The Transnational Making of a Nationality: Representations of the Boat People in Modern China

My second research monograph will be a transcolonial history of representations of the boat people and associated groups living on China’s watery fringes from the nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. It draws on colonial theories and postcolonial critiques such as sentimental imperialism and internal colonialism, and compares the boat dwellers in China with the water population in Southeast Asia such as the “sea gypsies.” It explores the imperial enterprises and transregional colonial projects to identify and occupy terra incognita in modern China’s littorals as reflected in various archival regimes.  Western travelers kept ethnographic texts and drawings of the “indigenous” boat people and their watercraft, whereas Christian missionaries, particularly those of the South China Boat Mission, preached afloat among and detailed the floating people. Affected by Western racial ideas, Republican Han Chinese intellectuals constructed the Dan people as a littoral nationality with the aim of civilizing them, which, in turn, informed the nationality classification project targeted at the waterborne population in early communist China. This project illustrates how repeated and sometimes competing colonial writings of the waterborne population in the past have shaped the contemporary terra-based imaginations of the fluid water world and the self-portrayal of the boat people in China, in Asia, and beyond.

For this book project I presented a paper on Republican Chinese writings on the Dan as a littoral nationality (zu/minzu) at the annual conference of the Association of Asian Studies in Washington D.C. in March 2018. It was part of the cross-border panel that I organized, “Between Land and Sea: The Making of Littoral Ethnicity in Early Modern and Modern Asia.” The discussant was James Scott and other presenters included Cynthia Chou and Debojyoti Das.