Right: A Jewish wedding in Aleppo, Syria, 1914. Public domain image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Our racial politics, like so much else, is often framed as a dichotomy. Activists seek intersectional solidarity and allyship with all people of color (PoC), a giant category that seems to include everyone under the sun except whites. Or, alternatively, activists address African-American and Hispanic/Latino issues and overlook everyone else. This manifests in the diversity rhetoric of university rhetoric and countless other places, and of course it does so in different ways in different cases – life is complicated, and I wouldn’t want to suggest otherwise. After all, the idea that this is complicated, that diversity and identity are not a dichotomy, not even a spectrum arranged unidirectionally from white to non-white, but rather a complex mess of factors, is key to the topic of this post: do Mizrahi Jews count as “People of Color”?

The Forward – one of the oldest and most major Yiddish newspapers in America, now published in English too – had a great opinion piece this past August, written by Sigal Samuel. I really love the nuance and complexity Samuel brings to this issue; the author’s journey, wondering whether she counts as a “person of color,” and getting very different answers from people she speaks to, points to the problematic nature of our dichotomous conceptions of race.

Okay, terminology time. Mizrahi Jews are those who themselves, or their relatively recent ancestors, come from the Middle East. The Jews currently fleeing persecution in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq are Mizrahi Jews. They are as Middle Eastern, as non-European, as any (other) Arab. If Ashkenazi Jews – those of Eastern European descent – are arguably to be considered something other than just plain “white,” then surely Mizrahi Jews, and Sephardic Jews – those of Mediterranean heritage, largely descended from those who moved to Italy, Greece, or elsewhere after being kicked out of Spain in 1492 – should count as “people of color” as well, right? But, of course, it’s not that simple.


Left: Sigal Samuel. Image from the Forward.

Samuel’s piece isn’t very long, so I don’t want to risk writing a blog post about it that repeats the entire thing, or that takes longer than her piece itself, though there are many excellent choice bits. I invite you to go read the whole thing, but, in a nutshell, Samuel writes that she, her family, and many members of her community, based both on their own feelings about their heritage (their self-sense of identity) and on the way they are treated in society, generally feel themselves to be something other than white. And yet, when she asks around, various people – including an African-American Jewish acquaintance and a (presumably Ashkenazi) Jewish professor of Middle Eastern Studies – tell her in no uncertain terms that she is not a person of color, because her people have never experienced such discrimination in the US as Asians and blacks. Further, with Ashkenazi being the dominant type of Jews (at least in a great many communities in the US), and with Ashkenazis having come to be considered white, “Jewish” as a category, as a whole, has likewise come to be considered white, separating Samuel from others of Arab or Indian descent, in many people’s eyes.

What I really like about this piece is that it not only illustrates these contradictions, and the failures of our black-white concept of race to accommodate the diversity of real human experience, but that it also highlights the ways in which identity is political. This is not simply about empirical categorizing – coming up with definitive determining factors and categorizing everyone “correctly” according to who they really are, or where they really belong. It is about the personal and political motivations, purposes, and (dis)advantages, in claiming a particular identity. This is why, for example, many Okinawans assert an “indigenous” identity, while Koreans and Tibetans, from rather similar historical circumstances, do not – for political purposes, and because of some sense of cultural affinity with Hawaiians and certain other groups.

Identity in our society is highly political, or politicized. As Samuel writes,

“Was I, a woman who sometimes gets read as white and therefore benefits from white privilege, wrongly co-opting the “of color” label in everything from internal monologues to health insurance forms?”

And in the end, she identifies her choice to identify as a person of color as a choice, and as a political one, not one for which there is a definitive correct answer. She writes:

Claiming the Jew of color identity, then, was not only a way to express my authentic feeling of moving through the world as a perpetual Other — it was also an attempt to destabilize [the idea that Jewish = white, and that Jewishness is opposed to Arab identity]. But was that, you know, kosher? Or did that performative aspect give my story some uncomfortable Rachel Dolezal-ish undertones?

She asks herself “Is there any sense in claiming an “of color” identity?” She decides that within the context of the history of race & discrimination in the United States, claiming a POC identity does not make sense for her, “But if you’re asking, “Does claiming a POC identity have a point, a practical purpose?” then, I thought, the answer might be yes.”

I love the way this piece highlights the complexities of race and identity. Many people seem to feel quite self-assured and self-righteous in policing who does and does not count, even as their own liberal-progressive discourses emphasize self-determination (see: gender identity, gender pronouns, who counts as indigenous?, who counts as black?). And yet, the world is more complicated than that. People – their experiences, their heritage – are more complicated than that.

