Like so many others, the inspiration for my blog post this week comes from social distancing. This has been a hectic week. In the space of a few days, face-to-face teaching has been suspended at Universities and schools around the world – this includes St Andrews. Students have been nudged to go home, and to do so as soon as they can. Festivals, musicals, visits, and celebrations that we’ve been looking forward to for months – all cancelled. It’s a lot to digest, hence why so many people are writing about it. Writing, after all, ‘is a tool for thinking’; that’s what Bernhard said during our first seminar in February. So, if that’s the case, it makes perfect sense to see so many of my peers put their thoughts and feelings out on paper or on a blog. Writing helps people grasp the realities of their situations.

Contrary to the title, I’m not going to be teaching you any fancy spells, like the sort you see in Harry Potter. Instead, I’m writing because I wanted to provide you, the reader, some solace in these anxious times. And what better way to do this by applying some of the things we’ve studied in transnational history to our present situation? Although social distancing means that we won’t be seeing each other in person, this doesn’t mean that we’re alone. By teaching us to focus on the way people come to be entangled with one another, Transnational History teaches us that our lives are all connected, even if we do not realise it.

I hold this belief especially after reading about Global Intellectual History, which will be our topic of discussion after the break. After doing these readings, I’ve come to believe that the concept of ‘being transnational’ does not necessarily have to be a physical process, i.e. in the act of sending a postcard from Dundee to a village in the Czech Republic. In actuality, being ‘transnational’ can be an invisible process, something that can occur solely in our minds.

Consider the following thought experiment. If I told you to imagine an ‘apples’, you could do so without having seen one in person. In fact, most languages have a word for ‘apple’, so if I told a group of people to imagine a ‘manzana‘ or ‘蘋果’, they could also conjure up the image of a bright red, crisp, and juicy fruit. The concept of an ‘apple’, therefore, is arguably transnational as most people nowadays know what an apple is. Moreover, the fact that you can conjure up the image of an apple without seeing one in front of you demonstrates that people can access transnational concepts without moving to see them. For a more historical example, take a concept, like ‘colonialism’. Admittedly, you would be hard-pressed to conjure up an image of ‘colonialism’. Nevertheless, with a little bit of background knowledge, you could understand what that concept means, and how they have come to influence so many people in the world. Moreover, you could also learn how colonialism can ‘breathe the air of specific cultural locales’ it inhabits, shape-shifting to fit the specificities of a locality. [1] Overall, Global Intellectual History forces historians to consider that minds are not confined to the immediate physical space around us. Because so many people share the same concepts and types of experiences, one could develop a transnational history that looks critically at the way transnational concepts manifest in any specific context. As such, the mind can, and ought to be considered, another theatre through which transnational history takes place.

In turn, this opens up transnational history to some pretty radical arguments. If people can be transnational simply through the act of sharing concepts with others, then does this imply that people that have never travelled can be transnational? Indeed, Dominic Sachsenmaier takes this radical line of argument in his book, Global Entanglements of a Man Who Never Travelled: A Seventeenth-Century Chinese Christian and his Conflicted Worlds. In his monograph, Sachsenmaier takes Zhu Zongyuan 朱宗元, a Chinese-Christian who never left the core regions of Zhejiang province, as his focal point. [2]

Although not as well-travelled as his peers, Zhu engaged with and hybridised traditional Chinese concepts and Catholicism. ‘Christianity alone,’ he wrote. ‘Was able to show the proper way to understand the content of the [Confucian] classics’. [3] For Zhu, then, the West was superior to China. Not only did Christianity position the West above the East, but as the quote above demonstrates, Zhu also believed that Christianity and Confucianism were compatible, and that reading one could help your understanding of the other. In arguing for such positions, Zhu thus engaged in wider debates about the universality of Confucianism, China’s perception of itself as ‘zhongguo’ 中國, the ‘middle’ or ‘centre’ of the world, and thus China’s power vis-à-vis the West. Zhu’s intellectual engagement, therefore, is what leads Sachsenmaier to argue that he was a transnational individual despite the fact he never left his locality. By engaging with both Catholicism and Confucianism, Zhu acted as a connector between his local Catholic community and other Chinese Christian groups, and also between European missionary networks and his local circles in late Ming society. [4] Overall, Global Entanglements teaches us that transnationalism is thus as much a mental experience as it is physical. Even when confined to the limits of a specific locality, individuals can still be transnational by engaging with mental concepts and experiences shared by groups of people.

I find this message incredibly powerful. As I sit at home and watch the sun stream through my window, I find comfort in the fact that other people can conjure up images of apples in their minds. We may all be stuck at home, but the doesn’t mean that our connections with other people have been severed. Invisible transnational linkages still exist in my mind, and yours, and these linkages are ultimately what bind us and the wider world together. So, if you’re ever feeling down about social distancing, think of an apple; hopefully, that will make you smile.

Works Cited:

[1] Milinda Banerjee, ‘Transversal Histories and Transcultural Afterlives: Indianized Renditions of Jean Bodin in Global Intellectual History.’ In Engaging Transculturality: Concepts, Key Terms, Case Studies, edited by Laila Abu-er-Rub, Christiane Brosius, Sebastian Meurer, Diamantis Panagiotopoulos, and Susan Richter (2019), p. 155

[2] Dominic Sachsenmaier, Global Entanglements of a Man Who Never Travelled: A Seventeenth Century Chinese-Christian and his Conflicted Worlds (2018), p. 1

[3] Ibid, p. 97

[4] Ibid, p. 5

Conjuring apples from the comfort of your home