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Idriss Fofana, Chinese-Language Geographic Writing of the Late Qing Period and Chinese Labor Migration to Africa, 1880–1910, American Historical Association Annual Meeting Session (Feb. 25, 2022).

Abstract: Between 1880 and 1910, as barriers to Chinese emigration arose across the Pacific Rim, European colonial administrations and entrepreneurs in Africa increasingly sought to divert Chinese labor emigration toward Africa. These efforts met with only limited success. Yet the growing labor flows linking China and Africa also helped to spark new scholarly and diplomatic interest in Africa among Chinese officials and literati. This presentation explores how three types of Chinese-language sources on Africa, scholarly atlases, fictionalized personal accounts and the experiences of migrant laborers, influenced elite views of Africa and government policy toward labor migration to the continent. Although nineteenth-century Chinese-language sources on Africa drew primarily from European works, these works depicted Africa through analogies to tropical regions more familiar to Chinese audiences, notably Qing China's southern frontier and Southeast Asia. Atlases such as Xu Jiyu's Brief Account of the Maritime Circuit (Ying huan zhi lue) explicitly sought to reconcile historical Chinese knowledge of Africa with recent Euro-American geographic sources. In contrast, fictionalized travelogues such as Ding Lian's Record of Travels across Three Continents (San zhou you ji) translated European travel narratives as first-hand accounts of Chinese travelers. Still, both types of works "Sinicized" Euro-American sources on Africa by reformulating Euro-American colonial and racialist discourses into Chinese imperial and ethnographic tropes. Despite an increasing number of Chinese laborers with first-hand knowledge of Africa, laborer perspectives remained marginalized until the Chinese imperial government named a consul in Johannesburg, South Africa. As a result, new Chinese-language sources on Africa served less to provide an accurate description of the continent than to familiarize Chinese elites with Euro-American civilizational discourse. Armed with this new knowledge, Qing officials began to develop a narrative of Chinese migrant laborers as civilizing agents as a means to defend Qing China's own precarious place within contemporary Euro-American civilizational thought.