A theme that was consistently signposted throughout our seminar this week was the methodological difficulty that came with doing transnational history. Melinda and Bernhard both said something to this effect: ‘There is no one way to do or define “transnational history”. Although everyone is united in the fact that they, broadly speaking, study “border crossing”, the area you study – and how you study it – is completely up to you. This is, of course, liberating, but also challenging because it is entirely up to you to decide where to start and stop your research’.

This idea that I could decide where to start and stop my research stuck with me. On the one hand, I found this exciting. Transnational history gives you the chance to research different cultures and compare them however I want. And in MO3351, being awarded complete freedom over my research meant that I could, in theory, study whatever area I wanted to; the world was my oyster.

But with great freedom comes great responsibility. If the end goal of transnational history is to analyse different cultures vis-a-vis each other, then the temptation is to discover where these cultures are similar to each other. And although finding similarities between cultures can be illuminating, this methodology also carries the great risk of flattening cultures and, thus, doing them injustice. ‘Flattening’, in this instance, refers to conceptualising all cultures in the world as the same. In Connected Histories: Notes towards a reconfiguration of Early Modern Eurasia, Sanjay Subrahmanyam captures this idea nicely:

‘It is of obvious interest to examine how notions of universalism and humanism emerge in various vocabularies, and yet how these terms do not in fact unite the early modern world, but instead lead to new or intensified forms of hierarchy, domination, and separation’

Sanjay Subrahmanyam, ‘Connected Histories: Notes towards a reconfiguration of Early Modern Eurasia’ in Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 31, No. 3, Special Issue: The Eurasian Context of the Early Modern History of Mainland South East Asia, 1400-1800 (July 1997), p. 769

Subrahmanyam’s article made me think a lot about the way we, as historians, may do injustice to the cultures we work with. Focusing solely on the themes that are shared between cultures, for instance, presumes that the cultures that do share these themes approach them with the same mentality. This is flattening; we know that local contexts inform the way people perceive transnational themes. One example that comes to mind is 20th century anarchism. Although anarchist movements existed in both China and the West in the 20th century, the Chinese promoted anarchism very differently to anarchist groups in the West. Chinese Anarchists drew on Buddhist notions of Maitreya, the Buddha-to-come, as a means of demonstrating that their movement was simply part of the greater Buddhist world order. Moreover, they also appealed to traditional scriptures by Kongzi (孔子) and Xunzi (荀子). By drawing connections between their own anarchism and traditional Chinese beliefs, they believed that this would help people see their movement as a continuation of, not a break from, Chinese traditions. Local Chinese traditions, therefore, allowed the transnational ‘anarchism’ to manifest uniquely in their context. As such, it would be flattening and unjust to state that Chinese and Western experiences of anarchism were alike simply because that idea existed in both places.

Overall, reflecting on Subrahmanyam’s article allowed me to understand that transnational history is not just ‘border-crossing’ or the negation of national history. Good transnational history is a precarious balance between the two. In order to truly understand the way transnational things manifest in the world, we must rather counterintuitively look towards our borders and see how they are shaped by local contexts. In the weeks to come, I’m excited to see how this balance plays out in my own research.

A Precarious Balance