Burbank and Cooper take on the ambitious project of overviewing Empires in World History by engaging myriad cultural and geographic contexts from ancient times to the present day. In doing so, the authors implicitly weave the titular, overarching themes of power and politics through the necessarily self-contained, though interconnected, millieux they cover. Burbank and Cooper’s approach brings up questions of feasibility, clarity and structure. Though universal history may be philosophically sound, how do historians contend with issues of narrative coherency and the (mis)application of Eurocentric historiographic models to the non-European past? [Is there such thing as a non-European past? Is there such thing as an exclusively European past?] Burbank and Cooper’s long durée necessitates an almost comparative approach that lends itself to an argument about a (universal?) human tendency towards exploitation and domination.
"Zhou Tiehai, “There Came a Mr. Solomon to China” (1994)."
Surface. Accessed February 27, 2018.http://www.surfacemag.com/
The authors problematically engage a teleology of the United States’ “politics of difference.” They first describe a process of Othering that used discreet categories such as “subjects” and “non-citizens” to subjugate native peoples, Blacks and nonwhite immigrants; then they conclude that “only in the late twentieth century would Americans celebrate their diversity” (286). While neglecting the complex politics of empire interior to the U.S. itself, Burbank and Cooper trace the rise of American exceptionalism and its imperialist mission abroad. Posing the question of “colonization without colonialism?” (321), the authors examine the use of infiltrative polities and economics, indigenous intermediaries, and ideologies that cemented racialized notions of mastery, progress, and development.
Consider Burbank and Cooper’s discussion of Hong Kong – a classic example of a “hybrid” colonial context. [What is “hybrid?” Is everything “hybrid?”] In lieu of engaging dualities of East and West, Chinese and British (their clash and synthesis) the authors survey the territory’s economic linkages with “Japan, the Dutch East Indies, the Spanish Philippines, Portuguese enclaves in Macao, East Timor, and Goa, and, further afield, British India” (300). By crediting Chinese entrepreneurs for establishing trade networks that contributed to Hong Kong’s dynamic social topography, they subvert canonical conceptions of the imperialist’s primary role in strengthening colonies through their imposition of “foreignness” and encouragement of (asymmetrical) exchange.
In “From Immigrant to Transmigrant,” Schiller, Basch and Blanc parse the ultimate paradox – “‘the age of transnationalism’ is a time of continuing and even heightening nation-state building processes” (59). In attempting to describe migrations, movements and diasporas, historians are compelled to delineate, rather than deconstruct borders. Rather than centering on the mutability and changeability of categories like country, colony or nation-state, we are tempted to leave such constructs untouched for the sake of cohesive narrative construction. Connecting this issue to Burbank and Cooper’s treatment of Japan’s pan-Asianist mission, a metanarrative emerges wherein historians must (de)construct the same boundaries and identities that historical actors themselves sought to (de)construct – “that colonized as well as colonizer were Asian was emphasized again and again by Japanese ethnographers … but the vision of racial brotherhood was a hierarchical one. Japan was the elder brother, China the younger” (402).
I was disappointed that Burbank and Cooper did not explore further the use of English as a colonizer language and its role in cultural and epistemic infiltration. They mention a “Hindu College” founded in 1818 which used English as the language of instruction and the change of the government language from Persian to English in 1835 (308). The authors remark on three interpretations of such policies – an opportunity for Indians to acquire (Anglocentric) cultural capital, an act of erasure and domination, or a “middle ground” – a hybrid system forged from two preexisting hegemonies. The latter understanding mirrors the rhetoric surrounding Hong Kong’s retrocession (441) – known as “the Handover” in the territory itself, but “the Return” in the mainland (something the authors do not touch upon). Four years after their book was published, the Umbrella Movement began – how might their work have treated young Hong Kongers’ protests against “Chinese interventionism?”