-fired power plants themselves require huge amounts of water for cooling. This intensifies the freshwater crisis even as water shortages force plants to stop generating, presaging a future of rising rural-industrial competition for water alongside that for electricity. Focusing on water emphasizes how important it is to study the natural environment in tandem with political economy.

These interlinkages show that it is not only the demand for cheap energy that holds the status quo in place. So many popular and entirely justifiable expectations for modern life—cheap water, cheap food, cheap clothing—are similarly underpinned by ecologically devastating processes, from irrigating water-intensive cotton to the use of natural gas for producing fertilizers essential to feed the world’s growing population. This is the true tragedy of the Anthropocene: the story of dramatic poverty alleviation and the story of environmental degradation are in many ways one and the same.

Chattopadhyaya: That story, in Asia, is also fundamentally centered on the state. In analyzing Asian electricity histories and techno-nationalism, you fruitfully distinguish between democratic nation-states and one-party states. Given that the present nationalist regime in India, especially in the last two years, has successfully invited multinational capital into solar and wind energy sectors using strategies like reverse auctions, how would you place the current techno-nationalist politics of state-making in relation to, say, those undergirding the mega dam projects earlier?

Chatterjee: The present regime has certainly given techno-nationalism a new foreign policy dimension. The Paris Agreement of 2015 saw India take a somewhat less stubborn stance on North-South responsibility for climate action, and through high-profile renewable energy targets and the International Solar Alliance, the government has successfully burnished its international reputation as well as investor interest.

Nonetheless, the return of multinational capital is recent and still modest compared to India’s huge total infrastructural investment requirements. Multinational investors were scared off from the Indian electricity sector by the fiasco of Enron’s Dabhol power project in Maharashtra, which underwent multiple renegotiations before being mothballed after Enron’s collapse in 2001 (the plant is now in state hands). While the renewables sector has played host to a belated return of foreign direct investment, the last two years have actually witnessed slowing solar growth, thanks to the reluctance of the subsidy-laden public utilities to buy pricier power and their struggles to pay their debts on time.

As this suggests, there have been more continuities than changes. Even a powerful national government in New Delhi cannot compel subnational governments to comply with its mandates. The weakness of public utilities continues to hobble the sector. State financial institutions still play a crucial role in channeling investment; indeed, New Delhi’s infrastructure lending binge from 2003 to 2008 has saddled the state-dominated banking system with bad loans that are a big reason behind today’s overall economic slowdown. Coal-rich eastern states are especially resistant to the renewable energy transition, and even the government forecasts that the “black diamond” will continue to dominate power generation until at least 2030—not least to satisfy the growing demand for cheap electricity. I don’t think we can declare the arrival of a new phase of Indian capitalism just yet.

“Production, Circulation, and Accumulation”: Andrew Liu on the Historiographies of Capitalism in China and South Asia

This is Number 4 in the “JAS Author Interviews” series at #AsiaNow. Click here to see all posts in the series.

Andrew B. Liu is Assistant Professor of History at Villanova University and author of “Production, Circulation, and Accumulation: The Historiographies of Capitalism in China and South Asia,” published in the November 2019 issue of the Journal of Asian Studies. Liu’s research focuses on examining modern Chinese history within global and comparative contexts; his first book, Tea War: A History of Capitalism in China and India, will be published by Yale University Press later this year. In the Q&A below, Liu responds to questions about his research posed by Monish Borah, a graduate student in History at the University of California, Irvine.

AAS Members can read the JAS online at Cambridge Core by first logging into their MyAAS member accounts and then selecting “Access the Journal of Asian Studies” under “Account Actions” in the right-hand menu on their member homepage.

Monish Borah: Please tell me what inspired you to write about the histories of capitalism in India and China.

Andrew Liu: The most straightforward answer is that this essay emerged out of my larger research project on the intertwined histories of the tea trades of China and India. In conceptualizing this work, I delved into the literature on capitalism as it was understood in the classical context of Euro-America as well as in the specific fields of China and South Asia. Certain clear patterns emerged from the literature that I thought were worth systematizing and writing out, both for my own thinking and for others who may find it useful—for instance, Sinologists or Indologists curious about the deeper background of this literature.

More broadly, I had always been interested as an undergraduate in the relationship between the postcolonial world and critical theories for understanding modern social life, theories that largely emerged from the experience of Euro-America. I first approached these questions in a haphazard manner, studying cultural and literary theory, philosophy and psychoanalysis, political science, and so on. But when I became introduced to the literature on capitalism and political economy in graduate school, something clicked in my brain. I realized that so many of the broader cultural tropes of success, struggle, tension, and resistance—within the fields of Chinese and South Asian studies and, I’m in sure, many other regions—matched up with an underlying belief in the economic failures and successes of these societies, often mirroring presentist concerns over development and business. The study of capitalism seemed interwoven within, and even underlay, questions of intellectual, cultural, and social history. My investment in this question of capitalism, then, is not as a historian posing as an economist fixated on promoting growth; rather, it is to understand the history of capitalism in China and India—and globally—as an entry point into the broader terrain of modern social theory. My hope is that others interested in social and cultural questions will also find value in the study of capitalism, too.

I would also be remiss if I did not mention that many U.S. and European historians have recently called for a rethinking of the “history of capitalism” in light of the 2008 financial crash. I have found this literature tremendously useful at times, but the geographical distribution (or lack thereof) is hard to miss. At the same time, I think if we historians of Asia want that gap to be bridged it is also our burden to engage the literature of the rest of the world, including the North Atlantic canon. One of the aims of my essay is to modestly contribute to that effort.

Borah: In your article, you discuss capitalism and the different ways to study it by classifying all the relevant scholarship on the topic into two schools of thought, both of which were developed by Marxist economists. As a result in your article, you are compelled to place works that are clearly not Marxist within the specter of Marxist literature. What made you choose this kind of methodology?

Liu: Actually, I believe I am making the opposite argument, and let me begin with a brief clarification. The production and circulation-centered approaches to the history of capitalism are not, in my reading, sectarian “schools of thought.” A popular misconception in the study of economic thought is that Marx himself invented an entire vocabulary of concepts (value, circulation, production) requiring a cultish leap of faith from readers. In fact, Marx was drawing from the language of thinkers before him, such as Smith and Ricardo, and, after his time, non-Marxist thinkers from Weber to Karl Polanyi each discovered in Marx’s writing valuable insights for their own work. One need not subscribe to any particular “school” to observe that certain theories of capitalism focus upon its commercial “demand” side—market prices, overseas trading companies, consumer activity—while others focus upon production and “supply”: technical innovation, industrialization, vertical integration, labor, and so on.

Thus, I am not trying to fold non-Marxist writers into Marxist literature, as you write. To the contrary, I am trying to open up a field of historiography—the Marxist inquiry into the origins of capitalism—that may initially appear inscrutable to non-specialists, and I wish to connect it to a more general examination of capitalism undertaken by different traditions. To that end, I discuss historians who see themselves in the lineages of Weber and Smith, and I highlight how, contrary to expectations, we see points of overlap across the Smithians, the Marxists, the Weberians, the subalternists and postcolonialists, and the modernization and dependency theorists.

I realize Marxist historiography has been considered unfashionable for a while now, so for skeptical readers, I simply offer two points. On the one hand, it is true that the question of capitalism’s historical dynamics was originally addressed most forcefully from within the Marxist tradition, but there is also much more diversity within this literature than generally acknowledged, with many valuable, heterodox insights that are worth exploring for curious students. On the other hand, I do not think we need to simply take that older tradition—Dobb and Sweezy for instance—at face value, and we can do interesting things by historicizing the literature itself as well. I devote the second half of my essay to a more critical intellectual historical account of why production- and circulation-centered accounts appeared more plausible to historians at different junctures, corresponding to real, material changes in the global economy—in simple terms, the shift from mid-century national industry to late-century globalization. Such explanations, I write, were “immanent to the history of capitalism itself,” not reducible to this or that school or author. In other words, I think we can begin with a scholarly debate that happened to feature an intramural contest between Marxists in order to ultimately uncover insights useful for the broader enterprise of historicizing capitalism.

