Asian migration in the longue durée Adam

Asian migration in the longue durée
Adam McKeown
Looking at Asian migration over the longue durée helps us to remember that Asia is an arbitrary
space. There is no form of “Asian” migration that is different from mobility in other parts of
the world. Asia has encompassed a huge variety of mobilities and regional migration systems.
And many of the most important migratory movements in human history have crossed the
borders of what we now know as Asia. At best, Asia has emerged as an imaginative construct
out of the minds of Europeans over the past 700 years, and the minds of Asians over the past
200 years.
But that exercise of imagination has had its effects. By the 1880s they resulted in a series of
migration laws and racist policies that excluded Asians from most non-Asian destinations and
confined their migration to separate Asian systems. This segregation came hand in hand with an
erasure of the historical memory of Asian mobility over the last two centuries. Although Asians
continued to migrate at rates comparable to Europeans, they were depicted as immobile landbound peasants without the resources or structures necessary to migrate. When Asian migration
was recognized, it was usually in small numbers as “coolies,” “sojourners,” victims of famine
and corruption, or other forms of tradition-bound mobility that made Asians distinct from the
modern and free mass migrations thought to characterize the Atlantic world.
The segregation of Asian mobility from the rest of the world was brief. It has broken down
rapidly since the 1940s, as Asians have moved in increasingly large numbers both within and
outside of Asia. Historical memory, on the other hand, has not changed so rapidly. Much current migration policy, historical accounts and social scientific research is based on assumptions
that mass migration in Asia is a recent phenomenon. Contemporary mobility is then presented
as a new challenge for regions long thought be characterized by relative immobility, “coolies,”
and isolation from the trends of modern history and globalization.
This account will place Asian migration within long-term trends of human migration around
the globe. It will note the ways in which mobility has linked “Asia” to other parts of the world,
the similarities in the organization of human mobility around the world, and the extent to
which all of the human communities we now know are the products of mobility and hybridity.
It will then look at the rise of distinct systems of Asian mobility in the late nineteenth century,
and conclude with a discussion of the effects of that segregation on our understandings of
contemporary migration.
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Early human movement
Our picture of early human movements out of Africa that probably started around 60,000 BCE is
still murky. It is likely that one of the most important early movements followed the southern
coast of Asia, arriving in Australia by about 50,000 BCE. But our picture is constantly changing in
the wake of new genetic, linguistic, and archaeological research. Dates for the initial migration of
Asians into the Americas range from 25,000 to 12,000 BCE. Speculations about the geographic
origins of the first migrants into Europe include Africa, Central Asia, the Middle East, and North
India. Despite these uncertainties, this research does point to the fact that we have to look at early
human mobility in terms of multiple waves and diverse directions that often folded back on
previously settled and traversed regions.
Geneticists and historical linguists have used statistical techniques to postulate the existence of
a handful of major groups in Asia. Geneticists have identified three major human groupings
(Cavalli-Sforza and Cavalli-Sforza 1996; Tishkoff et al. 2009).
1 A group ranging from southern China through Southeast Asia into the Pacific Islands, of
which New Guineans and Australians are distinct subgroups.
2 A group that includes native Americans, northeastern Asians (including Japanese, Koreans,
and northern Chinese), and Arctic peoples, with the Americans being the most distinct.
3 A group that spreads from South Asia through the Middle East and North Africa and across
Europe, with South Asians being the most distinct.
Historical linguists, some following the methods of Joseph Greenberg, have also identified several
major linguistic groupings as of 1500 CE (Dolgopolski 1998; Greenberg 2000–2002; Manning 2005).
1 Eurasiatic/Nostratic, which spreads across the northern latitudes from western Greenland to
Western Europe. They spread south into Iran and north India about 3–4000 years ago, and
more recently (post 1500) into the Americas and Australia.
2 Dene-Caucasian, which is mostly comprised Sino-Tibetan speakers but may include a handful
of Caucasian and central Siberian languages as small islands within the Eurasiatic sea of
northern Asia.
3 Austric, which covers most of mainland and insular Southeast Asia as well as the Pacific
Islands, with the exception of interior New Guinea and parts of Melanesia.
4 Dravidian, which probably once predominated in India but now restricted to southern India.
5 Afroasiatic, which predominates in North Africa and spread to the Arabian peninsula as the
Semitic languages.
Regardless of whether any these groupings survive later research, they already point to a
principle to guide further investigation: that the movement of people (genes) may or may not
correspond with the movement of culture (as represented by language or archaeological findings). For example, the core areas of the northern and southeastern Asian gene groups have
significant overlap with the Eurasiatic and Austric language groupings, respectively. But Chinese
speakers cross these genetic groups, including equally large chunks of each. And the third
genetic grouping from northern India to Europe includes portions of at least three major language groupings: Eurasiatic, Afroasiatic, and Dravidian. This kind of research also points towards
the existence of frequent and layered movements over time as a key aspect of human history.
Few peoples in the world can trace both their genetic and linguistic heritages back to the original settlers of their region.
