China, East Asia and the Global Economy: Regional and Historical Perspectives

China, East Asia and the Global Economy: Regional and Historical Perspectives

Author(s):   Takeshi Hamashita

ISBN:           978-0-415-46458-8

Publisher:  Routledge

Year:           2008

Price:            $51

Reviewed by Jared Phillips, PhD Student, Department of History, University of Arkansas, USA

Takeshi Hamashita is well known for his early contributions to a more global understanding of Asian markets, and his China, East Asia and the Global Economy, edited by Linda Grove and Mark Selden, is an excellent addition to his already groundbreaking work.  Grove and Selden introduction provides an excellent summary of Hamashita’s earlier work, placing his scholarship within the changing context of the post-Cultural Revolution world and the legacy of China’s involvement in East Asia’s early trade networks.  By the 1980s Hamashita was providing an “understanding of the Chinese economy and finance” by studying the Chinese diaspora, effectively “linking China’s peripheries with the domestic economy.” (7) The legacy of Hamashita’s work has been to “illuminate intra-Asian and trans-Pacific, predominately maritime, trade bonds that are largely invisible in the colonial record with its monochromatic focus on bilateral ties between colony and metropolis.” (8) This approach to understanding China’s role in the work economy was, and is, groundbreaking in its significance for scholars and policymakers alike.

After the editors’ introduction, Hamashita’s work is broken into eight chapters, all but one translated by an impressive host of scholars (chapter five was written in English).  Chapter 2 gives readers a brief introduction to the “tribute trade” system in Asia, but the author forgoes the traditional understanding of this topic, preferring instead to follow the region of East Asia, for “the regional approach makes it possible to reconstruct the whole historical process of Asia.” (12) In direct contrast to the earlier Marxist understanding of historical stages of development, Hamashita argues that modern Asia needs to be examined via the “terms of the complex interrelationships within the region itself, in light of Asian self-conceptions and the nature of historical social systems.” (12) Tribute trade routes were accompanied, as other scholars have shown, by the migration of Chinese nationals—helping to create an increasingly China focused Asia.

Hamashita proves this point by showing that Western merchants attempting to engage in trade in Asia from the 16th century on had to understand and participate in an existing, thriving network.  Hamashita leaves the chapter by arguing that in order for scholars to begin to truly understand the trade networks and development of modernization in Asia up through the Qing Dynasty, they must “trace how each country and area within Asia attempted to cope” with this new market penetration of the Western powers.  Chapters 3 joins this discussion of tribute trade by examining how governance varied and changed throughout time, using the China-Japan relationship as an example of how the tribute trade routes changed a tribute system into a more balanced trading network, with Asian merchants preparing, in many ways, the road to eventual modernization.  This is bolstered by Hamashita’s impressive use of sources dealing with the Ryukyu and Korean trade networks, allowing Western scholars a glimpse into the inner workings of these networks.

Chapter 4 provides an invaluable examination of silver’s role in the economies of East Asia from the 16th to the 19th century, “analyzing the world of silver circulation in terms of regional, and particularly Asian, perspectives on silver given the fact that Asia long dominated world silver markets.” (39) Hamashita argues that the movement of silver can be seen as a reflection of a region’s unique economic characteristics.  Silver was a currency of high value (in contrast with copper), and especially so in the multi-tiered financial markets of Asia until the early 20th century.  Hamashita attempts to show how the movement of silver provides an understanding “both of the nature of circulation within broad regions, and the articulation of center and periphery in global terms,” effectively placing silver in the debate surrounding definitions of center and periphery, and broadening the standard interpretation of these terms. (56)

Chapters 5 and 6 deal with maritime trade networks linking China, Japan, and Korea (especially the Ryukyu and the broader Asian network).  Hamashita relies heavily on the primary Ryukyu source, the Lidai baoan, which provides a partial account of diplomatic relations from the 15th to the 19th centuries.  Hamashita brings into his examination of the trade networks the often-excluded regional religions, and examines how a maritime network was the combination of a tribute and trade region. (76) The trade relationships were predicated upon a “hierarchical ranking system embodied in the tribute system,” and existed until the Opium Wars forced a change in how China related to outside world. (83) As these relationships were renegotiated during the 19th and early 20th century, the intersection of Chinese culture (zhonghua) and China as a state (zhongguo) allowed Asian nationalism to develop along new trajectories. (112) These trajectories resulted in an increase of once tributary states seeking to “reduce the grip if not break free entirely” of China by a process of strategic engagement with Western powers (England, the United States, Holland, etc).  China, however, was bound by the “historic principles” of order defined by “suzerainty and the tribute trade order.” (113)

Chapters 7 to 9 deal with foreign trade in China, and the role of China in the British Empire, culminating in an examination of the trade-triangle between Korea, Japan, and China.  Hamashita, drawing on his earlier work, shows that while China relied on silver for high-denomination currency, it had to bring into the country—problematic during the 19th century when China experienced both a shrinking silver reserve and the growing use of copper as currency (devaluing silver).  This was not simply the result of structural change or stagnation in China, but also from the inroad that silver offered to the emerging colonial economic interests in Asia.

In dealing with Hong Kong, Hamashita faces a problem that many scholars have dealt with—that of scarcity of work done on the economic history of Hong Kong, and the strange role it has historically played. (145) Hamashita does wish to focus the reader on Hong Kong for two main reasons: Hong Kong, is in fact, a part of China’s economy; and Hong Kong has had long ties with Southeast Asia and Japan—helping to formulate much of the environment he examines earlier in the book.  The author argues that scholars must address Hong Kong’s “interrelationship between economic institutions” and the “larger area they served.” (145) In doing so, we will gain a more nuanced understanding of the nature of trade and the road to modernization in Asia.

Hamashita, in Chapter 9, argues that the traditional understanding of Japanese-Korean relations must be broadened beyond the 1910 annexation of Korea by Japan, seeing several key points that must be addressed.  First, scholars must broaden their examination of the trade network-region.  Second, they must examine more fully labor, investment, migration, and “other vital relationships.” (167) Third, trade must be moved from solely political to cultural and social.  Hamashita mentions a general preoccupation with nationalism, but mentions nothing for scholars to change in their approach, a weakness in his analysis of the situation.

Overall, Hamashita’s work provides new and experienced scholars alike with an excellent overview of the trade networks in East Asia for the last several centuries.  A major weakness is his lack of treatment of land-based trade routes—namely the tea and horse routes through Tibet, the emerging Silk Road routes through Northern China.  He also neglects the spread of religion from the interior (Islam and Buddhism) to Eastern China.  If his already excellent work were to be paired with examinations of these areas, this would indeed be a formidable tour de force.

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