- Open Access
Intra-regional social systems: cases of the Maritime Silk Road around the South China Sea Rim
© The Author(s) 2017
- Received: 31 July 2017
- Accepted: 8 September 2017
- Published: 18 December 2017
The South China Sea Rim is a core area of the Maritime Silk Road, ranging from South and Southwest China to Southeast Asia. It has developed a cultural landscape in which all parties are interdependent through very complex processes of ethnic communication and social interaction. In this temporal-spatial process, the cultural exchanges occurring in this area are not only shaping the cultural ecologies of those involved but also integrating their societies. The networked inter/inter-regional social systems lay a methodological foundation on which the South China Sea Rim is dealt with as a whole. These social systems can be defined as a social unit, transcending the lower levels of family, community, ethnic group, nation and transnational region and making up a significant component of the global society. This concept presents a new research pathway to the interpretation of “community of a shared future for mankind” and the “Belt and Road Initiative”.
- Maritime Silk Road
- South China Sea Rim
- Regional studies
- Inter/intra-regional social systems
- The belt and road initiative
The time-honored Maritime Silk Road involves a wide range of content and, in popular terms, refers to the China-centered route of transportation and trade between Asia, Africa and Europe with marine and land transit. The ancient Maritime Silk Road mainly facilitated inter-regional trade of silk, porcelain and spices, but on the whole, especially in historical context, it significantly promoted cultural exchanges and social interactions between the world’s different regions. The South China Sea Rim is a core area of the Maritime Silk Road, ranging from South and Southwest China to Southeast Asia. Through complex processes of ethnic communication and social interaction, the area has developed a cultural landscape in which all parties are interdependent. Multiple relationship networks have, therefore, arisen and in modern times they extend and flow at a broader level with increasingly frequent cross-border movements of capital, labor, resources and goods. The South China Sea Rim has also shaped a polycentric civilization system featuring integrity and diversity based on long term cultural interpenetration, providing an important social and cultural foundation for the twenty-first Century Maritime Silk Road.
Recently, the South China Sea Rim has entered the scope of theoretical study and political and economic practice, emerging as a core zone of concern to national interests. The correct understanding of the basic characteristics of regional society requires exploration of trans-state and trans-national regional research. It will promote the sharing of resources and humanistic values through consensus of different stakeholders in a regional community of a shared future.
As noted in Culture, Ethnic Group and Society: Research on the South China Sea Rim, integrity and diversity are the basic characteristics of the regional societies while the intra/inter-regional social systems, comprised of diverse social networks and symbolic systems, are essential to social continuity. These systems are like a kaleidoscope that provides different points of view to examine the regional society(Ma, 2012).
In other words, all the temporal and spatial processes of cultural and human exchanges in the South China Sea Rim not only shape the cultural ecology, but also have a function of social integration. Such exchanges, including the flow of people and things, imply a stable underlying structure in the region. In a certain sense, the networked regional social system lays the methodological basis on which the South China Sea Rim is dealt with as a whole. By extracting and separating the multiple cultural and social networks from the system, this paper aims to probe into the historical process and the networked structure of regional social systems as well as into the structural characteristics of ethnic group activities.
In a globalized society with rapid flows of population, goods and information, any simple generalization at a community level is not enough to analyze the complex intersections of the current world system. In the context of globalization, modern nation-states are facing more complicated border situations and this necessitates the re-examination of nation-state based geopolitics and ethnic cultural diversity. How do border residents carry out trans-boundary activities in different forms? How do their ethnic and geographic identities unfold behind these activities? With regard to complex social systems like the South China Sea Rim and mountainous Southeast Asia, “systematic observations” are especially needed in order to deepen understanding so as to integrate regional social structure, ethnic evolution and cultural changes. There has been much academic research utilizing comparisons and contrasts at community, regional and national levels on topics such as geographical space, the cultural sphere, religious communication and social structures. A major feature of these studies is that they all stress the social linkage, interaction and integrity of South China, Southwest China and Southeast Asia.
