‘Distant Shores: Colonial Encounters on China’s Maritime Frontier’


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In a story that dawns with the Industrial Revolution and culminates in the Great Depression, Distant Shores reveals how the migration of Chinese labourers and merchants across a far-flung maritime world linked their homeland to an ever-expanding frontier of settlement and economic extraction. At home and abroad, they reaped many of the benefits of an overseas colonial system without establishing formal governing authority. Their power was sustained instead through a mosaic of familial, brotherhood, and commercial relationships spread across the ports of Bangkok, Singapore, Saigon, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Swatow. The picture that emerges is not one of Chinese divergence from European modernity but rather of a convergence in colonial sites that were critical to modern development and accelerating levels of capital accumulation. With a focus on the Chaozhouese (Teochew) native place group of Chinese, this talk will address these claims while discussing the methodological challenges of writing translocal history.


Melissa Macauley (PhD Berkeley, 1993) specializes in late imperial and modern Chinese history, 1500 to 1958. Her research focuses on such topics as the interrelated history of southeastern China and Southeast Asia; colonialism and imperialism in East and Southeast Asia; and legal culture in Chinese social history. Her most recent book, Distant Shores: Colonial Encounters on China’s Maritime Frontier, was published by Princeton University Press in 2021 (the China Times Publishing Co. will publish a Chinese  translation in 2023). Her first book, Social Power and Legal Culture: Litigation Masters in Late Imperial China, was published by Stanford University Press in 1998 (a Chinese-language version was published by Beijing University Press in 2012). Most of her early work concerned the Qing period (1644-1912), but her current book project focuses on the twentieth century. Tentatively titled Villages of the Sea: War and Revolution in Translocal China, 1929-1958, she is exploring the common experience of war and revolution in the Chaozhou region of China, Cochinchina (Vietnam), and British Malaya. She is also writing a comprehensive history of the South China Sea, tentatively titled A People’s History of the South China Sea.