Asia Inside Out: Changing Times, Volume 1

Eric Tagliacozzo, Helen F. Siu, and Peter C. Perdue, Editors
Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press
ISBN: 978-0-674-96694-9
Pages 81 to 84
1555: Four Imperial Revivals

Cultural Circulation
Consider, too, the relation of economic growth to cultural circulation and the extent to which popular identification with central norms of language, ethnicity, and religion provided psychological support to new political projects. Cultural integration drew on diverse dynamics, including social emulation and autonomous religious impulses. Yet by itself, multifaceted economic change was a particularly potent solvent of social and spatial isolates. This was true along agricultural frontiers – in Lower Burma, southern Russia, northern Japan – where settlers tied more or less closely to imperial culture overawed alien populations. It was yet more obvious in long-settled districts, where the growing surplus nurtured ever-more-elaborate trade and educational circuits that privileged the cultural and political claims of central places. From the capital and provincial towns, for example, elite patterns of speech, dress, deportment, and religious observance diff used into the hinterland, as seen in the contraction between c. 1500 and 1700 of minority languages and ethnicities in the Irrawaddy basin, Honshu, and central Russia. Moreover, in Burma and Japan after c. 1500, proliferating religious schools, government demands for local record-keepers, and the growing commercial utility of writing fostered a marked rise in literacy and numeracy. Whereas in the charter era only a tiny capital elite had been literate, by 1700 probably a third of Burmese and Japanese males could read simple materials. Symptom and spur to this trend was the appearance of kingdom-specific literatures using vernacular languages and/or demotic writing systems and exploring an unprecedented variety of genres and themes (Lieberman 2009, 27–28, 70–74, 226–241, 293–294, 431–438, 476–477). In Burma and Japan as well as in Russia (notwithstanding markedly lower literacy rates in the latter realm), cultural/linguistic uniformity aided capital efforts to improve provincial communications and to regularize fiscal exactions.
At the same time, as expressed in folktales, songs, paintings, texts, and popular rituals, increasingly standardized religious and ethnic traits tended to assume a political character. It was only after c. 1250 in Japan and 1400/1450 in Burma and Russia that modified versions of charter religious traditions began to penetrate the countryside. Theravada and Christian orthodoxy were inherently sympathetic to imperial centralization insofar as they idealized the ruler as font of morality and bulwark against anarchy and sanctioned royal supervision of local personnel, both lay and religious, in the name of salvation. On the borders of Muscovy, where Orthodox Russians fought Muslim and Catholic non-Russians, religion/ethnicity fused easily with political loyalty; but, if the religious element was less conspicuous, similar tendencies towards politicized ethnicity transformed allegiances along the north Japanese, the Burmese-Siamese, and the Burmese-Mon frontiers. By enlisting men from different provinces against a common foe, by increasing frontier reliance on the crown, and by nurturing xenophobic tales of communal danger and salvation, warfare provided a recognizable “other” against which group sentiment could be directed. As the Time of Troubles in Russia (1598–1613), the Mon interregnum in Burma (1740–1752), and Japanese-Ainu relations demonstrated, deeply felt popular sentiments afforded early modern states greater resilience, a higher degree of popular identification with the center, a sharper sense of cultural distinctiveness and cohesion than were available to their charter-era predecessors (Lieberman 1984, ch. 5; Dunning 2004; Howell 2005).
Less dramatic than politicized ethnicity, but arguably no less supportive of central power, were autonomous local movements of ethical and religious socialization. Such movements promoted notions of communal order and discipline, in effect systems of nonstate governance, which helped to compensate for yet scarce central resources and on which more visible official efforts often depended (cf. Gorski 2003). Thus, for example, in Japan after c. 1450, by seeking to curb antisocial behavior, to distribute tax burdens, and to safeguard family livelihood, an ethic of family obligation and mutual surveillance rendered self-governing villages (so) the building blocks of daimyo and eventually Tokugawa power. The expanded ahmu-dan system in Toungoo Burma provided a comparable infrastructure for rural pacification. Even in largely illiterate Muscovy, after c. 1500 a deepening of popular Orthodox sensibilities joined government tax demands to engender novel programs of communal self-governance and peasant self-policing that provided a social and attitudinal foundation for serfdom (Lieberman 2009).
What about cultural integration in Mughal India? The elitism and relative novelty of the Mughals’ Perso-Islamic heritage joined India’s vast size and the persistence, indeed revitalization, of regional traditions to preclude the same level of vertical and horizontal acculturation that we find in Burma, Russia, or Japan. In the early and mid-1700s, Perso-Islamic imperial culture proved quite unable to prevent imperial disintegration. And yet, compared to their Delhi predecessors, the Mughals’ enhanced authority benefited from three cultural trends, all of which reduced the sharp cleavage between conquest elite and subject population that we find under the Delhi sultans: 1) Liberal intellectual currents and fiscal necessity led Akbar, in particular, to court non-Muslim elites and to promote expressly eclectic religious expressions. 2) The incomparable prestige and utility of Muslim court conventions encouraged sustained imitation by non-Muslim elites. 3) At a popular level, Islam entered into fruitful dialogue with South Asian religions and language (Lieberman 2009, ch. 6).
Dunning, Chester. 2004. A Short History of Russia’s First Civil War. University Park, Pennsylvania State University Press.

Gorski, Philip. 2003. The Disciplinary Revolution. Chicago. University of Chicago Press.

Lieberman, Victor. 2009. Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800-1830. Vol 2.
—  Mainland Mirrors: Europe, Japan, China, South Asia, and the Islands. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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