The New Qing History

I finish my series on Chinese history books (finally) not with a summary of a single book, but with an overview of a trend, or movement, in the field.

Things move amazingly slowly in scholarship, and what still seems quite new can often turn out to be as much as twenty or even thirty years old. I think this is due in large part to a combination of a few factors:

(1) Scholarship takes a long time to do, and a long time to publish. I heard at one point that it takes roughly ten years to research, write, and get published a scholarly monograph, and given how long my dissertation is taking already, how long my younger professors are working on getting their first books published, and how few books some of my more senior professors have published, I believe it.

(2) Scholarship takes an amazingly long time to trickle down into high school & college textbooks, and since no teacher is read up on the latest scholarship on all things, they are bound to teach you older understandings.

(3) Relatedly, our own knowledge is based on classes and readings often quite out of date, and so what is actually old can often seem quite new. To put it another way, there are so many books out there that I haven’t read yet, so no matter how old the book may be, when I read it, it may seem quite new to me. Further, even as a member of the youngest current generation of scholars – those who haven’t even finished grad school yet – even so, my foundational knowledge of Japan comes from college classes from over ten years ago, taught by professors whose knowledge of the subject comes, foundationally, from decades earlier. Not to mention my fundamental understandings of American and European history, learned in high school and earlier, way back in the distant 20th century.

Qing imperial portraits on display at the Sackler Gallery of Art, at the Smithsonian Institution, in summer 2011.

So, when I say that “The New Qing History” is still, in some very real, meaningful senses, still “New,” I’m not being ironic or facetious. For decades and decades, ever since the origins of the modern scholarly field of Chinese Studies in the West, the dominant narrative was a China-centered one. Buying into China’s own (Confucian-informed) rhetoric about itself as the center and source of all civilization, scholars writing in English built their accounts of Chinese history around notions of Sinicization as the key process through which non-Chinese dynasties – such as the Mongol Yuan, Jurchen Jin, Khitan Liao, and Manchu Qing – attained stability and power. All of these dynasties, so the story goes, gained power and stability only because they adopted Chinese modes of governance, Confucian political culture, and other aspects of Chinese “civilization,” and collapsed in large part because of the infiltration of elements of their original “barbarian” or steppe nomad culture. The Qing are no different. I am not an expert on this, and do not know the historiography fully thoroughly, but basically, my understanding is that the traditional narrative has it that the Qing’s rise in the 1640s to 1790s, and its peak of greatness under the Qianlong Emperor in the 1790s, was due chiefly to the Manchus’ adoption of Chinese Confucian “civilization,” and that it was Qianlong’s efforts to re-introduce, revive, emphasize, or retain Manchu culture which sowed the seeds for China’s decline – the century of embarrassment which began with China’s defeat by the “barbarian” British in the 1840s, and went straight on through the various embarrassments of the Taiping & Boxer Rebellions (in which the British and French sacked & looted), defeat by the “barbarian” Japanese in 1895, and invasion, colonization, etc. in the 1930s-40s.

A scene from “The Last Emperor,” shown in “China Through the Looking Glass” at the Metropolitan Museum.

It was only in the 1990s, perhaps influenced by trends in post-colonial scholarship, that this story was fundamentally revised. The so-called “New Qing History” emerged at that time, calling attention like never before to the ways in which the Qing, in particular, was not so much a Chinese dynasty, but rather a Manchu one. The new story, advanced in particular I believe by Pamela Crossley and Evelyn Rawski, is that China was but one part of the Manchu Empire – that Tibet, Taiwan, Manchuria, and Xinjiang (East Turkestan) were never part of “China,” but rather were part of the Manchu Qing Empire, alongside China – much as China was only ever one part of the massive Mongol Empire, rather than us thinking of anything of the western half of the Mongol Empire as having been part of “China.” This is pretty revolutionary. Personally, I found it just a little mind-blowing. In accordance with the vein of postcolonial studies and cultural relativism percolating throughout the Humanities, one of the other major themes of the New Qing History, advanced by Crossley and others, is the radical idea (*gasp*) that Manchu culture is valid, meaningful, effective, powerful – not something to be dismissed or disparaged, and not something which necessarily inherently brings corruption or decline.