A. McKeown
Gold, S. J., & Nawyn, S. J. (Eds.). (2013). Routledge international handbook of migration studies. ProQuest Ebook Central <a‘’,’_blank’) href=’’ target=’_blank’ style=’cursor: pointer;’>http://ebookcentral.proquest.comCreated from michstate-ebooks on 2020-12-12 10:04:29. Copyright © 2013. Taylor & Francis Group. All rights reserved.
The movements of Indo-European and Austronesian speakers are two of the most recent and
well studied of these early (i.e. before large agricultural states and written records) migrations. The
Austronesian migrations were a movement of both genes and language into Southeast Asia and
the Pacific, often by sea. By about 1000 CE they had arrived in New Zealand, Hawaii, and Easter
Island, some of the last unsettled frontiers in the world. The Indo-European migrations left a stronger
legacy of language and culture than of genes. They spread overland across much of Central Asia
and Europe by 1000 BCE. Both migrations were associated with new forms of technology, and
the spread of cultural and linguistic forms that have shaped the world to the present.
Austronesian speakers probably emerged in what is now southern China, and spread to
Taiwan by 3000 BCE. Their expansion was associated with outrigger canoes, rice, terraced
agriculture, pottery, stilt houses and tattoos. After moving to the Philippines, Borneo, and Java
by 2000 BCE, Astronesians divided into two main groups. Malay speakers spread through
maritime Southeast Asia, where they still dominate many of the coastal areas to this day. They
migrated as far as East Africa and Madagascar during the first millennium CE. The languages of
Madagascar still show a strong Malay influence and the gene pool is nearly half Malay in origin.
The second branch had its origins in the Lapita culture that began around 1500 BCE in what is
now called the Solomon Islands east of New Guinea. It was clearly a mix between Austronesian
immigrants and pre-existing residents (the linguistic and genetic perseverance of which can be
found in highland New Guinea). Over the next 2,500 years, Austronesian speakers used their
sea-going skills to spread to nearly all the islands of the Pacific, while losing some of their
early technologies such as pottery and rice. Inter-island voyaging and communication probably
continued until after 1600 CE (Bellwood 1997; Kirch 2002).
Indo-European speakers emerged around 4–3000 BCE in the area to the north of the Black Sea
that was a frontier between expanding agriculturalists and hunter-gatherers. This region was associated
with horse domestication, and horse-riding and pastoralism became a dominant mode of life by
the third millennium BCE, with some groups living exclusively as pastoral nomads by the first
millennium. The rise of Indo-European language was also associated with a cultural complex
characterized by patriliny, militaristic culture, large entourages (comitatus), hero myths, hospitality,
wealthy graves, and a polytheistic pantheon mediated by shamans (Anthony 2007; Beckwith 2009).
While large groups of Indo-European speakers may have moved across the Central Asian steppes,
migration beyond the steppes was mostly made up of smaller groups of elites as mercenaries,
conquerors, or through alliances with local elites. In this way, languages and cultural practices spread
more than the actual genes. Indo-European speakers first began to spread into Europe around 3000
BCE. The appearance of wealthy graves suggests their elite status, but there is little evidence of violence or conquest. The development of saddles and chariot warfare in Central Asia after 2000 BCE
was associated with the expansion of Iranian and Indic speakers through Central and into South
Asia. The culture of chariots and wealthy burial was also apparent in the rise of the Shang Dynasty
in China around 1200 BCE, although there was limited linguistic and genetic impact from IndoEuropean speakers. Altaic speakers such as Turks, Mongols, and Manchus also began to
adopt Indo-European cultural forms. Genetic exchange between the two groups was extensive,
and cultural and linguistic interactions were probably quite complex. The resultant Central Asian
cultural complex was a dominant feature of Asia until the eighteenth century, and shaped many of
the empires and political structures of western, southern, and eastern Asia to this day (Beckwith 2009).
States, agriculture, and armies
After the third millennium BCE, Central Eurasian horse cultures dominated movement in the
interior of Asia, as did Austronesian seafaring culture in much of maritime Asia. The space
Asian migration in the longue durée
Gold, S. J., & Nawyn, S. J. (Eds.). (2013). Routledge international handbook of migration studies. ProQuest Ebook Central <a‘’,’_blank’) href=’’ target=’_blank’ style=’cursor: pointer;’>http://ebookcentral.proquest.comCreated from michstate-ebooks on 2020-12-12 10:04:29. Copyright © 2013. Taylor & Francis Group. All rights reserved.
between them, from the coast to a few hundred kilometers inland, was increasingly dominated by
agricultural states that were associated with forms of mobility that were different from the
nomadism and communal relocation that was common in the hills, steppes, and littoral areas. In
many ways, these states and the rise of agriculture reduced mobility by fixing the homes and
villages of previously mobile hunter-gatherers and swidden agriculturalists. But the concentration
of wealth and power in cities and the military also created new kinds of mobility (Manning
2005). Except for some merchants, this mobility rarely crossed the long-distances of migrants in
maritime and Central Asia. But the emergence of the silk roads as a space of human mobility,
interaction between states and between the peoples of inner and peripheral Asia, and as a route for
the spread of universalizing regions did help to create a common Eurasian space that was unmatched
in size and scope by any other part of the world. Patterns of trade, labor, peasant, elite, and
coerced migration were forged within this space that still shape much migration to this day.
