Looking for Asian Connections during the Colonial Period. Reconfigurations from the 'Inside' and 'Outside'

Looking for Asian Connections during the Colonial Period. Reconfigurations from the 'Inside' and 'Outside'

It is rare in international relations and colonial studies to talk about Asian connections during the colonial period. Colonial history tends to concentrate on one specific colonial state or on the relationship between the “colonizer” and the “colonized”. Most international historians also focus on the colonial states during this period, the sovereign entities of the time (the Dutch Indies or French Indochina). They then fast forward to 1945 to resume the Asian part of the story with the onset of decolonization. In both cases, connections among the different Asian colonized disappear. While 1945 is most certainly a crucial date, the jump from the 19th century colonization of the region to its decolonization in 1945 is problematic for those interested in tracking intra-Asian connections like myself. Most problematic is that it implicitly assumes that the “colonizers” somehow locked the Asian “colonized” into an imperial time warp – that nothing of real importance occurred among Asian until sovereign states emerged with decolonization.

And yet Asian views of the world, of their place in it, and of their relations with each other did not simply “pick up” where they had left off in the 19th century. Nor did “traditional” pre-colonial relations simply resume in 1945 as if nothing had occurred during some one hundred years of colonization. Much occurred among the Asian “colonized” during the colonial period. After all, the revolutionary China and Vietnam that asserted themselves after WWII were very different from the Qing and Nguyen dynasties that had melted down at the turn of the century. The same could be said for Indians, Indonesians and Burmese taking over postcolonial states from 1945. And these leaders were not always strangers to each other; they had often met during the colonial period.
Over the last few years, I have used the case of French Indochina to look for ways of studying how “Asian colonized” continued to interact with one another on the “inside” of the colonial state and on the “outside” – in Asia and beyond. In 1995, I published Vietnam or Indochina? Contesting Concepts of Space in Vietnamese Nationalism (1887-1954), in which I attempted to understand how the colonial period led the Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians to engage in fascinating debates over the reality of Indochina as a colonial and, ultimately, national endpoint. As Benedict Anderson once asked: If Javanese could assume the colonial model to become “Indonesians” in 1945, then why could not the Vietnamese or Cambodians become “Indochinese”? The answer was that many Vietnamese almost did; but hardly any Cambodians or Laotians were ready to imagine such a thing. In 1999, I switched the approach to consider how Vietnamese opposition to French rule in Indochina pushed anticolonialists out of Indochina and more deeply into the Asian region. In so doing, they made a series of new intellectual, cultural, and revolutionary connections with other Asians in the world outside. But whether viewed from the inside or the outside of the colonial state, what struck me was the degree to which Asians continued to engage each other in spite of, if not because of the colonial project. It all depends on where one looks …
In this short essay, I would simply like to suggest some places where we might look in order to locate Asian connections during the colonial period. One way of doing this is to consider how the colonized of Asia linked up “outside” the colonial states as part of wider historical shifts in the region. The second possibility is to take a closer look at what was going on among Asian “colonized” residing within the colonial states.

Looking for Connections on the “Outside”
Ideas matter for all of us. In a time of great change this is particularly true. Obviously, the acute pain many Asian patriots felt upon seeing their countries conquered did not just go away with colonial promises of “modernity”, “protection”, or “civilization”. For most, the challenge was now how to transform the idea of an independent nation being imagined in their heads into a reality on the ground, especially in light of the military superiority of the West. Only the Japanese and the Thais could actually link states to nations, often imitating the Western powers that had threatened to conquer them. But for the colonized, the situation was much more difficult. Did one march with the colonizer towards “modernisation” and perhaps even “decolonization”; or did one take up the patriotic struggle to achieve the nation first by force? The answers to such questions were not always easy; and the process was perhaps more complicated than some anticolonial writers would have us believe. After all, Ho Chi Minh first applied to the Ecole coloniale in France in the hope of modernizing his country in collaboration with the French. When he took the boat for the metropole in 1911, he was travelling in a colonial order. No one knew – not even Ho Chi Minh, “the enlightened one” – that French Republican promises to “liberate” the colonies would turn out to be empty words. Ho's trajectory was but one of many such Asian voyages at the time.

