Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Workshop on Empire and Imperialism in Early Modern Asia

21-22 November 2013

What did tianxia mean to the Qing and to their neighbours? How did a Vietnamese đế quốc differ from a Russian tsarstvo, a Thai chakrawat, or a Javanese negara agung? Was an Ottoman sultan the equal of a Mongol khan, a Burmese setkya min, or a Maratha chhatrapati? All participants in the Empires in Asia project are cordially invited to a workshop to be held at the National University of Singapore on 21-22 November 2013, where we will wrestle with such questions. The workshop is intended to provide the group with an opportunity to start formulating our individual contributions to the first volume of our history of empire in Asia and also to educate each other about what Asian empires were like prior to the classical age of nineteenth-century imperialism. Ideally, the workshop should give us a clear overview of the region’s most important imperial states - their problems, models, practices, ideologies, and how they acted upon one another.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

9:00-10:00 Four Views of Imperialism: A Materialist Typology

Thomas DuBois (Australian National University)

Stripping away the variety of cultural political and military phenomena from the single, highly complex phenomenon that we historians call “imperialism,” this paper examines empire solely as a form of material exchange, generally one that favors certain parties over others. It takes a state perspective on four ideal types of exploitation: plunder, mediated extraction, mercantilism, and free trade, both as a linear evolution within Western economic history, and as models that made sense within specific structural circumstances entirely outside of European influence. By focusing solely on the economic questions of empire—how polities enrich themselves, who is exploited and who benefits—it aims to compare the structural constraints that shaped different systems over time, without falling into cultural specificities false or teleologies of progress.

10:00-11:00 Between centralization of power and sharing out the empire: the Chinggisid legacy

Florence Hodous (Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

This paper will look at the quantitative and qualitative changes which the Mongols brought to the traditions of empire in Asia. It will examine facets of Mongol imperial ideology and technologies of rule, including the Chinggisid principle, the principle of collegiality, and the classification of subjects into occupational, ethnic and religious groups, from their initial development to their fusion with existing traditions and their further influence in Asia. Putting this data into the context of recent attempts at periodization of Asian empires, this paper will make the case for the Mongol empire as a watershed in the Asian history of empires.

11:00-11:30 Tea/Coffee break

11:30-12:30 Imperial Media & Imperial Messages: Ottoman Self-Representation in the Classical Age

Jack Fairey (NUS)

What distinguishes empires from other sorts of states? This has been a recurring question for our project and the polities we are studying wrestled with it themselves. Did, for example, the Ottomans possess a concept approximating that of ‘empire’ ? If so, what did they think was unique about theirs? How did they deal, practically and theoretically, with the existence of other imperial states like the Safavids, Moguls, Habsburgs, Qing, and so on? This presentation will attempt to answer these questions by looking at how the Ottoman elite sought to represent and distinguish their polity through the use of political terminology, titulature, official correspondence, court rituals, coinage, and other symbols. In the process, the paper will also propose a narrative outline for the development of a self-conscious, Ottoman imperial ideology, beginning with the first efforts of the Ottomans in the 14th century to adopt an imperial mode of self-representation.

12:30-2:00 Lunch

2:00-3:00 Empire in South Asia: Definition, Norms, Institutions, & Legitimacy

Murari Jha (NUS)

This paper attempts to define the term ‘empire’ in the context of pre-colonial South Asia. It suggests that the conception of the Sanskrit term samrajya (lit. bringing together of chiefs, but freely translated as empire) substantially differed from the Roman understanding of empire as a corporeal entity. Recent scholarship has begun to challenge earlier historiography that saw the Mauryan or Mughal empires as compact and centralized polities. This paper positions itself within this new historiography and will primarily focus on the Mughal Empire. It considers the Mughal Empire as an amalgam of norms and institutions that evolved over time and borrowed from diverse sources, including those of pre-Islamic South Asia. An examination of the evolution of the imperial norms and institutions, as well as its physical structure as a conglomerate, allows us to understand why the legitimacy of the Mughal Empire lasted till the middle of the nineteenth century.

