Identity and Belonging in Premodern Imperial Discourses: A Roundtable

AHA Session 245
Society for Advancing the History of South Asia 8
Saturday, January 6, 2018: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Congressional Room B (Omni Shoreham, West Lobby)
David A. M. Spafford, University of Pennsylvania
Manan Ahmed Asif, Columbia University
Christopher Atwood, University of Pennsylvania
Miranda Brown, University of Michigan
Ian Moyer, University of Michigan
Teresa Shawcross, Princeton University

Session Abstract

Recent events have shown that we, Westerners, struggle with diversity. We struggle to include in our larger communities people of disparate ethnic, religious, and racial origins, and while it is easy to imagine that such challenges are unique to the present moment, the historical record would suggest otherwise. Long before the emergence of modern nation states, there were empires that also brought under one rule peoples of different tongues, faiths, ways of life, and ethnic origins.

At the same time, as analytical categories, race and ethnicity have been fundamentally shaped by the realities of the modern nation-state. Socio-political realities distant in time and space have, by necessity, constructed their own categories to grapple with such problems, and they have done so by drawing on their specific cultural and historical contexts.

This panel brings together scholars who study some of the largest empires of the premodern period—Chinese, Mongol, Mughal, Byzantine, Hellenistic. It reflects on the lessons that may be learned by considering how different multiethnic and multiracial polities defined their cosmopolitanism and framed potential tensions generated by issues historians of the modern world would subsume under the rubrics of race and ethnicity. The culturally and demographically composite character of the great empires of the premodern world spurred both rulers and members of the elite educated classes to ponder the parameters of inclusion and exclusion, and the possibility of assimilation of the other (in several cases, a barbarian, uncivilized other). How did the people living in such cosmopolitan empires define membership in their community? What debates and contradictions existed, particularly in empires ruled by outsiders? How might the contemporary vocabulary of race, ethnicity, religion, and culture help us engage in a productive dialogue with the various experiences and epistemologies of the premodern world?

The panel will be structured as a roundtable discussion, a conversation spanning thousands of years and thousands of miles. The exchange will be kicked off by an introductory presentation, on the case of early China, by one of the panel’s organizers; the other participants will then expand and reframe the original intervention from the vantage point of their respective specializations.

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