But, also, that Manchu identity is something invented around the year 1600; that “the Manchus” as a people didn’t exist until then. Now, I don’t know what the standard story was in scholarship up until then; surely we knew from the documents and so forth that there were no Manchus prior to that time, only Jurchens. But, even so, Crossley’s A Translucent Mirror: History and Identity in Qing Imperial Ideology (U California Press, 1999) forms the core of a constellation of new works in the 1990s-2000s which place real focus on issues of Late Imperial conceptions of identity, ethnicity, and so forth, and on the relationship between these and official (Imperial/court) ideology and policy. In A Translucent Mirror, Crossley details the evolution of Manchu identity, and of Han Chinese identity along with it, over the course of the 17th to early 20th centuries. There are some interesting and important elements I’m going to skip over, regarding specific policy attitudes of particular reigns towards intentionally shaping (officially redefining) identity categories, but, in a nutshell: Manchu identity began originally as an identity of affiliation, not of lineage, descent, or phenotype (physical appearance). Those Jurchens, Mongols, Chinese, and even a few Koreans, who gathered under Nurhachi’s banners in the very early stages came to be known as “Manchus,” while those Chinese and Koreans who lived north of the Great Wall and came under Nurhachi’s authority a bit later came to be known as the “martial Chinese” (Hàn jūn 漢軍). As the Qing Dynasty was formed (shortly before taking Beijing), they established a number of “banners,” categorizing society into Manchu Banners, Mongol Banners, Martial Chinese Banners, and everyone else. Each of these banners contained within them people we might today – whether by descent, lineage, or genetics, or by ancestral homeland, cultural practices, or certain other metrics – consider to have been Jurchens, Mongols, Chinese, Korean, or even of other backgrounds. To be sure, these banners were very much divided apart from the rest of society. They lived in their own separate walled-in sections of the cities, and worked to maintain particular brands of nomad & martial culture. In a sense, they remind me of the samurai of the Tokugawa period, working to perform the martial warrior identity despite being essentially domesticated bureaucrats; and the samurai, too, lived for the most part in walled compounds separated from the commoners. Yet, while the Qing does have the additional element of Manchu/Mongol vs. Chinese multiethnic origins, unlike the samurai vs. commoners in Japan who were all, after all, Japanese, still, at this stage, these banners remained largely identities of affiliation, not of “race” or “ethnicity.” This is particularly true of the Martial Chinese; though most were from the north, and most of the non-bannered everyone else were from the south, and thus had very different customs, lineage, ancestral homelands, and even language, and that’s definitely something to consider, still, today, we consider both groups to have been “ethnically” “Chinese,” regardless of whether they were in the banners or not. Being in the banners was a matter of status, societal role, societal categories, not something strictly divided between Chinese and non-Chinese.

But, skip forward a couple hundred years – like I said, go check out the book, or reviews or summaries of it for the more nuanced, complex story – and these identities have become so entrenched that they really do get transformed into ethnic identities. As ethnic nationalism rises in China towards the end of the 19th century, and especially in the first years of the 20th, the bannermen come to be seen as colonizers, occupiers, barbarians, and most of all, as non-Chinese. The Han Chinese identity, which I suppose existed in one form or another before that, was now solidified into a “Chinese people,” or a “Chinese nation,” who were the good, rightful, moral, upright, indigenous (though I don’t think they would have used that last term) people of China, whose country had been stolen and ruined – run into the ground – by these barbarian nomads, and who demanded their country back. Suddenly, it was all about race and ethnicity, and suddenly those descended from the banners, regardless of Chinese phenotype (racial appearance) or genotype (genetics), regardless of whether they were in fact from China proper (and not Manchuria) going back centuries and centuries, or whether their ancestors were loyal subjects of the Ming, or whathaveyou. Bannermen – even Martial Chinese – became “Manchus.” Adam Bohnet’s work, which I’ve already discussed a few posts back, continues along a similar thread to Crossley’s, examining how the Korean court (in Bohnet’s case) officially defined and redefined identity categories for its own political purposes, as the successive Qing reigns did as well.

Right: The Qianlong Emperor on horseback, painted by Giuseppe Castiglione. Collection of the Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Michael Chang’s 2007 book, A Court on Horseback, can also be considered to fall within the vein of The New Qing History, though it comes nearly twenty years after Crossley’s. A massive tome, I will gladly admit I did not read it all. But, its core argument shows very much the New Qing History approach. Chang’s volume examines a series of “inspection tours” of the southern provinces performed by the Qianlong Emperor in the 1750s-1780s, which were previously considered through the lens of Chinese (Sinicized) Confucian civil government; in other words, these were seen as being examples of the Qing adopting Chinese modes of surveying and governing the provinces. However, Chang argues quite the contrary, that these were martial displays of a Manchu/Qing ruler to his conquered subjects. These were, he argues, essentially military campaigns, performed within a Manchu steppe nomad cultural complex, in order to “inspire adherence and subordination through demonstration of military might.”1 This might be compared to the way that sankin kôtai missions performed by Japanese daimyô can be considered military parades, or martial affairs otherwise, even though in both the Japanese and Qing cases there is no actual combat taking place – the land is already conquered and pacified. Chang describes his approach explicitly as ““Altaic” or “Qing-centered” Qing history” (9), and argues – drawing upon Crossley, or extending her argument – that Qing rule was centered largely on reinforcing and ensuring rule by the Manchu people (ethnicity) and the Aisin Gioro lineage (dynasty) in particular, something Chang terms as “ethno-dynastic” rule (8). He writes,