(I) Overlay zone and transnational social field
Edmund Leach examined the geographical connection between Southwest China and the northern Southeast Asian highlands in his studies of Kachin society in high land Myanmar. The corridor from Yunnan to India was established in the first century AD. The Shan people settled in the valley, partially for maintaining the trade routes, whereas the Kachin terrace systems traversed across or near the east-west trade routes (Leach, Yang and Zhou, 2010). F.K.Lehman believed Southwest China (especially Yunnan) is a buffer zone and an overlay zone between Southeast Asia and China. Many ethnic groups in Yunnan played the role of “cultural broker” in the relations of trade and political dominance between the two regions (F. K. Lehmann and Zhang, 2010).
The so-called overlay zone mainly uses overlay in two senses: (a) interaction after regional communities and ethnic cultures are re-defined by nation-states and (b) ethnic border and combination. Myanmar’s Kachin, called Jingpo in China, and China’s Hani, referred to as Aka in Laos, Thailand and Myanmar, fall into the same ethnic group. They reside in different countries, but have kept frequent cross-border exchanges. In addition, people of different ethnic groups frequently travel through the corridor, leading to mingled and superimposed trade, marriage, cultures, customs and religions. People within the region also share property and resources by means of flow, migration and trade through such corridors as rivers and mountain plains.
In the discussion of regional relevance, particular emphasis should be placed on the re- definition of “boundary” and “trans-boundary.” Liu Hong used “contact zone” to describe the concept of “boundary” in his system of Sino-Southeast Asian Studies (Liu, 2000). In China and Southeast Asia, the cross-border activities of different ethnic groups form complex social networks through which cargo, capital and information maintain frequent two-way flow. These interactions constantly produce new social networks or extend the existing networks to other cultural and social fields. In a sense, the “boundary” is a kind of status or field of contact, interaction, exchange, collision or even fusion of different groups and cultural and social matters. The increasing cross-border behavior brought about by globalization and regionalization, and the traditional regional networks complement each other and jointly construct a transnational social field between South China and Southeast Asia. These cross-border doers show common cultural characteristics of the region while maintaining their ethnic characteristics. The cultural sphere built by multiple ethnic groups provides an excellent perspective for understanding the historical evolution of the region beyond spatial-temporal limitations.
(II) corridor and sphere
Through studies of historical relations within the Asian region, especially the relations between China and Southeast Asia and East Asia, Takeshi Hamashita advocated the perspective of “Asian economic sphere” for investigation of economic and social relations in the China Sea rim and the national and international “geographical sphere.” He believed that China-centered tributary relations and tributary trade are intrinsic to historically formed links in Asia (Takeshi Hamashita, 1999). Philip A. Kuhn introduced the Corridor Niche Model based on historical research on Chinese immigrants and used the cultural corridor to explain exchanges and interactions between South China and Southeast Asia. In his view, Chinese relationships like kinship and township underpin the potential corridor between the place of migration and the place of immigration. The integration of cultures at both ends of the corridor changes the local cultural ecology and fosters a special “ecological sphere.” (Philip A. Kuhn, 2008). The Corridor Niche Model not only explains the logic of Chinese community formation in Southeast Asia, but also provides a cross-regional research template for social relevance between South China and Southeast Asia.
Unlike Philip A. Kuhn, Tan Chee-Beng emphasized the “ethnic cultural sphere” in the study of overseas Chinese, which breaks the geographical constraint of region-level and nation-level anthropological studies. He believed that Chinese people around the world share similar characteristics of Chinese “culture,” though such characteristics are divideddue to cultural localization and cultural changes. The concept of “Chinese cultural sphere” applies to studying the diverse expressions of acculturation and cultural identity of Chinese and overseas Chinese in different regions(Tan Chee-Beng, 2012). The Chinese communities of the South China Sea Rim and the multiple social networks based on kinship, geo-relation and religion are key components of this “Chinese cultural sphere.” Their cultural characteristics are mainly embodied in the religion, food culture, identity psychology, multinational societial organizations, localization process and the like. Chen utilized a cross-regional perspective to view the spatial-temporal diffusion, flow and change of ethnic culture and, on that basis, constructed a larger community. Community, in this context, weaves a huge identity-based social network that crosses community, state or even region.
The author once used “transnational cultural sphere” to examine trans-regional ethnic groups including Han Chinese. The concept thereof refers to a cultural community of shared religion or the same ethnic group transcending national borders. In the process of globalization, an important criterion for same-rooted transnational cultural recognition is the cultural identity and heritage of overseas Chinese. However, overseas Chinese communities and cultures cannot be simply viewed as an overseas extension of native Chinese culture. On the contrary, they are a result of gradual localization of native Chinese culture through “cultural adaptation” to the local society. For example, the Southeast Asian Chinese community is not “transplanted” from the native society, but rather historically reconstructed in the local social context (Ma, 2000).The production and localization of Chinese culture, to a certain extent, strengthens the cultural identity of the native country, Southeast Asia and the transnational cultural sphere.
China Sea waters do not hinder cultural and economic exchanges, but integrate East Asia and Southeast Asia into an organic network through coastal harbors and open ports. Prior to the formation of modern nation-states, the exchanges between ports were undoubtedly fundamental to the “Asian economic sphere.” Over the centuries, port-centered economic ties and marine immigrant cultural integration and growth in port cities gave rise to a sea-based rather than land-based cross-regional community, which is referred to as “Asia Inside Out” in historical anthropology and Asian history (Helen Siu, 2014). In the process of community formation, goods, information, capital and businessmen served as the major players shaping the “regional economic sphere.” A variety of political, economic and socio-cultural factors interact in the waters and breed new regional relations under the impact of different networks (Takeshi Hamashita, 2006). From such a “marine” perspective, Takeshi Hamashita renewed his view on Asian spatial order.
(III) Asia, cultural China and world unit
1. Region of Asia. Proposed by Prasenjit Duara, the “region of Asia” is a monsoon-driven maritime trade route rooted in the Silk Road. It is a natural non-linear historical concept defined with a bottom-up approach. Asia has been constructed as a social region by different subjects in political, material and intellectual dimensions, in a process called “regionalization.” (Prasenjit Duara, 2014)Helen Siu also believed South China to be a vantage point to illustrate a multi-level historical global process. Wang Hui interpreted “regionalization” with “cross-system society” which refers to a “human community containing different civilizations, religions, ethnic groups and other systems or a social network containing different civilizations, ethnic groups, religions, languages and other systems.” According to Wang, the regional studies of recent decades can be classified into two categories by perspective: (a) “narration on regionalism arising from nations and their administrative divisions”; (b) “narration on transnational regionalism arising from nation-states and globalism.”(Wang, 2011) The South China Sea Rim and Southeast Asian highlands are more than a “geographical” concept in “space,” but are an organic whole consisting of different civilizations and regional communities. They actually represent cross-regional social systems composed of ethnic corridors, minority communities, cross-border overseas Chinese communities and other different social communities.
The research of contemporary global anthropology offers two perspectives: “to see the center from the periphery” and “to see the periphery from the center.” This has important methodological significance for re-examining Chinese social structure and ethnic group interaction in South China and Southeast Asian Chinese communities (Ma, 2006a, b).The flexibility in determining what constitutes “center” and “periphery” requires re-examination of “South China” from a regional perspective beyond the scope of nation. It facilitates the marine perspective, instead of the traditional continental perspective, to think about the integrity and diversity of South China and Southeast Asia.
As far as the Maritime silk Road is considered, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism, which spread in countries along the route, also serve as important carriers in the formation of the regional social network. The transnational network of a single ethnic group is not enough to explain the complex social ties and cultural exchanges within the region. In fact, the region is an integral whole linked by a variety of factors, including nature, culture, religion, ethnic group and market. For example, the two-way flow of goods, represented by silk, porcelain, spices, rubber, electronic products and small wares, is an important part within this framework. Laterally, social networks within the region include the obvious market network and land- and sea-based communication systems, as well as all types of “invisible networks,” such as clan lineage, ethnic identity, belief and customs. Not isolated from each other, these invisible networks are intertwined and linked through complex flows of population, materials and information. Vertically, the social networks can be divided according to individual, group, community, nation and transnational region.
