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Historical migration as a vantage point to modern China

Diaspora’s Homeland. Modern China in the Age of Globalization
Forfatter: Shelly Chan
Forlag: Duke University Press (USA)
20 millions of Chinese emigrated in the years 1840 to 1940. Shelly Chan analyzes modern China from a diaspora perspective and expands our understanding of China and history.


The emigration from China in the years 1840 to 1940 has only surpassed the extent of European emigration to America and the subsequent mass migration from India. In finding this fact, Shelly Chan reminds us of two important things in her new book Diaspora’s Homeland. Modern China in the Age of Globalization: that Europe was once the sender rather than the recipient region, and that for centuries Chinese have migrated around the world. More than 20 millions left China during the above period, and according to Chan, the rise of modern China can be usefully investigated with these diasporas as vantage points.

People and things

In a time of increased focus on China and the country's rising position in the global order, Chan's use of migration dynamics as a window to today's shifts in the world's balance of power is timely and thought-provoking. Her claim is that diasporic moments has played a crucial role in how Chinese sovereignty conceptions, the establishment of diplomacy, debates on tradition / modernity and the struggles between socialism and capitalism have evolved.

A "diasporic moment" is for Chan "significant coincidence" (momentous encounters) where migrants have triggered unforeseen incidents in the country of origin: For example, it was the labor migration to the late 19th century America that drew Qing Dynasty China into a western geography, social, political and economic, Chan argues.

By China's legalization of emigration, the diaspora's fear of sanctions on possible return home was removed.

Chan also looks at how national identity in the Republic of China was (in part) created through the activities of influential Chinese merchants in Southeast Asia. She describes how Confucianism was reinterpreted through the experiences of migrants in the British Empire, and the conflicts that arose when China's socialist mode of production faced the effects of households divided between home and abroad as important factors. The return of diasporas, both encouraged by the communist state and perceived as a potential "capitalist threat", is another key element of Chang's analysis.

Using these "moments" as a key to understanding both the rise of new national narratives and the mainland China's political economy, Chan extends a tradition of transnational studies. Diaspora's Homeland provides new insights, but is also in conversation with older, innovative works such as Wen-Chin Chang and Eric Tagliacozzo's Chinese Circulations (Duke University Press, 2011) – in which Chinese economy is analyzed through flows of capital and goods in Southeast Asia.

Temporary absence

In Chinese, "diaspora" has historically been called huaqiaowhich, according to Chan, means "temporarily located Chinese". The concept discursively created a permanent homeland by highlighting the emigrant's temporary absence and at the same time suggesting that this absence was involuntary. Only during the 19th century did China officially recognize that migration could lead to Chinese settling permanently in another country.

Beijing, China 20181015.
Chinese businessmen look at their phones in Beijing.
Photo: Heiko Junge / NTB scanpix

Just like in Europe, the mobile body has also traditionally been met with suspicion and paranoia in China – unless the one moving around belonged to the political, diplomatic, economic or intellectual elite. In fact, emigration through much of China's history has been banned.

Chan identifies one of the times such a ban was lifted – in 1893 – as a "diasporic moment". Many historians have viewed this repeal as a pointless gesture on the part of the Qing government, since it had already in practice been circumvented, not least by the recruitment of Chinese "kulis" [low-paid Asian day laborers] to the United States. But Chan begs the question: If the ban was already meaningless, why repeal it?

In his quest for the answer, Chan finds that the purpose was not primarily to liberalize emigration, but to encourage and invite the many who had already traveled out: .

Like the Deng Xiaoping and later Chinese leaders, the Qing government in the late 19th century came to the realization that the diaspora had resources that could be extremely useful to the homeland if translated into the national interest. The attempts to create and reinvent ties between the Chinese diasporas and the Chinese nation state have since been refined, as was also the cultural anthropologist Aihwa Ong described in his contemporary studies.

Settles with time boundness

Chan argues that China's history is both "fragmented and interconnected," as is migration itself, and writes about the heterogeneous composition of Chinese migrants: "Some became big in trade, industry, governance, education and culture; others were the street vendors, shopkeepers, laundry workers, chefs, fishermen and factory workers everywhere […] several studies have described how their presence affected communities around the world. But one question is rarely asked: How did they change China? ”

Chan argues that China's history is both "fragmented and linked"

The migrations drew China "into a circle of empires, nations and markets far from their own borders," Chan writes, analyzing how relations between migrants and "homelands" were maintained, recreated and invented. She also strikes to take "transnational turnaround" to the next level: Now that the history subject has been stripped of its place-boundness through studies that follow people, ideas, and goods across and beyond national borders, it's time to distort analysis ability free of accruals and national chronologies.

Chan points out that studies in migration are busy spatial movements, but rarely time all: "Diaspora is generally understood as scattered societies, but the comparable idea of ​​fragmented temporality has not received much attention. "

Besides diasporic moments Chan also introduces the concept diasporic time as a tool to describe "the versatile and constant ways in which migration impacts the lives of individuals, families and communities".

With thoughtful questions and inventive vantage points as well as creative concepts expand Diaspora's Homeland both our knowledge of present-day China and our tools for writing history in general.

Nina Trige Andersen
Nina Trige Andersen
Trige Andersen is a freelance journalist and historian.

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