Interesting article on the problem understanding Central Asia: the first problem is that nobody agrees on what or where it is. Apparently, East Asianists — China scholars, mostly — are a big part of the problem. Funny, though, since that’s where most of the actual research seems to come from. Yes, it’s a distorted historiography, as most “influence” oriented scholarship tends to be. But almost all non-Western societies start out being studied in relation to better known regions: it’s a hallmark of the early stages of a field, and it’s something that will, if the article’s comments about the rising tide of scholars from Central Asia are sound, be rectified in the next generation, as these things are.
Amusing non sequitur: An entire blog devoted to exposing badly used Chinese characters in the West, particularly in tatoos. [via]
As much as I am in sympathy with the basic aims of this article, I still find it problematic because the author seems to be tripping on some of the same problems that have bedeviled the field for a long time. Yes, the field was born out of imperialism, and you can still see this heritage in lots of places where you would expect it and a number you would not. The idea that scholars from Central Asia who study Central Asia will fix this by virtue of being Central Asian seems problematic. Bulag says the world needs more
indigenous Central/Inner Asian specialists. After all, as native scholars, the latter have the responsibility to document, research, systematize, create and maintain their national cultures, and they set the agendas and guide developments in their own countries. Their scholarship informs and helps shape the changing economic, political, diplomatic and military shape of the region, and the relationships that extend beyond the region.
I think this is wrong on a number of levels. Obviously more scholars is better, and more scholars from Central Asia is even better. On the other hand, if scholars are encouraged to think of themselves as “creators and maintainers of the local culture” you are just replacing one set of bad scholarship with another. Particularly in history, replacing a Chinese centered-history of the Mongol empire with a Mongolian nationalist one is not good. Not that I have the solution for creating disinterested scholarship, but it seems that we are in danger of stepping in the same cowpat we have stepped in enough times already.
One possible positive step is to consider what some of the impediments to a better scholarship would be. I think a big part of it is that a lot of the sources for the history of Central Asia are in Chinese, (Russian, etc.) and thus reflect a Chinese way of looking at things. This is the type of huge, insidious problem that has probably been faced in other fields. How do they deal with it?
P.S. I wish I lived in a place where scholarship informed and helped shape the region. (Not being snarky. I know there are a lot of places where scholarship matters more than the U.S.)