Guangzhou Trading

Guangzhou Trading

On Thursday, award-winning anthropologist Gordon Mathews introduced an NYU Shanghai audience to the challenges of ethnic integration for foreign traders, mostly Africans and Arabs, in South China’s Guangzhou, which he coined as a growing center of “low-end globalization.”

Mathews, from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, talked about his co-authored research, The World in Guangzhou: Africans and Other Foreigners in South China’s Global Marketplace, for the University’s first Young Scholars Colloquium on Asia and the World on March 8-9.

Combining anthropological research and storytelling, he elaborated on how globalization has taken the form of informal, semi-legal, and often small-scale tradings of knock-off and copied goods in Guangzhou, between Chinese and sub-Saharan Africans who lack a common language, culture, or religion.

“When the economic history of the early 21st century is written, China’s major contribution will be seen, as I predict, as enabling the developing world to experience globalization because of its cheap goods,” Mathews said.

As China increases its economic activities overseas and moves up in the global value chain, Mathews believes these foreign traders in Guangzhou may not last. However, having investigated interactions beyond economic activities, from marital to spiritual, he would not deny the possibility of China having its own Barack Obama some day.

“Over the very long term, China will indeed be linked to the world as a whole, and that will mean an ongoing diminishment of ‘race’ in all its implications,” he said.

Rising Young Scholars

Organized by the Center for Global Asia and the Global Perspectives on Society Teaching Fellows Program, the two-day colloquium presented 13 postdoctoral research projects in five panels covering multiple aspects of the evolving relations between Asia and the world. Many represent the most dynamic directions in the fields of anthropology, art history, history, literature, and film studies.

Duane Corpis, Associate Professor of History and Co-Director of GPS, said the research presented at the colloquium underlined the vital role that NYU Shanghai plays in generating new perspectives on re-thinking Asia as a geographic region and as a conceptual category for understanding global cultural, economic, and political relations.

“Some common themes emerge across their research: migrations and boundary crossings, intercultural contact and cross-cultural communication, trade and commerce, the environment, the nation state and identity formation. Even the nation can no longer be seen as a bounded container, but stands in complex trans-, supra- and international relationships to cities, regions, markets, institutions, and other nations,” he said.

Xiao Kunbing, postdoctoral fellow of CGA, presented her study about the Pu’er tea trade and the interactions of ethnic groups at Xishuangbanna in Yunnan during a particular period of the Qing Dynasty (1662-1796). She argued that the boom of the tea trade was driven by Han immigrants and Hui (ethnic Muslim) merchants, strategic interactions among imperial government administrators, local ruling people known as Tai-Lue, native hill peoples and Han immigrants.  

“Through my research, I want to critically look into James Scott’s study of Zomia, a term proposed by Dutch scholar Willem van Schendel to refer to the huge mass of mainland Southeast Asia that has historically been beyond the control of governments based in the population centers of the lowlands. In short, the more mild economic effect in shaping Zomia region have been underestimated by Scott,” Xiao said.

Joining the panel on Friday afternoon, Rebecca Ehrenwirth, a GPS fellow from Germany, challenged the inaccurate prevalence of diaspora in labeling groups, using her research of sinophone writers in Thailand as an example.

“The idea of diaspora may sound like these authors once came to Thailand, that they live in an excluded or isolated group, and that they have the wish to return to the ‘homeland’ one day. But that is not the case for the sinophone writers in Thailand,” she said, referencing literary analysis of short stories and poetry written in Chinese by second or third generation immigrants.

“Many of the literary characters the writers create are reflecting their own floating identity between Thai and Chinese culture, and even though they maintain close connections with Chinese literature they predominantly feel Thai,” Ehrenwirth said.

Over 70 students, postdoctoral fellows, professors from NYU Shanghai and from other universities in the region, visiting journalists, and members of the Shanghai community attended the colloquium.

 

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Exploring the Silk Road: Slave Trade at Turfan

Exploring the Silk Road: Slave Trade at Turfan

The world’s most famous trade route did not only witness the transfer of silks, spice, and various other commodities, but also humans. Who were the slaves traded along the ancient route? Who were the traders? Where did they come from? Professor Jonathan Skaff from Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania offered answers during a lecture about Silk Road Slave Trade at Turfan during the Tang Dynasty on October 17th. The event was sponsored by NYU Shanghai’s Center for Global Asia.

As he led his NYU Shanghai audience to rediscover the Silk Road from a new angle, Prof. Skaff digged through the history of the Eurasian slave trade between West and East Asia during the 7th and 9th centuries CE. He focused his analysis on the Turfan oasis in the Central Asian Turfan Basin and argued that its arid climate and irrigated agriculture contributed to the trade.

“Central Asian merchants and the elite class in Tang Dynasty were found buying, selling and traveling with human chattels,” asserted Prof. Skaff.

Purchase contracts of slaves written on paper have come to light in several tombs in the Turfan region. Recycled as hats and shoes, the documents were buried along with the corpses and other grave goods. The standard information recorded in such  contracts comprised the gender and places of origins of the slaves as well as the names  of their sellers and buyers.