Borah: Your article shows how pre-modern, modern, and contemporary economic systems of Europe, India, and China have been influenced by each region’s historical and cultural experiences. But the results of these experiences all seem to be more or less the same, Smithian commercialization which leads to capitalism. So, is this coincidence or is capitalism according to you some kind of new modernity that every society seeks to attain?

Liu: I think the answer depends upon what you mean by “leads to capitalism.” If you mean a way of life in which the production of commodities for profit plays a dominant role, then yes, this is a widespread feature of many parts of the world today, certainly much of Asia. But that is not simply a coincidence, nor is it natural. I mentioned William Sewell’s contention that we need to keep in focus the “weirdness” of capitalism. Implicit in my historiographical review was an attempt to identify a certain lacuna within the field of Asian history: initially, we once took for granted classic explanations for why China and India failed to become industrialized capitalist societies, but then these were later replaced with histories that promoted the naturalness of economic development in Asia and the continuities between the present with previous eras. These two canonical stories have overshadowed histories that both take seriously the role of capital accumulation in modern Asia but which also foreground the eventful origins of those dynamics, that is, stories of capitalism’s contingent emergence—how market competition began to play a far more determinative role in everyday life in these regions in specific sites and at specific moments in time. Capitalism’s seeming ubiquity can be historicized rather than naturalized.

Now, if by “leads to capitalism” you are referring to a sort of stage theory in which all societies must first pass through a “commercial” phase into an “industrial” phase, then, no, I do not think this old idea can be supported any further. It is true that the classical political economists argued persuasively that industrial societies were established on the foundations of existing commercial societies—how could you have had the English industrial revolution without strong monetary and financial institutions, overseas trade, and productive and disciplined agrarian regimes? But it is a fallacy of “methodological nationalism,” as Manu Goswami has put it, to equate that general story with a set of stages that each particular society or nation must pass through. Asian history provides some stark examples. In mid-century East Asia, many states followed the pattern of state-led industrialization, wherein they tried to push fast-forward on the normative path of market-driven growth, instead redistributing land by fiat, protecting industries, and supporting large firms (think the Korean chaebol and the Japanese zaibatsu and keiretsu), producing a remarkable story of “catching up” with the Euro-American industrial core. By contrast, a major theme in modern South Asia has been the combination of early modern commercial success circumscribed by modern frustrations with industrialization, whether attributed to colonial drain or to state mismanagement. Hence, sometimes countries will skip steps; other times, they find themselves stuck. These examples suggest the value of conceiving capitalism globally, viewing regional and national stories as instances of a larger, uneven formation.

Borah: You propose that “capital accumulation” could become the meeting point for both the contending schools of thought on capitalism. You have also suggested that the global center of capital accumulation is mobile as it is now gradually moving from North Atlantic towards Asia. But don’t you think that such a methodology will create confusion in chronology and narrative, especially when we know that European nations were exporting huge amounts of bullion to China and India during the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries?

Liu: It seems that you are asking how do we distinguish between a) the proposition that much of the world’s capitalist activity is now gravitating towards Asia and b) the much older history of Asia serving as a sink for silver mined and collected by early modern European empires, is that right? I think this is an interesting question, because although scholars had long known about the movement of silver into Asia—Ming-Qing China but also Mughal India—this history was made famous by scholarship in the late 1990s, especially the late Andre Gunder Frank’s ReOrient (1998). The thrust of Frank’s work was that the “rise” of China in the late twentieth century was really a “return” to how things were during the early modern period, when late imperial China was one of the richest societies in the world—the very premise of your question.

It is worth noting that in making this claim, Frank relied upon a framework similar to that of his 1970s studies, which emphasized “trade” as his primary analytical category. I point this out because I think your question brings us back to the critique of circulation-centered approaches, such as Frank’s, that I raise in the essay. Namely, if we tend to see all forms of commercial activity as identical and thereby equate modern “capitalism” with trade itself, then we lose the ability to distinguish across time and to explain the specific character of the past several centuries. Although trade is millennia old, social phenomena such as industrialization, technological innovation, and mass labor mobilization certainly are not. This is what Sewell meant by capitalism’s “weirdness.”

Thus, when early modernists describe how western Europeans purchased Chinese porcelains and silk with Peruvian and Japanese silver, they may be describing an early form of commercial capitalism that was profitable for a small minority, but we should be able to clearly distinguish this dynamic from twenty-first-century Euro-American clothing and computer companies who contract hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers to process mass commodities to be sold around the world every new season. If we only paid attention to where money and goods were moving, sure, the twenty-first century may look like the sixteenth. But there are clear historical differences when we look closer at every facet of accumulation, especially production and finance.

Borah: Ever since the onset of capitalism we have seen periodic populist and nationalist backlash against the international division of labor. It is something that we are currently experiencing in many places of the world. It is also evident that the issue of labor has become inseparable from other topics like nationality, race, religion, and gender. In your article, you talk about the importance of engaging with the history of labor for acquiring a better understanding of capitalism. So, how do you think the theoretical model proposed in your article will help us to navigate the history of labor?

Liu: In my own research, I learned a great deal from the field of studies unofficially known as “global labor history,” an initiative led mostly by historians from South Asia and the Netherlands. One objective of my piece was to introduce wider audiences, especially East Asia scholars, to this literature. The field’s basic premise is that scholars and students should pay greater attention to labor arrangements from around the world beyond the North Atlantic. At the same time, there is also a theoretical component that is not always readily apparent but which connects it back to the discussion of accumulation. Let me try to explain.

For much of the twentieth century, labor history paralleled the production-centered approach to studying capitalism, sharing the assumption that history was driven forward by the engine of evolving productive forces. Just as economic historians imagined an evolution from small farms to large farms to urban industry, labor history assumed an evolution from traditional social organization—slavery, indenture, serfdom, small-scale peasantry—to the emergence of a free and independent working class. Workers were to be divorced from the land, shuttled into permanent employment in large firms, and eventually they would develop organizational consciousness. They were proletarians. This was what “capitalist labor” looked like.

By contrast, an emphasis upon “accumulation” is less wed to such evolutionary expectations, because it does not presume some initial revolutionary transformation in production (for those interested, I develop these claims further in my book). If we are telling a story of how capital travels through the spaces of production, distribution, marketing, finance, and consumption, then what makes labor “capitalist” is simply the minimal requirement that people be made available, under whatever social arrangement, to be paid to make a marketable commodity. This minimalist frame allows us to see how arrangements once considered “non-capitalist” actually played a major role in the historical accumulation of wealth. The enslavement of Africans in the Americas is the most famous example, spotlighted by the recent spate of works on American capitalism. In Asian history, we have the story of overseas indentured Chinese and Indian workers, domestic family labor for regional textile and agrarian markets in almost all societies, and, in twentieth-century East Asia, the labor-intensive and small-scale industrial workshops that powered the rise of the so-called four tigers. Additionally, there are stories of sharecropping, debt bondage, caste- and contractor-based labor forces, and even forms of Asian slavery—Rupa Viswanath’s recent work is exemplary on this point. An older labor history may have overlooked these stories, but a framework of global accumulation makes them more visible. Including these new actors underscores the point that the global division of labor is not only organized through impersonal market forces but also through highly personal and overt terms, such as color, caste, religion, sex, and kinship. Even the Chinese communes and work teams, which aspired to abolish “feudal” differences, drew upon them in practice. I hope this approach enables us to better imagine the diversity and unevenness of the global working population—and also how much working people worldwide share in common, united by capital, in spite of those differences.

