Chinese circulations: Capital, commodities, and networks in Southeast Asia

Chinese circulations

Author(s): Eric Tagliacozzo and Wen-Chin Chang (eds.)

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4903-7

Publisher: Duke University Press

Year: 2011

Price: $27.95

Reviewed by Erwin S. Fernandez, Abung na Panagbasay Pangasinan [House of Pangasinan Studies], Pangasinan, Philippines

With the recent display of China’s aggressiveness in the West Philippine Sea (also called South China Sea) borne by its unprecedented economic and military clout in the region if not the whole of Asia, Eric Tagliacozzo and Wen-chin Chang offer a novel approach and interesting revelations to the impact of Chinese trading practices, technologies and products in Southeast Asia. The long-term historical perspective – the longue durée of Fernand Braudel – employed in this work on the essential and exotic commodities traded from the region by the Chinese provide traces and evidence of the wide-ranging activities of the Chinese in almost all of Southeast Asian countries from the earliest period to the present. There are twenty essays by distinguished scholars who had published researches or doing research on the same subject divided into five categories: theoretical/longue durée, precolonial, early colonial, high colonial and postcolonial.

Contrary to the introduction by the editors, Anthony Reid is not conclusive that Chinese technology influenced indigenous metalworking techniques in mainland and island Southeast Asia; in fact, he is speculative on whether the Chinese helped developed the smelting technology in Karimata and Belitung or not but it is clear that during the 18th to 19th century the Chinese were instrumental in the systematic production and exportation of tin from the Malay Peninsula down to Bangka Island. C. Patterson Giersch supplies the theoretical underpinning on the concept of “circulation” – a point missed by the editors – as he discusses the role of copper and cotton in the economic development of Yunnan from commercial activities in Vietnam and Burma. Adam Mckeown discusses the politics behind Chinese labor as commodity during the second half of the 19th century. Carl A. Trocki gives a lucid discussion on the opium trade in Southeast Asia but missed to include in the overall picture a facet of the opium trade in Spanish Philippines (see Bamero 2006).

Takeshi Hamashita shows the extent of the Ryukyu maritime trade network with China and Southeast Asia during the 14th to 17th centuries through the use of Lidai Baoan or “precious documents of successive generations” (p. 107). Li Tana examines coin casting and the traffic of coins in Cochinchina revealing the links to the Chinese as they engaged in the business connecting different Chinese and Southeast Asian ports during the 18th century. Masuda Erika belies the claim that after the end of Sino-Siamese junk trade decline set in and Chinese influence waned by examining luxurious imports from China and other art pieces demonstrating the continued prestige of Chinese culture in the Thonburi and early Rattanakosin periods (1767-1854). Heather Sutherland looks into the dynamics of tortoiseshell trade between Makassar and China, driven by a new commodity, trepang or sea cucumber, and using commodity-chain approach, a framework that departs from Roderich Ptak’s analysis on the same merchandise.

In the early colonial period, Sun Laichen adopts a philological approach in his attempt to understand the history of the gem trade between Burma and Qing China arriving at the assumption that by 1763 to 1800, feicui, Chinese term for Burmese jade, had predominated the trade that was formerly associated with baoshi or gemstone, which is a claim unsupported by statistical data that are lacking from his sources. The same lack of data on Chinese junks confronted Leonard Blussé in his examination of Chinese shipping to the Nanyang but it did not prevent him from rendering a solid account by relying on Dutch sources especially by the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC) [United East India Company] that showed how profitable it was and the rampant human smuggling that it engendered. Lucille Chia gives an account on book-printing and the presence of Chinese books either printed in Manila or imported from China in early Spanish Philippines but her comment that ‘unfavorable conditions’ in the Philippines (p. 274) could have negated the survival of blockprinted Chinese books is unwarranted since rare publications published as early as 1492 are preserved in a particular university library in Manila (see Aparicio 2001). Kwee Hui Kian’s fascinating essay debunks the idea that the extreme decline in the demand for Indian textiles indicated the regression of the local economy in Java during the late 17th century but shows from uncompromising evidence the contrary in which the Javanese, finding expensive to buy Indian textiles, took advantage of their available textile technology to produce their own thwarting the Dutch aim of emasculating the industry and attracting the commercial interests of the Chinese.

