From Nanhai to Nanyang: The Images of Southeast Asia in Late Imperial China

Lin Sun, School of History, Beijing Normal University


China and America in Southeast Asia


The understanding of Southeast Asia has always been dynamic over the past centuries. Both Nanhai and Nanyang are Chinese words referring to the “Southern Sea” or “Southern Ocean.” It was a familiar and unfamiliar maritime world to Chinese imperial states between the 16th and 19th centuries. The word Nanhai was frequently used by the Ming court (1368–1644). By contrast, the Qing court adopted the word Nanyang (1636–1911) and later it became a more general term indicating Southeast Asia in both Eastern and Western academia. The difference between the words and Southeast Asia images in the two imperial Chinese courts’ eyes remain unclear. This article explores the changes behind the words, arguing two power shifts led to the word choice. In this presentation, the first part shows the Ming-Qing power shift that allowed the Qing court to choose Nanyang thereby replacing Nanhai. The second part indicates that Nanyang had two different political meanings, i.e., south China and Southeast Asia, after the Opium War in 1840. Therefore, this paper reveals the words’ changes and their underlying causes over the past three centuries.

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CCSEAS Conference 2021 |