Presenting both macro- and micro-level approaches, exploring maritime as well as terrestrial networks of communication, and investigating diverse forms of political society from the agrarian empires of the ancient world to the People’s Republic of China in our era, the essays in this special issue are brought together in a frame that counters the continuing weight of Eurocentrism by drawing attention to long-term connectivities and commonalities across Eurasia. The authors (representing multiple nationalities and theoretical traditions) work in Social Anthropology, Area Studies, History and (Historical and Political) Sociology.
Realising Eurasia. Empire and Connectivity during Three Millennia
Vol 28 No 4 (2018)
This introductory paper outlines a frame that places the dynamics of the Eurasian landmass (flexibly defined) at the centre of world history in the last three millennia. Concepts of culture area, civilization and world system are critically reviewed. Particular attention is paid to Axial Age theories, including both religious and secular variants of transcendence, and their role inthe legitimation of political institutions. These approaches are supplemented with recourse to the anthropo-archaeological materialism of Jack Goody, who emphasizes “alternating leadership” between East and West. Goody’s focus on increasing urban differentiation in the agrarian empires of the Bronze Age can be expanded by widening the range of civilizations considered beyond those based on intensive agriculture. This approach can be fruitfully combined with theoretical insights of Karl Polanyi to inspire a new historical economic anthropology that allows us to trace multiple varieties of socialism back to the forms of social inclusion and “imperial social responsibility” that emerged in the Axial Age. It is further argued that, in the light of the contradictions of contemporary neoliberal political economy, the Eurasian civilizations that launched the “great dialectic” between redistribution and market exchange are the best hope we have for resolving the tensions of the Capitalocene (which might be more appropriately termed Eurasiacene).
All empires aspire to universality, which is to say that they aim to be world empires. But they are generally aware of the existence of other empires, past and present, and of the need to come to terms with them. It helps if they can make links, ideologically and materially, with each other. In the case of the older Eurasian land empires – Rome, Byzantium, the Arab and Persian empires, India, China – the links were supplied by trade and religious interchange, Christian, Islamic, Buddhist. With the newer overseas empires – Spanish, Dutch, French, British – these links continued, but were supplemented now by the strong European presence in every corner of the globe, making them Eurasian in an even stronger sense. Behind much of this, it is argued, is the example of the vast Eurasian empire of Alexander the Great, the memory of which is to be found in practically every succeeding empire, and the example of which all aspired to imitate.
The Mongol Peace refers to the period when the descendants of Chinggis Khan dominated most of the Eurasian landmass. It was a major moment of the global middle ages for it transformed the human landscape of Eurasia and connected the Mediterranean Sea to India and China. The Mongols stimulated new forms of long-distance trade by concluding agreements with the Mamluks, the Byzantines, the Italians, and others. Under their domination a new economic order emerged that cannot be seen as the mere revival of the “silk roads” of the ancient world. Scholarship has classified the Mongol Peace as a continental phenomenon, but few historians have actually attempted to analyse it beyond noting a mutuality of interest among the Mongol leaders and merchants. This article deepens understanding of this interdependency by scrutinising the practicalities of the ortaq system more closely. The more general aim is to reinstate the concept of Mongol Peace through a new approach that attends to the nomads’ agency in the commercial economy. This includes a reassessment of the Mongols’ “spiritual” motivations, and of their political and diplomatic skills in integrating northern Eurasia into the biggest economic network of the landmass.
This article takes the Indian Ocean world as a frame of reference and applies a perspective guided by the concept of “connectivity in motion”. It looks, to start with, at some historical paradigms of seaborne empires (Portuguese, Dutch and British) in order to question and modify conventional, terra-centric models of the state. Substantiating an argument in favor of a more polycentric, fractured and porous model, the three central sections of the paper investigate the island of Mauritius as a “hub” and “hub society”. In three interconnected analytical and empirical steps, first the external dimension of the Mauritian hub is scrutinized. The next two sections zoom in to focus on the internal dimension of “hubbing”, first with respect to collective identities, and then at the level of individual and family strategies. In conclusion, the empirical and historical data presented in these three sections are analyzed with reference to the theoretical and methodological issues raised earlier. It is argued that the more decisive recognition of mobility and of the maritime dimension of human “connectivity in motion” brings new insights into conventional notions of statehood, nation and territory – and of the Eurasian landmass, beyond exclusively terrestrial approaches.
Taking Jack Goody’s thesis of Eurasian commonalities as its point of departure, the paper explores indigenous perspectives of transregional connectivities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwest China, a region quintessentially representative of “Silk Road” imagery and civilizational encounters. The subject is approached through a close reading and analysis of selected texts published in 2012 in Uyghur in a biographical dictionary that celebrates outstanding personalities who lived and worked in the oasis of Qumul in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The biographies of scholars, educators, religious dignitaries, merchants and craftsmen that span pre-socialist and socialist eras form a régime d’historicité. This régime reveals a great deal not only about the representation and position of these individuals in the wider Turkic-speaking Muslim society but also about the multi-scalar spatial construction of ethnohistory. Above the level of the oasis, the most significant scales addressed are those of the region (Xinjiang or province), the nation-state (China), and the transnational (in particular the Muslim world). This integration of the micro-level with the global enables local history to challenge taken for granted meta-narratives. This approach generates new insights into emic taxonomies as well as into the complex relationship between diachrony and synchrony.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, all roads led to China. Europe’s demand for Chinese silks, ceramics, and tea led European traders to the Orient. Then as Europe industrialized, Europeans came to dominate world trade, building a string of bases and colonies around Africa, across the Indian Ocean, and in China. Today, China is seeking to reverse this “deviant” trend and restore China to its “normal” position as the world’s dominant economy. Seeking leadership in wind and solar power, artificial intelligence, electric vehicles, and quantum computing to become the dominant power among twenty-first century economies, China is also building its own set of bases across the Indian Ocean and into southern Europe to reassert its control of these trade routes. If China succeeds, it will reverse the last two hundred years of world economic history and reassert its earlier role as the core actor in the global economy.