If we want to revere China, there is no greater reverence than to put the Chinese ways into practice

Thanks to Columbia University Press I just got a copy of David Kang, East Asia Before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute1 This is  a very fine book, and it is great that it has been published. The reason it is great that it has been published is that it is cheap, readable, and based on secondary sources. While the book is about the East Asian international system in the early modern period, Kang is not a historian. He is a “professor of international relations and business.” His only real qualifications2 for writing this book are that he has read the relevant secondary literature, writes well and is smart. As I have lamented before, writings on Asian history in English tend to be either the obviously academic or really bad. The type of serious stuff that is halfway in between, that my Americanist colleagues get to read and use in class all the time, is very thin on the ground.

If you want a book that will give you a nice clear understanding of the current literature on East Asian foreign relations in the 1368-1840 period this is it. He does not take the tribute system all the way back to the Han (although he does cite Barfield and Mote), and I am sure that scholar-squirrels who deal with this stuff could find fault with his summaries, but he does a nice job. One thing that struck me is his attempt to deal with the tribute system. His chapter on the system deals mostly with China’s relations with Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. He makes a distinction between “legitimate acceptance and rational calculation ”  to explain Korean and Vietnamese willingness to “lend their submission to China.”3 For anyone raised to accept the European Westphalian tradition it should seem bizarre that states would accept their ritual and diplomatic subordination to another state, but Kang shows that Korea and Vietnam both accepted this, it was not just a matter of lying to humor the Chinese (rational calculation.) The effort he puts into showing Korean and Vietnamese acceptance of the system demonstrates how powerful the Westphalia model is. For modern people it is really hard to accept the idea of one nation being superior to another.  I actually find this less surprising than he does, since there are lots of models of relations between groups and individuals that allow for this. Even in the West, to be a Catholic meant acknowledging the Bishop of Rome as superior to all other bishops. The Treaty of Westphalia itself was negotiated in two cities, Munster and Osnabruck, in part because of issues of precedence.4 Everyone agreed that some Dukes were better than other Dukes, and some Counts better than other Counts. Rather than trying to sort out all these issues of precedence it was easier just to just split the conference in two rather than trying to resolve who should sit above and below the salt.

Of course if, like Kang, you are writing after the model of universal equality of states has become a crucial part of East Asian nationalism—even for those who are not aware that they are hard-core Westphalians– it might be good to be cautious as you advance an argument for the historical inequality of states.  Plus, like a good scholar, he is not wildly concerned with providing historical ammunition for modern arguments. So he argues that East Asian states created a system where “Far from being autarkic, the early modern East Asian system developed rules and norms governing trade, diplomacy, and international migration.”5 So he is arguing against the common idea that East Asia consisted of a collection of Hermit Kingdoms until they were brought to life by contact with the West, but he also uses words like autarkic6 He is bringing you up to date on the literature without talking down to you. This is the type of book that not only makes you think you should use it in class, but also makes you wonder what classes you could create that would use it if you don’t have one already.

  1. Kang, David C. East Asia Before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute. Columbia University Press, 2010. 

  2. O.k., yes he’s an academic heavy hitter, but not a historian, particularly not of this period 

  3. p.55 

  4. I don’t have a cite for this, just old lore from grad school 

  5. p.71 

  6. which my spell-czech does not recognize. 

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.