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Interview with Cao Yin »

Connecting India, China, and Southeast Asia


Please tell us about your research.

I am a historian of modern India, Southeast Asia, and China. I have great interest in global history and have made attempts to use transnational and cross-boundary perspectives to write histories of (dis)connections in modern Asia in general.


How many research themes do you have?

I have three research themes. The first is about the Sikh diaspora in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries. I find that the Sikhs made good use of the British imperial network to facilitate their economic and political agendas. To put the Sikh policemen and revolutionaries at the center of the British colonial expansion and Indian nationalist movement, I try to contribute an alternative angle to make sense of imperial history and nationalist history alike[↗].

The second theme is the Chinese sojourners in British India during World War II. I take the subaltern perspective to tell a very little-known story of how Chinese smugglers, seamen, and deserters made their livelihood and choices under the pressure of British colonial anxieties and Chinese state-building ambitions. 

I am now currently working on a third theme, in which I try to figure out the process of the expansion of British India into Southeast Asia in the nineteenth century. I find that the expansion was closely related to the changing trading patterns of British India with China. By writing such a story, I want to challenge the India-centered historiography of British India and reposition Southeast Asia at the center of the expansion story of the Raj.


Why do you find your research topic interesting?

Both India and China are populous and big countries in the world, and their historical relations have long drawn attention of scholars across the world. Nevertheless, most studies on India-China relations to date are trapped by national historiographies, which overemphasize the role of nation-states and political and cultural elites behind them. My research of the India-China connections takes an alternative perspective by unearthing the agency of subalterns and non-human elements between and beyond the India-China borderlands. In so doing, I find my research provides an interesting angle to look into the international relations that have long been dominated by national and elitist narratives.


How did you get started in your research, and how did you come to focus on your current research?

I did my PhD in Singapore, where Chinese, Indians, Malays, Arabs, and Europeans live side by side. Such an experience makes me think of the India-China connections in the global context. I find that a study that focuses on the connections between China and India may not begin from the bilateral relations and interactions. Instead, it could begin from somewhere beyond the national territories of India and China. I learned about global history during my studies in Singapore and came to realize that the perspectives and approaches of global history could further our understanding of the India-China connections. This is why I am interested in global history and its critiques of national historiography. In other words, I started my research by asking how to transcend the dominant national historiographies in modern India and China, and how to write an integrated history of India and China. My first book is about how colonial expansion and nationalist movement transformed an Indian community in China. My second book focuses on a group of Chinese sojourners in India during World War II. Similar to the first book, I try to recover the subjectivities of the subalterns by exploring how Chinese sojourners made use of British colonial anxieties and Chinese state-building projects to facilitate their own interests. My current research is the last part of this India-China trilogy. It will focus on the areas between India and China. I will examine how British investors and adventurers, Chinese Muslim caravans, and Yunnanese mules in the Straits of Malacca and Upper Burma shaped the British Raj’s pursuit of a shorter route to China in the nineteenth century.  


Have you had any difficulties in putting together the results of your research into a research paper or book?

I think most scholars have some sort of difficulties in transforming primary sources, data, research findings, and thoughts into a well-organized article or book. My solution is to do a detailed planning before the writing. When I decide to write a book, for example, I create a brief writing plan that is composed of a timetable, schedule, and deadline. I also divide each chapter into several sections. Every one or two weeks I will write one section. Whether they are satisfying or not, I will just write them down. When a chapter is completed, I will go back to examine what I can revise. But the important point here is that we cultivate a habit of daily writing and not be too worried about the quality of the first draft.


Which books or people have influenced you?

When I was doing my PhD studies, I randomly walked in the library and found a book with an interesting cover, the title of the book is Who Killed Hammarskjold?: The UN, the Cold War and White Supremacy in Africa. I am not an expert or student of African history, but I read a few pages of the book and was quickly attracted by the narrative technique of the author. It is a book of grand events, including the Cold War, the decolonization movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and the mining capitalism in Africa. By detecting and examining the mysterious death of the former UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold in a plane crash in 1961, the author vividly shows the mechanism and design of colonialism, racism, imperialism, and capitalism in the modern world. I was impressed by the detective fiction style narrative of the author. Her use of multi-site and multi-language archives, on-the-ground interviews, and inside reports makes the book not only persuasive, but also very readable. This book has greatly influenced the way I write my own works. I am always trying to make the history narrative interesting, reader-friendly, and relevant to crises that are haunting the contemporary world.


What is your ideal image of a researcher?

I think a researcher should be critical, cautious of the powerful, and speak for the powerless. We should make our research relevant to our community, instead of becoming foot soldiers for the expansion of state power and capitalism.


Do you have any must-have gear for field research and writing?

For my field work, I always bring a bottle of Vitamin C (1000 mg each tablet). It could help strengthen our immune system, which is under great pressure during a tight field trip. For my writing, I always need a wool-made cushion to keep my feet warm.


Do you have any essential reads (books) that you can recommend to younger people?

I recommend George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Young people are often full of energy and are eager to change the world that is full of injustice and inequalities. Animal Farm is just like a sedative. When we are thinking of changing a very bad world, we also need to be cautious of being attracted by power and becoming the one we resolve to overthrow.

Cao Yin is a Visiting Research Scholar of CSEAS
from February – May 2023