Now published

Empire in Asia: A New Global History

Graduate Conference: Empire and Imperialism in Early Modern Asia

27 - 28 November 2014

Venue: Research Division Seminar Room, Floor 6, Building AS7, National University of Singapore, Kent Ridge Campus

Thursday 27 NOVEMBER, 2014 –

9:30 – 9:45 Opening remarks Prof Brian Farrell, Principal Investigator of the Empire in Asia project and Head, Department of History, and

Assoc Prof Thomas Dubois (Australian National University), Conference Discussant.

9:45:00 – 10.35 Qāytbāy’s Journey to Bilād al-Shām in 882/1477: Power, Periphery, and Royal Peregrinations

KOH Choon Hwee (Yale University)

In 882/1477, the Mamluk Sultan Qāytbāy undertook an unprecedented, four-month long journey to Bilād al-Shām, a region hitherto not visited by any reigning Circassian sultan. This paper presents a close study of this journey in three steps: first, by examining the historical conditions enveloping Qāytbāy’s reign, from which his agenda and motivations for the journey emerged. Second, an investigation into the pre-modern practice of travelling monarchs in Central Asia, Mughal India and Manchurian China yields crucial, comparative knowledge that ‘normalizes’ Qāytbāy’s travels as a prosaic occurrence in his time, as curious as it may appear to us now. Finally, furnished with relevant context particular to both the late Mamluk Empire and pre-modern royal peregrinations, this thesis analyses first-hand accounts of Qāytbāy’s journey by Ibn al-Ḥimṣī in Damascus, by Ibn Jī‘ān, an Egyptian scribe who travelled with Qāytbāy, as well as by Ibn Iyās in Cairo.

Ultimately, this paper argues that the expectation of an impending military confrontation with the Ottomans, compounded by social unrest in the region provoked by Qāytbāy’s military-linked financial reforms, motivated this unprecedented journey. Considering that Qāytbāy’s travels have received little scholarly attention, it is hoped that this modest study will contribute towards our increased understanding of the late Mamluk Empire.

10:35– 11:00 TEA BREAK

11:00 – 11:45 With and against the Sultan: Influences from Islamic courts on the successor states of the south Indian Vijayanagara Empire, 17th-18th centuries

Lennart BES (Radboud University Nijmegen, Eurasian Empires programme)

From the fourteenth century CE onward, south Indian states ruled by Hindu kings were strongly influenced by politico-cultural conventions from Islamic courts, such as the Delhi Sultanate. This development was for instance manifest in the dress and titles of the rulers of the Vijayanagara Empire. On public occasions, they appeared in garments fashioned on Arabic and Persian clothing, and they had themselves referred to as ‘Sultan among Hindu Kings’. Both practices were examples of efforts to connect and conform to the dominant Indo-Islamic world. From Vijayanagara’s fragmentation in the sixteenth century new kingdoms arose. We may wonder to which extent those succeeding polities continued such ‘Sultanist’ practices.

With that question in mind, this paper discusses royal dress at court audiences and dynastic titles in the Vijayanagara successor states, on the basis of Indian literary, inscriptional, and visual sources as well as records of the Dutch East India Company. It appears that while the Delhi Sultanate remained some sort of political focus point in south Indian court literature, the titles borne by the successor dynasties generally lacked Islamic elements. With regard to royal dress, it is argued that court audiences could be of a public or domestic nature, each calling for a different style of clothing. Not all successor states followed the same dress codes, however, as some dynasties largely stuck to the erstwhile Vijayanagara conventions while others did not. Besides, the main source for Sultanist attire seems to have shifted from Arabia and Persia to the Mughal Empire.

11:45 – 12:30 Caught between Empire and the Sea: Zhangzhou and Chaozhou, 1449-1567


Ming officials on the south coast of China walked a fine line between governing communities integrated with a flourishing maritime world and appeasing central court officials through implementation of maritime trade prohibitions. County level officials governed the smallest unit of the centrally appointed administrative hierarchy, but their jurisdiction still covered 50.000 to 500.000 people. In order to govern effectively county level officials depended on the literate elite in their county. Literati shared an educational background with the official and, in the case of successful examination, also a similar career pattern. Literati stood to gain from good relations between the central government and their county, but the capital was far away and participation in maritime trade offered wealth and a local power base. Literati were careful not to let trade interfere with an official career. Large parts of the population, however, had no such concerns, because the examination system was out of their reach. To them the step from illegal maritime trade, or smuggling, to piracy was lucrative, which brings us back to the official. A pirate attack attracted the attention of central court officials and potentially ended the county level official’s career.

