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 Brian Vivier, University of Pennsylvania, USA

China, East Asia and the Global Economy brings together nine essays by the Japanese historian Takeshi Hamashita on the economic and political development of modern East Asia. Hamashita’s research since the 1970s has challenged received interpretations and creatively reframed questions of long-standing interest to historians. This is the first substantial, single-volume collection of his work available in English and will contribute greatly by bringing his ideas to a larger audience of Asian, world, and economic historians.

The individual chapters span the sixteenth to the early twentieth century and examine topics in Chinese history–and in East Asian history more broadly–related to the economy and to the political history among states. There are two overriding themes: the role and influence of the imperial Chinese tribute system and the ways in which commercial networks at various scales shaped modern economic change in China and across East Asia.

The editors have constructed the volume from a number of sources from across the length of Hamashita’s career, with contributions from a number of translators (some uncredited) and adaptions from two English-language articles he had published previously.

The greatest strength of the volume lies in Hamashita’s conception of East Asia over a long span of time.  Where many received interpretations emphasize the rupture posed by the European presence in East Asia and the results of European economic and military hegemony, Hamashita identifies continuities between the traditional Chinese world order and the interactions among East Asia and European states in the nineteenth century. The early chapters emphasize the tribute system by which China had ritually organized East Asian inter-state relations throughout the imperial period. Uncovering a flexibility in Chinese foreign relations that a sinocentric perspective would obscure, Hamashita shows how the tribute system allowed for commercial and political connections between China and its tributaries and also for some of those tributary states to receive tribute in turn from their own tributaries.  Hamashita also argues–and weaves this insight deftly through later chapters–that even while engaging the treaty-based system of international relations imposed by European powers, East Asian states continued to maintain tribute relations and used the rhetoric of the tribute system to negotiate around and within treaty relationships. This has the effect of revealing continuities over Chinese history and also tracing back the long history of China’s place in complicated, multi-dimensional relations with its neighbors.

While he has substantial insight into the workings of the tribute system, Hamashita often treats it as it existed before 1800 as a rather static institution.  And, much like the school of interpretation against which he frequently argues–the model developed by John Fairbank and his students–he ignores certain kinds of change over time since the ancient origins of Chinese notions of tribute.

Hamashita’s treatment of commercial networks is similarly creative. One of his most thought-provoking chapters traces the role of silver flows into and around East Asia from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries.  This reveals Hamashita’s leadership position among the most sophisticated current work on global currency flows, contributing to how we understand the links between Europe, the New World, and East Asian port cities.

Later chapters focus attention on the nineteenth century with an emphasis on the networks that connected those East Asian port cities as they became part of larger networks of trade with Europe.  Hamashita pays particular attention to the role of FINANCE in these networks–the variety of exchange media circulating across East Asia, the balance of payments among different countries and even among specific cities, the ways in which financial intermediaries cleared debts and transfer remittances.  Hamashita’s sensitivity to connections within East Asia during the 1880s and 1890s also serves to decenter Japan’s late nineteenth-century modernizations and to reveal the many other factors–especially Chinese merchants and traditional banking practices–in evolving industrial and trade relations.  His analysis of relations among Koreans, Chinese, Japanese, and Europeans in the conduct of trade into and out of Korea is an excellent example of his method.

While never losing site of the important role that whole countries played in the economic and political developments of the nineteenth century, Hamashita profitably sees from the perspective of the port cities that anchored networks of trade and FINANCE across East Asia.  Whether in the same country or not, these cities were the sites through which debts and claims made in the course of commercial transactions had to be settled and where middlemen were able to realize profits and make INVESTMENTS that fueled the economic dynamism of the period. Some of the resulting conclusions are not surprising–historians have for a long while recognized the centrality of Shanghai–but the connections revealed between Shanghai and cities spread all over the region convey an inspiring dynamism to East Asian trade networks.

Hamashita’s use of sources varies widely over the course of the volume.  His chapter on silver flows cites very few sources, and many of his more wide-ranging chapters that reconceptualize large topics rely heavily on secondary literature.The wide spread of the scholarship that Hamashita draws upon often leave yet more questions about variations across place and time. The power and breadth of Hamashita’s generalizations occasionally engender concerns about analytical overreach.

At the other extreme, the strongest chapters are often those that give the reader the deepest sense of the sources and thus give a more solid sense of the contacts and exchanges at work in his analysis.  One chapter on the role of the Ryukyus in trading and tribute networks between China, Japan, and Southeast Asia during the fourteenth to eighteenth centuries lays out clearly the richness of the Ryukyuan diplomatic document collection Lidai baoan (in Japanese, Rekidai hōan; Precious documents of successive generations) as a source for maritime Asia.  Using the detailed individual records preserved there of tribute missions and their cargo, he traces the vicissitudes of a tiny kingdom’s commerce and diplomacy at the intersection of important trade routes and between major political powers.  Drawing on sources from the other end of Eurasia, his mining of evocative and analytically significant detail from British Parliamentary Papers lays bare the competing interests at work among merchants and producers from Europe and China.  His selection of primary sources ranges across many countries and includes varied commercial and diplomatic materials.

The great contribution of this volume lies in its provocative vision challenging older interpretations of modern Chinese and East Asian history.  While many of the arguments are far-reaching enough to require deeper and more thorough evidentiary support to be convincing, they also point toward creative ways to push forward both to new topics and to revise further long-held consensuses. The greater accessibility provided by these translations is an enormous contribution. These essays are ideally suited for graduate seminars. While much new scholarship incorporates Hamashita’s insights, their easy availability in English will do much to inspire the next generation of researchers.

Suggested citation:

Brian Vivier (2014), Review of “China, East Asia and the Global Economy: Regional and Historical Perspectives, by Takeshi Hamashita,edited by Linda Grove and Mark Selden, East Asian Integration Studies, Vol. 7, no. 41.

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