In the 1930s, Bai Shouyi studied the spice trade between China and Nanyang (i.e. Southeast Asia) in the Song dynasty in relation to the development of Islam. Spices were important commodities imported to China from Southeast Asian countries via the Maritime Silk Road and occupied an important position in South China Sea trade at the time. Bai concluded that spice trade “is closely related to the prevalence of Islam in China.” In the Tianbao years of the Tang dynasty, Islam already had a considerable role in the spice trade in the South China Sea Rim. In the Song dynasty, the number of overseas Chinese Muslims increased and they occupied a larger area (Bai, 1935),and, because of the spice trade, they stayed abroad longer, eventually marrying women from the southeast coast. In the Song and Yuan Dynasties, the expanding Muslim population became vital to the political situation and economic development of the southeast coast. Amid the diverse exchanges in the South China Sea Rim, the Muslim communities that were active in different ports created a cross-regional cultural community.
2. Cultural China. It is evident that the link between South China and Southeast Asia is driven by a variety of networks formed by the flow of populations. Previous studies largely rested on “channel,” “corridor” and “sphere” in the interpretation of social networks in this region and discussion onsocial mobility in the context of time and space. However, in addition to mobility, stability is also essential to the region. The concept of “cultural China” is an expression denoting the cross-regional community of tens of millions of overseas Chinese. In a broad sense, Southeast Asia has been influenced by Chinese Confucianism due to long-term social interactions with South China. In addition to many overseas Chinese who live in Southeast Asia, the “China factor” can be found in other ethnic cultures.
“Cultural China” is a historical cultural concept initiated by Tu Weiming. It represents the historical results of Chinese civilizational development with Confucian culture as the center, but also shows the process of Chinese cultural globalization (Tu, 2002).This statement, in fact, implies the idea of comparative research and supports the probe into organic cultural links between Southeast Asia and China in culture. In a Confucianism-based society, the homogeneity of society is an important aspect of the tradition.“Cultural China” focuses on different expressions of this tradition caused by differences in local social structures.
In the 1980s, with increased East Asian economic development, attention was paid to the relationship between the East Asian economic sphere and the “Confucian cultural sphere.”For example, South Korean scholar Kim Don-hun noted in Confucian Cultural Sphere and Economic Order that the most significant feature of Confucianism is the doctrine that family serves as a basis for social order and underpins the economic development of the “Confucian cultural sphere.” (Kim Don-hun, 1991) Leon Vandermeersch, in his book Asian Cultural Sphere,held that East Asian economic prosperity has a direct relationship with the ongoing Confucian civilization revival. American scholar William Theodore de Bary emphasized the liberalism and individualism of Confucianism in Zhiism and Tradition of Freedom (William Theodore de Bary, 1987). In East and Southeast Asia, many communities, especially the Chinese community, accepted different aspects of the Chinese Confucian tradition. Anthropologists who focus on Southeast Asian Chinese society are more concerned with the similarities and differences in the structure of the Confucianism-based society. The characteristic parts of East Asian Chinese communities include familism and family organization, kinship networks and social organizations, civil associations and religious organizations.