Finally, quickly, I realize the obvious rejoinder is that this formulation deprives labor history of its original political dynamism and reduces it to a sort of static multiculturalism. I would simply say that I am not denying that capitalism as a whole has a general directional impulse: businesses must still endlessly accrue profits, and firms must constantly expand and fight for survival. As such, we can also hold progressive aspirations for labor under capital as well. However, capital’s general directional tendencies have drawn from a diversity of particular social conditions, with the result an uneven distribution of power and wealth across geography. We should keep both levels of analysis in mind. You mention an ongoing nationalist backlash against the global division of labor in the contemporary moment—most obviously, Americans scapegoating Chinese workers for industrial job losses—and I think that such backlashes are, unfortunately, an unavoidable result of separating one segment of the global workforce from the others, precisely the type of rigid analysis that global labor historians have tried to confront. What would be truly heartening, then, is if the consciousness of global labor issues I have described in scholarship also become translated into public political discourses as well.

“Living with a Postcolonial Conundrum”: Hieyoon Kim on Korean Film Historiography

This is Number 3 in the “JAS Author Interviews” series at #AsiaNow. Click here to see all posts in the series.

Hieyoon Kim is Assistant Professor in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her research focuses on South Korean cinema, and she is currently working on a book about dissident film practices between the 1950s and 1980s.

Kim is author of “Living with a Postcolonial Conundrum: Yi Yŏngil and Korean Film Historiography,” which was just published in the August 2019 issue of the Journal of Asian Studies. In the interview below, Kang Jaeho, Associate Professor of Communication at Seoul National University, talks with Kim about her research on Korean film and decolonizing colonialist historiography.

AAS Members can read the JAS online at Cambridge Core by first logging into their member accounts at the AAS website and then selecting “Access the Journal of Asian Studies” under “Account Actions” in the right-hand menu on their member homepage.

Kang Jaeho: Your article offers a critical rereading of Yi Yŏngil’s 1969 work, Complete History of Korean Cinema, with particular reference to the project of decolonizing colonialist historiography. Your distinctive approach to cinema history engages with the issue of the establishment of a nation-state. As a postcolonial scholar of 20th-century Korean culture and history, how did you get into this research in the first place? ​

Hieyoon Kim: The primary focus of this article originated from a chapter in my dissertation that was broadly concerned with the historiographical production of national cinema in the 1960s. In the first place, I was drawn to ask how and why, over the course of the decade, film critics and directors consistently created a certain narrative about the colonial past. What particularly captivated me was Yi Yŏngil’s work. That’s not only because this was an unprecedentedly well-documented, comprehensive history of Korean cinema but also because he seemed to take the task of writing it as a life-long mission! Can you believe that he continued to rewrite and expand the 1969 version over the next three decades? His commitment to this project convinced me that Complete History deserves a more careful reading, rather than to be dismissed as an older, nationalistic enterprise. 

I am glad that you mentioned my positionality—as a postcolonial historian living in the 21st-century writing about the last century, because that is something that motivated me to write this piece. I found, and still find, Yi’s struggle with what I call the “postcolonial conundrum” relatable to students and writers of colonialism in our time. Although the later generation of historians, including myself, has tended to engage more critically with the archival problem in reference to historiography, thanks to the Subaltern Studies collective and its lasting legacies in our field, it is true that the problem—always named with the idea of “lack” or “paucity”―has deeply structured the ways we think and write many historical junctures. So in a sense, my conversation with Yi Yŏngil in this article is an effort to learn from the earlier postcolonial writers facing the same issue but in a slightly different temporality. I want to see how they identified the archival problem but also came up with different ways to overcome it, and even challenged the boundedness of their methodology. Yi Yŏngil offers one example. 

Kang: The year 2019 marks the centennial of Korean cinema’s birth and the 50th year of the publication of Yi’s work. How was his work received by Korean film critics and historians when it came out, and how is it appreciated nowadays? If you had read it as a female intellectual in 1969, how do you think you would have responded to it?

Kim: I must confess I was immediately drawn to the latter question first. I would have sought to interview women in the film industry, and if I had been lucky enough to find more than a few, a counter-narrative to Complete History would have appeared. But back then (and unfortunately still) the film industry, not to mention the broader cultural and intellectual discourse, was predominantly male-centered. Complete History is not an exception in that regard. 

Going back to your first question, because the publisher closed its doors in 1971, it is difficult to know the exact number of copies sold within a few years after the work’s publication. But we can assume that it was quite well received within the field at the time of publication. The Ministry of Culture and Public Information, the Korean Film Council, and leaders of the film industry endorsed the book as a seminal study of Korean film history. Even as late as the 1980s, the Korean Film Council published an English translation of Complete History as part of its promotional campaign to raise Korean cinema’s visibility. A few film critics of Yi’s generation also mentioned that they used Complete History in their teaching, though film studies in South Korea had long been production-oriented. 

Complete History was out of print until the publication of the revised edition in 2002. I need to mention that the publication of the revision almost coincided with the rediscovery of films made in the late colonial era, and with the surge in revisionist history of Korea’s colonial experience. The unfortunate piece is that Yi himself passed away before seeing (or probably re-seeing) any of these films, so he missed an opportunity to rewrite his section on the late colonial film. The newer generation of film scholars, such as Kim Soyoung, Kim Sohee and Yi Sunjin, started where Yi left off, and they played a crucial role in essentially reconsidering Yi’s work in the 2000s. My discussion builds upon the important dialogue that they created, but gravitates toward Yi’s postcolonial subjectivity so that we can see the ways it forms his historiographical and methodological questions. 

Kang: I’m quite struck by your allusion to a dilemma that postcolonial historians commonly face: “film history without films and a national history without a nation.” The dilemma seems to guide you to draw more attention to Yi’s innovative use of oral testimonies of filmmakers as historical sources. Recently the documentation of oral testimonies by Korean survivors of the Japanese military’s sexual slavery has been completed with four volumes by the Institute for Gender Research at Seoul National University, leading to a debate on the active use of oral testimony as an important source of evidence. I wonder to what extent oral discourse can be privileged over written documents? How does Yi’s interviewing practice as a historiographical method help grapple with issues of historiography, such as archives, memory, and documentation? 

Kim: It would be a grave mistake to simply romanticize the power of oral testimonies. But how can we not take them seriously, especially when other sources are unavailable? Sources are difficult to balance out, and that is why it is amazing to see that Yi’s interviews were not simply used to supplement written documents. At first glance, Complete History is a general history of film, but a second look can give you a completely different impression because, in the end, it really is a history of the people, particularly the history of the people who were attracted to and dedicated to cinema from the early colonial era. In many places, Yi privileges their memories over others, but what still amazes me is his dexterity in weaving together different types of sources and his self-consciousness about the balance between them. I mean, Yi was not a historian by training. I doubt that he had mastered the new oral history theories that were emerging in British and American academia at the time. As I mentioned in my article, he was an early adopter of oral history, and since I am privileged to take oral history for granted, this fact actually didn’t occur to me until one of the reviewers drew my attention to how innovative interviewing as a historiographical method was in Yi’s time. Yi’s decade-long archival research and interviews, his working back and forth between papers and cassette tapes, and his thoroughness in cross-checking during his interviews all convince me that he was indeed very serious about historical production. You can see many parts of his research process at the library of Korea National University, by the way.  

Kang: In your article, you appreciate Yi’s noteworthy contribution to the articulation of a counter-narrative against colonialist historiography but, at the same time, underscore his limitations as a postcolonial writer whose perspective was deeply rooted in “a developmental lens.” You mention that his work divides film industries into stages in accordance with their progress by employing “Western” cinema as a universal cultural norm.  You ask “why film historiography is needed at a certain historical moment of the nation and what an author does to meet that need.” Can you tell us more about his uneasy feeling about Korean film’s peripheral status and how it relates to the problem of postcolonial subjectivity?

Kim: One of the interesting keywords to see through postcolonial film discourse is “backwardness.” It was hardly unique to the South Korean context. The ways in which many postcolonial societies perceived themselves were deeply shaped by a new cartographic view of the world, the world in which terrains are identified by the United States as either integrated into the global economic core or isolated to the globalization project. The idea of “us” so behind others in the same race, the feeling that “we” have lots to catch up on… I mean, this was pervasively, if variably, experienced and reproduced by South Korean filmmakers and critics in Yi’s time. An existential issue that no one could get away from. 