The relationship between capital and ethnic ties is closely examined in Man-houng Lin’s stimulating article in which she demonstrates how Taiwanese (technically Japanese citizens by virtue of the 1896 treaty) overseas business is not only shaped by cultural bonds through their economic activities in Fujian and Guangdong before the war but that comparative economic advantage outweighed ethnicity as shown in their huge investment in Manchuria after the establishment of Manchukuo by the Japanese in 1932. Wu Xiao An delves into the creation of a monopolistic class of Chinese rice dealers in British Malaya, the colonial government’s response of building government-owned mills to break their control and help Malay rice cultivators who were indebted to the Chinese rice dealers. Aside from rice, fishing industry is another venue where Chinese capital is invested and Nola Cooke finds them in Cambodia at the Tonle Sap Great Lake in late 19th to early 20th century when processed fish and fish products at the advent of revenue farming system became a profitable colonial business dependent on Chinese or Vietnamese money. From literally catching fish to metaphorically fishing men, Jean Bernardi puts into context the rush and competition for the translation and distribution of the Bible in China by Protestant missionaries on their aim of converting the Chinese to the ‘true’ religion becoming entangled in the Taiping rebellion and ending in Singapore where they started.

Under the postcolonial rubric, Bien Chang traces the history and development of edible birds’ nest trade in Sarawak, explores the construction of value in the production of the commodity and its manipulation by Chinese traders, and shows how the local communities participating in its collection find ways of sustaining their economic livelihood and affirming their cultural identities. Tagliacozzo displays in his essay the continuity in the marine goods trade connecting China and Southeast Asia for centuries up to present. Chang in a penetrating study of underground jade trade in socialist Burma – the first of the two essays, which I admire in this collection, the other being Kevin Woods’ for the clarity and methodology – offers insights on the operation of “unofficial” jade trade by Yunnanese migrants from its mining in cooperation with Kachin rebels, collusion with Burmese police, down to its purchase and caravan transport to Thailand (p. 473). Using commodity-chain framework, Woods makes a compelling analysis on the timber trade in upper Burma, its origin and the complicated politico-ecological process in which it is coming from – ceasefire is being used by the Burmese government to divide the Kachin rebels by involving in a “cooperative plundering” of forest to Chinese loggers – and the linkages to the trade that connect governments on both sides, the Kachin to the Chinese, and the transportation of the timber from the border to China and elsewhere with consumers unaware that the furniture they are buying is produced in a conflict-torn environment sacrificed for selfish political and economic expediency (p. 485).

Other things considered, the book is more encompassing covering a larger period and more specific on the connections between China and Southeast Asia than an earlier work, Emporia, commodities and entrepreneurs in Asian maritime trade, c. 1400-1750 (Ptak and Rothermund 1991), a collection of symposium papers focusing on the role of Asian emporia, commodities and individual entrepreneurs.  There is a gem in every essay but the introduction disappointingly lacks the theoretical rigor and misplaces the content on debates on the nature of Chinese trade, on whether there is such thing as “Chinese capitalism.” Labeling Chinese the circulations of capital and commodities in Southeast Asia makes the position of the Southeast Asians irrelevant and insignificant when without them, as the book unmistakably lays bare, Chinese traders would not find profitable to engage in commerce of tortoiseshell, trepang or birds’ nests. In other words, any discussion on Chinese economic behavior in Southeast Asia must always consider the local people as autonomous individuals with their own agencies. It is also obvious from the essays that in the making of networks, the positions and policies of governments, for the most part colonial, affect the trajectory of any commodity and capital either Chinese or Southeast Asian. Index is included; helpful maps and illustrations in each essay are to be appreciated. Automatic spelling check could have produced the following noticeable errors: Hayam Wurch instead of Hayam Wuruk (p. 116); Maguindinao instead of Maguindanao (p. 180); and Zulu instead of Sulu (p. 430) while the rest is anachronism like Filipino instead of Tagalog (p. 310) and typographical mistakes like arrang instead of arrange (p. 352).


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Bamero, A. 2006. Opium: The evolution of policies, the tolerance of the vice, and the proliferation of contraband trade in the Philippines. Social Science Diliman 3 (1-2): 49-83.

 Brewster, D. 2012. India as an Asia Pacific power. Routledge.

 Ptak, R. and D. Ruthermund, ed. 1991. Emporia, commodities and entrepreneurs in Asian maritime trade, c. 1400-1750. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag.