Maritime Asia in the Selden Map (Bodleian Library, Oxford), a Chinese map produced in Southeast Asia in the 17th century

Maritime Asia is a confusing morass of contested sovereignties and geopolitical rivalries. Yet the seaways of Asia have, in their history, also fostered cultural exchange and economic integration. The liminal maritime zone surrounding China remains a paradox between seas and ports teeming with legal and illegal exchange and governmental policies attempting to monopolize and restrict it. Vast and fluid, maritime China has long hindered state control and fostered connections determined as much by bottom-up economic and cultural logic as by top-down official impositions.

This conference proposes to reexamine the rich history of maritime China and adjacent areas by tracing the development of three initiatives that harnessed the seas and bound an array of actors and locales for distinct, but interrelated goals from the early modern to modern eras (16th to 20th century) —control, evasion, and interloping.

“Control” refers to the unceasing efforts by terrestrial polities—imperial, republican, and colonial—vying to extend jurisdiction over the seas for taxation, security, and sovereignty. The sea in the official imagination teemed with unseen threats but also potential profit, and segmenting and monopolizing its use proved to be an important state imperative throughout history. As the burgeoning research on maritime worlds has reminded scholars, this territorialization was an ongoing project, a dialectic between control and freedom unfolding over centuries. In addition to violence, states have employed other weapons in their arsenal of coercion: technologies of surveillance that enhanced legibility, knowledge of science that demarcated claims, and frameworks of law that legitimated authority. Cartography, telecommunications, and laws all helped broadcast regulatory authority to maritime margins.

“Evasion” refers to people and/or groups that organize against the boundary setting and rationalization projects of state-builders. They form connections and associations that straddle and connect across lines set by authorities with the intent of separating them. Or they evade and confound the instruments of surveillance aimed at penetrating their liminality. Smuggling, black markets, illegal immigration, and human trafficking all fall under this rubric. At times, however, the rationalizing impulse of the state comes into direct conflict with the evaders, creating armed conflict in the form of piracy. Evaders also have a tendency to become victims of their own success. Once they grow to a certain size, they begin to take on characteristics of interlopers or the very state authorities that they had once tried every means to oppose.

Finally, “interloping” brings together apparently disparate phenomena and actors, sharing the maritime space with states, para-states, and major commercial interests, and often overlapping with their networks in an ambiguous relationship of exploitation. The exploitation was bi-directional: imperial and mercantile projects of various kinds used interlopers and the spaces they inhabited to open up new markets and territories, as they did with overseas Chinese within colonial contexts in Indochina and Southeast Asia. From the point of view of the interlopers (truly “imperial stowaways”), however, the opposite was also true. Their own projects, be they dictated by private profit, spiritual calling, or sheer survival, took full advantage of the established structures of commerce and state control as their own vectors.

The “continental turn” in Chinese history shifted once-seemingly marginal frontiers to the center of academic inquiry, and a fresh look at the history of maritime China is now overdue. Already, scholars are revisiting what was previously a neglected geographical arena. Meanwhile, a growing number of scholars from other fields have highlighted oceans as important sites of exchange and contestation in a global perspective. The presence at the conference of specialists in other areas of maritime history is designed to foster a dialogue with this new and exciting scholarship. We hope our discussion will uncover multidirectional avenues of exchange and interaction between China, East Asia, Southeast Asia and the world by considering a wider range of actors—not just states but non-territorialized groups such as religious orders, ethnic diasporas, scientific communities, mercantile organizations, among others.