Jess Nevins urges steampunks to expand their historical horizons, citing intriguing facts like
- Zeppelin pirates are a staple of steampunk, but nautical pirates were a reality in the waters of Southeast Asia. Notable among these were the female pirates, from Zheng Yi Sao and Cai Qian in the beginning of the 19th century to Lo Hon Cho and Lai Choi San in the early part of the 20th century. These women were captains and admirals, commanding dozens of ships and leading them into battle from the front, gaining reputations as fierce fighters. According to a contemporary Chinese account Cai Qian Ma even commanded ships with crews of niangzijun, “women warriors.”
- From the mid-17th century through the 1920s Chinese novels translated into Mongolian were in huge demand in Mongolia, and there was a flourishing trade in them. But the problem for the Mongolian bookbuyers and booksellers was not only the bidding wars which would break out with Russian, Mongolian, and Chinese buyers, but that getting the manuscripts back to Mongolia to sell was difficult because of the very real chance that those transporting the books would be attacked on the way back by bandits wanting to get the manuscripts and sell them for themselves. This resulted in decades of adventurous Mongolian book traders as skilled with sword and gun as they were at selling books.
Another example: there’s really no objective structural reason (in terms of resources, population, or urbanization) why the industrialization of Japan had to wait until the Meiji restoration. There was already a large urban proletariat by the mid-Edo period (though mainly working as servants, shophands, and unskilled laborers), and a growing merchant class. There were a lot of political reasons why this didn’t happen, but one or two energetic (and ruthless) shoguns could probably have kick started things much earlier. It would have been an ugly process, but the Edo working classes also had a penchant for egalitarian messianic movements (of which Oomoto was the latest and most enduring example) that could have spawned something akin to a Shinto/Buddhist Digger (or Luddite) movement.
Also, I think that a Boxer uprising armed with steampunk weaponry developed by cloistered Daoist alchemists is a project worth pursuing (both as a steampunk narrative and as a political project).