AHA Session 177
Saturday, January 5, 2019: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Wabash Room (Palmer House Hilton, Third Floor)
Elham Bakhtary, George Washington University
Following Tani Barlow (Formations of Colonial Modernity in East Asia, 1997) and others, scholars of colonialism in Asia have focused on the reception of the European ‘modern’ while paying less attention to its relation to Asian pasts. This panel focusses not only on the different ways in which a sense of modernity was felt in Asia, but also on how contemporary actors sought to make sense of it through the lens of their own pasts. The result is to suggest that modernity cannot simply be studied as a break with the past, or as an attempt at the refashioning of Asian societies along European lines. Instead, we argue that attention should be paid to how distinct pasts fashioned modernity in different contexts. Elham Bakhtary examines the propaganda of the Afghan ruler Amir Sher Ali Khan (r. 1863-78). He suggests that the Amir sought to eradicate Afghanistan’s history, suggesting it was in a state of perpetual stasis, so that he could present himself as its awakener, leading to a future in which it could deal with the threat from the British empire. Youjia Li focuses on the introduction of the Push Car railway to Taiwan after Japan took the island as a colony in 1895. She argues that what was a prosaic technology in Tokyo became an emblem of modernity in the Taiwanese context. Finally, H. William Warner explores the ways in which British modernization projects brought new labor relations to existing socio-economic orders. He suggests that although such projects were unprecedented, South Asians attempted to draw from local history in an attempt to bring these new labor relations under control.
Taken together, the papers highlight the different ways in which a sense of the modern was fundamentally shaped by the distinct pasts, and contemporary politics, of different Asian regions. Given this diversity, the panel not only challenges the unity of the concept of modernity but prompts wider questions about how distinct pasts may continue to shape distinct presents and futures. This poses a challenge to global histories which have focused on the increasingly connected nature of the world since the nineteenth century.
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