Yi studied English and continental philosophy and was drawn to European cinema from an early age, and it was not unnatural that he should see many aspects of Western cinema as model traits for Korean cinema to imitate. But I want to highlight that, on the one hand, he did identify where the sense of backwardness came from and how colonial historiography had reproduced it. At the same time, looking from his perspective as a postcolonial writer who tried to make sense of his place in the world, it would not have been easy for him (or even for us) to get away from the dilemma. Consider how many critics—the South Korean president was not an exception—were exhilarated about Parasite’s winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival last May. I can’t generalize this, but the underlying tone of their excitement was precisely “Korean cinema is finally being recognized! #wearethechampions” [laugh]. There’s nothing wrong with the celebration, I mean, it’s great news even for someone like me teaching Korean cinema in the United States. And it could be something that Yi had hoped for. But that’s exactly where I want to be reeducated by Frantz Fanon and his keen insight on the self-internalization of imperial logics. If we—the descendants of imperialism (and subscribers and perpetrators of the imperial logic, albeit unwillingly)—do not decenter the ways we think, look at, write about the world, as he warned us more than a half century ago, decolonization will never come.  

Kang: How is this article integrated into the context of your wider research projects? Would you let us know more about your current research on decolonizing cinema? 

Kim: I am currently completing my book titled Toward a New Cinema: Film and Political Changes in Cold War South Korea. The book addresses the question of decolonization, but is not necessarily anchored in it the way the JAS article is. But if we are allowed to consider decolonization in a broader sense, I think it is necessary to look at the people who struggled with the “master’s tools,” and the people who, rather than completely banishing these tools, challenged and redefined them. My book tells the story of South Korean film activism, which offers a window into decades of dissident struggles in and with cinema in an authoritarian society. From public protests to writing in solitude, from urban theaters to university campuses, it explores this movement as a complex process always in the pursuit of a more egalitarian and diverse society.

My discussion of Yi’s historiography will be part of the book, but it will incorporate an analysis of his unpublished work. I am paying attention to the power of Yi’s vulnerability in the face of situations that obstructed his writing—particularly the strict system of censorship. While he compromised his professional ethics at certain points to publish Complete History, the unpublished notes and the posthumously unearthed revision reveal his complex writing process and his nuanced criticism of South Korea’s undemocratic society.

Japan’s Liberal-Democratic Paradox of Refugee Admission: A Q&A with Konrad Kalicki

This is Number 2 in the “JAS Author Interviews” series at #AsiaNow. Click here to see all posts in the series.

Konrad Kalicki is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Japanese Studies and Department of Political Science at the National University of Singapore. He is author of “Japan’s Liberal-Democratic Paradox of Refugee Admission,” which appears in the May 2019 issue of the Journal of Asian Studies. In the interview below, conducted by Rajit Mazumder (DePaul University), Kalicki discusses his research on Japanese refugee policy and how civil society efforts might offer an alternative pathway to resettlement for refugees seeking sanctuary in Japan.

AAS Members can read the JAS online at Cambridge Core by first logging into their member accounts at the AAS website and then selecting “Access the Journal of Asian Studies” in the right-hand menu on their member homepage.

RM: Could I begin by asking about the article’s classification of “refugees” as a “special category of international migrants”? “Migrants” are presumed to be moving voluntarily, whereas refugee movement is involuntary, forced by war, persecution, or natural disaster. More importantly, migrants do not face a “well-founded fear of persecution” if returned home, which is the main criterion in refugee status determination. 

KK: Refugees (and asylum seekers) are commonly recognized as a special category of international migrants—people who cross national borders to take up residence in another country—because of the involuntary nature of their move, often driven by fear of persecution in their home countries. They are considered to be particularly vulnerable migrants and hence in need of international protection.

RM: In March 2016, Shinzo Abe announced that Japan would accept 150 Syrians students over a 5-year period (p.10). Japan’s “private refugee sponsorship” saw the acceptance of six Syrian refugees in March 2017 and a further eight in October 2017 (p.12), and Uniqlo employed 39 refugees in Japan in December 2017 (p.13). This is a total of 53. There are currently 6.3 million Syrians among the world’s 25.4 million “refugees” according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).1 In light of these numbers, do you think private organizations can effectively change Japan’s “open wallet, closed door” policy, or make a difference of requisite proportion?2

KK: Scholars and practitioners debate what constitutes the most effective refugee policy, and the jury is still out. Regardless, I would not discard Japan’s generous financial contribution to the refugee cause. Its “open wallet” does make a difference worldwide. But if we assume that resettlement of the world’s refugees is indeed the most durable option, and thus the ultimate goal, then clearly we are not even close to achieving this objective. Despite claiming a high moral ground, states are reluctant to accept refugees on a large scale. Last year, only 4.7% of “global refugee resettlement needs” were met, according to the UNHCR. As many traditional resettlement states (such as the United States) reduce their intake, the numbers admitted are declining further, rendering future prospects even less reassuring. Yet we must be sober about this reality and search for feasible policy innovations.

My article assesses Japan’s potential to respond to the UNHCR’s call for measures that move beyond the state-centric paradigm of refugee admission. I find evidence that Japan is well equipped to emulate Canada’s highly praised model of private refugee sponsorship, which is gaining popularity worldwide. In this model, community and religious organizations and private individuals take the initiative to host refugees through their own means. Japan has taken its first timid steps in that direction. The numbers are still tiny, but if the model were to be fully implemented, they would grow. This year, nearly two-thirds of all refugees (19,000 out of 30,000) will arrive in Canada through private channels. This model has the potential to augment Japan’s refugee regime because it taps into the creative energy of civil society and the private sector. It could also offer a much-needed and innovative policy agenda for the region. We must also remember that in tackling refugee resettlement, it is crucial to consider the quality, not just the quantity, of relocations. This goes beyond the scope of my research, but it has been reported that privately sponsored refugees tend to integrate better than government-assisted refugees.

RM: The argument by Japan and, more recently, European countries, too, in restricting refugee intake is concern about the “future form and the whole nation’s life” (Abe, quoted on p.9), and about national “security” (p.13). This reference to the “nation,” its rightful constituents, and its safety, is the rhetoric used by nations of every political dispensation to keep “outsiders” away. Does it particularly expose the hypocrisy of “liberal democracies” when the largest share of refugees is currently hosted by less liberal regimes?

KK: It exposes the inherent tension within liberal democracy. This is the tension between the collective democratic will of a polity and the individual rights of its members and, ideally, outsiders as well. These virtues do not always mesh; often, they pull in opposite directions. In-migration, including refugee admission, exposes this paradox. As practice reveals, notwithstanding international obligations, the relocation of refugees to liberal democracies is constrained by domestic democratic processes. This is well exemplified by the recent political backlash against refugee resettlement across Europe. This is why private refugee sponsorship is a vital policy instrument in the current climate: It mitigates tension between the two ethical dispositions while increasing the potential to open borders wider.

RM: Could it be argued that acceptance of refugees is often primarily a matter of geography—rather than of policy, or the “liberal democratic” nature of host nations? I refer to the Palestinians in Syria (now second-time refugees), Jordan and Lebanon; Afghans in Pakistan and Iran; Iraqis in Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria; Somalis, Sudanese, Eritreans in Kenya and Uganda; Rohingyas in Bangladesh and Thailand; Syrians in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. The world’s top refugee-hosting countries3 in 2018 were Turkey (3.5m), Uganda and Pakistan (1.4m), Lebanon (1m) and Iran (.98m), and none of them is “liberal democratic.”   

