Lisa Hellman

Towards a transcultural history of diplomacy

In this workshop, historians from Asia and Europe will discuss diplomatic contacts during the period 1500-1700, focusing on actors and materiality. Through the bringing together of researchers who normally focus on one time and period we can see how the practices of diplomacy have differed.

This workshop has three main aims:
First, to go beyond the common time frame of diplomatic history. The examples range from the early 16th century to the mid-18th century. Thus, the case studies are of diplomatic contacts and practice before diplomacy was professionalised, and found its modern form, in the 19th century, and before the formation of the nation states.
Second, the workshop will have a global historical perspective, where studies from different regions of the world will be compared and contrasted. Instead of letting examples from European history act as a historical norm, they are here put side by side with studies from Asia.
Third, the aim is to incorporate new kinds of materials in research about diplomatic history, and to encourage researchers to show the role for example goods, clothes or certain fabrics have played in the diplomatic contacts.

This workshop offers an unusual meeting between European and Asian historians. It can create a new diplomatic history, one that can cross borders of time as well as those of space.

The workshop is planned to be held 9-11 December 2016 at the Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia at Tokyo University.


Between December 9 and 11, the workshop "Towards a transcultural history of diplomacy" was held at the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Tokyo, organised by Lisa Hellman and Birgit Tremml-Werner. The workshop had 28 participants, of which half were invited European researchers. This attracted a large audience: 64 persons took part on the first day, and 49 on the second. The third day was excursion to a museum in Chiba by a group of 22 persons. In this workshop, Asian as well as European historians illuminated empirical and methodological differences and similarities in early modern diplomatic contacts.

First out in the workshop was a keynote speech by professor Matsukata Fuyuko from University of Tokyo. She set the tone for the whole workshop by pointing out areas where research on diplomatic risks becoming Eurocentric, and where established theoretical frameworks work badly or not at all. She questioned the established theory that a European model, based on treaties, eventually replaced Asian diplomacy, based on tributes. Instead, she suggested a model interpreting diplomatic system as being either vertical or horizontal. This system differentiates between letter-based diplomacy and one based on settled diplomats, and underlines the ability of the letters to combine diverse diplomatic system, even though they were written based on completely different world views. Under the following days, several speakers returned to this argument about the difficulties about comparing diplomatic contacts in different parts of the world using the European system as a blueprint - or even as an answer key.

After the keynote followed two long and intense days with twenty presentations by European and Japanese participants. The workshop was divided into six thematic panels, each of which focusing on ones of the themes that have turned out to be central for new diplomatic history. The first panel treated networks for information and communication, the second symbolism and ceremonies, the third about informal actors, the fourth treaties and legal aspects and the fifth about actors with contradictory aims, and the sixth about clashes between diplomatic systems.

In this way, a number of cultural aspects of diplomacy were highlighted. Following this cultural history approach, several papers stressed the importance of writing history from below: they underlined local go-between, interpreters and unofficial actors. These actors could have multiple identities, and contradictory incentives and aims, but there were also occasions when diplomatic contacts involving such informal actors led to transcultural knowledge production and the creation of new forms of intercultural communication. This is connected to another commonality between several of the panels and papers: the focus on the daily practices of diplomacy. That included material practices such as gifts or the use of clothes, as well as other objects (in this vein ornamented treaties were analysed as material objects). The use and interpretation of these objects illuminated cultural understanding, adaptation and misunderstanding in contact between adjacent and distant cultures. This manner of approaching diplomatic cultures made it possible to really appreciate the local and cultural aspects of early modern diplomacy - and to follow it up with global comparisons. Because what made the workshop special was its' global perspective, something that remains unusual within diplomatic history. During three days, diplomatic practices not just from different times but also in different places were compared. In this workshop, European history, and the history of European empires, were confronted with studies based on other areas of the world, and did not serve as a self-evident norm.

