In this presentation, Richard will revisit the histories of modern Yangzi Delta (Jiangnan 江南) by focusing on the perspectives from the underclass fishers in inland water peripheries. For centuries, Jiangnan has been the primary socio-political and economic core of China with the most developed hydraulic systems. Yet it remains unclear how such hydraulic mis/management impacted the shoreline ecosystems and thus reshaped the local societies. Richard’s research historicizes these anthropogenic consequences after the mid-nineteenth century by emphasizing the considerable population spreading along rivers, canals, and lakes—with a central focus on the understudied boat-dwelling communities in Lake Tai (Taihu 太湖). Richard will illustrate how much the changing riverine surroundings created a liminal sphere for these mobile groups by informing their social patterns and cultural identities distinct from the land-based societies. Most of these drifting people remain poor and illiterate so unable to leave written sources; nevertheless, their religious practices—Catholicism in particular— provide first-hand data to recover their hidden voices from below. Drawing on newly released hydrographical data, missionary documents, and my ethnographical fieldwork of oral interviews with rural fishing Catholics who still lived on boats until the early 2000s, this study forms a dialogue with the given historical and governmental archives regarding authority-based narratives in securing the waters. By bridging water environments and localized Christianity, it aims to unpack the historical processes in forming the social margins of modern Jiangnan.
Yu-Cheng Shih, also named Richard, is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Brown University with inter-disciplinary training between history, anthropology, and digital mapping. As an environmental historian working on inland water dynamics in modern China, his research combines environmental humanities and local societies to investigate histories of migration and refugees; natural calamities, diseases, and Anthropocene; and politics of belonging across Taiwan, China, and East Asia. He is currently visiting the Centre of China Studies in the Chinese University of Hong Kong.