In this paper I examine the interaction between county level officials, literati, and other groups in local society in relation to the maritime world of the South China Sea. The focus on Zhangzhou and Chaozhou is easily explained. These prefectures were home to several flourishing ports that connected China to Southeast Asia. In the long history of diasporic Chinese the main categories of origin were Zhang[zhou], Chao[zhou], Min (Fujian), and Yue (Guangdong). The timeframe under discussion requires a longer explanation. The Hongwu emperor (r. 1368-98) realized the subversive potential of the maritime world. He enlisted thousands of dan min (蜑民), or boat people, in the transportation of tax grain in order to incorporate them in the Ming state. The Yongle emperor (r. 1402-1424) built up a strong naval presence to pacify the maritime world. After the capture of the Zhengtong emperor (r. 1435-1449) in 1449 by Mongol troops, the northern border absorbed all the court’s attention, and the threat from maritime nomads became insignificant by comparison. Central policy reflected the old approach, but officials lacked the strength to back it up. In 1567 the Longqing emperor (r. 1567-72) ascended the throne and implemented a series of reforms to re-establish order in the Ming empire. He lifted most maritime trade prohibitions, as well as the ban on horse-trade along the northern border. Central policy finally caught up with local practice and thus removed much of the tension between county level officials, literati, and other groups involved in maritime activity.

12:30 – 13:30 LUNCH

13:30 – 14:20 The Rice Trade between Siam and Singapore: Markets, States and Networks, 1855-1918


This paper will look at the rice trade between Siam and Singapore after the signing of Bowring Treaty in 1855 up to the end of the First World War. This period witnessed an important change in rice production in Siam from production for the internal markets and the China market to commercial production for largely external markets, especially Singapore and Hong Kong.

This period also saw a change in the role played by Chinese traders. Prior to 1855, the Chinese traders played the role of middlemen and acted on behalf of the Siamese court. After 1855, the Chinese emerged as rice producers and sellers. They started to establish their own rice mills and firms and now engaged in many new aspects of rice business such as shipping and banking. Thus the Chinese rice trade networks between Siam and Singapore gradually expanded. They used their networks to increase their profits and were even able to compete with western traders successfully who often had more capital and advanced technology. In addition to looking at the changes in the nature of the rice trade and the role of the Chinese merchants, this paper will also highlight the important role played by the Siamese state and the Straits Settlements administrations in the rice trade.

14:20 – 15:10 The 1812 Constitution and its role on Filipino nation-building

Ruth De Llobet (FASS Postdoctoral Fellow, NUS)

In broad terms, this talk examines the role of the 1812 Constitution on the formation of a Filipino political identity that shaped the modernist reform and nationalist movements of the second half of the nineteenth century in the Philippines. This presentation highlights the critical role of early 19th creoles in the formation of a “Filipino” discourse on nation in the second half of the 19th century. Within the period of the implementation of the Bourbon Reforms at the end of the 18th century and the 1812 Constitution in 1813 and 1820 in Manila, the talk will examine how political identity develops among creole voices as seen through their writings and actions. In addition, and as a contrast to those creole voices this talk will examine the political ideas expressed among Filipino indigenous people and Chinese mestizos’ voices in Manila, as seen through their actions and political claims during the same period and political space. With this new found socio-political agency, natives and Chinese mestizos threatened and exposed creoles’ local political agendas simultaneously. In so doing, they precipitated creole political demise while also highlighting how much this last group was socio-politically rooted in the archipelago, as creoles finally sought political alliance with natives and Chinese mestizos once Spain and the colonial government showed their reluctance to share political power with them.

