Creating East Asia

东亚三国的近现代史 A History of Modern and Contemporary East Asia is a book that got a lot of press when it first came out, since it was written by a team of scholars from China, Korea, and Japan, and is being published in all three languages. If you want ground zero of creating a common East Asian identity this book is it. Needless to say there are some problems with this whole project.

三国人民作为近邻,从很久以前就开始友好相处。但有时也发生争斗和战争。The people the three countries are neighbors, and have long had good relations. But at times there have been conflict and war. p.2

This is something of an understatement, since the book focuses heavily on the War (Two of the four sections deal with it.) This is a bit disappointing. Not to deny the importance of the war, or to suggest that we should miss a chance to point out how badly the Japanese behaved, but it does not help as much as it could in creating and East Asian history. In the Korean preface we are told that China and Korea have had a long relationship. In the modern period they have both been invaded by “other countries” (别国家) Obviously imperialism is a big part of the modern history of all these places, and the Japanese Empire is probably the most important aspect of imperialism. Focusing too much on the war, however, leaves very little room for comparative stuff on how the people in the various countries have dealt with the problems created by modernity.

The editors seem to be aware of this, however, and the book has a lot of sideboxes. In fact there is not much of a narrative thread at all, just bits and pieces of the stuff that would seem to go into a comparative re-thinking of East Asian history. Some of this is fairly mechanical. For instance in the section on women we get three short accounts of feminist pioneers from China, Japan, and Korea. These are the type of things the authors could have lifted from lots of other textbooks, and, as in other places, these bits seem to still be tied to national history.

Much more interesting is the section on the Independence, resistance, and social movements. 独立抵抗运动与社会运动 They open with a section on the Korean March 1st (Samil) independence movement of 1919. They then discuss the Chinese May 4th movement of the same year. They point out that May 4th was inspired by Samil, although they don’t take this as far as I would like. They also take both movements out of their national ghetto by calling them reactions to Wilson’s idea of National Self-determination. Next is a section on the “social movement” which includes a section on the plight of workers and peasants, accounts of the founding of Communist parties in all three countries, and an account of movements on behalf of outcastes in Japan and Korea.

All of these are movements or things that could be considered “anti”, especially if you look at them from the point of view of the Japanese state. How to tie them all together? The final part of the section is an account of the Kanto earthquake of 1923. (Actually they say 1932. Too many typos in here.) This was a big earthquake that killed a lot of people, but is also known for the massacres of Koreans and leftists that took place in its aftermath.

The authors point out that not only Koreans were killed. Chinese and rural Japanese were also attacked, in part because the police and mobs asked potential victims to pronounce “One yen fifty sen” to test their Japanese-ness. In addition to mob killings the police directly targeted known leftists. The authors claim that the Japanese authorities were afraid that the leftists would use the earthquake to tie together the various strands of popular thought, and so the police used people’s prejudice against Koreans, Chinese, and socialists to encourage attacks on scapegoats and take pressure off the government.

There are some problems with this. First, if the government really did think that Japanese leftists were capable of anything that organized and competent they were really ill-informed. The authors also don’t explain where “the people’s” dislike of Koreans and socialists came from or what it meant. “The Japanese state disliked them all” is a nice deus ex machina in linking all these things together, but it does not really work.

The approach is particularly weak when it comes to China. Focusing on Japanese ultra-nationalism is o.k. for understanding 20th century Japan, helpful for understanding Korea, and probably counter-productive for understanding China. It is significant that Mao and Chinese revolutionaries in general get very short shrift in here. No doubt the 1/3 of the authors who were from China were reluctant to get all revisionist on Mao, but more importantly the whole focus on Japanese imperialism puts a lot of China’s revolutionary history in the shade. I wonder how it would be different if they decided that Vietnam was part of East Asia.

Despite all that, I like the attempt. It almost feels like the beginning of Western Civilization as a concept, people casting around for the things that will tie together clearly related but also quite different histories. Sadly at least to start with in the modern period the Japanese imperialist make a good central pillar for this project.


  1. The analogy to Western Civilization is interesting, because that also works much better in the pre-modern and early modern than it does in the industrialized age. Nationalism and hard-edged states competing viciously makes it considerably harder to write the kind of “shared experience” narrative necessary for the “civilization” trope to work.

  2. Good point on the analogy to WC! The project appears doomed at inception. But the point on Vietnam is well taken. Certainly it was part of the Confucian/Chinese character using world.

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