The concentration of wealth and military power facilitated many forms of migration. Conquest often caused pre-existing populations to flee. Those that did not flee could be coercively
relocated near capitals or to distant border areas for security or to contribute to economic
development. The armies themselves were major sources of mobility in their constant recruitment of slaves, prisoners, and subjects for army service and public works. This was an important
link with Central Asian peoples, who remained one of the major sources of both slaves and
soldiers for the agricultural empires. Soldiers and their families were often settled in frontier
areas both as garrisons and agricultural colonists. These pacified frontiers also attracted the
immigration of independent farmers and merchants, who were sometimes encouraged through
state subsidies and tax breaks.
Even without direct military coercion, corvée labor (unpaid labor required by states or local
lords), tribute transport, public works, active slave trades, and elite circulation were important
aspects of many of these states. The concentration of wealth required a constant flow of labor
and craftsmen into cities, palace construction, canal and wall maintenance, and other works.
The administration of power also encouraged the circulation of elites into new administrative
positions and as beneficiaries of land grants in return for services. The specifics varied from place
to place. In many states, the peasantry were obliged to perform labor corvée. In western Asia,
slaves were a common form of labor and military migration. In India by the second millennium
CE, castes and distinct groups who engaged in perpetual itinerant labor mobility emerged
(Ludden 1985; Kerr 2006). Large states also supported the formation of regional markets that
encouraged less coercive mobility. Sometimes entire villages or itinerant castes and groups
would specialize in the training of certain crafts and professions such as stonework, acting, or
construction, and travel the circuits from markets to manors to practice their crafts. The transportation routes themselves became a further cause of migration, requiring the labor of
numerous porters, animal drivers, guides, guards, and sailors (Skinner 1976).
Eurasian exchange
The concentration of wealth and military power also facilitated long-distance trade by securing
trade routes and markets, and creating a clientele for expensive products. Common motifs found
on merchant seals show the existence of trading networks stretching from northern India to the
eastern Mediterranean by the second millennium BCE—the same space that would be conquered
by Alexander the Great in 323 BCE. By the beginning of the common era, these trade routes
reached across Asia to China, India, and the Mediterranean, both overland and via the oceans.
This expansion of trade routes was made possible through interaction between the peoples of
Central Asia and the peripheral states (Beckwith 2009).
A. McKeown
Gold, S. J., & Nawyn, S. J. (Eds.). (2013). Routledge international handbook of migration studies. ProQuest Ebook Central <a‘’,’_blank’) href=’’ target=’_blank’ style=’cursor: pointer;’>http://ebookcentral.proquest.comCreated from michstate-ebooks on 2020-12-12 10:04:29. Copyright © 2013. Taylor & Francis Group. All rights reserved.
The integration of these trading routes supported the rise of two interrelated phenomena:
trade diasporas and the spread of universal religions. Although the states provided some
security against bandits and fraud, long-distance trade was still plagued by problems of trust,
information, and balance of payments. Agents linked across great distances by ties of kinship,
adoption, religion, and ethnicity had more incentive to maintain trust and think of their
endeavors as a long-term, even multigenerational project. Their personal futures were bound up
with the success of their groups. And the success of their groups helped to identify them as
people to whom rulers and other merchants would turn when looking for information, loans,
and goods. This success was best maintained through control of knowledge and opportunities,
a control that could be buttressed by the maintenance of unique culture and bloodlines
(Curtin 1984).
Distinct forms of religious worship often helped bind these trading diasporas together, as has
been the case for Jews and Parsis. But these trading diasporas also interacted well with the
universalizing religions such as Buddhism, Christianity, Manicheanism, Islam, and some forms of
Brahmanism that have spread throughout Eurasian trading networks over the past two millennia.
These religions not only broke ties with local and family gods, but also developed institutional
structures delinked from particular states (as opposed to, say, Confucianism or Zoroastrianism,
which retained strong institutional ties to the Chinese and Iranian states) and could move easily
with merchants. Most of them also developed ideologies of thrift, self-control, and family virtues
that fit well with the behavior of successful merchants (Foltz 1999).
These religions, especially in their more missionary incarnations, developed at major crossroads of world trade. Most of the monotheistic religions developed out of the contact between
people in the region between Iran and the Levant. Similarly, Mahayana Buddhism—a more
populist and missionary form of Buddhism—developed around 100 BCE in the Kushan Empire.
The Kushan was located at the heart of the silk roads in what is now Afghanistan, and was
home to a mix of Greek, Indian, Persian, and Central Asian cultures. Buddhist monasteries and
temples soon spread along the trading routes in conjunction with wealthy traders. They offered
places for merchants and transportation workers to rest, exchange information, and mediate
disputes with people who shared common values. In return, the monasteries and temples
flourished with the help of generous donations from the merchants. Initially associated with
merchant enclaves in the first centuries of its spread, Buddhism eventually spread to local
societies in East and Southeast Asia (Liu 1996). Tibet, located off the main trade routes, was one
of the last states to adopt Mahayana Buddhism.