All panels hade a commentator, who played a central part: they tied the papers to the general theme of the panel, which continuously related the panel discussions to overarching notions of global early modern diplomacy, but they also discussed the papers in relation to East Asian methodology and historiography. The result was an oscillation between presenting empirical case studies and to discuss these from an East Asian perspective. To enable this oscillation, the papers were foremost by European researchers, and the commentators foremost from Japan. All panels ended with a general discussion, which became vibrant and intense.

The workshop connected several fields (material culture, global history, and diplomatic history), and integrated researchers with different approaches (such as culture, economy, politics or religion). This became obvious when considering the variation surrounding the use of certain terms and concepts. One of the reasons for the workshop was to stress the linguistic challenges that follow if the field does a global turn. The second days therefore ended with a terminological session. All participants hade chosen two terms they considered crucial. Based on these, we had a discussion whether it is possible to compile a "global historical diplomatic vocabulary". The participants stressed several difficulties: several of the papers showed how diplomacy was practiced in several languages, and how translations formed imperialistic discourses and transcultural understanding. The discussion demonstrated the distance that exists between different historiographical traditions, even within Europe and East Asia: basic concepts such as "diplomat", "gift" or "friendship" are far from self-evident. The terminological inconsistencies between diverse empirical and analytical spheres became particularly evident considering that all the papers were given in English, but described communication that had taken part in completely different languages. One aspect that was stressed was therefore the risk that the empirical variation is homogenised when the discussion takes place in English. This panel showed clearly that there was a need for this workshop - particularly because its participants worked with different geographic areas, in different languages.

The final day we did an excursion for a full day to the National museum of Japanese history in Chiba. There we were given a private tour in the galleries focusing on Japanese early modern diplomatic contacts, which made it possible for the participants to connect the objects there to the previous days discussions, as well as to compared them to those in their own studies. As we had hoped, to directly experience the object gave rise to other discussions of the material culture of early modern culture than an image ever will: there were multiple contrast and comparisons.

The workshop opened up for a new scholarly conversation in various ways: the participants worked with different regions, had different regional background and had been trained in different academic environments. The participants studied China, Central Asia, Africa, Southeast Asia and Scandinavia - and demonstrated to even more areas. The participants were from Japan, France, Sweden, Finland, Great Britain, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland and Hungary. The majority of the scholars were Scandinavians and Japanese, which was a conscious choice. In comparative studies between Europe and Asia, the focus is often on big states with an imperialistic early modern history, such as Great Britain and China. Putting Scandinavia and Japan at the centre greatly affected how conducive the discussions became: they partly opened up for wholly new comparisons, they partly questioned thoughts about centre and periphery, and partly they made it clear which historiography the different groups of scholars positioned themselves as part of, or against.

The workshop concluded with a summarising discussion. There are still few collaborative projects involving Japanese and European historians, and the participants were in agreement that the workshop had led to a wholly new conversation that will not end here. During 2017 the workshop will continue in a digital form, through an interactive platform enabling global discussion about diplomacy. To begin with, we will use the application Slack. There, one channel will be aimed at discussing future publications: we plan to begin with special issues in two global history journals based on two of the panels, but we also discussed compiling a larger joint publication after the next workshop. Another channel will gather related projects carried out around the world and tie them together, and will provide an opportunity to spread the world about future interesting conferences and publications. The workshop was filmed in its entirety, and in a fourth channel these videos can constitute the basis for continued thematic discussions. A fifth channels is aimed at organised a follow-up workshop at Zürich University in the autumn of 2018, when the Japanese researchers can travel to Europa; it can work as a counterpart to this workshop. The organisers will administer the Slack-channels, but participants of the workshop offered to moderate them. Consequently, we will develop the workshop themes - both those that turned out to be the most controversial, and those that were best across cultural boundaries -
in several parallel ways.

The generous support by the Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation enabled an unusual - and fruitful - meeting between European and East Asian historians, exploring how we can write a diplomatic history that works across the boundaries not only of time, but also space.