Monks, Artists, and Merchants: Migrant Networks and Empire in Early Modern Asia
This panel explores the interactions between grassroots networks and imperial powers as early modern empires took shape in Asia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This period witnessed increased mobility of people, goods, and ideas within the context of global imperial expansions. Scholars of early modern empire often concentrate on European imperial enterprise at the global scale and overlook how social forces shaped human history and transformed empires. The panel intervenes in the prevailing paradigm through examining the political, economic, and social aspects of non-state actors and networks that transcended cultural and regional boundaries. Collectively, the authors suggest that these networks helped to shape the historical development of empires in Asia while simultaneously being shaped by the imperial powers as the two intersected. The authors overturn the exclusive emphasis on state policies and their implementations at specific locales. Instead, they focus on mobile imperial subjects and traces of the movement of people and texts to uncover the ways in which the networks outside the state apparatus redefined—and were themselves reshaped by—the early modern empires within and around which they were located. The panel’s three authors utilize a wide array of sources, including records of the East India Company, merchant handbooks, local gazetteers, literary ephemera by theater fanciers, and Tibetan ritual instructions and letter exchanges among Inner Asian Buddhists, to show alternative ways of conceptualizing transnational networks and their influence over state formation. Vadlamudi explains the historical circumstances under which English East Indian Company officials attracted circulating merchants to the English entrepôt in Penang through the Company’s taxation policies. Gordanier traces opera performers' travels in Qing China and argues that the networks these entertainment workers formed were part of an ever-shifting feedback system enmeshing artistic taste with the prosaic realities of trans-regional trade. Wu submits that Inner Asian Tibetan Buddhists created a trans-regional intellectual network—one whose objectives might be different from the state’s—through writing about and performing highly formulaic Buddhist rituals. The cases under discussion in this panel suggest new possibilities of examing the reciprocal relationship between migration and imperial regimes. Through tracing movements of the more mobile members of society, the papers imbricate the networks with the processes of imperial formation in early modern Asia. The panel challenges the very definition of demarcated space within an empire and suggests new ways to examine the role of commercial, cultural, and religious agents and their networks in shaping imperial histories.