KK: Naturally, hosting refugees is largely determined by geography. This is a simple consequence of the fact that large-scale uncontrolled refugee flows tend to occur in geographically clustered unstable regions. Asylum-seekers flee to neighboring countries within these regions. Many of these states are not even signatories to the UN Refugee Convention. However, affluent liberal democracies are expected to share this burden by resettling refugees stranded in refugee camps worldwide. Their subsequent responses, in terms of refugee intake, differ considerably. They do not share the burden evenly. This is why policy matters—and it matters critically. For instance, consider that the leading refugee resettlement countries (in per capita resettlement), such as Australia, Norway, Canada, and Sweden, are insulated from massive refugee crises. Their actions reflect principles enshrined in their policy frameworks. This highlights the importance of refugee policy, especially in affluent liberal democracies that are comfortably distant from major refugee flows. Japan is a case in point here.

RM: Japan’s policy towards labor migrants has been inconsistent at best—less restrictive towards the “highly skilled” (p.6), and recently asking for “acceptance of low-skilled foreign workers” (p.14). This is probably a practical response to Japan’s peculiar demographic problem. Do you think there may be reduced government hostility to refugee intake mirroring the changing position on low-skilled migrants?

KK: Japan’s foreign labor policy has been two-pronged, but fairly consistent over recent decades. It has been relatively open to highly skilled professionals, and even increasingly so since the early to mid-2010s. At the same time, it has ostensibly been closed to low-skilled workers, admitting them as needed through various side-door mechanisms. Confronted with demographic challenges, Japan’s official opening to blue-collar foreign laborers in April of this year constitutes a departure from the established policy trajectory. Japan’s approach to foreign labor has largely been pragmatic and reactive, and closely aligned with domestic public opinion. Interestingly, a majority of the Japanese public backed the recent policy shift in light of the nation’s persisting acute labor shortages.

Things are quite different when it comes to refugees. Japanese policy makers and the public do not perceive tangible benefits from admitting them in greater numbers; hence adherence to the long-lasting status quo. The perceived costs do in fact outweigh the potential benefits—and the recent turmoil in Europe only exacerbates these concerns. It remains to be seen whether Japan’s recent policy shift will have any impact on domestic attitudes toward refugees. For one, this shift shows that Japanese immigration policy is not immutable.

1. UNHCR, ‘Figures at a Glance’, Statistical Yearbooks, https://www.unhcr.org/figures-at-a-glance.html accessed 1 May 2019.

2. Even the Canadian numbers (p.5), heroic as they are, seem inadequate: the number of Syrians admitted because of private or community sponsorship (18,000) amounts to 0.28% of the total 6.3m Syrian refugees.

3. Ibid. These numbers amount to 32.59% of the globe’s estimated 25.4m refugees.

Agrarian Labor, Caste, and the Limits of Conversion: A Conversation with Navyug Gill

Photo by Navyug Gill

This is Number 1 in the “JAS Author Interviews” series at #AsiaNow. Click here to see all posts in the series.

Historian Navyug Gill, Assistant Professor at William Paterson University, recently published an article, “Limits of Conversion: Caste, Labor, and the Question of Emancipation in Colonial Panjab,” in the Journal of Asian Studies. Gill’s research interests include modern South Asia, the political economy of caste and labor, and comparative histories of global capitalism. Currently he is working on a book manuscript, Labors of Division: Caste, Class and the Making of Agrarian Hierarchy in Colonial Panjab.  In an interview with Mukul Kumar, an urban geographer based at the University of California, Berkeley, Gill discusses histories of caste and conversion, agrarian labor and historical materialism, as well as anti-colonial politics and the question of emancipation within the context of colonial Panjab.

MK: In your article, you discuss the limits of a politics centered on conversion. What are the ways in which the political economy of Dalit conversion in colonial Panjab reveals the limits of B.R. Ambedkar’s arguments in The Annihilation of Caste (1936)?

NG: In a basic sense, the political economy of Dalit conversion in colonial Panjab reveals a far deeper and more insidious quality to caste hierarchy than has usually been imagined. A major theme of Ambedkar’s “Annihilation of Caste” speech—which was supposed to be delivered in Lahore in 1936—is the call for Dalits to leave Hinduism and convert to an egalitarian and emancipatory religion. By the early twentieth century, however, I try to show that Panjabi Dalits had by and large already “left” Hinduism in favor of Sikhi, Christianity, Islam, and their own Ad Dharm faith, and yet were still excluded and exploited as landless agricultural laborers. In other words, caste was not annihilated by a rejection of Brahminical precepts and rituals or by denouncing the laws of Manu. In fact, it manifested more tenaciously through a novel alignment of caste with occupation as the basis of land ownership. This speaks to a broader issue I attempt to take up implicitly, which is a critique of the generic, “all India” framing of questions such as caste and conversion. Things begin to look very different once we shift the parameters of inquiry from the assumed perspective of the imperial or national center.  

MK: In addition to your engagement with B.R. Ambedkar, you discuss Karl Marx’s concepts of public citizenship and private property. What does Marx’s idea of “double existence” suggest about the contradictory experiences of Dalit laborers in colonial Panjab? 

NG: Marx’s essay, which I must say is perhaps one of the most endlessly fascinating pieces of modern writing, offers a possibility to de-naturalize the common sense division between public and private, and all that it has come to entail. Although he begins with religious discrimination, I would argue it has little to do with Judaism or religion per se. Instead, he is challenging the notion that any form of debilitating difference—of religion, or more crucially, property or wealth—is to be remedied by banishing it from a public sphere of at least formal equality and confining it to an openly disparity-ridden private sphere. Thus, even if a state becomes explicitly secular, or removes income requirements for participation in civic life, the difference of religiosity or poverty remains intact as a feature of a private self, exempt from redress. For colonial Panjab, I attempt to explain how Dalits faced a similar (though not identical) contradictory predicament. Under the leadership of Mangoo Ram and the Ad Dharm, they could achieve a kind of emancipation by publically rejecting a faith that expressly humiliated and subordinated them. But in private, as landless laborers in the agrarian economy, they had little alternative but to continue in a position of abject exploitation. This is the contradictory double existence that nearly everyone living under the modern rule of capital is forced to endure.

MK: You mention a Dalit laborer who traveled from Panjab to pick fruits in California’s San Joaquin Valley and joined the anti-colonial Ghadar Party in 1913. Could you tell us more about this story of anti-colonial politics and how it relates to your broader argument concerning the question of emancipation?

NG: There are several scholars who have studied the history and politics of the Ghadar Party with rewarding detail and insight, among them, Harish Puri, J.S. Grewal, Maia Ramnath, Darshan Singh Tatla, Radha D’Souza, Malwinderjit Singh Waraich, and Seema Sohi. The wider story of Panjabi laborers along the western U.S. and Canada in the early twentieth century is simply extraordinary, and one that poses a fundamental problem for narratives of anti-colonial resistance, mainstream nationalism (Indian or later Pakistani), and revolutionary socialism. Specifically in this case, the fact that Mangoo Ram describes how he, as a Chamar, found deep affinity with a group of largely Sikh Jatts in creating a movement to overthrow British rule in South Asia upends nearly every convention about the relationship between oppression and liberation. It demonstrates a remarkably tactile complexity, the ability to pursue multiple commitments and convictions irreducible to a single cause. There was no static ranking of subordination; ending colonial rule did not merely compete with opposing caste discrimination. Rather, at different moments and under changing conditions, priorities shifted to make new political possibilities, and demands. Mangoo Ram’s involvement with Ghadar captures how the most exploited in a society could and did have aspirations not only to alleviate their own suffering, but to fight for the liberation of all. We have few instances of such a forceful imagination, and have yet to come to terms with it.

MK: Your article engages with a wide range of historical and political questions, from Dalit politics and agrarian political economy to the Ad Dharm movement and the limits of conversion. How does the history of Dalit conversion in twentieth-century Panjab shed light on the politics of caste and conversion in the current historical moment? 