3:00-4:00 In Search of Malay, Muslim “Empire” in Insular Southeast Asia

Sher Banu (NUS)

This paper traces the evolution of Malay political structures from the seventh century “harbour-cities”- trade-oriented polities with proto-urban settlement patterns as epitomized by Srivijaya - to the fifteenth century “city-states” - trade-oriented, urban political centres ala Melaka, which the earliest Malay text, the Sejarah Melayu referred to as negeri. The “long sixteenth century” saw a period of expansion in world trade and economic life in general which ushered in what A. Reid has termed the “Age of Commerce” in Southeast Asia. Increased trade wealth and guns which came with encounters with the Europeans enabled the rulers of some port-polities such as Aceh, Johor and Banten to centralize their political and commercial powers and embark on “state-formation” strategies peaking in the period 1570-1630. These trade-based “gunpowder states” were able to accumulate unprecedented power and launch a more expansionist policy of controlling the resources from their hinterland and vassal states as exemplified by Sultan Iskandar Muda of Aceh (r. 1607-1637). Aceh and Johor, commonly seen as successors of the Melakan Sultanate, became centres of what could be termed “Malay civilization” where Malay identity, political culture, language, and Islam were encapsulated in the kerajaan system. In the eighteenth century, access to British opium and guns brought about another wave of commercial expansion and wealth which contributed to political consolidation and territorial expansion between c. 1750 and 1850. Terrengganu, Kedah, Siak, Palembang, Bali and Lombok all illustrate the point, but arguably the four most powerful or potentially powerful states in this period, hence the closest analogues to mainland political consolidation were Riau-Johor, south-central Java, Sulu and Aceh. However, compared to mainland standards all these revivals of archipelagic power in the eighteenth century were short-lived, even ephemeral. They also represented a retreat from the commanding positions of the 17th century. This paper examines the structures of power of these maritime littoral polities from being harbour/port-polities to “absolutist states” to assess whether these could be approached from the perspective of “empire-building”. This paper also explains why this thrust towards “empire-building” momentum did not continue and insular Southeast Asia was characterized more by political, and cultural fragmentation by the mid nineteenth century.

4:00-4:15 Break

4:15-5:15 Southeast Asian Empires

Bruce Lockhart (NUS)

This paper will build on the work of Victor Lieberman to look at the 'regional superpowers' of pre-colonial mainland Southeast Asia--Burma, Thailand, and Vietnam (first one, then two)--in comparative perspective. In addition to making comparative observations about structural strengths and weaknesses, I will consider other bases for comparison such as ideology and geopolitics. For the former, I am particularly interested in the ways in which the predominantly Confucianist mindset of Vietnamese rulers influenced imperial discourses and policies differently from the Theravada Buddhist worldview of Burmese and Thai rulers. For the latter, I will consider the implications for Vietnam (particularly the Hanoi-based polity) of having a powerful suzerain across the border as opposed to Burma and Thailand, whose rivals and enemies were either peers or vassals. I hope that the comparison among the three powers will help provide more insight on empire in mainland Southeast Asia.

Evening program, 7pm onwards:

Participants Dinner at The Scholar; Keynote Address, Merle Ricklefs (NUS, ANU)

Friday, 22 November 2013

9:00-10:00 Governing the Ming Empire: From the Perspective of Song-Yuan Legacies

Jinping Wang (NUS)

This presentation examines Ming imperial governance in light of the legacies of the two preceding dynasties: the Chinese Song dynasty and the Mongol Yuan dynasty. Zhu Yuanzhang, the founding emperor of the Ming, claimed in an edict that the Ming was determined to rid China of its Mongol influence and restore Chinese civilization that flourished under the Song Dynasty. In reality the Ming inherited many Mongol-Yuan models of governance, including an autocratic emperorship instead of the Song political idea that the emperor should govern the world together with Confucian-educated literati. By highlighting the connections between Song, Yuan, and Ming dynasties, recent scholarship has challenged the conventional concept that Ming and Qing constituted of a late imperial period distinctive from the previous medieval period. Positioning itself within this new historiography, this paper discusses how the Ming blended both Song-Chinese and Mongol-Yuan traditions into a new model of imperial rule.

