Diaspora Intellectuals between Late Colonialism and the Early Cold War, 1880s–1960s

AHA Session 253
Saturday, January 6, 2018: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Maryland Suite C (Marriott Wardman Park, Lobby Level)
Joshua Freeman, Harvard University
Jinny Prais, Columbia University
Shirley Ye, University of Birmingham

Session Abstract

Our roundtable will examine the role that diaspora intellectuals played in creating and building nations and nation-states between the late colonialism of the turn of the twentieth century and the early decades of the Cold War. The experience of travel to the metropole transformed young intellectuals’ perceptions of their homelands, and opened up new options for transforming those homelands into strong, modern nation-states. While the members of our roundtable are specialists in their own particular regions of focus – Central Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Africa – common themes and issues emerge when we examine the question of how diaspora intellectuals envisioned their home nations. Did the experience of travel abroad further alienate intellectuals from the concerns of their native country, or bring them closer together? In what ways did their bilingualism affect the ways that diaspora intellectuals communicated with their countrymen? How did diaspora intellectuals’ reaction with national politics and culture differ from those that had different experiences – or no experiences – abroad? How were national politics and culture during this period being defined and redefined, shaped and influenced by diaspora intellectuals as they navigated the global politics of colonialism and later on, the Cold War?

Each panelist will discuss a distinct group of diaspora intellectuals and raises a unique set of questions for both their region and time period. Jinny Prais examines how Africans and people of African descent were active participants in bringing Africa into a more inclusive understanding of universal narratives of human history. How did diaspora African intellectuals investigate the position and function of Africa in global history? Shirley Ye examines how Chinese engineers simultaneously positioned the global, western scientific knowledge about water control within the mythic narratives of Chinese civilization and modernization. While they did not see themselves as political or intellectual figures, but rather as state builders, after World War Two and the Civil War, Chinese engineers faced a difficult decision: to stay on the mainland or to follow the Nationalist government to Taiwan. Whether on China or Taiwan, Chinese engineers remained globally engaged in their hydraulic planning for the nation. Su Lin Lewis looks at intellectuals from migrant backgrounds who resisted the rise of crude ethnic nationalisms and helped fundamentally shape how the public spheres of colonial / semi-colonial societies faced the recently decolonized world. Finally, Joshua Freeman will turn to the small but influential group of diaspora Uyghurs living in the USSR, whose specific ethnic identity and loyalties led them to conceptualize a Uyghur nation in Xinjiang that gave their own Ili region a defining role in Uyghur culture.

We will share the texts and supplementary materials authored by or about our diaspora intellectuals online and invite interested participants to join the discussion one month before the conference. During the session, we will engage the audience in close reading of some of these texts. Each panelist will take ten minutes to introduce her/his texts, paper and questions, and this will be followed by an open floor discussion.

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