American scholar G. William Skinner’s Chinese assimilation theory (G. William Skinner, 1957; 1958) is essential to the research on overseas Chinese. The Study of Chinese Society(Maurice Freedman and G. William Skinner, 1979), a collection of papers compiled by the scholar, introduced pioneering studies of Chinese in Singapore, Southeast Asia and Hong Kong. These papers drew anthropologists’ attention to the research of overseas Chinese in the 1950s and early 1960s, and demonstrated that social scientists can understand the important elements of Chinese culture through observation of “Residual China.” Recent anthropological fieldwork reports are not entirely confined to traditional social organizations, but also focus on the modern enterprise system. For example, through fieldwork in Singapore and Malaysia, scholars have analyzed the social basis and organizational principle of Chinese commercial companies and emphasized the role of interpersonal networks in decision making. They have focused on the factors of personal control, interpersonal relations and interpersonal credit and held that market is not the sole consideration in the decision-making process of companies (C. K. Tong and P. K. Yong, 1998). According to these cultural ties, people migrated again to the world, especially to the traditional overseas Chinese settlements in the new migration trend after there form and opening up. A lot of new immigrants chose Singapore, expecting an easy life with language and cultural convenience in a Chinese society. In fact, they interacted in everyday life with different Chinese ethnic groups, such as Singaporean Chinese, Malaysian Chinese and Taiwanese, which continued to reconfirm their self-identification and external label of “Chinese.” In this interactive process, new immigrants took advantage of cultural similarity to integrate into the local community. At the same time, the two sides constantly re-interpreted their cultural symbols and resources. On the one hand, the local Chinese protected their superiority of “more traditional” culture through dialect, behavior, customs, social networks and even political identity; on the other hand, new immigrants made use of language, art and family values to confirm their “more Chinese” cultural identity. This mirrors the division of Chinese people with respect to Chinese culture in the cultural environment of a new era, and the concept of “cultural China” therefore must be carried forward (Zhang, 2014).
3. World unit. In the late 1980s, Kyoto University professor Yano Toru and his research team introduced “world unit” to think about the characteristics of Southeast Asia with rich cultural diversity. In their opinion, the “world unit” is a collection of spheres formed in the mechanics of cultural systems, social systems and ecological systems and has the following characteristics: (a) it is a geographical unit of common space with prominent personality to describe “small realm” in world order construction; (b)the region has common historical memory, regional identity (common sense of presence) and common world view and shares the same values; (c) the inherent social culture is open and results from external cultural interactions, and its integration is the determinant of “world unit”; (d) Southeast Asia itself is methodological and it is a world unit which can be broken down into many small units, i.e. “small world,” such as Southeast Asian islands and Southeast Asian highlands (Toru, 1993a, b, c, d). In the author’s view, the “world unit” is an “imagined regional community” which today can be interpreted as new community formed through global cross-border flow and localization processes or as a new common system of knowledge across countries, nationalities and regions. How do Islamic believers from Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Southeast Asia and Guangzhou carry out their religious activities in Guangzhou? How does new community or spiritual community take shape among people of different nationalities, languages and countries in Guangzhou? In the context of globalization, in what respect do trans-boundary groups (across national, ethnic and cultural boundaries) recognize each other? In fact, the combination of these people is actually a world unit.
The Southeast Asian Malay sphere is a world unit. There are three different Malay spheres, namely metro-Malay (birthplace of the existing Malay sphere), proto-Malay, and centric-Malay. They can be integrated into one Malay sphere as a large world unit. With cultural homogeneity, Malays have a set of concepts on highlands, such as mountain worship, tree worship and worship space. Of course, mountain worship is related to Indian Buddhism. As in southern Bali, people consider the mountain situated to the north to be sacred and the southern ocean unclean (Toru, 1993a, b, c, d).Compared with the land, the sea shows much less ecological resistance, so distant coastal populations and cultures still share similarities and more frequent movement and mixture adds difficulty in dividing waters. The Southeast Asian coastal world is referred to as a non-centric community by Furukawa Hisao and a mobile dispersed community by Tsurumi. The rich forestry and fishery resources free the coastal areas from the land. Life would not be a problem as long as there is a ship, Yano Toru vividly described (Toru, 1993a, b, c, d).
Natural geography and the activities and cognition of humans in the territory are basic to the region as a whole. A fundamental position of the “world unit” theory is recognition of such geographical concepts as “Africa” and “Southeast Asia” and exploration of “small realms” under the framework of the “world unit” methodology (Toru, 1993a, b, c, d). Froma macro geographical perspective, South China and Southeast Asia are integrally connected by gently rolling hills, developed river systems and the South China Sea. The whole region is divided by mountains, rivers and oceans into small semi-enclosed areas such as alluvial plains, valleys, highlands, and islands. This gives rise to a plural and symbiotic cultural landscape. In terms of Madhyamaka, the Southeast Asian highlands connected with Southwest China can be seen as a world unit.
