From the mid 19th century to the mid 20th century more than 20 million people migrated out of China. Shelly Chan analyses the emergence of China as a nation state from the vantage point of the Chinese diaspora around the world.
Nina Trige Andersen
Nina Trige Andersen is a historian and freelance journalist. She is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: September 23, 2018

Diaspora’s Homeland: Modern China in the Age of Migration
Author: Shelly Chan
Duke University Press, 2018,

The scale of Chinese exodus from the 1840s to the 1940s has been surpassed only by European emigration to the Americas and beyond, and later by mass migration from India. By stating this fact, Shelly Chan in her new book Diaspora’s Homeland reminds us of two important points: That Europe was once the main sending region rather than destination, and that Chinese circulations have spanned the world for centuries. More than 20 million people left China from the mid 19th century to the mid 20th, and this diaspora can, in Chan’s view, serve as a vantage point for understanding the making of modern China.

«All eyes are increasingly on China and its place and role in the global order.»

As all eyes are increasingly on China and its place and role in the global order, Chan’s analysis of historical migration dynamics as a window to the present-day contesting of US hegemony is a timely and thought-provoking enterprise. Her claim is that «diaspora moments» have played a key role in the development of, among other things, sovereignty and diplomacy, debates over tradition and modernity, and struggles between socialism and capitalism in China.

Flows of people and things

Chinese Immigrants to the US

Diaspora moments are for Chan «momentous encounters» in which migrations or migrants produced unexpected reverberations in the nation state of origin. Among these moments she looks at «coolie» migration from China to the Americas in the late 19th century and how it pulled Qing China into Western social, political, and economic geography; at how national identity in Republican China was – not only, but also – produced through the power of Chinese merchants in Southeast Asia; how Confucianism was reinterpreted through migrant experiences of being colonial subjects in the British empire; at the contradictions and conflicts that emerged when a socialist mode of production was confronted with households split between home and abroad, as well as how diaspora returns were simultaneously encouraged and seen as potentially …

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