Ethnicity, then, matters to the study of late imperial China, but only in an ideological sense – that is, as a particular set of meanings, generated and mobilized in order to construct some belief in group affinity … the basis for establishing and sustaining relations of patrimonial domination (17).

and articulates the Qing state as one organized, fundamentally, on a patrimonial basis, in which the empire is conceived of metaphorically as a massively extended family, with the Emperor as Father. All loyalty is to fathers / lords / masters, and not to a semi-independent civil apparatus which transcends the dynastic household, i.e. to an abstract notion of the State or the Government (12-14). While Chang does not employ the term “feudalism,” or draw direct parallels to the Japanese case, this does certainly seem to describe the Tokugawa state, to my mind, and in any case it presents an informatively stark contrast to the Ming Dynasty, in which Ray Huang’s 1587: A Year of No Significance clearly shows the state – the rule of law, the systems of governance, the Confucian ideals – had more power than even the Emperor himself. Not the case in the Qing, at least ideally (ideologically), according to Chang.

Officials prostrating towards the Emperor, at the Forbidden City, in the film “The Last Emperor.”

Joanna Waley-Cohen summarizes the whole “New Qing History” movement in a 2004 article in the Radical History Review.

One additional argument she discusses is the idea of a shift in the Qing period away from the Sinocentric idea of Confucian civilization as the only civilization, to a multi-faceted, multicultural one in which the Qing rulers took on different identities & ideologies of rule for each of several different constituencies. The Qianlong Emperor was not only the Confucian source of civilization & axis between heaven and earth; he was also simultaneously the Manchu Great Khan, the Tibetan Buddhist cakravartin (“wheel-turning king”), and even claimed to be a reincarnation of the bodhisattva Manjusri.

More than all the rest, I’d recommend reading this, which summarizes the movement, or trend, as a whole, listing and describing eight scholarly monographs from the New Qing History field. I quite enjoyed learning so much more about China, in the course of reading for these exams, and especially reading about this intriguing new perspective on Chinese history.

This brings our survey of books on Chinese history to an end. Next up, the long-awaited summaries of books on Japanese history.

(1) Joanna Waley-Cohen. “The New Qing History.” Radical History Review 88, no. 1 (2004), 201.

Ray Huang’s 1587: A Year of No Significance (Yale U. Press, 1982) is, perhaps, one of the most widely read, and recommended, books on Late Imperial China.

As you might guess from the title, this is not your typical history book. Huang takes a year of, really, pretty much no significance, and explores the late Ming Dynasty through chapters devoted to the lives/careers of a number of different prominent or influential figures, from a Grand Secretary to a frontier general, to a lay monk, to the Wanli Emperor himself.

One of the things I find fascinating about this approach is that Huang gets away with providing extensive narrative detail about figures and events that are, well, certainly far more influential within late 1580s China than, say, the average peasant or merchant on the street, but who really are not the big movers and shakers of more “significant” moments or periods in the dynasty’s history. And, he gets away with writing a very narrative history. I don’t know if scholarly priorities were just different in 1982, when this was published, but I have a hard time imagining that a scholar could so easily publish such a book today, without being asked over and over, “so what?” and “what’s your argument?” But, not only did he get it published, it became a rather standard book in the field.

Since I don’t a have a pre-written response paper to adapt into the blog post, maybe I’ll just share a few scattered thoughts and reactions.

One is that, throughout the book, Huang refers to Ming China not in the typical distanced scholarly manner, but rather by using phrases such as “our realm.” In doing so, he evokes or suggests the notion that he is continuing in the tradition of Imperial era historians, or if not that, then at least does contribute a more narrative feel. Simply through the use of “our realm” instead of “theirs,” Huang brings a refreshingly different feel to the work. It feels warmer, more personal – less dry and analytical. In a way it makes the flaws and mistakes more forgivable, as we get a sense that that’s just how it is, here in “our” country, and who is anyone else to criticize?, even as it at the same time makes the stakes seem higher, as this is “our” country on the line, not some far-distant Other land.