Monotheistic sects from Western Asia followed these same routes, including Nestorian
Christian, Manichean, and Jewish traders and proselytizers. Islam appeared in the trading centers
of Mecca and Medina. It followed the trade routes in its initial expansion, embracing a generous
portion of Persian and Hellenic culture along the way. Throughout much of Asia east of
Iran, however, it continued to remain just one religious alternative out of many until after the
thirteenth century when sufis (who emerged from Central Asia), scholars, and merchants began
to deepen and extend its reach. Wandering sufis did much of the hard work of attracting
peasant converts. Migrant scholars accepted jobs and advisory positions at states throughout Asia.
And merchants were often the cutting edge of expansion. Much as with Buddhist monasteries,
Islamic ummah (communities), and occasionally mosques provided spaces for merchants to network and display trustworthy behavior. Islamic law and resident scholars established common
guidelines to judge disputes and inheritance issues. The elites of some Southeast Asian states
converted precisely because of the access to trade offered by adherence to Islamic law and
communities. By the mid-sixteenth century, Islamic states and traders were established across a
huge swath of Eurasia from the Philippines to West Africa. Pilgrimage to Mecca also became
Asian migration in the longue durée
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more common in this period, establishing a concrete mode of interaction between these disparate regions (Chaudhuri 1985; Eaton 1996).
Much is often made of the over 3,000 years of military conflict between agricultural states
and nomadic peoples as an important theme in world history. But the mobility and interactions
between these peoples were just as important. The skills and knowledge of pastoral peoples in
Central Asia and Arabia in navigating the steppes and deserts were a crucial part of these trade
routes. Central Asia was not only a space of nomadic peoples, but also of settled agriculturalists,
merchant, and rulers who also had a strong interest in the wealth that could be gained through
trade. Sogdian traders residing in the cities of Central Asia were often the main translators of major
religious texts. And the repeated conquest and rule of landed empires by nomadic peoples
helped Central Eurasian political practices spread across the whole of Asia (Beckwith 2009).
The Mongol conquest was the culmination of this interaction. By the 1260s, Mongol rule
spanned the trade routes of Asia, integrating confederacies of pastoral peoples with bureaucratic
states in China, Russia, and Iran. Even the conquest itself was made possible by the integration
of Central Asian cavalry and siege warfare experts from settled states. With the establishment of
the Mongol Empire (divided into four sections) trade and the movement of experts flourished
even more (Abu-Lughod 1991). This was the context in which famous travelers such as Ibn
Battuta and Marco Polo crossed the continent. The routes followed by travelers and merchants
were the same routes followed by the Black Death as spread from southeastern China to India
and the Mediterranean in the middle of the fourteenth century. The mass deaths catalyzed the
fall of the Mongols and the emergence of a new world of mobility that shifted decisively to
the oceans and peripheral states.
Early modern mobility
In the half-millennium after the spread of the Black Death in the 1340s and 1350s, two major
changes happened with respect to migration. The first was that maritime routes overtook the
overland routes as the main channels of long-distance trade and mobility. The second was the
massive expansion of agricultural empires in China, Russia, India, Iran, and the Middle East.
These states gradually overwhelmed the Central Asians and pastoral peoples. They also supported
the expansion of peasant frontier settlement, urban migration, and domestic labor and craft
migration, often with reduced state coercion and control. This mobility of individuals and their
families for the sake of new land or work became the dominant framework for human mobility
in the early modern world.
The rise of maritime mobility came hand in hand with proliferation of port cities from East
Africa, around the South Asian peninsula, across Southeast Asia and up to Nagasaki, replacing
the inland oases as the main centers of global trade. Most of these entrepots—with the exception of European, Japanese, and Chinese ports—actively encourage the business of as many
different traders as possible. New trade diasporas also spread throughout Asia, including Armenians,
Bugis, Chinese, Dutch, Gujaratis, Hadhramis, Iranians, Jews, Portuguese, and Sindhis (Dobbin
1996; McCabe et al. 2005). The ports worked to accommodate these merchants, and many of
these travelers took up positions in local governments, leading to the growth of a common
culture of hospitality and trading norms across the Asian Oceans from Amsterdam to the East
The large empires benefited from this trade but remained focused on the development of
agricultural revenue. In an age of growing population and competition between empires, this
often meant the encouragement of massive frontier settlement, as well as increased urbanization
and growing labor markets. The details looked different in each empire. In China, after evicting
A. McKeown
Gold, S. J., & Nawyn, S. J. (Eds.). (2013). Routledge international handbook of migration studies. ProQuest Ebook Central <a‘’,’_blank’) href=’’ target=’_blank’ style=’cursor: pointer;’>http://ebookcentral.proquest.comCreated from michstate-ebooks on 2020-12-12 10:04:29. Copyright © 2013. Taylor & Francis Group. All rights reserved.
the Mongols, the early Ming resettlement of the depopulated Yangtze valley and the area
around Beijing was one of the last great examples of mass state-sponsored migration. By the
time of the Qing (1644–1911), however, the massive settlement of some 30 million people in
western China, Taiwan, and the hill areas of central China was largely through independent
migration or mild state encouragements such as tax breaks for new settlers. Chinese cities
became some of the largest cities in the world, and a large periodic market system and networks
of migrant merchant associations spread through much of the empire (Skinner 1976; Cao et al.
