Steven Miles

Steven B. Miles

Professor of History and of International and Area Studies
Director of East Asian Studies
PhD, University of Washington
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​A common theme in Steven Miles' research projects has been the physical movement of people across space, from the early nineteenth-century literatus Xie Lansheng’s peregrinations in urban Guangzhou to Cantonese merchants trading on the Guangxi-Vietnam border.

Miles' first book, The Sea of Learning (2006), explores the in-migrating, socially ascendant, urban elite in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou (Canton) who embraced new trends in literature and scholarship promoted at the city’s fashionable academy, the Xuehaitang. He has recently completed a book manuscript entitled Upriver Journeys: Diaspora and Empire in Southern China, 1570-1850. In it, he traces a range of “diasporic” activities – from serving as officials, to acquiring land and registering as students in upriver schools in order to sit for less competitive civil service examinations there, to conducting trade, to obtaining wives or concubines, to touring – that Cantonese men pursued upstream along the West River basin. 

Miles is continuing to draw on library and archival research and on fieldwork conducted in the West River basin for a book project that examines the reassertion of diaspora and empire following the warfare of the mid-nineteenth century. For his next project, he plans to return to urban history while retaining his interest in the movement of people across space. Under the theme of “seasonality and cities,” he will explore the rhythm of urban life in Ming and Qing China, the many interconnected ways in which political, economic, leisure, and ritual activities were patterned according to seasons.

Selected Publications


Upriver Journeys: Diaspora and Empire in Southern China, 1570-1850. Harvard University Asia Center, Harvard University Press, 2017.

The Sea of Learning: Mobility and Identity in Nineteenth-Century Guangzhou. Harvard University Press, 2006.

Articles and Book Chapters

“You shuo ji nan: Ruan Yuan, Xuehaitang yu wan Qing Lingnan xueshu” 由朔暨南:阮元學海堂與晚清嶺南學術 (From the North to the South: Ruan Yuan, the Sea of Learning Hall, and Learning in Nineteenth-Century Guangzhou.” In Yangzhou bowuguan, ed. Ruan Yuan yanjiu guoji xueshu yantaohui lunwenji (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 2016): 138-151.

“The Nature and Impact of Late Imperial Chinese Academies: A Review of Some Recent Publications in China.” Frontiers of Education in China 10.4 (2015).

“Family Strategy and State Policy: Migration and Civil Examinations in Southern China, 1660-1760.” Journal of Ming-Qing Historical Studies. 40 (October 2013).

“The Upriver Reach of a Delta Town: Jiujiang Migrants in the West River Basin, Sixteenth-Nineteenth Centuries.” 8.2 Frontiers of History in China (June 2013).
(Chinese translation: “Yige sanjiaozhou chengzhen de shangyou quyu: 16-19 shiji Xijiang liuyu de Jiujiang yimin” 一个三角洲城镇的上游区域:16-19世纪西江流域的九江移民. Sichuan daxue xuebao 四川大学学报 (Journal of Sichuan University, Social Science Edition) 190 (2014): 25-35).

"'Stones from Other Hills': Civil Examinations and Translocal Practice in Ming and Qing South China." Ming Qing Studies (2010).

”Imperial Discourse, Regional Elite, and Local Landscape on the South China Frontier, 1577-1722,” Journal of Early Modern History 12.2, (2008).

”Out of Place: Education and Identity among Three Generations of Panyu Gentry, 1850-1931,” Twentieth-Century China 32.2. (April 2007).

”Expanding the Cantonese Diaspora: Sojourners and Settlers in the West River Basin,” Journal of Chinese Overseas 2.2. (November 2006).

”Establishing Authority through Scholarship: Ruan Yuan and the Xuehaitang Academy,” in Peter D. Hershock and Roger T. Ames, ed., Confucian Cultures of Authority (Albany: SUNY Press, 2006): 151-169.

”Strange Encounters on the Cantonese Frontier: Region and Gender in Kuang Lu's (1604-1650) Chiya.” Nan Nu: Men, Women and Gender in Early and Imperial China 8.1 (2006): 115-155.

”Creating Zhu 'Jiujiang': Localism in Nineteenth-Century Guangdong.” T'oung Pao International Journal of Chinese Studies 90.4 (December 2004).

”Celebrating the Yu Fan Shrine: Literati Networks and Local Identity in Early Nineteenth-Century Guangzhou.” Late Imperial China 25.2 (December 2004).
(Chinese translation: “Yu Fan ci: 19 shiji Guangzhou jingying qunti he difang rentong” 虞翻词:19世纪广州精英群体和地方认同.Qingshi yicong 清史译丛 (Qing History Overseas Research) 9 (2010): 210-237.)

”From Small Fry to Big Fish: Representing the Rise of Jiujiang Township, Nanhai County, 1395-1657.” Ming Studies 48 (Fall 2003).

”Xie Lansheng's Diary from the Constantly Clear Mind Studio: An Overview of Urban Life in Guangzhou during the Jiaqing and Daoguang Eras.” South China Research Resource Station Newsletter 33 (October 2003).

Rewriting the Southern Han (917-971): The Production of Local Culture in Nineteenth-Century Guangzhou.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 62.1 (June 2002).



Associate Editor, Late Imperial China (



Faculty Fellow, Center for the Humanities, Washington University (Spring 2016)

Henry Luce Foundation/ACLS Program in China Studies: Collaborative Reading-Workshop Grant (awarded 2015)

NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities) Fellowship (2013)

American Research in the Humanities in China Fellowship (2008)

Andrew K. Mellon fellowship, Needham Research Institute, Cambridge, UK (2005)

An Wang Post-doctoral Fellowship, Fairbank Center for East Asian Research, Harvard University (2002-2003)

Peking University Fellowship for Advanced Research in Chinese Studies (2001)

Fulbright-Hays Fellowship, China (1997)

Fulbright Fellowship, Taiwan (1996)

The Sea of Learning

The Sea of Learning

In 1817 a Cantonese scholar was mocked in Beijing as surprisingly learned for someone from the boondocks; in 1855 another Cantonese scholar boasted of the flourishing of literati culture in his home region. Not without reason, the second man pointed to the Xuehaitang (Sea of Learning Hall) as the main factor in the upsurge of learning in the Guangzhou area. Founded in the 1820s by the eminent scholar-official Ruan Yuan, the Xuehaitang was indeed one of the premier academies of the nineteenth century.

The celebratory discourse that portrayed the Xuehaitang as having radically altered literati culture in Guangzhou also legitimated the academy’s place in Guangzhou and Guangzhou’s place as a cultural center in the Qing empire. This study asks: Who constructed this discourse and why? And why did some Cantonese elites find this discourse compelling while others did not? To answer these questions, Steven Miles looks beyond intellectual history to local social and cultural history. Arguing that the academy did not exist in a scholarly vacuum, Miles contends that its location in the city of Guangzhou and the Pearl River Delta embedded it in social settings and networks that determined who utilized its resources and who celebrated its successes and values.

Upriver Journeys: Diaspora and Empire in Southern China, 1570-1850

Upriver Journeys: Diaspora and Empire in Southern China, 1570-1850

Tracing journeys of Cantonese migrants along the West River and its tributaries, this book describes the circulation of people through one of the world’s great river systems between the late sixteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. Steven B. Miles examines the relationship between diaspora and empire in an upriver frontier, and the role of migration in sustaining families and lineages in the homeland of what would become a global diaspora. Based on archival research and multisite fieldwork, this innovative history of mobility explores a set of diasporic practices ranging from the manipulation of household registration requirements to the maintenance of split families.