This panel draws attention to the relationship between economic life and imperial formations in Asia. Classical accounts consider modern imperial expansion as an inevitable and steady process with military takeover and economic exploitation as its prime forms of domination. Recent scholarship on imperial formations, however, questions how actors on the ground shaped the form that empires took. It recuperates the contestations and contingencies by tracing conflicts that entailed new kinds of economic and epistemological intervention. Seeking to further this discussion, this panel interrogates where and how political hegemony interlocked with commodity circulation, capital accumulation, and labor organization, and asks how different forms of domination led to divergent lived experiences of local economic actors.
Borah uses novel datasets on human heights to suggest that living standards in pre-colonial India were higher than in contemporary Europe, but declined sharply after British domination. Hao showcases that in China, British investors employed legal tutelage to recast market governance, though such attempts were attenuated by Qing statesmen’s vision for controlling foreign shareholders. Chi illustrates how Japan-controlled sawmills mobilized multi-national lumberjacks, transforming unexploited mountain forests—and a Qing-Chosŏn buffer zone—into an industrializing frontier buttressing the Japanese empire. The demand for labor in colonial Korea, Leung shows, resulted in the migration of Chinese laborers that the Japanese failed to completely control. Taken together, the papers reveal the contestations over the reconfiguration of economic life during the making of empires. Our discussant enhances this panel by bringing in her comparative perspective on cross-cultural encounters of imperialism.
Paper Presenter: Monish Borah – University of California, Irvine
Paper Presenter: Xiaowen Hao – University of California, Los Angeles
Paper Presenter: Xiang Chi – Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
Paper Presenter: Ho-chiu Leung – University of California, San Diego