1997; McKeown forthcoming). In Russia and some Southeast Asian states like Siam, on the
other hand, state control continued to predominate and even intensified. The czarist government allowed escaped serfs to settle freely on empty frontiers. But most mobility came in the
form of serfs granted to elite estates, and the regulated transfer of population to eastern regions
(Hellie 2002).
All of these states increasingly clamped down on uncontrolled nomadic and semi-nomadic
mobility at their borders. Russia and Qing China were the most aggressive and successful,
militarily subduing most of their Central Asian enemies by the late eighteenth century (Perdue
2005). The so-called “gunpowder” Islamic empires of western Asia also put intense pressure on
these unregulated spaces with their forms of repeated and unstable communal mobility (Streusand
2010). China and the states of mainland Southeast Asia increased pressure for the assimilation of
the mobile people of highland Southeast Asia. Many of these peoples responded by packing
up their villages and relocating to where labor recruiters, armies, and tax collectors could not
find them. But by the late nineteenth century even this option was becoming untenable
(Scott 2010).
By 1800, migration across Asia looked much more like the kinds of migration we now
know. They were migrations of families to settler frontiers, of workers and craftsmen to cities,
mines, local markets, and transportation work, of peasants into armies, and of traders, workers,
and soldiers to increasingly distant locations across the face of the planet.
The creation of Asia, 1840–1940
Migration boomed around the world in the century after the 1830s. European industrialization
generated a mutually reinforcing expansion of labor needs, markets, resource demands, and mass
communication technologies. All of these both produced and benefited from a rapid expansion of
urban and long-distance migration. The impact of these transformations was global. Asians made
up more than half of this long-distance migration. They moved to work in ports, mines, and
plantations, to grow and mill rice for laborers to eat, and as traders, shopkeepers, and moneylenders
who expanded the reach of industrial markets into the farthest corners of the globe. The great
bulk of this migration—both in the Atlantic world and in Asia—was of independent individuals,
organized through family, fellow villagers, and informal recruiters. Asians were fully a part of this
transformation of global mobility in the nineteenth century (Bose 2009; Amrith 2011).
Most of this long-distance migration moved from the most highly populated parts of the
world to the less populated frontiers. Three main systems can be identified, two of which were
in Asia (McKeown 2004).
1 The transatlantic system: 60 million people moved to the Americas, nearly 3 million of whom
were from China, Japan, India, and the Middle East. These flows peaked during 1903–13 at
an average of 1.5 million per year.
2 The Southeast Asian system: 30 million Indians (mostly from southeastern India) and 20 million
southern Chinese moved mostly into Southeast Asia, but also to islands around the Pacific
Asian migration in the longue durée
Gold, S. J., & Nawyn, S. J. (Eds.). (2013). Routledge international handbook of migration studies. ProQuest Ebook Central <a‘’,’_blank’) href=’’ target=’_blank’ style=’cursor: pointer;’>http://ebookcentral.proquest.comCreated from michstate-ebooks on 2020-12-12 10:04:29. Copyright © 2013. Taylor & Francis Group. All rights reserved.
and Indian Oceans. This migration grew concurrently with the transatlantic migrations, but
at slightly lower rates. It did not peak until the 1920s, averaging over 1 million per year.
3 The North Asian system: about 13 million Russians migrated to Central Asia and Siberia, 30
million northern Chinese to Manchuria, and a few million Japanese and Koreans moved
throughout the region. This migration only started to reach massive numbers in the 1890s,
and peaked in the late 1920s and 1930s at about 1.3 million per year.
These migrations contributed to a redistribution of the world’s population towards the frontier
regions. From 1850 to 1950 the proportion of the world’s population in the three main sending
regions decreased from 76 percent to 60 percent, while the proportion in the main receiving
regions increased from 10 percent to 24 percent.
These migrations around the globe were similar and connected. When we compare emigration regions of similar population and size, we find that peak annual emigration rates were quite
similar. Counties in south and north China and northeastern India ranged from 13–15 emigrants per thousand in the late 1920s, rates that are similar to peak years in Norway, Great
Britain, Portugal, and Italy. And although Asian migrants are often remembered as indentured
“coolies” in the service of European planters, only a small fraction of them signed indenture
contracts with Europeans. Less than 3 percent of Chinese emigrants (about 750,000) were ever
indentured. The great majority of Chinese migrants worked for family or Chinese employers
and profit-sharing ventures. And while over 95 percent of Indians traveled to destinations
within the British Empire and over half of them worked on European plantations, most were
still recruited by Indian gang bosses and family. Less than 10 percent (about 3 million) signed
indenture contracts directly with Europeans. And with the exception of coerced Korean labor
in Japan during World War II, the vast majority of Asian migration to North Asia was free and
independent (unlike Russian migration, much of which was highly regulated and coerced).
