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.