15:10 – 15:30 TEA BREAK

15:30 – 16:20 “Model Rural Youth” as a Colonial Order: Mass Mobilization in the Japanese Empire

Sayaka CHATANI (Max Weber Postdoctoral Fellow, European University Institute)

This paper examines a sphere of mutual cooptation between the Japanese imperial state and youth in colonized villages, created under the idea of “model rural youth.” In the Japanese metropole, the notion of “model rural youth” grew popular in the 1910s as the engine to restore national and rural economies and promote nationalistic military ethos. To create the ideal “rural youth,” state officials and activists built various youth training institutions in the countryside. For village youth, the image of “model rural youth” as national pillars allowed them to challenge urban centrism and achieve new careers. Village youth consumed the rhetoric of the state and turned state mobilization into social mobility in their local contexts. In Japan’s colonies, Taiwan and Korea, the category of “model rural youth” also served as a vehicle to “assimilate” (or “nationalize”) colonial population. Youth training institutions attracted youth who hoped to overcome the local social hierarchies, often defined by generational and geographical conditions.

In this presentation, I introduce social histories of former “model rural youth” of the colonial Korean and Taiwanese villages, Kim Yǒng-han and Huang Yuanxing. Colonial youth training programs and the idea of “rural youth” transformed their self-images. It allowed them to assert moral superiority over the wealthier class, the most established generation, or intellectual youth. By capitalizing on their grudges and desires, the empire turned these young men into pillars of assimilation of the larger colonial populations.

Seen as a colonial order, the concept of “model rural youth” highlights a number of aspects of Japan’s imperial mobilization. One is the continuity between nation-building and empire-building, both of which relied on the alliance between the state and rural population. Young men in the countryside responded to national-imperial mobilization most earnestly, volunteering as imperial soldiers in upcoming World War II. Another related aspect is that the key power relationship that defined incentives of male village youth was not the one between the state and individuals, but more immediate social tensions, such as the urban-rural divide and generational conflicts.

In sum, the concept of “rural youth” as an imperial and colonial order of the Japanese empire spread only when the rhetoric of the state resonated within multifaceted social tensions. Although state officials assumed the binary of the state and society in mass mobilization, people viewed the state within their complex local contexts, not necessarily in the dichotomy of the mobilizer and the mobilized. Through the social historical examination, this paper attempts to understand colonial and imperial orders not as work of the state, but mainly as products of social tensions experienced in the local contexts. The stories of Taiwanese and Korean individuals help us invert the perspective from the state to youth and reveal how they viewed the imperial state in everyday politics of rural villages. 

16:20 – 17:10 Colonizing the Philippine Environment: Natural History, the Scientific Enterprise and Empire


Natural history had been fashioned as a scientific practice towards establishing “truth” about nature. It had been instrumental not only for gathering natural specimens but also for producing and organizing “scholarly” knowledge about plants and animals. In nineteenth century, there had been increasing interests among Western scholars to study the natural history of Southeast Asia. While colonial domains in the region provided opportunities for Western naturalists to pursue their scientific curiosities, their explorations had extended beyond the scope of the territories controlled by their government. In Spanish Philippines, for instance, exploration of the archipelago’s flora and fauna was not only conducted by the Spaniards, but also by other Europeans and Americans.

This paper looks at the role of imperialism in the exploration and documentation of the Philippine natural world. It particularly examines American expeditions and practices in the production and dissemination of Philippine natural history and their link to both the global enterprise of scientific knowledge and the United States’ imperial goals. With the eventual American colonial control of the Philippines in 1898, natural history was not only a target of scientific conquest but also an instrument for colonial reordering. Through the scientific and educational institutions built by the colonial government, Filipinos were “trained” not only to the scientific facts of plants and animals but also to the perceived benefits and purposes of their very own natural environment.

17:10 Day One concluding comments by A/P Thomas Dubois.


Friday 28 NOVEMBER, 2014 –

09:00 – 09:50 Shanghai: Empire at the periphery, 1853-1862

Jon CHAPPELL (University of Bristol)

