Maritime Asia is a confusing morass of contested sovereignties and geopolitical rivalries. Yet the seaways of Asia have, in their history, also fostered cultural exchange and economic integration. The liminal maritime zone surrounding China remains a paradox between seas and ports teeming with legal and illegal exchange and governmental policies attempting to monopolize and restrict that exchange. Vast and fluid, maritime China has long hindered state control and fostered connections determined as much by bottom-up economic and cultural logic as by top-down official impositions. This issue of Cross-Currents proposes to reexamine the rich history of maritime China and adjacent areas by tracing the interactions of the three initiatives of control, evasion, and interloping.
This special issue stems from a conference the guest editors organized in Boston in 2015, with support from Boston University, Brandeis University, Northeastern University, and the Taiwan Ministry of Education.1 We invited a distinguished group of scholars to explore the many facets of maritime China's history.2 Our key postulation was that state control, evasion from that control, and interloping within the interstices of China's maritime [End Page 1] world literally bound an array of actors and locales for distinct but interrelated goals, from the early modern era to the modern era. This concept is encapsulated in the title of the current issue, "Binding Maritime China." What "creates" and gives coherence to the concept of maritime China as a social, economic, political, and geographic space is, to a large extent, how human actors (Chinese and Western merchants and businessmen, navy officers, bureaucrats, fishermen, pirates, missionaries, and so on) productively interacted or experienced conflicts and resisted one another's control. They did so across oceanic and coastal spaces, administrative boundaries, class lines, bureaucratic institutions, commercial organizations, and competing imperial formations.
"Control" refers to the unceasing efforts by terrestrial polities—imperial, republican, and colonial—to extend jurisdiction over the seas for taxation, security, and sovereignty. The sea in the official imagination teemed with unseen threats, but also potential profit, and segmenting and monopolizing its use proved to be an important state imperative throughout history. As the burgeoning research on maritime worlds has reminded scholars, this territorialization was an ongoing project, a dialectic between control and freedom unfolding over centuries. In addition to violence, other weapons have been employed by states in their arsenal of coercion: technologies of surveillance that enhanced legibility, knowledge of science that demarcated claims, and frameworks of law that legitimated authority. Cartography, telecommunications, and laws all helped broadcast regulatory authority to maritime margins.
"Evasion" refers to people or groups that organize against the boundary setting and rationalization projects of state builders. They form connections and associations that straddle and connect across lines set by authorities with the intent of separating them. Or they evade and confound the instruments of surveillance aimed at penetrating their liminality. Smuggling, black markets, illegal immigration, and human trafficking all fall under this rubric. At times, however, the rationalizing impulse of the state comes into direct conflict with the evaders, creating armed conflict in the form of piracy. Evaders also have a tendency to become victims of their own success. Once they grow to a certain size, they begin to take on characteristics of interlopers or the very state authorities that they had once tried every means to oppose. [End Page 2]
Finally, "interloping" brings together apparently disparate phenomena and actors, sharing the maritime space with states, para-states, and major commercial interests, and often overlapping with their networks in an ambiguous relationship of exploitation. In the context of maritime China, the exploitation was bidirectional: imperial and mercantile projects of various kinds used interlopers and the spaces they inhabited to open up new markets and territories, as they did with overseas Chinese within colonial contexts in Southeast Asia. From the point of view of the interlopers (truly "imperial stowaways"), however, the opposite was also true. Their own projects—be they dictated by private profit spiritual calling, as in the case of religious agents, or sheer survival, as with many in the mercantile and piratical worlds—took full advantage of the established structures of commerce and...