Department of History

Jomo Smith

Faculty: Visiting Assistant Professor
Regional Field: Asia
Research Cluster: Islamic World in World History

Jomo Smith is a social historian whose research has focused on statecraft and governance, particularly as they impact religious and ethnic minorities on the Chinese borderlands. His work shows how essential marginalized communities have been to the interests of state planners and to the developing ideas of what the Chinese nation should look like. Thematically, Mr. Smith also asks questions about internal colonialism, the lowland-highland civilizational divide and the transnational flow of ideas in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.   

Smith’s research is situated in the Amdo region of northeastern ethnographic Tibet. In contemporary Chinese parlance, the region is known as Gannan or southern Gansu. The highlands between today’s Gansu and Qinghai have been sites of contestation between Tibetan and Chinese forces since the Northern Song dynasty in 1068 CE. By the twentieth century, an increased Han-Chinese and Chinese-Muslim population had not managed to erase the region’s Tibetan character or way of life. By studying a three county area in southern Gansu from 1890 to the dawning of the communist era in 1949, Mr. Smith has revealed how the region’s religio-ethnic groups navigated competing authority structures and how they fostered economic dynamism in an era of nearly constant warfare. In particular, he considers Labrang, a large Tibetan monastery that wielded state like power and the Muslim sect Xidaotang whose trade networks made them partners with numerous regional powers.

Southern Gansu and Jomo Smith’s work provides further evidence for the province’s character as a crossroads and as a bridge between empires. To the southwest, Gansu connects China proper to Tibet while to the northwest, Gansu is the corridor that brought traders and Islam into China from Central and Western Asia. Religion and language certainly demarcated difference in this region, as did a pastoral versus a settled life. Yet, as one would expect, corridors also fostered repeated contact and exchange and created a permeable set of relationship structures. On the ground this translated to Tibetan Buddhists occasionally marrying Muslims and various ethnic groups making use of Chinese courts when it suited them. 

At Pitt, Jomo Smith will offer courses on China, East Asia and the Central/Inner Asian corridor that continues to shape events in China and the former Soviet republics. Mr. Smith was trained as a historian at the University of California, San Diego and brings to Pitt his years of experience living in Asia. Mr. Smith is committed to empowering students in the learning process, particularly through the use of new technologies and is generally available to discuss scholarship and professional goals.