Steve Miles, Associate Professor in the History Department at Washington University in Saint Louis, presented a paper in his 11/2 talk “Protest, Predation, and Protection in a Riverine Diaspora: Migrants and the State in the Nineteenth-Century.” This paper explores an internal trajectory of one of China’s most important diasporic groups in early modern and modern times, the Cantonese. Concurrent with the expansion of the more frequently studied overseas Cantonese diaspora, many migrants from the Pearl River delta headed for destinations upstream along the West River into the mountainous, multiethnic frontier of Guangxi and beyond. Migrant Cantonese merchants dominated commerce and, in some cases, migrant Cantonese students filled the rolls of government schools in Guangxi. Despite the protests of many upriver elites, by the end of the eighteenth century diasporic Cantonese enjoyed at least the tacit support of a Qing state eager to protect riverine commerce. These dynamics persisted through the nineteenth century, even as a new, predatory, Cantonese diasporic underclass emerged to threaten the institutions both of Cantonese commerce and Qing administration in Guangxi.
Steven B. Miles is the author of The Sea of Learning: Mobility and Identity in Nineteenth-Century Guangzhou (2006) and Upriver Journeys: Diaspora and Empire in Southern China, 1570-1850 (2017). He is currently working on two book manuscripts, a study of the Cantonese West River diaspora in warfare and reconstruction during the late-nineteenth century, and a concise history of Chinese internal and external migration during early modern and modern times. A long-term research project explores seasonality and the rhythms of urban life in nineteenth-century China.