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Reviewed by:
  • Asia Inside Out: Itinerant People ed. by Eric Tagliacozzo, Helen F. Siu, and Peter C. Perdue
  • Ronald Skeldon (bio)
Eric Tagliacozzo, Helen F. Siu, and Peter C. Perdue, editors. Asia Inside Out: Itinerant People. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press, 2019. vii, 326 pp. Hardcover $45.00, isbn 978-0674987630.

This is the third volume of Asia Inside Out, the first two volumes of which dealt with Changing Times and Connected Places respectively. The purpose of all three volumes is to provide an alternative to conventional interpretations of Asia as seen through states, empires or religions. These civilizational interpretations so often deny or downplay an underlying heterogeneity that the authors of these volumes argue can be better illustrated through examining linkages at specific times (volume one) and across specific places (volume 2). The argument is continued in this third volume through a focus on the people who are doing much of the linking: the Itinerant People of the subtitle.

In an introduction and eleven substantive chapters, the authors cover a dazzling array of mobile people selected from across Asia from West Asia through Iran, Central Asia and South Asia, but with a particular emphasis on Southeast Asia and southern China. Written almost exclusively by historians [End Page 83] and anthropologists, all the chapters demonstrate a deep command of local languages and literature by scholars who have spent years researching their specific topics. Superficial interpretations these chapters are not. The itinerant people illustrated vary from a whole nation (Vietnam), to single individuals in the case of a monk from then Siam and a Chinese writer of a cookbook in wartime United States, through a number of smaller groups of traders, carpet and book sellers, traditional doctors, musicians, and sportspeople. Those who were socialized into mobility and those who were forced to move as hostages or slaves are in a wide array of different types of people who move. A strength of many of the chapters is that the authors cross-reference so that no matter the difference in time, space or topic, the reader is brought back to common themes of linkage, knowledge transfer and the movement of people.

The individual chapters cover a vast range of topics and not all will be of equal interest to every reader. While it is invidious to highlight specific issues from the rich array on offer, I will select a very few to give a flavour of some of the more intriguing insights. The first chapter on Vietnam makes a convincing case that mobility is essential to the idea of a "rooted" society, counterintuitive though this may seem, to the extent that no clear distinction between mobility and immobility can be made. Migration implies a return physically or metaphorically.

The rise of Islam in southern parts of Communist China today as a result of the presence of traders from West Asia and parts of Africa, which itself reflects China's expansion into new markets, is certainly intriguing. However, it is the role of interpreters, and particularly those from the private Arabic language school (ALS), and their interaction with Muslim traders, as well as translators from government schools that is the principal focus of this chapter in the production of a "Chinese Islam". This localized version is the creation of what the author calls a "mobility assemblage", or the interactions among the mobility patterns of different types of people within China and beyond.

The persistence of the use of shell currency in the Indian Ocean region that stretched through Bengal and into Qing China presents a fascinating case, not just of widespread trading routes but also of the dilemmas facing early European traders seeking to introduce a more universal currency. The role of Sylhet, lying between hills and plain, and acting as a hub in this system, is well brought out, even if this reader would have liked just a brief reflection on any continuities with its much later role as a source of most migrants to the United Kingdom.

The spread and transformation of ideas through mobile groups and individuals is a recurrent theme in the book. How Iranian carpet dealers, excluded from western markets, sought new markets among the new...


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pp. 83-85
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