This paper will explore what the emergence of Anglo-French military support for the Qing Empire against the rebel Taiping kingdom from 1853-62 reveals about the Qing’s control of its imperial peripheries. Across the Taiping period the trade among Chinese and foreign merchants at Shanghai increased not only in volume, but also in interdependency. This incentivised cooperation for the city’s defence among Chinese and foreign officials at Shanghai, leading them to go beyond their orders from London, Paris and Beijing. The paper will argue that Shanghai was as much an imperial periphery for the Qing as it was for the British or French empires. Documents in Qing, British and French state archives, the private correspondence of local Chinese officials and the reporting of the build-up to intervention in the North China Herald highlight Shanghai’s ‘peripheral’ nature for the Qing. Firstly, as with the British and French home governments, the Qing had to depend on limited and often unreliable information flows coming from officials at the port. In addition, the court acknowledged that responding to the crises created by Taiping advances required that local officials were given a great deal of autonomy. Finally, neither the central Qing government, nor its British and French counterparts, were able to control the social and economic changes at Shanghai that helped drive a collaboration by state armies against the Taiping. More broadly this analysis reveals how inter-imperial relations functioned at imperial peripheries and, as such, how the ‘semi-colonial’ relationship between the Qing and foreign empires developed ‘on the spot’.

09:50 – 10:40 Empires in battle: the defense of the French Concession of Shanghai

against the Taiping Rebellion, 1860-1864

XU Chong (l’Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris)

Shanghai was defined as one of the five treaty ports at the conclusion of the First Opium War by the Treaty of Nanking in 1842. On the basis of the Land Regulations, signed between the Chinese authorities and the foreign authorities, the British established the British Settlement in 1845, and then, the French established the French Concession in 1849.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, the Chinese Empire came to a crisis, the colonial expansions of the Empires and the civil rebellions troubled it. In the case of Shanghai, as the capture of Nanking by the Taiping Army in 1853, the urban society was threatened by the violence and the conflict, the Small Swords besieged the city from 1853 to 1855, and the Taiping Army attacked the city from 1860 to 1864. The Small Swords Revolt was suppressed finally by the Chinese authorities, however, during that time, the foreign authorities in Shanghai declared the neutrality, simply, according to an agreement between the British Consul, Alcock, and the French Consul, Montigny, a Defense Committee was elected by the Westerners in Shanghai, to cooperate with the civil and naval authorities for the defense of the foreign settlements. Even so, the foreign authorities in Shanghai abandoned their neutrality during the Taiping Army’s attacks from 1860 to 1864, in order to cope with the attacks from the Taiping Army, precisely, in cooperation with the Chinese authorities, they defensed the city in a more active manner, organized an Anglo-French Allied Army to attack the zones occupied by the Taiping Army around Shanghai. Whereas, the French Concession and the French communities were not under cover of the defense plan proposed by the British authorities in 1862, thus, the French Consul, Édan decided to drop out of the allied military actions, from then on, the French not only drew up their own defense plan, but also established an independent municipal administration, a French Municipality, a French police forces and a French Volunteer were created in the French Concession.

The History of Shanghai has been told as a « success story », such as, in most narratives of modernization, westernization, and astounding economic development. A success indeed it was. In this article, we look closely at the History of Shanghai from the angle of warfare and violence in the city, precisely, to argue that the urban society was conditioned by issues of defense and conflict in colonial situation, in which, the defense of the French Concession was made by the Sino-foreign tensions, the Anglo-French tensions, and even that between the French civil authorities and military authorities, etc.

10:40 – 11:00 TEA BREAK

11:00 – 11:50 The City of Intermediaries: Compradors in Hong Kong from the 1830s to the 1880s

Kaori Abe (Postdoctoral Fellow, NTU)

My PhD research sheds light on Chinese compradors (maiban 買辦), the Chinese intermediary elites serving foreign institutions in Hong Kong from the 1830s to the 1880s. The compradors contributed to the establishment of the fundamental socioeconomic social structure of Hong Kong and the prosperity of the group of compradors reached its pinnacle in the late nineteenth century. In effect, my doctoral explores the process of the evolution of the comprador system in nineteenth century Hong Kong with specific focus on the individuals working in the colonial government and foreign companies. The First Opium War dismantled and privatised the licensed comprador system from the late 1830s to the early 1840s. Thereafter, a variety of the compradors appeared in Hong Kong, including the government compradors, ship compradors and company compradors. Of these, the company compradors, who acted as internal staff of the foreign firms as well as external business partners to them, achieved notable economic and political success in the 1870s and the 1880s. Collaborating with various individuals, institutions and communities, the company compradors consolidated their social status in the commercial and political world of Hong Kong by the late 1880s. The Hong Kong compradors’ overall socio-economic activities eventually produced the social system of intermediation in late nineteenth century Hong Kong. Although by the 1960s, Hong Kong’s compradors had dispersed into the general commercial population, no longer recognisable as a distinctive group, the social system that they established is still in place today. Descendants of the first comprador for Butterfield and Swire, Mok Sze-Yeung (Mo Shiyang 莫仕揚), are still an influential family clan in the present Hong Kong. Modern Sino-Foreign joint ventures and the participation of business elites in Hong Kong’s public debates all have their antecedents in this earlier period of colonial history.