NG: This is the sort of question I would especially prefer to hear your thoughts on! But, if I must hazard an engagement, I would say the history of Dalit conversion in early twentieth century Panjab suggests a much more capacious future than the one currently sought by almost every mainstream political party in India. The most the latter aspire to is a degree of adjustment of a status quo that by design perpetuates strikingly brutal forms of inequality and inequity. However, what seems to have been lost—or, perhaps more vividly revealed—in the intervening decades is a realization that various kinds of ascrpitive difference could be accommodated (gradually, if fitfully) within the existing economic hierarchy. Dalits were able to convert out of Hinduism but not out of the constraints that structured their subordination precisely because exploitation itself was not seen as a form of discrimination. In other words, as long as caste is limited to a debate over the logic of purity and pollution but not of property, its dissolution cannot result in an egalitarian society. Mangoo Ram approached this horizon, and even made gestures toward traversing it, whereas now it has largely receded into the distance. The only partial exceptions in east Panjab might be some of the radical rural labor unions who have articulated a demand for land redistribution, terming their members “be-zamin kisans” [landless peasants] as opposed to “khet mazdoors” [field laborers]. Facing unremitting hostility from both dominant caste landowners as well as the state, they continue their struggle nonetheless.

Read the February 2019 issue of the Journal of Asian Studies at Cambridge Core—with free open access to all through April 15, 2019.

A New Look and Other Changes at the Journal of Asian Studies

The February 2019 issue of the Journal of Asian Studies has been published and is available online at Cambridge Core, with free open access until April 15. This is the first issue released under new JAS editor Vinayak Chaturvedi (University of California, Irvine), and readers familiar with the JAS will immediately notice that the journal has a new look. Below, Dr. Chaturvedi explains the redesign of the journal’s appearance and also answers some other frequently asked questions he has heard in his first eight months as JAS editor.

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What are some changes to the JAS?

The February 2019 issue of the JAS (volume 78.1) introduces a new cover with new colors. The designers at Cambridge University Press worked hard to come up with a contemporary design with a new font and matte finish. The color of the paper is now white, a change from the earlier ivory color paper. The JAS has had three covers in the past—four if you count the original cover of the Far Eastern Quarterly, which was the name of the journal till 1956.

There is also some reorganization inside the journal. The Book Review Section is now organized under the headings of “China and Inner Asia,” “Northeast Asia,” “South Asia,” “Southeast Asia,” and “Transnational and Comparative Asia,” rather than some regional headings, and other national headings. The “Table of Contents” also has a different look as well. We hope to introduce additional new features in future issues.

Do you prefer specific types of articles?

As I mention in my “Editorial Foreword,” my main priority is to publish excellent scholarship across the many areas, disciplines, and methodological approaches that make up Asian Studies for all periods of time. I see this as an opportunity for scholars to submit a diverse range of research. I would encourage readers to have a look at the foreword, as it serves as a call for papers, especially in expanding the theoretical and methodological approaches to interpreting “Asia” in its multiple meanings and interpretations—geographically and epistemologically.

The May issue will include a section called “Forum.” The purpose of this section is to publish a cluster of three or four articles on a particular theme, topic, book, event, or idea. I hope to include two or three forums in every volume of the JAS.  These pieces do not have to be the same length as an article, so there is some flexibility in the presentation of the research.

How quickly are articles reviewed? Does the JAS have a backlog? 

This is an excellent time for authors to submit articles to the JAS, as we do not have a backlog. Since starting in July 2018, I have worked with the Editorial Board to speed up the peer-review process. I think it is only fair to be transparent with authors and readers of the journal about the situation and the current review process. I normally review all articles within one week of submission, and Associate Editors review select articles within two weeks. If the Board determines that an article is not a good fit for the JAS, authors are generally informed within two weeks of submission. Articles that receive the approval of the Board are then sent to two or three additional reviewers. I ask that these reviewers submit their comments within 4 weeks. When everything moves smoothly, we have been able to return the first round of comments to authors within 8 weeks from the date of submission. On average, I would say it takes around 12 weeks. But, of course, sometimes there are unexpected delays.

How quickly is an article published after it is accepted?

Once an article is accepted, it goes to the copyeditor and production editor. The process is actually pretty quick at this point. In order to make sure that the article is available to readers as soon as it is ready, Cambridge University Press places the article in “FirstView” on its website, which means that the article can be read online before it is actually printed.

What activities has the JAS organized at the AAS annual conference in Denver?

On Friday, March 22, we have organized a roundtable to discuss the posthumous publication of C.A. Bayly’s Remaking of the Modern World and its impact on Asian Studies. The panelists include Robert Travers, Antoinette Burton, R. Bin Wong, Sunil Amrith, and Sandria Freitag. 

On Saturday, March 23, from 1:00 to 2:00PM, please join us at the Cambridge University Press booth (#304 in the Exhibit Hall) for a “Meet the Editors” event. We will be happy to meet colleagues to discuss their ideas.

Forgotten Geographies in Asian Studies

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

UC Irvine history professor Jeffrey Wasserstrom recently concluded his ten-year tenure as editor of the Journal of Asian Studies. One of the new practices that Wasserstrom introduced as editor was a “JAS-at-AAS” panel at the annual conference. This year, in a similar spirit, he organized a JAS panel for the just-concluded AAS-in-Asia 2018 conference in New Delhi, focused on the theme of “Forgotten Geographies.” Wasserstrom was not able to attend the conference in person but sent the remarks below to be read on his behalf at the start of the session.

During my graduate school years in the 1980s, I thought a lot about how disciplines were defined and the borders between them policed. I also thought a lot about what it meant to cross standard dividing lines between periods, for I was interested in issues that played out over all of the twentieth century but scholars of Chinese modern history tended to stop at 1949, leaving discussion of later periods to social scientists. I thought much less back then, though, about how the borders between countries and regions were defined and policed. I also didn’t think much about how some places got to claim centrality and others got treated as peripheral.

At some point between the year that I received my doctorate, 1989, and the year that I was accorded the privilege of beginning my ten years as editor of the Journal of Asian Studies, 2008, this changed. I now spend a great deal of time thinking about how geographical borders are maintained and argued over, and about how political the use of terms relating to them can be.

One thing that changed my way of thinking was reading a special issue of the JAS titled “Geographies at Work in Asian History,” which was guest edited by Marcia Yonemoto, Thongchai Winichakul, and Kären Wigen. It appeared in August 2000 and included superb essays by, among others, a member of this panel: Sumathi Ramaswamy. One reason I liked the issue was that beyond engaging with spatial borders it crossed them, bringing together scholars working on different parts of Asia who were grappling with similar questions.

I only edited one JAS special issue myself, which was devoted to gender and the state across Asia and included excellent pieces by, among others, a second member of this panel: Rachel Leow. The goal of that special issue, like that of “Geographies at Work,” was to bring together in one place various discussions that were going on largely separately in different regional subfields. It is still striking to me how rare robustly cross-regional panels are at the annual AAS conference in North America, and they have been relatively uncommon too at the several past AAS-in-Asia meetings I’ve attended and found so stimulating. These meetings, wherever they are held, often have wonderful sessions, but the border crossing on them is more likely to involve moving between fields and disciplines than between regions.

To go against the grain of this, JAS Managing Editor Jennifer Munger and I have organized one session a year for the North American meetings, a “JAS-at-AAS” roundtable, and have ensured it is always robustly inter-regional. This “JAS at AAS-in-Asia” panel continues that tradition.  I am also happy to learn, from the plans he has shared for the JAS-at-AAS sessions he is organizing for the next two North American conferences that incoming editor Vinayak Chaturvedi plans to continue the tradition of having those JAS-sponsored sessions, which become forums in the November issues of the JAS, include people working on different parts of Asia.

When the theme of “Forgotten Geographies” was chosen for this session, it seemed both a timely and an interesting topic. In light of recent events, it seems much timelier still. I am thinking in part, of course, of the fact that scholars of Pakistani origins are unable to attend the Delhi conference. I am keenly aware from my time as editor of not just how unfair this is to the scholars denied visas, but of how much of an intellectual loss it is to those able to attend. I am thinking of the fact that, had JAS for some reason not have been able to include work by scholars of Pakistani origin, we would not have published one of the pieces I am proudest of having commissioned and run—a 2014 essay by Manan Ahmed Asif, who is both a superb historian and a gifted stylist. In intellectual terms, a South Asian Studies with parts of South Asia excised from it—via limitations on visas or other means, such as differential funding of work on just parts of the region, or the overlooking of events occurring in some parts of it, which also happens—is deeply problematic and harms all of us.