10:00-11:00 The Excluded middle: the role of the Jesuit intermediaries during the treaty of Nerchinsk

Frederik Vermote (California State U., Fresno)

As Rowe states in the most recent overview of Qing history (published as the sixth and latest volume in the Belknap Harvard University Press series of China’s empires since the Qin dynasty), one of the latest paradigm changes in Qing historiography – the so called “the Eurasian turn” - has taken inspiration from a world history approach in studying the Qing empire as one of the rapidly expanding land-based Eurasian empires during the early modern world (1400? – 1800?). Following this “new vision of Eurasian unity”, scholars now study the Qing empire in comparison with the Ottoman, Mughal, Safavid, and Romanov empires. In the case of the Qing, one of their first encounters with another Eurasian empire, the Muscovite empire, took place around the mid seventeenth century when Russian settlers engaged with Manchu settlers in the Amur basin. The Qing quickly recognized that an understanding between the Muscovite and their own expanding empire could avoid great conflict. Additionally, a non-interference treaty with Moscow would ‘close up the space’ between both empires in Central Asia, and would thus outmaneuver nomadic people caught in the middle with their own desire for empirical expansion in that region. My contribution will examine the role of the Jesuit (and Mongol) intermediaries in establishing the treaty of Nerchinsk (1689) between the Qing and Muscovite empires. While the Jesuits as trans-imperial subjects sought to improve their own position at the Qing and Muscovite court (and gain further access, especially for passing through these expanding empires) by brokering a treaty between both empires in this frontier-zone, they were unable to exploit their position as both empires moved in to stabilize the frontier and to fully control the movement of peoples across these borders.

11:00-11:30 Tea/Coffee break

11:30-12:30 Mercantilist Empires

Peter Borschberg (NUS)

This presentation will examine why European states (including, at times, the Iberian powers) persistently used chartered companies and limited partnerships as their primary instruments for acquiring and exercising imperial control in Asia. At first glance, such reliance is puzzling as these companies were only intermittently profitable – primarily when they were able to exploit conditions created by famines, wars or socio-political unrest - and all of them proved woefully inadequate to the tasks set for them. Still, as the history of Asia from 1600 to c.1800 clearly shows, chartered companies were founded time and again, and for many European imperial experiments proved to be the institution of choice. My paper at the workshop will survey the two main survivors - the EIC and VOC – as well as their many failed competitors in order to gain a clearer picture why chartered companies became the institution of choice. It will also identify some of their most distinctive common features (such as standing capital, tradeable shares, and quasi-sovereign powers), and assess the extent to which markets or government policy/ interference ultimately sealed their fate or success.

12:30-2:00 Lunch

2:00-3:00 Iberian Empires

Anthony Disney (LaTrobe)

The Portuguese and Castilian Empires in Asia and East Africa were both fundamentally seaborne entities, linked to their respective metropolises by single communications routes – the carreira da Índia and the carrera de Filipinas – without which they undoubtedly would never have come into being. In each case, the carreras fed into and sustained what have traditionally been classed as ‘empires’, although this is not necessarily the label contemporary Portuguese and Castilians themselves would have used to describe them. In this paper, after briefly reviewing the roles and importance of the two carreras, I intend to discuss four aspects of the two empires to which they gave rise, and which they for long sustained. First, I shall review the empires as networks of maritime trade and communications. Secondly, I shall consider them as a series of conquests and settlements. Then, thirdly, I shall look at them as frontiers of military confrontation and cultural interaction. Fourthly, I shall present them as products of imagining, particularly as expressed in maps and verbal formulae. In conducting this broad-ranging review my endeavor will be to show that both empires were dynamic entities that evolved and changed over time. Finally, I intend to discuss how the two Iberian empires almost combined into a single entity in the early seventeenth century and why this project in the end failed.

