Wagging the Imperial Dog: Diplomatic Practice and Negotiated Autonomy in Early Modern Eurasian Empires

AHA Session 172
Saturday, January 5, 2019: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Hancock Parlor (Palmer House Hilton, Sixth Floor)
Audrey Truschke, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
The Audience

Session Abstract

Early modern empires integrated a range of polities, groups, and peoples. This process has been understood in terms of the flexible strategies empires employed to rule such diverse and expansive domains. Less appreciated are the perspectives of communities these empires integrated, but who nevertheless maintained a distinct identity within the larger imperial order. Subsumed and yet distinct; loyal and yet self-interested, such groups embodied the fluid and contradictory state of semi-autonomy. Whether the Chosŏn kingdom of Korea and their relations with Ming China, Tibetan Buddhist communities with the Qing Empire, Jain communities with the Mughal emperors, or the Republic of Dubrovnik with the Ottoman empire, each was a weaker partner negotiating in contexts of extreme power imbalances. Belying their weakness, they not only exhibited remarkable agency in their negotiations but also succeeded in extracting favorable terms in their dealings with an ostensibly dominant imperial center.

In addition to working against a Great-Powers-centered narrative of imperial competition, one aim of foregrounding the practices of negotiation in this panel is to develop a language for speaking about the experience of weaker actors in the story of empire across early modern Eurasia. To do so requires confronting the pronounced ambiguity of how these communities worked both simultaneously within and without the imperial order, an ambiguity owing partly to a failure of terminology. Ottoman, Persianate, Sinitic, and Inner Asian imperial traditions possess rich vocabularies for describing practices of empire-making and “diplomacy,” broadly conceived. Nonetheless, acts of comparison tend to fall back on the discourse of modern international diplomacy and the assumptions it embeds. The choice to examine political and religious communities together is therefore to challenge the post-Westphalian conceit of understanding relations with other states as diplomatic, while conceiving interactions with confessional communities as religious policy. This bifurcation, which owes to the primacy of territorial sovereignty as an organizing rubric, becomes less salient when the cultural strategies of negotiating autonomy are brought to the fore. Jesse Howell’s discussion of Dubrovnik shows how the tiny republic utilized the value of its intermediary position between the Ottomans – to whom it was legally bound – and the Christian states of the western Mediterranean, to justify and defend the extraordinary privileges it received from the surrounding empire. In the case of Jain communities’ interactions with the Mughal court, examined by Audrey Truschke, a religious group with weak political power and contested cultural power were still able to extract significant political concessions, including control of certain physical spaces, from the Mughals, by leveraging ideas, texts, and ceremonies that served imperial interests. Stacey Van Vleet focuses on Tibetan Buddhist monastic medical colleges as key institutions of statecraft within the Qing imperial administration, theorizing the durability and limits of their pan-Inner Asian community through the negotiation of politics of learning and governance. While the Chosŏn Korea was a territorial state, ensuring Ming recognition of its political integrity, as examined by Sixiang Wang, involved using poetic rhetoric and ritual performance to exploit the fractures and contradictions of Ming imperial ideology.

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