Prasenjit Duara is the Oscar Tang Chair of East Asian Studies at Duke University and will become Vice President of the AAS after the 2018 conference in Washington, D.C.
I developed my interest in China during the heady days of the Cultural Revolution’s ideological impact in Delhi. As college students in the early 1970s we engaged in heated debates about the path for development and equity in India. The long and short of it was that I determined to study the Chinese revolution in order to show that a peasant revolution of the Chinese sort could not happen in India.
I came to the U.S. to do my Ph.D., first at the University of Chicago and then moved with my advisor Philip Kuhn to Harvard, where I got my degree in Chinese history. While my thesis and first book did not directly address the issue of revolution comparatively, I did gain some insight into the nature of Chinese rural society under the Japanese occupation of the 1930s and 40s. The translation of Culture Power and the State: Rural North China 1900-1942 (Stanford, 1988) has just had its fourth reprinting in China this January. More recently, I did return to the instigating comparative question in a brief piece in the Economic and Political Weekly (Bombay) in 2011, where I suggested that rural revolutions were incubated in places with weak military-political, and more importantly, weak social hierarchies and dependencies. It is little wonder that Maoist movements today thrive in tribal and relatively inaccessible peripheral regions.
During the course of my research career, I also discovered that nationalism was a deep force underlying and gradually replacing socialism in China from the 1980s. I became interested in the conceptual framework that meshed nationalism with understandings of history and destiny, a theme that gained traction in academia increasingly through the post-Cold War ‘90s. My critique of nationalism has been focused on how to think history outside the national tunnels, especially since nationalist modernization strategies have generated our present environmental crisis.
In the process of trying to see beyond the national optic, I have become very interested in practices, networks, and knowledge circulating across Asia. After a most rewarding teaching experience at the University of Chicago, I spent over seven years directing research in Singapore, where I discovered that Southeast Asia was the cross-roads for circulatory forces across Asia and beyond. In keeping with this new, though not exclusive, interest in Southeast Asia and the environmental crisis, together with a Thai colleague, we hosted an untypical conference in Cambodia last year.
Buddhist monks, educated across various countries in Asia, were leading and supporting a sophisticated protest movement of forest dwellers in Prey Lang region of Cambodia which had been devastated by logging and hydropower interests. The core movement—who call themselves Avatars—has attracted the support and participation of large numbers of youth and student groups within Cambodia as well as NGO groups across Asia and the West through a savvy use of social media and their own version of ritual theater. The event brought together many of the themes that have interested me recently: the re-purposing of religions towards environmental goals, the civic and political awakening among the “precariat” in Asia, their complex relationship with environmental civil society organizations at multiple scales, and not least, the role of Asian corporate investments in extracting or “developing” frontier resources.
The journey into the multifarious and often deeply buried historical connections (and tensions) among Asian societies that are renascent today is not only an exciting discovery for me but also good to think with.
Prasenjit Duara will serve as the discussant for the AAS 2018 panel, “New Approaches in Chinese Environmental History: Transregional and Frontier Perspectives.”