Global Asia Initiative Hosts Symposium on Monarchy and Sovereignty in Twentieth-Century Asia

April 16, 2018

By Yan Gao


From Left to Right - Dr. Faiz Ahmed (Brown University), Dr. Adam Mestyan (Duke University) 

On April 13, 2018, nine scholars from around the world presented their research on monarchy and sovereignty in twentieth-century Asia. This workshop was organized by Oscar Tang Professor of East Asian Studies Prasenjit Duara and Assistant Professor of History Adam Mestyan, and it was co-sponsored by Global Asia Initiative and Archives of Africa, Asia and the Mediterranean at Duke University. The main areas of inquiry included the legal codification of the monarchical power, nationalism, and monarchism, formation of thinking on sovereignty and the changing role of rulers, ruling legitimacy and legacy, and comparative and transnational monarchical systems in Asia and beyond.

The first panel investigated the Asian monarchy in the colonial age. Cemil Aydin (UNC-Chapel Hill) focused on a particular moment between 1905 and 1914, when many Muslim admirers of Japanese modernity wrote about virtues of Emperor Meiji. He explored how the discourses on the success of Japanese monarchy influenced and shaped the destiny of dynastic families and monarchies in West Asia in the context of rising nationalism. Faiz Ahmed (Brown University) reassessed the legacy of Shah Amaullah Khan (r. 1919-29) by analyzing a transcript of sermons he delivered in Qandahar in 1925. In so doing, Ahmed tried to understand the purpose of the sermons, his style of rule, and his mode of leadership. Adam Mestyan (Duke University) analyzed the development of legal codification in post-WWI Arab nation states. He argued that the codification in judging the civil affairs within the ruling family and the order of succession signified the secularization of political power through shari’a principles. 

The second panel focused on the monarchy and decolonization in 20th-century Asia. Milinda Banerjee (LMU Munich/Presidency University) presented modern Indian thinking about sovereignty and how concepts of human, divine, and messianic kinship have contributed to the collective thoughts. He emphasized the pluralistic visions of political authority ranging from authoritarian sovereignty to democratic visions embracing peasant demands for empowerment. By examining the Indian thinking in a global context, he theorized about the absolute centrality of monarchic concepts in the rise of modern nationalism. David Malitz (Chulalongkorn University) compared the Japanese and Thai monarchies at the beginning of the Cold War. He argued that historical blocs of domestic conservatives and their US supporters created national monarchies for both authentic nations and capitalist states in the Cold War era. Axel Michaels (University of Heidelberg) revised the conventionally conceived view of Nepal’s Śāha kinship as a continuous symbolic and ritual authority. He emphasized the “non-state” characteristic of Nepal in the long nineteenth century and traces the decline of the Śāha monarchy through its various constitutions. He argued that it was due to the joined symbolic authority with political power derived from the historical and structural weakness that made Nepal almost a failed state.

The third panel analyzed the Asian monarchies in the global transformation. Ervand Abrahmian (CUNY) examined the fall of the Pahlavi Monarchy in 1979 Iranian Revolution and argued that the revolution was inevitable because the Iranian monarchy was an anachronism. He asserted that the Shah owed his throne to the overthrow of Mossadeq, the idol of Iranian nationalism, and thus was lacking national legitimacy in an age of nationalism. Therefore, the Shah’s reform strategies to compensate for his legitimacy crisis eventually led to the fall of his reign. Wasana Wongsuravat (Chulalongkorn University) investigated the special relationship between the Thai royal family and the government of the PRC in the post-Cold War era. She compared the different paths of two sovereignties – while the Communist PRC moved towards the global capital market, the Thai monarchy consolidated its political power through peasant organization and socialist propaganda. Noriko Kawamura (Washington State University) revised the stereotypical portrayal of Hirohito as a shrewd survivor and a passive collaborator of the U. S. occupiers, and argued that Emperor Hirohito continued to play an important role in both domestic politics and U.S.-Japanese relations in the early years of the Cold War.  

A few researchers, students, and visiting scholars from various departments and fields also joined the discussion.