3:00-4:00 Tsardom and Empire: Muscovy, Russia, and Imperial Practice in (Eur)asian Space, 1300-1796

Paul Werth (University of Nevada, Las Vegas)

Covering the period from the emergence of Muscovy in the early fourteenth century to the death of Catherine the Great, this paper traces a grand arc featuring Moscow’s subjugation of neighboring East Slavic principalities, its intrusion into the lands of the Golden Horde, and its transformation into a self-proclaimed “empire.” I begin with the problem of defining “Asia” in Russian history and consider the utility (and drawbacks) of the category “Eurasia,” positing that Russia occupies an awkwardly liminal position in relation to both Europe and Asia—and their respective historiographies. Beyond matters of “pure” geography—the difficult task of drawing a meaningful boundary on a landmass that constitutes a single entity—I consider the diverse legacies on which Russia and its rulers drew for their cultural development and political legitimation. In this regard the legacies of both Byzantium and the Golden Horde play a critical role, as does Russia’s adoption and fierce defense of Orthodox Christianity, a religious orientation that set Russia off sharply from its neighbors to both east and west. Similarly important is the problem of titulature, which in the Russian case features a parade of distinct but often overlapping conceptions of political authority—khagan, sovereign, (grand) prince, tsar’, and emperor—that have various implications for the concept of empire. But in addition to these “softer” dimensions of imperial rule (ideology, imagination, mentalities, etc.), I turn also to the “harder” practices that were the ultimate determinants of imperial success: Russia’s successful engagement in steppe diplomacy, economic exploitation of Siberian resources (furs, etc.), the construction of lines of military defense, and campaigns of outright conquest. This focus allows for at least some consideration of Russia’s interactions with neighboring imperial polities: the Mongol Empire, Persia, the Ottoman Empire, and China. I underscore two major points by way of conclusion: first, that viewed from the standpoint of imperial history, Russia’s story is one of striking success; and second, that the five centuries in question accordingly saw a substantial evolution in Russian consciousness about the imperial character of the country.

4:00-4:15 Break

4:15-5:15 The Periodization of Empire in Asia

Brian Farrell (NUS)

‘Early Modern Asia.’ The term ranges across any number of different historical studies of time and place, usually referring to a time span between the 14th and 19th centuries CE. But the term does not come from Asia or the study of Asian history, and is used much more often than defined. It lines up alongside a number of concepts as European exports to the study of the Asian past. Does it fit? How, in fact, can one periodize the study of Asian history per se, let alone the experience of ‘Empire in Asia’? To do this, we must engage still larger questions, two sets in particular. One set includes questions about connections and intercourse between different areas, but these questions reveal an empirically more viable concept: Eurasia. The other set involves the concept of periodizing history in general, and when studying empires in particular. The first set suggests we might be able to put aside exhausted notions of West and East, to allow a more penetrating look at a more complicated and intermingled experience. The second, however, suggests that familiar models of studying the Asian past might again have something to say. The most common approach to periodizing Asian history is to subdivide the concept of Asia into regions, defined by discrete empires--and then to track their ability to project governance across space, and impose patterns within that space. Examples include the focus on dynastic cycles in China, defining South Asian history by such labels as the ‘Mughal period’, or identifying the broader experience of ‘gunpowder empires’ as a basis for understanding change over time. Far from being obsolete, this approach might well be a foundation from which to search for a larger periodization--not of Asia, but rather of Eurasia. This chapter will explore a hypothesis: if we try to periodize the broader experience of ‘Empire in Asia’ by synthesis, by placing more recent questions about connections between spaces alongside an older tendency, to define change over time by analyzing imperial trajectories within spaces, we will encounter a history that cannot be labelled either ‘early modern’ or ‘Asia.’


We are looking for speakers to give us something along the following lines:

  1. a very brief narrative outline of the empires they work on, the origins of these states, and the formation of their imperial political thought
  2. an analysis of the most important or characteristic features of their political ideology and administrative practices and structures.
  3. An overview of how each empire imagined its place in the international order and how it managed relations with its neighbours.

  4. Some evaluation of the relative historical importance of their empire and its long-term influence

The primary objective of this exercise is to build a broader understanding of both the diversity of imperial polities and the connections that reappear across empires. In particular, we would appreciate a sense of the periodization of each empire: i.e. what are the most natural or meaningful turning points in their history? This will help us decide upon the best start and end dates for this first volume.