Similarly, the issue of policing and defining borders matters a lot right now in other places, including the two big countries bordering the Pacific that I spend the most time thinking about: the United States and the People’s Republic of China. Disturbing and deeply concerning things have been happening in both places, but I’ll limit my comments here to the latter.

In recent months, there have been horrific reports of a vast network of reeducation camps being created in the western territory of Xinjiang, which have affected the lives of hundreds of thousands of members of the Uyghur ethnicity, a predominately Muslim group. There have also been incidents of the Beijing government pressuring international companies, including airlines, to treat Taiwan as if it were part of the PRC, and on the same day I am writing this I learned from a tweet by journalist Ananth Krishnan that an Indian airline is the latest to give in to this pressure. These moves are linked to efforts by China’s Communist Party to make people forget that Xinjiang in the past was not part of China and that Taiwan in the present has its own government. Thinking of that, I am particularly glad this panel includes Rian Thum and Emma Teng, who have done pioneering work on Xinjiang and Taiwan, respectively.

It is more important now than ever to find strategies for doing work in Asian studies that places issues of borders—both how they are constructed and how they are policed—front and center and does not take them for granted. I am pleased that this is precisely what the JAS has done periodically. It did this before my time as editor (as in the special issue on “Geographies at Work in Asian History”), and also during my time as editor (as in various JAS-at-AAS panels, including the one on migration that was published as a Forum last November). I look forward, as I switch from being the JAS editor that I was for a decade to being the JAS reader I have been since the 1980s, to seeing the new ways it questions and challenges borders in the years to come.

List of JAS Articles Identified for Blocking—But Not Blocked—in China

On August 18, 2017, the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) was informed that Chinese authorities had requested Cambridge University Press (CUP) remove 94 Journal of Asian Studies (JAS) articles and book reviews from its website in the People’s Republic of China.*

The AAS and CUP refused that request, and no JAS articles or book reviews have been blocked in China. In the interest of transparency, below is a PDF of the complete list that AAS received from CUP of the “sensitive” JAS pieces as identified by Chinese authorities and organized chronologically (oldest to newest). 

List of JAS articles identified for blocking in China (PDF)

Although we have removed author names, the AAS has made every effort to contact the authors of these works and inform them of their presence on this list. If any authors of the articles or book reviews listed here have questions or concerns, we ask them to contact AAS Digital Media Manager Maura Cunningham at mcunningham@asian-studies.org for assistance.

Similarly, Chinese authorities also identified 315 China Quarterly articles as “sensitive;” that list is available here.

Previous statements identified the number of JAS articles/book reviews on the list as “approximately 100,” but there were several duplicate entries.

Reading Round-Up: The Journal of Asian Studies and Censorship in China

Over the past 10 days, there has been widespread coverage of the Chinese government’s request that Cambridge University Press (CUP) prevent its website in China from displaying 100 Journal of Asian Studies (JAS) articles on topics deemed “sensitive” by the Chinese state. The AAS and CUP both refused that request, and no JAS articles have been blocked in China.

Here, we’ve assembled a reading round-up of all the news stories that reported on this still-ongoing situation.

If you haven’t done so yet, please check out our posts here at #AsiaNow covering the situation:

AAS Statement on Cambridge University Press Censorship in China

Frequently Asked Questions about the Journal of Asian Studies and Censorship in China

A Summary Explanation of the Journal of Asian Studies Articles That Were Not Censored

News articles reporting on the JAS censorship request:

Ben Bland, “Cambridge University Press Makes U-Turn on China Censorship.” Financial Times, August 21, 2017.

Jun Pang, “China Censors Instruct Another Academic Journal to Omit ‘Sensitive’ Articles from Cambridge University Publisher’s Website.” Hong Kong Free Press, August 22, 2017.

“Cambridge University Press Re-Posts Censored Articles.” Al Jazeera, August 22, 2017.

Elizabeth Redden, “Cambridge Press Changes Course on Chinese Censorship Request.” Inside Higher Ed, August 22, 2017.

Charlotte Gao, “Cambridge University Press: To Bend the Knee or To Die in China?” The Diplomat, August 23, 2017.

“Publish and Be Damned: Cambridge University Press Battles Censorship in China.” The Economist, August 24, 2017.

Joanna Chiu, “At Beijing Book Fair, Publishers Admit Self-Censorship.” Agence France-Presse, August 24, 2017.

“Cambridge University Press Refuses to Comply With Second Chinese Takedown Request.” Radio Free Asia, August 25, 2017.

Jeremiah Jenne, “New Fronts in the Battle Over Scholarship and Ideology in China.” Radii, August 26, 2017. 

A Summary Explanation of the Journal of Asian Studies Articles That Were Not Censored

Earlier this week, the Association for Asian Studies announced that the Chinese government had relayed a list of 100 Journal of Asian Studies (JAS) articles to Cambridge University Press (CUP) and asked that CUP block those articles from its Chinese website. Since then, numerous journalists and scholars have contacted the AAS requesting access to the list. At the present time, the AAS board of directors has decided not to publicly release it. JAS is currently making every effort to notify the authors of the JAS articles and book reviews in question.

However, the AAS also recognizes that there is great interest among scholars in the topics of articles and book reviews that the Chinese government has asked CUP to block. (To be clear: NONE of these articles/book reviews have been removed from the JAS website in China, and the AAS remains committed to ensuring that such censorship does not take place.) In order to provide information to those who are conducting research into censorship mechanisms in China, we have compiled two visual summaries of the JAS material proposed for removal.

The first is a pie chart, prepared by evaluating the 100 articles/book reviews on the list and determining the keywords that had been used to locate them in the JAS archives. As scholars who analyzed the list of China Quarterly articles that were briefly censored in China found, the keywords appear to be fairly general ones—Cultural Revolution, Tibet, Tiananmen. Below you can see the breakdown of JAS articles by keyword. (In a few cases, article titles contained more than one keyword, and those have been assigned to two categories due to the impossibility of determining which one marked them for inclusion on the list.)

The second graphic is a word cloud generated from the titles of the JAS articles and books under review on the list. Words that appear more frequently are printed in bigger type—so, for example, many more of the listed articles contained the word “Revolution” in their titles than “Rebellion.” (A larger version of this image is also available for download via the AAS Flickr account.)

As always, we will continue to post updates on this situation as quickly as possible.

Frequently Asked Questions about the Journal of Asian Studies and Censorship in China

In a statement released at #AsiaNow on Monday, August 21, the officers of the Association for Asian Studies wrote that Cambridge University Press (CUP) had received a request from the Chinese government that CUP censor approximately 100 Journal of Asian Studies (JAS) articles from the Chinese version of its website. As the statement has circulated, the AAS has received inquiries from both the media and association members asking for additional details about the situation. A few of the most frequently asked questions and responses from the AAS officers appear below.

When did AAS receive the censorship request via CUP?
Friday, August 18.

Do you have any details about what consequences would ensue if CUP doesn’t comply?
We are pleased that CUP reversed its decision and are continuing to monitor the situation.

How is AAS following up with CUP?
We are in contact with the individual in charge of the publication of journals at CUP. She has informed us of CUP’s reversal. She has also promised to keep us informed should there be any changes in that decision. We are continuing to monitor the situation. We hope that China will appreciate the importance of ensuring that their scholars are able to avail themselves of the best of international scholarship published in rigorously peer-reviewed top-tier journals such as JAS. We remain committed to opposing censorship in any form and continuing to promote a free exchange of academic research among scholars around the world.

Has there been any direct contact between AAS and China’s General Administration of Press and Publications or any other PRC government entities about this issue?
No. At the present time, no JAS articles have been removed from the CUP website.

