Steven Miles

Steven B. Miles

Professor of History
Interim Director of Global 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, to global Chinese migration.

    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.

    His second book, Upriver Journeys: Diaspora and Empire in Southern China, 1570-1850, 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.  A recently completed monograph, Opportunity in Crisis, explores the history of migration during the breakdown of the Qing order in southern China in the mid-nineteenth century and the reconsolidation of Qing control in the late-nineteenth century.  Set in Guangxi, it tells the little-known story of the mid-century wars between Triads and river pirates, on one hand, and Qing loyalists and carpetbaggers, on the other. 

    Both of these books are supported by "Cantonese Migrant Networks", a database of epigraphical materials from the West River basin.  

    Chinese Diasporas:  A Social History of Global Migration, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press, is a general history of internal and external Chinese migration from the sixteenth century to the present day.

    For his next project, Miles plans to return to urban history while retaining his interest in the movement of the people across space.  Under the theme of "seasonality and cities", he will explore the rhythm of urban life in nineteenth-century China, the many interconnected ways in which political, economic, leisure, and ritual activities were patterned according to seasons.





    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.

    Chinese edition: Xuehaitang yu wan Qing Lingnan xueshu wenhua, Guangdong renmin chubanshe.

    Chinese Diasporas: A Social History of Global Migration. Forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.

    Opportunity in Crisis: A Riverine Diaspora During War and Reconstruction in China, 1840s-1908. Currently revising for Harvard University Asia Center.


    Articles and Book Chapters

    “Confucian Academies and Their Urban Environments in Qing China,” in Martin Gehlmann and Vladmir Glomb, eds., Confucian Academies in East Asia, forthcoming from Brill.

    “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).



    Editor-in-Chief, 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)


    Digital Projects

    Cantonese Migrant Networks: Stone Inscriptions from the West River Basin
 (Chrome or Safari recommended).

    The Xie Lansheng Diary: Visualizations of Social Networks and Spatial Mobility


    PhD Students


    Li En (2015), assistant professor, Drake University

    Duan Weicong (2018), post-doctoral fellow, Nankai University

    Gilbert Chen (2019), assistant professor, Towson University

    Joohee Suh (2019), assistant professor, Xavier University


    Boyi Chen

    Nan-Hsu Chen

    Ruochen Chen

    Chenxi Luo

    Kejian Shi

    Chang Xu

    Xin Yu

    Chinese Diasporas: A Social History of Global Migration

    Chinese Diasporas: A Social History of Global Migration

    Chinese Diasporas provides a concise and compelling new history of internal and external Chinese migration from the sixteenth century to the present day. Steven B. Miles places Chinese migrants and their families at the center of his narrative through a series of engaging case studies taking readers from the heart of Ming China to the global property markets of the twenty-first century. The focus on individual migrants and their descendants reveals the ways in which the "Chinese diaspora" has consisted of distinct paths of migration from specific emigrant communities to targeted destinations both within China and abroad. This is essential reading for those interested in the history of the Chinese diaspora and the overseas Chinese, and for those interested in the role of migration in the making of the modern world.

    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.