11:50 – 12:40 Between Singapore River and Victoria Harbour: Sikh Police in Motion


Overseas Sikh policemen would probably be excellent subjects for the research of global history. They were colonial subjects, but they also were recruited by the British Empire to maintain orders in other colonies. Because of their ambiguous identity, both national history and imperial history cannot interpret their history properly. In national history, sometimes they were blamed as the tools of the imperialism in the oppression of local people, sometimes they were innocent colonial subjects who were cheated by the evil Westerners to bully their non-Western brothers. In imperial history, they were merely passive subjects who were recruited, transported and sent back by the British Empire, while their own intensions, attitudes and feelings are largely overlooked. This study tries to rebuild the story of Sikh policemen by emphasizing the connection and interaction between Singapore and Hong Kong’s Sikh police forces. It is showed that the circulation of knowledge and experience within the Empire plays a crucial role in the recruitment, training and maintaining of the two colonies’ Sikh force.

12:40 – 13:45 LUNCH

13:45 – 14:35 Indian, Chinese and the Ethnic Stereotypes in British Burma

Li Yi (Postdoctoral Fellow, NTU)

Ethnic stereotype played a critical role in European rule in Asian colonies, where a limited number of Europeans had to govern a huge and multiethnic population that was composed of not only indigenous peoples but also immigrants from other Asian countries. For instance, in British colonies, Sikh, Gorkha, and Kachin peoples were often identified as the ‘martial races’, while Malays were labelled as ‘lazy’. After associating certain features with certain peoples, these perceptions were further enhanced by colonial policymakers to systematically legitimise colonial rule, categorise different races, and simplify the administrative task. This paper looks at two widespread Asian migrant communities in the British world, the Chinese and the Indian, and the development of ethnic discourse in the case of British Burma. As a newly established colony in need of capital and labour, and locating between China and India, Burma in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw large waves of immigrants from India and, to a lesser extent, from China. These two foreign Asian faces dominated the colony’s commercial sectors and labour markets, and lived side by side in central Rangoon, the capital of British Burma. While both the Chinese and Indian were renowned for their commercial skills and being hardworking, an image that had been created and disseminated in other parts of the British Empire by then, the unique situation in Burma prompted for some minor, but vital, modifications.

14:35 – 15:25 Screening Film at a Coronation in Flores in 1930: Media, Catholicism and Colonial Expansion.

Sandeep RAY (NUS)

In January 1931, the evening edition of De Tijd a Dutch newspaper covering religious and political stories, carried a report about a coronation ceremony in Ruteng, Eastern Indonesia. It was for a new Catholic King in Flores â“ Raja Alexander Baroek. The article describes the geo-politics of the event as well as the pomp and rituals of the ceremony. Among these was the very unexpected projection of films by a Dutch pastor named Simon Buis. The reporter present at the event describes the locals as astonished reactions to both Father Buis and his cinema. Flores was far from urban centers of the Dutch East Indies and in 1930, distanced from the many advancements of modernity and technology including movie theaters. Who was Simon Buis? What kinds of films did he make? Why was there a film screening at a coronation? What were the contents of the films? This essay explores the pioneering cinematic work of this Dutch catholic priest-turned-filmmaker in Eastern Indonesia and the political underpinnings of his innovative evangelical efforts. Pioneering a hybrid style of actuality and more conventional documentary, Simon Buis films provide us with a unique visual coverage of a vastly understudied region of the former East Indies during an era of Dutch colonial containment of Islam in Flores.

15:25 – 15:45 TEA BREAK

15:45 – 17:00 The Empire in Asia: A New Global History project: Roundtable discussion led by A/P Thomas Dubois (joined by members of the Empire in Asia project including: A/P Bruce Lockhart, Dr Jack Fairey, Dr Donna Brunero)

17:00 Closing remarks by A/P Thomas Dubois

19:00 Participant Dinner (location tbc)