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Beyond Slavery: Dependency in Asian History

Research Group Leader: Claude Chevaleyre

PhD researchers: Anas Ansar

Over the past half-century, slavery studies have been reinvigorated by many factors. Among others, these include the contributions of fields such as gender studies and anthropology, as well as the effects of contemporary debates about the place of slavery in the construction of modern nations and in the memory of former colonial and colonized countries. More recently, slavery has also become a major topic within the field of Global labour history. While these factors have stimulated the renewal of slavery and “unfree labour” studies all over the world, they have not produced similar effects on the history of slavery in East Asia. Although a new field of “Slavery in Asia” (mostly colonial South/South-East Asia) has been on the rise over the past few years, and despite the recent vitality of gender approaches in Early Modern Chinese and Japanese studies, East Asia remains a blind spot in the world history of slavery and dependency. The members of the Research Group (RG) therefore take “East Asia” as their area of expertise to explore the various dimensions of dependency in a global perspective. The coordinator focuses on two main themes: 1. Interactions between various sets of norms and practices in Early Modern China; 2. The reconstruction of interregional and transnational networks of human trafficking. The Ph.D. students might address any issue relevant to the study of “Slavery and Dependency”, from any discipline, in any period, and on any scale (i.e., from micro studies to global approaches). Topics can therefore be as various as (but not limited to): the comparative analysis of Early Modern East Asian concepts and norms of dependency; labour coercion on state, elite, and religious estates; transnational forced relocation throughout Asia before and beyond the “coolie trade”; local labour regimes and forms of labour (im)mobilization; voice and resistance of the enslaved; intersectionalities and the construction of labour, family, social, and legal identities; economic transformation and changes in norms and practices of dependency, etc.

Central Aims

The Junior Research Group “Dependency in Asian History” is committed to two principal tasks:

1. By exploring slavery and dependency in East Asia in all their historical depth and complexity, the RG first intends to lift the veil on what remains an overlooked (yet not insignificant) area of the global history of dependency – one where “slavery” is often regarded as having been “mild” or “non-economic”, and appears irrelevant both as an abstraction and as a historical reality. Taking dependency as a “total social fact” that impacts the whole political economy of “premodern” Asian societies, the RG potentially tackles any aspect and dimension of “slavery and dependency”. Its primary concern nonetheless focuses on the exploration of institutions (legal, political and economic, as well as cultural, religious, and domestic), the articulations and interactions between various and often competing sets of norms and practices, and the circulations of dependent individuals, groups, and even norms and concepts, at various spatial levels (from the local to the transnational). In so doing, the RG is dedicated to the task of methodically deconstructing the structures of dependency throughout East Asia. It pays attention to comparisons, connections, and entanglements to identify proximities, divergences, and shifts in norms and practices through time and space.

2. By taking “East Asia” – even broadly defined to include neighboring areas – as its basic research unit to explore slavery and dependency, the RG also aims at providing a substantial contribution to the writing of a new “grammar of dependency”, a task the research unit is highly committed to. Looking at dependency in Asia as a whole is in no way a means to “naturalize” Asian experiences (or to restate Asia’s “otherness”). It first allows to de-compartmentalize entities (the changing, artificial, and plural constructions subsumed in contemporary nation-states) which shared strong conceptual and normative similarities, but also gave rise to highly divergent practices of dependency. Doing so therefore allows to play more broadly on scales, to initiate new comparisons, to explore regional interactions and global entanglements, etc. Moreover, looking at dependency from Asia provides an entry-point to decenter the perspective, to “provincialize” Western historical experiences, and to question the relevance of the concepts and categories of human bondage we tend to regard as universal and encompassing by acknowledging that they are the specific products of historically situated contexts. Therefore, the issue is not to decide whether the configurations and categories of dependency studied by the RG should be labelled “serfdom”, “slavery”, or anything else. The issue is rather: to try and go beyond this imperfect (and always limited) “matching game”; to set aside the familiar binary frameworks (the “slavery-freedom” or “free-unfree” analytical pairs, the “West and the rest” comparative approach, or the “internal-external” choice in the translation process); and to ask what these experiences and configurations we study have to say about the relevance, the singularity and universality of the West in the global history of dependency. Taking Asia not as a counterpoint, but as a center point also allows to engage in a dialogue with a wider variety of geographical areas and historical fields, a task which is crucial to the elaboration of a new “Grammar of dependency”.

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