In his talk, Prof. Skaff introduced the results of his analysis of the contracts. One of his conclusions was, for example, that Sogdians were most active in the slave trade. He also showed that 80 percent of the caravans dealt with slaves, who accounted for up to 38.5 percent of all travellers.  

“The Tang Empire exerted enormous influence on the economics of slave trade. The legal, military, administrative and transportation systems of the Tang Empire facilitated human trafficking by guaranteeing road transportation and enforcing the contracts,” Skaff said, adding that there was no age limit for slaves and most of them were kids from poor families.

The talk was hosted by Interim Director for the Center for Global Asia, Assistant Professor Armin Selbitschka. It was the latest installment in a regular lecture series that is sponsored by the Center of Global Asia and has featured a number of distinguished scholars including Wang Gungwu, Amitav Ghosh, and Prasenjit Duara in the past.

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China and India: A Tale of Shared Destiny

China and India: A Tale of Shared Destiny

Leading Indian writer Amitav Ghosh captivated a packed NYU Shanghai auditorium of scholars, students and loyal readers on Monday with sagacious illustration of the global climate crisis, a major theme of his new book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable.

In a keynote address for the Inaugural Annual Conference of NYU Shanghai’s Center for Global Asia (CGA), Ghosh highlighted the roles of Asia and Western imperialism in precipitating climate change while reviewing how the modern history of two neighboring Asian powers, India and China, has contributed to the crisis.

“Strangely, the implications (of the continent of Asia) are rarely reckoned with. This may be because the discourse around the Anthropocene and climate matters remains largely Eurocentric,” said Ghosh, whose award-winning books, including the famous Ibis Trilogy, have already been translated into more than 20 languages.

In terms of climate issues, “no strategy will work globally unless it works also in Asia, and is broadly accepted by the large Asian population,” he said. As a Distinguished Visiting Scholar of the CGA, Ghosh will remain on campus to meet students and faculty until early September.

Aside from Ghosh’s inviting talk, the CGA Annual Conference also summoned some 30 Chinese and international researchers to NYU Shanghai, where they transformed the three-day gathering into a series of intense panel discussions on China-India connections–the main theme of this year’s conference. The research presented connected a variety of disciplines, such as literature, history, sociology and cultural study.   

China and India have always been culturally connected, said Zhang Ke, Assistant Professor of History at Fudan University, in his presentation. “There are two images of India from the late Qing Dynasty (1636-1911)–one created by Western missionaries featuring positive improvements of social customs and political institutions, and the other by Chinese intellectuals who mostly narrated the ‘peril’ of India. These helped shatter the previous China-centric worldview, and the national consciousness of a modern China started to burgeon subsequently,” Zhang said.

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The Many Chinese Abroad

The Many Chinese Abroad

The Chinese diaspora is vast and varied, scattered in countries large and small, developed or not. With this immense diversity, it is impossible to generalize Chinese living overseas, said NUS Professor Gungwu Wang, author of The Chinese Overseas.

During a public talk sponsored by the Center for Global Asia, Professor Wang divided the Chinese diaspora into what he defined as a “set of expectations,” namely, what foreign governments expect from the Chinese nationals moving in or out of their countries, and what the disapora expects of the countries they move to.

Wang said that the Chinese government seeks, of late, to maintain relationships with overseas Chinese nationals, in order to leverage diplomatic connections with other countries. However, for Chinese migrants within the borders of other countries, expectations vary — for instance, the Chinese impact and experience in Malaysia and Singapore dramatically differ.  It might mean retaining a muted Chinese identity for political reasons in Singapore, or struggling for the freedom of receiving  Chinese education in Malaysia.  

Meanwhile in the United States, Australia, and European nations, the hopes and needs of Chinese immigrants vary wildly as well, as they are often informed by stereotypes such as  the “smart, hardworking Asian” to different levels of discrimination.

But what do Chinese immigrants expect from their new homes abroad? Wang said they are motivated by the pursuit of greater opportunities, whether venturing out for educational or to lift their economic status.

(Text by: Mari Allison)

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Glocalizing Medicine

Glocalizing Medicine

Professor Angela Leung, Director of the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences, explained that Canton, as a major trading port since the 17th century, was uniquely suited for intercultural exchanges–dealing not only in tea, silver and raw silk, but medical knowledge as well. Leung came to NYU Shanghai to discuss what she calls the ‘glocalizing’ of medicine in the Canton region during the 19th and 20th century.

For the Cantonese, advances in medical knowledge came primarily through consulting ‘recipe books’ that varied by region and listed treatment plans for diseases common to the specific area. These books were popular and often distributed by churches to the poor as a charitable act.

Local knowledge was not the only thing spread through texts. Vaccinations, for example, first came to the Chinese as a translated text, but texts on foreign vaccination techniques were not exact translations. In translating, the Chinese would take liberties to form an amalgamation between traditional methods and new learned ways. For example, local Cantonese combined Western vaccination techniques with principles from acupuncture–Leung remarked that some would call this sinicizing instead of translating.
However, the ‘glocalizing’ of medicine during that time shows an important dialogue formed between Chinese and Western medicine, leading to an evolution of medical tradition.

(Text by: Mari Allison)

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“Black Market in Black Magic” An exchange with Prof. Duane Corpis

“Black Market in Black Magic” An exchange with Prof. Duane Corpis

Recently, Assistant Professor Duane Corpis presented to his fellow faculty members an overview of the Tempel Anneke witch trial that took place in 1662-1663 on the outskirts of modern day Braunschweig, Germany. The following exchange grew out of that discussion.

What led you to devote yourself to this story? Is it a metaphor for something we need to better understand today? Is there a connection to the fact that you are teaching a generation who grew up on Harry Potter?

My interest in witch trials, like the one in which Tempel Anneke became embroiled, emerged out of my teaching and research interests in the ways that the history of crime — how crimes got defined and who got to define them — can tell us a great deal, not just about formal law and its policing, but also about broader social structures and processes in the past.  The European witch trials in particular are rich sources that tell us a great deal about popular culture and religion, gender relations, and the relationship between state authority and communal life.  

I’ve always thought that the figure of the witch in Europe and the United States has been a metaphor that gives shape to a variety of anxieties, both in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as well as today in our modern popular culture.  Harry Potter hints at contemporary questions about race and ethnicity, while the witches in Buffy the Vampire Slayer became storylines to talk about drug addiction and same-sex sexuality.  My favorite example, however, is Samantha in the TV series Bewitched from the 1960s, where Samantha’s struggle as a witch trying to live like a normal human woman revealed deep anxieties over domesticity in the modern consumer-driven household.

Witch trials seemed to be emblematic of a particular chapter in European history. What was going on?  Are these trials a reflection of a societal resistance to change?

The context in which the witch trials emerged was complex.  Women’s roles within and access to the formal economic sphere were in decline.  New ideas about what it meant to be Christian had led to the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter Reformation.  Rulers had begun centralizing their authority, which changed how commoners interacted with the state.  And the so-called “Little Ice Age” may have disrupted weather patterns, creating agricultural instability.  I think that the witch trials were responses to or reflections of the social tensions that these historical changes generated, but it is hard to say that the trials are forms of societal resistance to change.  They were responses to the increasingly competitive social pressures that impacted communities and those who ruled them, as well as the men and women living within those communities.  

Most people might think of these trials as religiously motivated. But you seem to think otherwise. How is that?

Well, I think that religion played a crucial role in popular beliefs and anxieties about witches, but not in the simple way we might think.  Our modern perspective often views the witch hunts as the last gasp of primitive religious superstitions, which the growth of rationalism and science stamped out.  But the way I see it, the witch hunts are not the end of pre-modern European religion, but stand at the beginning of a range of modern anxieties about gender relations and hierarchies and about social competition in societies with scarce resources.  For example, the buying and selling of magical services which involved healing, divining, or fortune telling suggests how implicated these activities were in the society, in what I like to call a “black market in black magic.”  Magical practices and witch accusations were, in this sense, often fueled by dynamic power relations and socio-economic competition within local communities.  Of course, religion played an important role, since witches in continental Europe were, by legal definition, heretics who had abandoned Christianity and made a pact with the devil.  Also, many of the spells and incantations used by women and men in magical practices often drew on religious tropes and even Biblical texts. 

Why did you decide to specialize in early modern European history? 

The early modern period — roughly 1450-1750 — is so interesting because it is a period of massive structural reconfiguration, at the level of institutions like the church and state, but also at the level of the individual.  How individuals thought, and even how they imagined themselves as individuals or as members of collective communities, changed dramatically in this period.

I see that you are also interested in the history of senses. What can you say about that?

I am working on a project currently that looks at the history of “noise” before industrial factories and machinery.  We often take for granted that how we experience the world through our sensory perceptions today is physically the same across all of history, but the senses are mediated by our historically changing cultural understandings of our bodies and minds, as well as our relationship to others and our environments.  When thunder was understood the be the voice of God, it meant something very different than today, when we explain it as the sound of air rapidly expanding and then contracting onto itself to fill the vacuum created when lightning’s electrical charge superheats air molecules.

Teaching in Asia seems to have taken you further away from your area or study. Or has it?

I’ve always been a strong advocate of world histories that situate disparate local contexts into broader trans-regional and even global networks and processes.  To that end, I’ve been working on a research project that examines how religious, colonial, and commercial networks linked Christian missionaries with local communities in Europe, the Americas, and Asia.  But more importantly, I think the broader themes I research and teach are ones that many scholars working on Asia are also tackling — the history of gender norms, of social hierarchies, of socio-economic structures.  And to the extent that my interests in noise is part of a larger project to understand how sound shapes society, I’m very excited to explore the urban soundscapes of Shanghai!

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