Project Objective

T he project promises to offer a new approach to the history of political and religious globalization in modern Asia, transcending both national and imperial boundaries, while expanding the range of methodologies and sources brought to bear on studying Asia’s modernity.

The project seeks to explore how ideas travelled across Asia, and how they changed in the process. We aim to transcend the national or imperial frameworks that have contained the study of the history of ideas in Asia, focusing, instead, on networks of people, texts, objects and symbols that circulated throughout Asia in the age of global empires. We will examine the history of ideas as they are embodied in social and cultural practices, rather than focusing only upon the work of intellectuals, or seeking Asian ‘great texts’ to stand alongside the European canon. This will allow us to examine the history of ideas that remained unwritten, but which can be traced through the study of social and individual memory, or the architecture of sacred landscapes. We will look at the ‘everyday’ history of ideas that found expression in the popular press, or filtered through the reports of colonial courts and police.

Many of the traces of interaction are found in legal records and exist within many different legal traditions in Asia. We are particularly interested in the ways in which emerging legal frameworks shaped interactions across Asia and between Asia and the world. How did transnational networks navigate shifting worlds of legal status and jurisdictions? Tracing chronologies of interaction is another concern: how and with what effects did the ‘frontiers of law’ shift or harden in modern times?

Many of our examples and transitions are modern, but we want to connect these themes over a longer duration, especially to the rich writing on Asian interactions in the early modern period. Whilst our scope is regional – to best allow for focussed collaboration and the development of new methodologies – we also aim to build a global perspective through dialogue with scholars of Europe and the Atlantic world around four thematic strands of analysis:

1. Sites
The project will firstly focus on the sites of interaction and exchange in which ideas travelled and transformed themselves, and the ways in which sites can, in themselves, be constitutive of ideas, their transmission and translation. We will begin our analysis in Asian cities and in the ways in which urban landscapes—the morphology of neighbourhoods; the layout and functioning of ports; modes of transportation through the city; places of entertainment and consumption—shaped the circulation of ideas: about nations and empires, reason and religion, regions and the wider world. Whereas recent work highlights the role of particular diasporas as a conduit of ideas, our project will focus on sites where multiple diasporas met, and spoke to one another, often for the first time.

2. Networks
A second theme is the networks that were formed from this. Most historical narratives see Asian societies, especially by the colonial period, as ethnically ‘plural’ in the sense of being ‘segmented’. But our focus on trans-ethnic connections uncovers a very different picture. Cities, for example, were fluid environments with wide international connections. We want to explore the ways in which communities were pushed closer together, and the products of this, such as new kinds of speech and new popular cultures, as people negotiated space, developed services, forged trust. In particular, we wish to trace how these links, in turn, became regional and, at moments, global.

3. Ideas
A multiplicity of ideas emerged from these milieus: ideas about commerce, politics, modernity, civility, the role of the intellectual and the place of religion. We want to examine the ways in which people absorbed transnational influences whilst remaining culturally and linguistically distinct. We are interested in processes of translation, and text or speech as a site of interaction in itself; a creative process of adaptation, interpolation and transposition. This is one way in which ‘the global’ played a central and creative role in the lives of people who did not travel very far at all.

4. The archive of mobility
Our fourth theme will focus upon the nature of the archive itself: where are the archives of mobility in Asia? What is the archive of cultural and intellectual exchange? The project will look for the fragments through which we can illuminate the circulation of ideas, particularly those which go beyond conventional textual sources or lie outside ‘national archives’. These include the ephemera of everyday life, such as ‘tin trunk’ troves of family papers. Legal records can illuminate networks and conflicts in extraordinary ways. Consular courts, arbitration, registers of companies, allow research into commercial agreements and disputes. Coroner’s inquests, visa and naturalisation cases, registration of marriages and probate, can unlock the intimate. These records in Asia are often poorly preserved, even in danger of extinction. They have rarely been fully exploited by historians.

As well as broadening the empirical base of our archival research, we envisage the project as an exercise in archiving in its own right. We plan a project website that will make available to the scholarly community a sample of the sources generated by the project: digitized versions of ephemeral documents; photographs of the traces left on Asia’s landscapes by ‘travelling’ ideas.

Despite the currency of ‘world history’, transnational history often runs against the grain of academic structures. Work in multiple sites and multiple languages requires the sharing of expertise and collaboration. We plan to foster an open research collective, across disciplines and regions, which will evolve with this project. We have identified an international group of core collaborators that will develop the methodologies of comparative, transnational research through a series of workshops and publications. Providing an early showcase for graduate work is an important component of the project.

Sunil Amrith (Co-ordinator)
Tim Harper (Co-ordinator)