Award Information

International Dissertation Research Fellowship 2019
Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
Barbarians on the Shore: Negotiating Global Trade and Daily Life on the South China Coast, 1770-1853

Historians have traditionally painted a bleak portrait of the early modern encounter between "China" and "the West," with stories of cross-cultural misunderstanding, legal disputes, and opium smuggling taking the fore in a conflict-centered narrative of the decades preceding the first Opium War (1839-1842). My dissertation, however, takes a different approach. Via a multidisciplinary, bottom-up reexamination of the daily lives and incentives of Chinese and foreigners on the South China Coast, I argue that conflict and misunderstanding were far less typical than we might expect. I focus on everyday practices of communication, trade, dispute resolution, and relationship building at the grassroots level, with an eye toward understanding not only "what failed" (i.e., points of friction and conflict) but also "what worked" about the formal and informal mechanisms that helped guide Chinese-foreigner interaction, encompassing a diverse cast of British, American, Portuguese, Dutch, Japanese, and Southeast Asian merchants and travelers as well as Chinese shopkeepers, sailors, coolies, interpreters, barbers, prostitutes, laundrywomen, fishermen, and other locals who interacted on a growing basis with the "barbarians" who had come to do business on their shores. I draw upon a broad array of historical archives in China, Western Europe, and Southeast Asia for my research, utilizing business records, government documents, commercial news publications, private letters and diaries, maps, material objects, and linguistic data to reconstruct the fabric of daily life as I follow the movement of people, goods, and ideas into and between ports that connected the South China Coast with the rest of the world. By looking beyond a straightforward narrative of conflict, I believe that I can not only offer an insightful counter-narrative to prevailing beliefs about the nature of early Sino-Western interaction but also better contextualize the frictions and misunderstandings that did occur.