The concept of “wide region” raised by Takeshi Hamashita helps to further understand the South China Sea Rim as a “world unit.” The “wide region” is a research perspective beyond national and local scope and views the region as a whole. It can also be divided into smaller units that, along with their interrelationships, reflect regional development and change (Hamashita, 2013).
The greater society stretching from South and Southwest China to Southeast Asia is an organic integral whole comprised of different small units. These small units include the above-mentioned cross-regional cultural spheres and communities and also a number of culturally and socially consistent blocks, such as rice growing areas, Southeast Asian highlands and islands. They are connected by Indochinese Peninsula mountain passes and rivers and the South China Sea. The multiple social networks, constructed in the complex process of time-honored and frequent cross-border activities, serve as bonds of the regional society as a whole. Therefore, the study of the regional society should not be limited by modern nation-state boundaries, but rather considered in the context of cooperation at community, regional and state levels. The diversity of small units and social integrity of the wide region constitute the core of inter/intra-regional social system. New academic heights can be achieved only by dealing with South China, Southwest China and Southeast Asia as a whole in the exploration of the formation logic of inter/intra-regional social systems.
The in-depth analysis of the formation logic and structural characteristics of social systems in the South China Sea Rim region is especially suited to examining the people-to-people activities in the region, and, in other words, reflecting on the development issue of the regional subjects from the perspectives of social integration and cultural concept. The shaping of inter/intra-regional social systems is also a key part of the global society.
The concept of “global society” was raised by Fei, 2004 at the Inter-Congress of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences (IUAES) in his keynote speech, “Creating a ‘Harmonious but Different’ Global Society,” which examined the issue of the harmonious co-existence of different nations and cultures in the context of globalization. The concept stresses the symbiosis of different civilizations in the process of globalization, and anthropologists are paying greater attention to the issues of center and periphery in the world system and the dialogue between the two. Serving as the bridge and pathway linking different societies in history, the Silk Road in inter/intra-regional society is an important testimony of the concept of global society. It is re-promoted today in China with the purpose of advancing the communication and exchange of different cultures, regions and societies.
The concept of inter/intra-regional society transcends the social units of different levels including family, community, ethnic group, nation and trans-national region. It has great implications for the advancement of the Belt and Road Initiative in its ability to accomodate the boosting of cultural consciousness in regional social systems and establish “mindset order” and “moral order” among different cultures and ethnic groups. Noteworthy is that the basic philosophy behind China’s Maritime Silk Road initiative is the communication and win-win focus relative to different cultures and civilizations as is exactly reflected in the idea of “community of a shared future” put forward by China’s Central Government. President Xi announced on different occasions the concept of “community of a shared future for mankind” featuring the “interdependence of each other.”The key to shaping such a community lies in the regional communities of this shared future. The study of inter/intra-regional social systems in the South China Sea Rim presents a new research pathway for interpreting the strategies of “community of a shared future for mankind” and the Belt and Road Initiative. We hope to take advantage of the twenty-first Century Maritime Silk Road to disseminate China’s cultural concept of “being harmonious but different” to Southeast Asia and even to other regions and nations around the world, in a bid to establish a mindset that values cultural symbiosis and creates “harmonious but different” cross-regional social systems.
This paper is a phased outcome of the key National Social Science Fund project “Study on Transnational Flow of Southeast Asian Chinese and Cultural Exchanges in the Maritime Silk Road” (PN: 14AZD069). The author dedicates this paper to his long-accompanying wife Ms. Zhang Huili. He also extends thanks to his students including Tong Ying and Zhang Shaochun for the cases in this study based on field investigations in different areas of the South China Sea Rim.
I declare that I have no competing interests.
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