Asian Expansions: The Historical Experiences of Polity Expansion in Asia.

Author : Geoff Wade (ed.)Asian Expansions Bild


Publisher : Routledge London and New York

Year : 2017

Price : $145

Reviewed by Lei Duan, Postdoctoral research fellow, Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan, U.S.


In the Euro-American lexicon, terms like “imperialism,”“colonialism,” and “expansion”most conventionally evoke aggressive images in which Western powers tried to impose political and economic control over vast land areas of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Following this logic, non-Western polities never altered their positions as victims of the Western-dominated international system, which had been shaped by the Western expansion and colonial exploitation. Such an argument, however, has overemphasized the pacifist and non-expansionist aspects of Asian strategic culture, while giving little attention to the Asian expansions in the creation of the modern world. Asian Expansions, a collection of ten articles, attempts to counter this view, and explores how Asian polities expanded their territorial domain from 1400 to 1900. The contributors simultaneously suggest that Asian political leaders “were equally concerned about territorial control and expansion” to advantage their polities politically, economically, and strategically. (p.3)The articles collectively suggest that the expansions of Asian polities over the last few countries, like their European counterparts, were crucial in the creation of the world today.

Polity expansion was a dynamic process which involved the preparation, military conquest, and postwar consolidation. Peter Perdue examines the motivations and limitations of Chinese expansion during the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911), showing that the state-centric narratives are insufficient to address why China expanded. Instead, he turns his attention to the frontier zones (the real battlefields), and demonstrates that the contingent dynamics of frontier interactions between nomads and settled populations were responsible for the Qing expansion. The geographical and logistical limits in frontier zones prevented Chinese empire from completely encompassing all the nomadic peoples.

In a similar vein, Tonio Andrade examines the Ming-Qing policy toward overseas expansion. He reaffirmed the maritime exceptionalist model, which denotes that European states were more likely to initiate seaborne expansion than most Asian states. According to Andrade, political authorities in Asia during the early modern period (1450-1750) had different notions about maritime expansion as their states tended to raise primary revenue from agriculture instead of sea trade. Asian states’ extortion of maritime revenues occurred only when inter-state rivalries made overseas conquests an urgent need. Although Chinese military was able to drive the Dutch out of Taiwan in the seventeenth century, the conquest regime quickly imposed severe restrictions on maritime trade and expansion once it successfully consolidated its political basis.

How did the conquest polities incorporate the new territories in their imperial framework? There were two models of expansion: formal bureaucratic incorporation (direct control) and the installation of compliant native rulers (indirect control). Geoff Wade’s article examines the Chinese mechanism for southern territorial expansion from the Qin dynasty (221-207 BCE) and suggests that the second model played the crucial role in consolidating China’s borderlands. Known as the tusi system, the Chinese polity endorsed “the existing system of local rulership” to manage local affairs on the behalf of the emperor. Native rulers, who were provided Chinese official titles and were subject to military threat, provided taxes and troops to the central government. In so doing, the Chinese empire was able to “dominate, emasculate, exploit and eventually incorporate surrounding polities” (p.86).

Over the course of following chapters, first setting out the theoretical framework, address the issue of the expansion and integration in Southeast Asia. Victor Lieberman theoretically explores the source of dynamism for the political, culture, and economic integration in mainland Southeast Asia (800-1825). Drawing evidence from the regions along the Mekong and Irrawaddy rivers, Lieberman argues that the impetus for the integrations of local polities (which gave rise to three overarching imperial systems) came from agricultural, commercial, demographic, and institutional pressures. The external factors, such as maritime trade played a less salient role. The article also suggests that the integration process in Southeast Asia during this period resembled that of Europe and Japan. Therefore, the conventional historiography identifying “a radical disjuncture between Western dynamism and Southeast Asian lethargy” is not plausible (p.92).

