Scales of Maritime Space: The South China Sea and Connected Histories

AHA Session 240
Society for Advancing the History of South Asia 6
Saturday, January 7, 2017: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Centennial Ballroom F (Hyatt Regency Denver, Third Floor)
David Ludden, New York University
David Ludden, New York University

Session Abstract

The recent turn in oceanic studies has transformed our understanding of the geographies, boundaries, and horizons of historical inquiry.  In many respects, this maritime turn constitutes a salutary shift toward a transnational and globally entangled histories, of moving past the confines of bounded states or areas.  However, even as this new approach dissolves one set of boundaries, it also risks re-assembling new ones.  One of the key attributes of oceans is their connectedness, the lack of any obvious barrier preventing movements from one body of water to another.  Yet the flourishing of Indian Ocean, Atlantic World, and Pacific World studies has the unintended consequence of segmenting maritime space, of reifying separate, even self-contained entities.  There has been less explicit discussion of the various scales of interactions across different types of water bodies.  How can we distinguish between the Indian Ocean world and the Pacific if seen from the vantage point of the Malay-Indonesian archipelago?  How do we make sense of the circulations across the rivers and the ways in which port cities function as nodes connecting mountains plains and coastal estuaries?  How do we differentiate between small-scale seas and vast oceans, between local island crossing and sojourns from the Arabian coast to East China?  This panel seeks to foreground these multiple scales while also retaining some sense of distinctive social, environmental, and political dimensions of each.  One maritime zone that can prove especially productive for illuminating these multiple scales of circulation, we suggest, is the South China Sea.   

Although recently known as a flashpoint for geopolitical conflict, the South China Sea has a long history as both a global crossroads and an area with its characteristic cultures and peoples.  Entangled and overlapping networks of Chinese and Malays, Indians and Arabs, Japanese, Filipinos, and Euro-Americans, have long traversed this space, rendering clear boundaries of an Indian Ocean or Pacific World problematic.  At the same time, unique communities of orang laut sea nomads roamed smaller straits, narrows, and inlets, while indigenous communities in the mountains of Borneo fished upland rivers.  An ever-evolving succession of port cities, technologies, and maritime infrastructures have served to bring further nuances to the waterspace of the South China.  By tracing the religious, ethnic, economic, and environmental circulations and entanglements across the South China Seas, the panelists will interrogate the homogenization of Asian oceans and thus deepen our understanding of varying scales of water space, while contributing to a re-imagination of the broader Asia-Pacific.

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