Indeed, the global nature of colonialism set Asians into motion in new ways. Anticolonialism, nationalism and the quest for “modernisation” intertwined at the turn of the 20th century to send thousands of Asians on new journeys in search of new ways of putting their countries back on the map of nations. Koreans, Vietnamese, Chinese, Burmese, and Indians began to link up, not via diplomatic delegations linking their respective capitals (they had not nations), but on the “outside”, in the independent states of Thailand, Japan, and nationalist China, and increasingly in the imperial capitals in Europe and the United States. Ho Chi Minh first met Zhou Enlai in Paris in the early 1920s. In 1927, during the meeting of the Anti Imperialist League in Brussels, Indians and Chinese anticolonialists joined hands to publish a joint declaration exhorting each side to revive their “millennial” relationship in order to “stand up again” in the world. In 1939, during his voyage to China, Nehru imagined an Asian Federation with China and India at its centre. Tagore visited Indochina after WWI, while Vietnamese such as Bui Quang Chieu travelled to India to learn more about the Indian congress. These intra-Asian links during the colonial period deserve further study, for they were a part of the genesis of new perceptions of the region and the world.

Meiji Japan's victory over the Russians in 1905 was an important turning point in this wider Asian colonial history. In that year, Japan scored a stunning victory over the Russians. News of this “Asian” victory over a “white” power spread throughout the region, not just in Western colonial capitals where it set off fears of the péril jaune, but throughout the realm of the “colonized”. Asians from China and India, Vietnam and Indonesia, and even as far away as Egypt set sail for Tokyo to study the “Meiji miracle”. Meiji had shown that it was possible to “modernize” without having to be colonized. Some of the major ideological justifications of the West's domination of the rest had thus been called into question, not least of all Eurocentric racist ideas of Social Darwinism and missions civilisatrices. Although Japan would profoundly disappoint Asian nationalists until its military defeat in 1945, 1905 had nonetheless brought “Asian colonized” together in new ways and had given rise to new exchanges, connections, contacts, and ways of thinking. Thousands of Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese students were studying there. Phan Boi Chau and Sun Yat-sen met in Japan. Indeed, the Vietnamese were not the only ones to create a “Dong Du” (Travel East) programme to train their young national elites in Japan. The Korean had one too.

1919 is another date that brought the colonized together on the outside. The importance of Versailles for understanding Western international history is well known; but 1919 was also a turning point in how the colonized saw the world and their place in it. For one, WWI had been the first truly global war due in no small part of the global nature of colonialism. The Japanese had joined the Allies against the Germans in the Far East, while hundreds of thousands of Chinese, Vietnamese, Indians, and Africans fought on European battlefields. The colonized, as subject members of a colonial system, were linked to this war. But in exchange for their sacrifices, colonial nationalists expected something in return. The end of WWI and Wilsonian promises of self-determination held out the hope that thing could change. Subject elites from across the world watched carefully as the “Great Powers” sat down at Versailles to rework the international system. Ho Chi Minh was by no means the only one to send petitions to Allied leaders asking them to extend self-determination to the colonies. Koreans, Chinese, and Indian “subjects” were all there. Nor was Ho alone in his deep disappointment, when Wilson's promise of self-determination was effectively limited to decolonizing decaying Empires in central Europe rather than the extra-European colonial ones.

An important synchronism also occurred at this same conjuncture. The failure of the Great Powers to address the colonial question seriously in 1919 led many Asian nationalists to turn to more radical means to achieve independent Nation-States. This coincided with another major shift coming out of WWI – the October Revolution of 1917 and the creation of the world's first communist state and a Eurasian one at that – the Soviet Union. Lenin linked the colonial question to the wider internationalist communist struggle against capitalism. Imperialism was, in his words, the “highest stage” of capitalism. This linkage is well known. What is important here is that Leninism appealed to so many in the colonial world by offering a cogent explanation of colonial domination and by putting on the table an alternative blueprint for national liberation and modernization. It held out the promise of a new international order, a revolutionary one, in which the colonized would have a major role to play. The USSR went further in 1919 when it created the Comintern to support, guide, and finance communists throughout the world, with the colonial part of it receiving considerable attention. In so doing, it also incorporated a wide range of Asian nationalists into its revolutionary channels moving across the globe. When revolutionary Chinese and Vietnamese linked up in 1950 they had already known each other from these revolutionary anticolonialist networks. Ho had collaborated with Zhou Enlai in southern China in the mid 1920s and again in the late 1930s. Thanks to support from the Comintern and the Chinese Communist Party, hundreds of Vietnamese nationalists studied in southern Chinese revolutionary schools until 1927. Vietnamese communism itself was born outside of Vietnam, in the colonial port of Hong Kong in 1930. The nature of the relationship between communist China and Vietnam in 1950 was thus very different from the “tributary” ones linking the Nguyen to the “Middle Kingdom”. Again, much went on during the colonial period.