The mechanisms of political expansion and incorporation varied over time and space, as proved by John Whitmore’s and Momoki Shiro’s studies on Vietnamese expansion of different historical periods. Whitmore’s paper explores how Vietnam incorporated Champa in the fifteenth century and remodeled it as Đại Việt’s nineteenth province. Many of the practices were prime examples of the model of the “direct control,” which involved the establishment of a Chinese-style central bureaucracy and propagated the literary culture from the center to the borderlands. The purpose was to transform Đại Việ from a “mandala of an accumulation of localities” into a centralized state during the Le Dynasty (p.150). Momoki Shiro’s article provides an important complement to the understanding of the dynamism of Vietnamese expansion. Current studies on the issue focus exclusively on north-central Vietnam and fail to celebrate the state’s domestic diversity. Shiro’s research shows that the “ideological differences between the North and the South” continued to exist after northern Vietnam’s conquest of Champa in 1471 (p.145). The Nguyên rulers in the South did not develop a homogenous Confucian worldview as in the North. Shuri argues that the Nguyên eventually unified Vietnam and created “an empire that belonged to the Sinic world,” but retained its own culture, history, and imperial power (p.150).

Koizumi Junko’s article examines how the polity of Siam re-established itself as a modern centralized kingdom, and expanded its control over the areas that extended to the Lao Kingdoms in the north and to the Malay peninsula in the south after the Burmese conquest in 1767. The article runs counter to some previous scholarship which suggests that maritime trade and the establishment of the forced labor system were of crucial importance to the recovery of Siamese power. Rather, Junko argues that the domestic commercialization was the major impetus for its revival. Market exchange within and without the kingdom provided the resources, manpower, and weapon for the state expansion. (168)

The expansion and integration were by no means a one-way process imposed by the conquerors. Rather, the resistance and struggle for the cultural identity by the conquered added “the complexities and setbacks of the expansionary course” (p.203). Jacques Leider’s article deals with the Burmese conquest and integration of the Buddhism kingdom of Arakan from 1784 to 1826. The Burmese king Badon Min invaded Arakan in 1784 to open trade route with Bengal, which resulted in the Arakanese migration to the zone between Burma and British Bengal. Arakan refugees established a migrants’ community in their new bases and waged ferocious struggles against Burmese government. The Burmese attempt to integrate the new conquest into their kingdom fell through when Burma lost Arakan to the British East India Company in 1826.

Political centralization was crucial but not the only contributing factor for polity expansion. The last article by William Cummings focuses on the expansion of the sixteenth and seventeenth century Gowan Empire, and examines “the precise nature and mechanics” of the dynamic developments that contributed to the rise of Gowa as a regional power in the eastern Indonesian archipelago (p.215). Cummings argues that the establishment of bureaucratic institutions and economic penetration into localities were not the major reason for its successful expansion. Instead, political integration was sustained by the expansion of social relations. The relations were formed by the rulers and various local groups through “marriage, kinship, alliance, exchange and other fundamentally social relationship between individuals and groups” (p.228) However, “this personalized form of empire” was fragile and evaporated when the defeat of Gowa forced local Bugis sought alliance with the Dutch East India Company in 1669 (p.228).

Through the examinations of efforts made by China, Vietnam, Burma, Thailand, and Indonesia to expand territorial control at various times, the volume seeks to explain the motivations, processes, conditions, mechanisms, limitations, and dynamics involved in the polity expansions. There has been a strong predisposition to believe that Asian societies, especially those countries belonging to the “Confucian sphere of influence” were less inclined to military aggression. The articles effectively challenge this view by citing the examples of Asian expansions, including the Qing China’s incorporation of Xinjiang, Taiwan, and Tibet, Indonesia’s invasions of Papua, and Vietnam’s expansion through the Khmer lands, many of which “were concurrent with European expansions.” The result of historic expansions was to allow these Asian states to celebrate the geographical and ethnic diversity today. Overall, this volume is an important contribution to the studies of state-building and expansion in Asian states, and thus deserves wide readership.