Their mobility was supported through a variety of debt and sentimental obligations to friends,
family, and employers. In other words, their mobility was not much different from that of
European migrants (Treadgold 1957; Gottschang and Lary 2000; McKeown 2010).
The most striking example of the growing connectedness of migration around the globe is
the convergence of return rates (return migrants as a proportion of outbound migrants) over the
nineteenth century. Economists have shown that return migration corresponds well with business cycles. When employment abroad is good the return rates are low, and vice versa. Asian
migrants are often depicted as “sojourners” who only intended to migrate temporarily, as distinct from European settlers in the Americas. In the Middle of the nineteenth century there was
some truth to this distinction, when an average of 60–70 percent of Chinese and Indian
migrants returned each year, compared with rates that varied from 20 to 60 percent for
European migrants to the United States. By the 1880s, however, both the timing of return
cycles and the average numbers of returns for all three groups started to converge, averaging
about 60 percent for all groups by the early twentieth century. The cycles and proportions of
return migration from Manchuria joined this convergence in the 1920s. Whatever differences
existed between Asian and Atlantic migration in the middle of the nineteenth century, the
aspects of migration shaped by economic forces were increasingly similar by the end of the
century (McKeown 2010).
At the same time, migration destinations were becoming segregated. In the 1850s and 1860s,
migrant destinations were truly global and integrated. Nearly 40 percent of Chinese and 20
percent of Indians traveled to destinations beyond Asia. By the 1880s, Asians were increasingly
restricted to Asian destinations. By the early twentieth century, less than 5 percent of all Chinese
and less than 1 percent of Indians traveled beyond Asia. This happened even as overall Asian
A. McKeown
Gold, S. J., & Nawyn, S. J. (Eds.). (2013). Routledge international handbook of migration studies. ProQuest Ebook Central <a‘’,’_blank’) href=’’ target=’_blank’ style=’cursor: pointer;’>http://ebookcentral.proquest.comCreated from michstate-ebooks on 2020-12-12 10:04:29. Copyright © 2013. Taylor & Francis Group. All rights reserved.
emigration increased eightfold. Japanese emigration bucked this trend a bit. The Japanese fought
hard and bitterly against discriminatory immigration laws, and the majority of Japanese
emigrants traveled to Hawaii, North America, Brazil, and Peru. But this ultimately amounted to
less than 750,000 emigrants, not a big dent in the overall trends from Asia.
Asian migration was compelled into these regional systems by the erection of exclusionary
laws and other migration controls that kept them hemmed within the continent. In just the
brief period from 1881 to 1883 the United States, New Zealand and several Australian colonies
enacted anti-Chinese immigration laws; the Ottoman Empire set up a quarantine station at the
entrance to the Red Sea and imposed a head tax on pilgrims (encouraging the rise of a passport
regime that made it more difficult for Asians to pass through the Suez Canal); the Russian and Qing
empires both passed laws promoting settlement and fortification of the Russia–Chinese–Korea
border area so as to block the expansion of each other; and the Indian Emigration Act consolidated past legislation on Indian migration and defined “emigrant” as migrants who travel
beyond India to destinations other than Ceylon or the Straits Settlements. Latin American
countries soon followed with their own Asian exclusion laws. Asia became encased within
borders, and the idea of “Asian” migration became a reality (Zolberg 1999; McKeown 2008).
The segregation of Asia and the creation of three systems had a concrete impact on the
context of Asian migration. Atlantic migration was associated with a virtuous circle of development, in which investment followed labor migration, creating profits that were then invested
both in America and back in Europe. Over the course of a century, migrant-sending regions
shifted from northwestern to southeastern Europe, as wages in the original sending regions
began to converge with those in the Americas. In Asia, on the other hand, migration was less
associated with economic dynamism. The same villages and counties that sent migrants in the
1850s were still sending migrants in the 1930s. There is little evidence of any wage convergence
between sending and receiving regions. The flows of migration and money were cross-cutting
rather than a virtuous circle, as much investment came from Europe and profits were returned
there. There was also much less urban migration within Asia. In both India and China, the
dynamic global economy of the second half of the nineteenth century was largely experienced
as war, famine, and flood. Only in the early twentieth century did migration within China and
India start to resemble nineteenth-century European patterns of intensive urbanization and
domestic labor mobility.
Into the present
Asia has been an integral part second wave of global mass migration since the 1950s. Urbanization
has overtaken that in Europe and North America. Asians have also had an important role in the
rise of global long-distance migration since the 1960s. Now the majority of Asian emigrants are
likely to leave rather than remain in Asia, with net emigration amounting to 1.3 million a year.
But large numbers also travel within Asia. As is the trend around the world, they no longer travel
to frontier areas but to more developed economies like Japan, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Thailand.
Indeed Asia has some of the states with the highest proportions of immigrants in the world: over
40 percent of the population in Singapore, and more than 70 percent in smaller Gulf states such as
Qatar and the UAR (IOM 2010).