Factoring in the “Inside”: Beyond the “Colonizer-Colonized”
Just as the creation of colonial states did not cut Asians off from the region and the world, nor did it freeze historical interactions on the “inside”. My point is that colonialism rerouted and recast intra-Asian contacts in new ways. This was true in French Indochina, the Dutch Indies, and British Malaya, where the dynamics of the colonial states increased Vietnamese, Chinese, and Indian immigration across borders in order to set colonial states into motion. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese were brought to work in colonial industries and plantations throughout colonial Southeast Asia. Indians and Vietnamese worked as bureaucrats in Burma and western Indochina, respectively. In so doing, colonial powers created new legal categories for the Asian colonized. Often it was done along ethnic, cultural, religious, economic and even civilizational lines (for the Japanese for example), but rarely was it thought out in “national” ways. These were, after all, colonial states. Local leaders were no longer in control of key questions of immigration, law, and social integration. The colonial powers were.

However, as I encountered throughout my research, questions of immigration and colonial law stimulated heated debates among the colonized during the colonial period. In French Indochina, for example, numerous Lao, Khmer, Viet, Indian and Chinese subject elites engaged each other in fascinating exchanges about the place each group held in the French Indochinese colonial state – or did not want to hold. Laotians and Cambodians contested the special status that allowed ethnic “Viet” (there was legally no such thing as “Vietnam”) to live and work in western French Indochina, that is in Laos and Cambodia. Similarly, colonial Vietnamese nationalists regretted not being able to control Chinese immigration and pleaded with the French to dismantle “congregations” in order to turn the Chinese into “Vietnamese” (or expel them). Revealing, in the 1930s, the Cambodians asked the French to allow them to “Khmerize” the Viet living in colonial Cambodia. While I cannot go into details here, consider the similarity of these two intra-Asian debates during the colonial period and their potential importance for widening our understanding of colonial Asia. As one Vietnamese colonial nationalist put the Chinese “problem” at the important conjuncture of 1919 :
It is the Chinese congregation as it exists and functions that poses the problem. This particular organisation, which creates a State within a State, is the original mistake which we, the indigenous people pay the price today while waiting on the French to suffer its consequences, as much as if not more than us. […] Within the organisation of the congregation, the French government, for its own tranquillity and convenience abdicated a part of its powers to the congregation heads, said to be elected. As long as the taxes come in and public order is not threatened, the Chinese have the right to take care of their own problems among themselves, they have their own justice system, schools, budget, houses, clubs, associations, goods, in short they constitute, thanks to the will of the French government, independent states. […]

A decade later, the Cambodians turned the tables on the Vietnamese, who held a separate legal status there. Listen to how this Cambodian writer asked the French to allow him to use modern law in order to turn the ethnic Viet into good little Cambodian “nationals”:
The institution known as the Indochinese Union, the equivalent in fact of the annexation of Cambodia by the Annamese, is bad for our national future. If, in effect, the Annamese countries and our own belonged to different masters, for example the former to the Netherlands and us to the French – our frontier in the East would have survived and the Annamese would not be able to stride across it without dealing with endless passport formalities. I have the firm conviction that the generous French people will not let such a situation continue for long in Cambodia, something which they would have never allowed in France. If not, then [France] will have to answer before History. Those who hold the levers of power should put themselves in our shoes in order to govern us. They should make an effort to Khmerize here all Asians who are not khmers, which is about one third of the population! In short, the French should give us at least the semblance of a having a national government.
One of the solutions this Cambodian author put to the French was the need to detach Cambodia from the colonial state of Indochina, as the British had done in British India when they created a separate, colonial Burma. This is what a number of Cambodian colonial nationalists wanted. French colonial administrators scoffed at the idea. And yet when the French tried to rebuild Indochina after WWII, not only did they encounter fierce opposition to the division of “Vietnam” from ethnic Viet nationalists, but they also ran up against strong Cambodian and Laotian nationalist opposition to all the was “Indochinese”. Between 1945 and 1954, immigration, law, and nationality were all fiercely debated and negotiated at the colonial and international levels; but these questions had already been under discussion among Asians. Again, it all depends where one looks.

Let me conclude by suggesting why intra-Asian colonial exchanges are worth factoring into the conceptualization of a wider Asian history for the “colonial period”. First, I would argue that in most cases the modernizing and categorizing nature of the colonial project itself actually accelerated interactions among the different Asian colonized. New legal identities accorded by the European colonial states to the Indians, Chinese, and Vietnamese for a variety of different reasons brought about new exchanges, many of which would become points of national and international contention once decolonization transformed the colonial states into a national ones.
Second, these debates on colonial legal categories point up the rich sources for studying what occurred among the Asian colonized themselves during the colonial period. Many of these debates are in the press, which served as the “unofficial” archives of the colonized. Without their own ambassadors, it was one of the rare places where they could engage each other. It seems likely that similar debates and sources could be located in other parts of colonial Asia, such as in the Indonesia/Dutch Indies and the former British Asian Empire: Burma, Malaya, Singapore and India.

Third, these debates on legal categories point up the fact that the 1945 break between the “colonial period” and the “postcolonial period” may not be as sharp as we often think. These “Indochinese” colonial exchanges among the colonized demonstrate the extent to which defining the modern concepts of “nationality” and “citizenship” had already begun to make itself felt during the colonial period. The “Indochinese” debates show how the colonized had already begun to define national membership during the colonial period. Though their nations remained in their heads, these debates about who would belong to them one day were very real. Again, I would think there would be similar intra-Asian, inter-colonized debates on legal categories and colonial citizenship in other parts of colonial Asia. The parallel between the colonial separation of Burma from British India and the Cambodian plea to be separated from the French Indochinese Union would be worth considering.

Fourth, French colonial legal categories in Indochina, perhaps like those of the Dutch and the British, created racial, political, and cultural divides. This, in turn, triggered the desire to “nationalize” certain groups or to exclude them. The study of these categories in particular and law in general may allow us to go further in understanding the construction of social barriers, mutual perceptions, and the mechanics of ethnic violence during the colonial period. As the national idea rapidly developed in the minds of the colonized, privileged groups, the Chinese in Vietnam and Malaya or the Vietnamese in Cambodia and Laos, found themselves being placed outside of the national community and potentially at its nationalizing mercy.

Fifth, these intra-Asian connections, both on the inside and the outside, suggest that it is perhaps time to move beyond the worn-out dichotomy in colonial studies between the “colonizer & colonized”. The problem is that most studies of the colonial period –even postcolonial and Saidian-inspired cultural studies – remain focused on this binary opposition and are surprisingly Eurocentric in terms of their sources and theoretical inspiration. With the notable exception of the Subaltern studies school based out of India, few of the new “postcolonial studies” pick up on the links among the Asians themselves during the colonial period. And yet it would be a theoretical and methodological pity to leave out this “intra-Asian” link between the colonized in the building of a more sophisticated understanding of colonial Asia. The possibility of developing analytical frameworks which cut horizontally among the colonized and not just vertically between the “colonizer” and the “colonized” would be an exciting prospect, all the while maintaining the link with the colonizer.

In this way, a future colonial and international history of Asia would be less of an oppositional one than une histoire croisée or perhaps better yet a “connected history”, to borrow Sanjay Subrahmanyam's term for studying an earlier period. However, in order to “see” the complexity of colonial Asia, we need to reconfigure how we approach it. This essay has simply tried to suggest a few new ways of looking at an old problem.