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Journal of Chinese Overseas 2.2 (2006) 163-172

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Why China Historians Should Study the Chinese Diaspora, and Vice-versa

The Liu Kuang-ching Lecture, 2004 Delivered at the University of California, Davis

In offering tribute to Professor Liu Kwang-Ching I am joining his many old students who remember his expert guidance as they entered John Fairbank's imperial city of Chinese studies. When I first knew K.C. in 1958, he was assisting JKF in Harvard's introductory course on Modern Chinese History. K.C. taught by example: integrity in using sources, straightforwardness in writing, and dedication to encouraging students. Later, as K.C.'s assistant in a summer-school course, I watched a rare scholar-teacher at work; and have been trying vainly to emulate him ever since. Liu Laoshi, feichang ganxie!

Today I shall grapple with an intractably large subject, the emigration of Chinese into the wider world in modern times. This is sometimes expressed as "China's expansion overseas" (Zhongguo haiwai fazhan), which sounds a bit menacing. But in fact it had almost nothing to do with any Chinese state, whether empire or nation. The emigrants, as Wang Gungwu has pointed out, started as "merchants without empires" (merchants including all the skilled artisans who built the colonialists' cities in Southeast Asia). Though without empires of their own, those merchants did have, so to speak, "borrowed empires" — those of the European colonialists, where they went about their business and, in close collaboration with them, opened China to the world and the world to China.

My title suggests a deep interconnection between modern Chinese history and the history of Chinese emigration. To justify this idea in a mere 50 minutes, let me offer three simplifying perspectives.

  1. That the modern history of Chinese emigration and the modern history of China are really aspects of the same social-historical process.
  2. That what we call a "migrant community" is a bilateral organism, with one side embedded in the receiving society and the other in the sending society. The two sides are connected by a "corridor" — a cultural space that transmits people, wealth and information in both directions. [End Page 163]
  3. That Chinese emigrants have been, and still are, participating in a five-century process of building "frontier enclaves," places where special rules allow Chinese and foreign business to develop unhindered by the bureaucracies and the ideologies of the Qing empire and its successor Chinese nation states. Let me begin with a capsule background history.

Four eras comprise the modern history of Chinese emigration (like all good periodization schemes, this one has fuzzy and overlapping boundaries): the early colonial age (16th to mid-19th century); the age of mass migration (mid-19th century to around 1930); the age of the Asian revolution (late 19th to late 20thcentury); and the age of global integration (late 20th century onward).

China's "modern" emigration began with the arrival of Europeans in Southeast Asia in the early 1500s. Those Europeans invariably found small colonies of Chinese merchants wherever they established their fortified trading headquarters: Portuguese in Malacca (1511), Spanish in Manila (1570), Dutch in Batavia (now Jakarta, 1619) and British in Penang and Singapore (1786 and 1819). Under European patronage, Chinese merchants became the dominant middleman group in the colonies. A similar process occurred in mainland Southeast Asia (which remained uncolonized until the mid-1800s): e.g., Bangkok-period Siam, where by the late 1700s Chinese had become essential to the fiscal administration of the royal court (which itself was of part-Chinese ancestry).

On the China side, the modern period can be said to have begun when the Ming court lifted its ban on private maritime trade (1567) and thereby opened the way for merchants to sojourn overseas in greater numbers — though emigration itself remained illegal. Instrumental in this turning point was a semi-private, semi-official "maritime lobby," of which more shortly.

During the early colonial age, Chinese filled many roles needed by the Europeans, including middlemen in the China trade, tax farmers (that is, franchised...


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