Have any other publishers or publication databases ever been asked by any Chinese government entities to remove JAS articles or is this the first time? If it’s not the first time, could you provide some details about previous incidents?
We believe it is the first time. To the best of our knowledge, none of the databases which include JAS have been asked to remove JAS articles. If there are such databases, we would want to know.

Typewriters, Slogans, and Sewing Machines—From SFO to Seoul and Back with the Journal of Asian Studies on My Mind

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

As Editor of the Journal of Asian Studies, as I prepare to go to the AAS Annual Conference (when our editorial board meets) or AAS-in-ASIA (where I hold “meet-the-editor” sessions), I spend some time thinking about the articles we have published recently and have in the pipeline. I did this before heading to Asia last month on a trip that began with a short stopover in Hong Kong and ended in Seoul at the AAS-in-ASIA meetings that Korea University did so well in hosting.  

One thing that was different this time, though, was how often during the trip I saw things that made me think of JAS articles. In five dissimilar places, I was reminded of the following: an article from last year on the Umbrella Movement; two “Asia Beyond the Headlines” commentaries on recent events in South Korea that are coming out in November; and the two lead pieces in a forum on machines in East Asia that appeared in the same August 2016 issue as the essay on Hong Kong. Here’s a rundown of the sights I saw that brought these articles to mind, with photos I took along the way. 

DAY 1: John Lennon, Ernest Hemingway, and the Chinese Typewriter

One thing I like about changing planes in San Francisco is seeing the displays that the creative folks at the SFO Museum dream up. (A favorite was an Art Deco exhibition I saw when heading to Shanghai, a city associated with the style, in 2015.) So I was excited to hear from Stanford historian Tom Mullaney that he was providing some machines and other objects relating to China and Japan to the SFO Museum for an exhibit on typewriters that would be up when I headed to AAS-in-ASIA. There was a rub, though: it would be in Terminal 2 (Virgin, American), not 3 (United, which I was flying), and you can’t move between these parts of the airport without going through security an extra time. Unfortunately—well, fortunately, in this case—I ended up with a long layover, so decided to check it out.

I’m glad I did. It’s a wonderfully eclectic little exhibition, with much to interest non-Asianists—a display case devoted to John Lennon and Ernest Hemingway, complete with typewriters they used, some very early and strange looking alphabetic machines, black-and-white photos featuring female typists that would provide excellent fodder for an essay on gender and work during the industrial revolution—and a section featuring Mullaney’s materials sure to whet the appetite of some visitors to check out his book, The Chinese Typewriter: A History, when MIT Press publishes it next month. Before that, you can always read his article, “Controlling the Kanjisphere: The Rise of the Sino-Japanese Typewriter and the Birth of CJK,” in the JAS.

DAY 4: Signs of the Times

If SFO was an example of a partly planned excursion linked to a past JAS article (I intended to see the exhibit, but only if the timing worked), the walk I took on my final morning in Hong Kong was a completely planned one. I made a point of following the same route down through the Central financial district that I had taken in 2014 (a key difference being that back then it was an Occupy zone and I could walk on freeways that were now filled with cars), when I visited the city briefly while the Umbrella Movement was underway. 

While I walked, I thought about what I had read in Sebastian Veg’s “Creating a Textual Public Space: Slogans and Texts from Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement,” as well as what I had seen two-and-half years before. The then-and-now contrasts were striking. For example, the placards, signs, and messages on post-it notes pasted on the iconic Occupy Central Lennon Wall in 2014 (pictured above) had been emblazoned with diverse statements and, like those carried at this year’s Women’s Marches in the United States, often were completely original creations by individuals playing with general protest themes. This time, what caught my eye was a series of signs, each with one of several different official slogans, all emphasizing that the 20th anniversary of the Hong Kong Handover was something that should be marked with joy. 

The slogan on the most frequently repeated sign celebrated “Together, Progress, Opportunity”—interesting phrasing, as the city is now marked by a great deal of division, doubt about whether what it has been seeing constitutes progress, and anxiety, especially among youths, that opportunities are diminishing. The propaganda signs were brightly colored in a way that evoked the Lennon Wall, but nothing else about them did.

The saddest moment in my walk came when I looked at the concrete wall that protesters had festooned with post-it notes in 2014 and turned into the Lennon Wall. Now, not surprisingly, it is just a slogan-free post-no-bills space (pictured left). I’ve written before about seeing parallels between pre-Handover Hong Kong and Cold War-era West Berlin, as places in close physical proximity to but very separate from large Communist Party-run countries. Returning to the Lennon Wall gave this admittedly imperfect analogy a new meaning: the West German side of the Berlin Wall had been covered with colorful art, the East German side guarded and kept blank.

DAY 5: Dueling Demonstrations

When I arrived in Seoul, I thought that I was leaving behind encounters that linked up to the places (China and Hong Kong) and issues (protest, for example) that I have studied, taught, and written about. The events of the next day changed all that. It began with John Delury, a Seoul-based scholar who participated in a roundtable on media and the state in Asia that I moderated, telling me that he had heard there would be a demonstration outside of the American embassy in Seoul later that day. It ended with me at a Harvard-Yenching Institute reception speaking with its director, Elizabeth Perry, a leading China specialist and former AAS president, about the things we each noticed observing that demonstration, as well as a competing pro-American one, that reminded us of Chinese events we had researched or seen (such as, in my case a 1999 anti-NATO protest that included a papier-mâché missile similar to one carried in Seoul).

If the interest the demonstrations held for a scholar of protest was obvious, what did this have to do with the JAS? Well, even though the specific focus of the demonstration was to express criticism of the U.S. missile defense system known as THAAD, the protests followed in the wake of and had ties to the dramatic but peaceful Candlelight Movement of late 2016 and early 2017 that led to Park Geun-hye’s removal from power.

This significant political upheaval will be treated in two different contributions to the November issue of the Journal. One of these is Hyejin Kim’s “‘Spoon Theory’ and the Fall of a Populist Princess in Seoul,” which came in over the transom as an “Asia Beyond the Headlines” submission and got very positive reviews. The other is Jamie Doucette’s “The Occult of Personality: Korea’s Candlelight Protests and the Impeachment of Park Geun-hye,” which we commissioned as a complement to Kim’s. I won’t try to summarize their arguments, but between them, I think they offer readers a pair of valuable perspectives on the events that have kept South Korea in the headlines more than usual during the past year.    

DAY 8: The Singer Sewing Machines of Seoul

One of the very last things I saw in South Korea, while taking a walk with an old friend before we headed to the airport to board the same flight to SFO, was a surreal-looking display of sewing machines behind plate-glass windows. I have no idea why a department store in the center of the city decided to put so many of these objects on display—perhaps to trigger nostalgia, as they had such a low-tech look in what has become a high-tech city.  We found them intriguing enough as a sight to stare for a bit and I took some photos, but we went on with our walk rather than going in to ask. It somehow felt just right to stumble across that sight, as the piece paired with Mullaney’s typewriter article in last year’s JAS had been Antonia Finnane’s “Cold War Sewing Machines: Production and Consumption in 1950s China and Japan,” with comments on both by Andrew Gordon and David Arnold, historians of Japan and South Asia respectively, completing the Asia and machines forum.

On the long flight from Seoul to SFO, where I would make a final plane change before reaching my Southern California home, one thing I did to pass the time was look through my photographs from the trip. Doing this, while pondering the things I had seen that had brought JAS articles to mind, I was struck as I have often been before by how varied the content of the publication is, and how lucky I have been to be spurred to read about so many places, times, and topics. The images on my computer screen reminded me that the trip, when thought about in JAS terms, had been punctuated by recurring sorts of sights and the completion of a cycle. It had begun with me taking shots of typewriters, then pointing my phone at walls and signs in Hong Kong, and then ended with me photographing a wall of sewing machines in Korea, not far from the spot I taken pictures of protesters carrying signs three days before.