One legacy remains from the earlier era of segregation: the erasure of historical memory.
Most accounts of the first wave of mass migration in Asia still reproduce the same characterizations that had justified the exclusions and racist policies of the 1880s: that Asians were
sojourners, coolies, tied to the land, unable and unwilling to migrate without European intervention, not “true” immigrants. There is little sense of immigrant heritage in most Asian
Asian migration in the longue durée
Gold, S. J., & Nawyn, S. J. (Eds.). (2013). Routledge international handbook of migration studies. ProQuest Ebook Central <a‘’,’_blank’) href=’’ target=’_blank’ style=’cursor: pointer;’>http://ebookcentral.proquest.comCreated from michstate-ebooks on 2020-12-12 10:04:29. Copyright © 2013. Taylor & Francis Group. All rights reserved.
countries. And policies are often rooted in the idea that contemporary migration is a break from
longstanding patterns of immobility, an unprecedented challenge caused by current globalization.
To some extent this historical forgetting is understandable because of the relatively meager
demographic legacy of Asian migrants and their descendants. In the 1950s, only 11 million
Chinese could be found outside China and 4.5 million Indians outside of India (Davis 1951;
Poston and Yu 1990). This was less than the European-descended population of Argentina
alone. From this perspective, Asian migration had a much smaller impact on the world than did
But we must understand this difference as a product of different historical contexts. Nearly all
emigrants to Southeast Asia moved into tropical areas with well-established native or colonial
states. In contrast, Europeans tended to move into sparsely populated temperate areas where
they became the majority and held political power. Tropical plantations and mines were much
less amenable to long-term settlement and families than small farms on temperate frontiers or
the new cities of the Americas. Asian return rates were also higher than European before the
1880s, giving the descendants of those early European settlers more generations to proliferate.
Also, far fewer Asian women migrated than Europeans throughout the entire first wave. Asian
women generally ranged from 5 percent to 20 percent of emigrants until the 1920s, while
European women were more likely to range from 25 percent to 50 percent women. There was
also a much larger and better established native population in Southeast Asia. When Asian
immigrants intermarried with locals, their descendants were just as likely to be considered
Burmese, Vietnamese, or Thai as to be considered Chinese or Indian.
The Manchurian migrations resemble European migrations much more closely. This was an
example of migration to a temperate frontier with substantial urbanization, where the natives
were almost entirely displaced and where, despite interludes of Russian and Japanese intervention, Chinese ultimately maintained political control (not least because they overwhelmed the
place with migrants). Fifty million Chinese resided in Manchuria by 1953, nearly five times as
many Chinese as could be found abroad. This happened despite the fact that average rates of
return and female migration were similar for the southern Chinese emigrants. On the other
hand, both the United States and Manchuria started with populations of about 6 million in
1800 and received similar numbers of migrants over the next 140 years, yet this produced a
population of 134 million people of European descent in the United States by 1955. Lower
return rates, higher rates of female migration, and greater economic growth in the United States
all conspired to produce this disparity.
The lack of memory about migration has contributed to immigration policies in Asia that are
some of the most restrictive and discriminatory in the world. They are grounded in state-based
developmentalism and temporary labor emigration schemes at the expense of immigrant rights
(Oishi 2005; Seol and Skrentny 2009). A broader appreciation of the fundamental role of
migration in Asian history could help to moderate the fear and discomfort that surrounds
contemporary mobility.
References and further reading
Abu-Lughod, J. L. (1991) Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250–1350. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.
Amrith, S. S. (2011) Migration and Diaspora in Modern Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Anthony, D. (2007) The Horse, the Wheel and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes
Shaped the Modern World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Beckwith, C. (2009) Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present.
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
A. McKeown
Gold, S. J., & Nawyn, S. J. (Eds.). (2013). Routledge international handbook of migration studies. ProQuest Ebook Central <a‘’,’_blank’) href=’’ target=’_blank’ style=’cursor: pointer;’>http://ebookcentral.proquest.comCreated from michstate-ebooks on 2020-12-12 10:04:29. Copyright © 2013. Taylor & Francis Group. All rights reserved.
Bellwood, P. (1997) Prehistory of the Indo-Malaysian Archipelago, 2nd edition. Honolulu, HI: University of
Hawai’i Press.
Bose, S. (2009) A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empires. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press.
Cao, S. J., Ge, J. X., and Wu, S. D. (1997) Zhongguo Yimin Shi (China’s Immigration History), 6 vols.
Fujian: Fujian Renmin Chubanshe.
Cavalli-Sforza, L. L. and Cavalli-Sforza, F. (1996) The Great Human Diaspora: The History of Diversity and
Evolution. New York: Perseus Books.
Chaudhuri, K. N. (1985) Trade and Civilization in the Indian Ocean: An Economic History from the Rise of Islam
to 1750. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Curtin, P. D. (1984) Cross-cultural Trade in World History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Davis, K. (1951) The Population of India and Pakistan. New York: Russell and Russell.
Dobbin, C. (1996) Asian Entrepreneurial Minorities: Conjoint Communities in the Making of the World-economy
1570–1940. Richmond, VA: Curzon.
