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Salt, Smuggling, and Sovereignty: The Burma-China Borderland, c. 1880–1935

Lally, J; (2021) Salt, Smuggling, and Sovereignty: The Burma-China Borderland, c. 1880–1935. The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History , 49 (6) pp. 1047-1081. 10.1080/03086534.2021.1985216. Green open access

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Abstract

The formal demarcation of what is today the Burma-China border began following the British conquest of Upper Burma from the Konbaung dynasty in 1885 and the signing of international agreements with the Qing Empire (1886, 1894, 1897), the process only completed in the 1960s. Around the turn of the century and into the twentieth, therefore, the highlands between British Burma and Qing (later Republican) China remained a contested ‘borderland’; specifically, one over which successive lowland states had never been able to exert direct control – a space James C. Scott and others have named ‘Zomia’ – but toward which they had been expanding by the mid-nineteenth century (if not earlier). This article looks not at the ways in which Zomia’s inhabitants contested this expanding state authority, which has been the focus of most work on this space, but how the British pressed their territorial claims over part of this contested borderland vis-à-vis the Chinese. Salt was a monopoly of both the Government of India (of which Burma was a province until 1935) and the Qing and Republican states. Smuggling – trade, to British eyes – salt from Burma into China thus undermined Chinese sovereignty qua the expression of the latter’s monopoly powers. Complaints about smuggling were met with ‘masterly inactivity’, not only because the colonial administration was weak in Upper Burma and along the frontier, but also because it meant the British imperial state could permit the expansion of ‘legitimate’ trade and thereby contest Chinese sovereignty qua its territorial claims over the borderland. In contrast to other works positing that smuggling over defined borders undermined state power, this article shows how a permissive attitude to complaints about smuggling undergirded British sovereignty and was very much part of the making of the border.

Type: Article
Title: Salt, Smuggling, and Sovereignty: The Burma-China Borderland, c. 1880–1935
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
DOI: 10.1080/03086534.2021.1985216
Publisher version: https://doi.org/10.1080/03086534.2021.1985216
Language: English
Additional information: Copyright © 2021 The Author(s). This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/), which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way.
Keywords: Zomia, British India, Burma, Qing, Republican China
UCL classification: UCL
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH > Faculty of S&HS
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH > Faculty of S&HS > Dept of History
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10130245
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