Dolgopolski, A. (1998) The Nostratic Macrofamily and Linguistic Paleontology. Cambridge: Institute for
Archaeological Research.
Eaton, R. M. (1996) The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204–1760. Berkeley, CA: University of
California Press.
Foltz, R. (1999) Religions of the Silk Road: Overland Trade and Cultural Exchange from Antiquity to the Fifteenth
Century. New York: St Martin’s Press.
Gottschang, T. and Lary, D. (2000) Swallows and Settlers: The Great Migration from North China to Manchuria.
Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan, Center for Chinese Studies.
Greenberg, J. (2000–2002) Indo-European and its Closest Relatives, 2 vols. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Hellie, R. (2002) “Migration in early modern Russia, 1480s-1780s.” In D. Eltis (ed.) Coerced and Free
Migration: Global Perspectives. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, pp. 292–323.
IOM (2010) World Migration Report. The Future of Migration: Building Capacities for Change. Geneva: International
Organization for Migration.
Kerr, I. J. (2006) “On the move: circulating laborers in pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial India”
International Review of Social History 51(suppl): 85–109.
Kirch, K. V. (2002) On the Road of Winds: An Archaeological History of the Pacific Islands before European
Contact. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Liu, X. R. (1996) Silk and Religion: An Exploration of Material Life and the Thought of People, AD 600–1200.
Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ludden, D. (1985) Peasant History in South India. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Manning, P. (2005) Migration in World History. London: Routledge.
——(2006) “Homo sapiens populate the earth: A provincial synthesis privileging linguistic data” Journal of
World History 17(2): 115–58.
McCabe, I. B., Harlaftis, G. and Minoglou I. P. (eds) (2005) Diaspora Entrepreneurial Networks: Four Centuries
of History. London: Berg.
McKeown, A. (2004) “Global migration, 1846–1940” Journal of World History 15(2): 155–89.
——(2008) Melancholy Order: Asian Migration and the Globalization of Borders. New York: Columbia University
——(2010) “Chinese emigration in global context, 1850–1940” Journal of Global History 5: 95–124.
——(forthcoming) “A different transition: Mobility in Qing China, 1600–1900.” In J. and L. Lucassen
(eds), Globalising Migration History: The Eurasian Experience (16th to 21st Centuries). Leiden: Brill.
Oishi, N. (2005) Women in Motion: Globalization, State Policies and Labor Migration in Asia. Stanford, CA:
Stanford University Press.
Perdue, P. C. (2005) China Marches West: Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press
of Harvard University Press.
Poston, D. L. and Yu M. Y. (1990) “The distribution of the overseas Chinese in the contemporary world”
International Migration Review 24(3): 480–508.
Scott, J. C. (2010) The Art of not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. New Haven,
CT: Yale University Press.
Seol, D. H. and Skrentny, J. D. (2009) “Why is there so little migrant settlement in East Asia?” International
Migration Review 43(3): 578–620.
Skinner, G. W. (1976) “Mobility strategies in late imperial China: A regional systems analysis.” In C. A.
Smith (ed.), Regional Analysis, vol. 1, Economic Systems. New York: Academic Press, pp. 327–64.
Asian migration in the longue durée
Gold, S. J., & Nawyn, S. J. (Eds.). (2013). Routledge international handbook of migration studies. ProQuest Ebook Central <a‘’,’_blank’) href=’’ target=’_blank’ style=’cursor: pointer;’>http://ebookcentral.proquest.comCreated from michstate-ebooks on 2020-12-12 10:04:29. Copyright © 2013. Taylor & Francis Group. All rights reserved.
Streusand, D. E. (2010) Islamic Gunpowder Empires: Ottomans, Safavids and Mughals. Boulder, CO: Westview.
Tishkoff, S. A., Reed, F. A., Friedlaender, F. R., Ehret, C., Ranciaro, A., Froment, A., Hirbo, J. B.,
Awomoyi, A. A., Bodo, J.-M., Doumbo, O., Ibrahim, M., Juma, A. T., Kotza, M. J., Lema, G.,
Moore, J. H., Mortensen, H., Nyambo, T. B., Omar, S. A., Powell, K., Pretorius, G. S., Smith,
M. W., Thera, M. A., Wambebe, C., Weber, J. L., and Williams, S. M. (2009) “The genetic
structure and history of Africans and African Americans” Science 324(5930): 1035–44.
Treadgold, D. (1957) The Great Siberian Migration: Government and Peasant Resettlement from Emancipation to
the First World War. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
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In J. and L. Lucassen (eds), Migration, Migration History, History: Old Paradigms and New Perspectives. Bern:
Peter Lang, pp. 291–305.
A. McKeown
Gold, S. J., & Nawyn, S. J. (Eds.). (2013). Routledge international handbook of migration studies. ProQuest Ebook Central <a‘’,’_blank’) href=’’ target=’_blank’ style=’cursor: pointer;’>http://ebookcentral.proquest.comCreated from michstate-ebooks on 2020-12-12 10:04:29. Copyright © 2013. Taylor & Francis Group. All rights reserved.

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