One critique, or I guess just question, is that Huang’s descriptions of the emperor’s attitudes and emotions, and of the attitudes and emotions of others, often veer into territory where as a reader one becomes skeptical as to how Huang could possibly know such personal details. Admittedly, there are presumably mountains of surviving memorials and rescripts, and if one is able to decipher past the poetic and Confucian language to reach the “real” meaning, I suppose it may be possible to determine in many cases the “true” emotions, desires, whims, attitudes of these figures. But, nevertheless, whenever I see such analyses of the personality of a given historical figure, it sends up red flags for me. Do we really understand these people? Even someone like Harry Truman lived in a fairly different discursive world from our own, and understood the world around him, and his place in it, differently from anyone today – how much more so George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, and how much more so than that the Wanli Emperor or Shen Shixing?

In any case, in the process of relating these biographical narrative histories (most especially in the first three or four chapters), Huang also provides some wonderfully thorough details about the lives of emperors and officials, and how the Court functioned. The interplay of the Emperor’s desires, and those of various officials; the way that paperwork, obligations, and orthodoxy hampered change; the way that factions at court gained and lost power – all of these are, perhaps, more clearly illustrated here than in anything else I’ve ever read.

Cherishing Men From Afar

James Hevia, Cherishing Men from Afar: Qing Guest Ritual and the Macartney Embassy of 1793, Duke
University Press (1995).

James Hevia’s Cherishing Men from Afar is quite valuable not only as a wonderfully thorough and detailed account of the 1793 Macartney Embassy to the court of the Qianlong Emperor, but also for the arguments and frameworks it provides us for understanding political/diplomatic ritual and ceremony, as well as the conceptual underpinnings of the Sinocentric world order.

Among many others, one of the key threads running through the text focuses on court ritual, that is, formalized performances – words, actions, dress and appearance otherwise – as manifested in the interactions between Lord Macartney’s British embassy and the officials of the Qing court. As Hevia explains, a dominant view in the West both in 1793 and today, borne out of the Enlightenment tradition, identifies ritual as associated with the archaic, and the non-modern. The classic, dominant narrative of the Macartney embassy describes the Qing Court as blinded and hampered by “an insistence … on maintaining appearances or bending reality to fit appearances,” and identifies the emphasis on ritual as indicating “an absence of fully conscious rationality, a confusion of categories, and limited understanding of cause-and-effect relationships.” Hevia argues, and explains, however, that ritual must not be seen as mere theatre, nor as opposed to “real” political activity; rather, we must recognize the ways in which “ritual activities are themselves the very production and negotiation of power relations.”

Hevia also discusses the conceptual, ritual, functionings of Imperial “guest ritual” (賓禮, binli), and the so-called Sinocentric world order. Expanding upon the understandings conveyed in Fairbank’s Chinese World Order and other writings, Hevia explains that the exchange between the Emperor and tribute embassies can be understood as a process of initiating and completing, with the extension (da) of Imperial virtue (德, de) to encompass distant realms, and the response of that realm to send ambassadors and tribute, and to show sincere desire to join the Chinese world order (向化之誠, xiang hua zhi cheng), as the two crucial elements of the exchange required to enact, or maintain, the cosmic order. We come to understand more fully, now, how this ritual connects, too, to the process of investiture, the incorporation of imperial vassals and foreign rulers into the system as empowering them to replicate the same ritual relationships back home, with their own vassals. What was understood in previous scholarship as a concept enacted only within the Imperial Court, and within the minds of the Emperor and officials of the Court, now seems much more discursively real and powerful, as it is replicated across a network of hierarchical relations, manifesting throughout the Chinese Empire and its broader Sinocentric world. The tribute/investiture system, and its underlying logics, may have been a Chinese invention, but it was adopted and adapted throughout the region, and had considerable significance, perhaps comparable in some senses to the so-called Westphalian system of sovereign nation-states – a European invention which has now been adopted and adapted throughout the world.

Hevia’s inclusion of numerous specific Chinese terms relevant to the ritual conceptions, and provision of usable English equivalents, is additionally valuable for my efforts to be able to articulate these concepts in my own work. One of the most difficult aspects of my project researching Ryukyuan embassies has been the conceptualization, and articulation, of aspects of these concepts, and being able to understand 謝恩 (C: xiè ēn; J: shaon) as “expressing gratitude for imperial grace,” while still a bit vague and slippery, is a helpful step towards understanding, and thus being able to myself describe, just what it is that embassies are said to be expressing thanks for. That being said, however, one must be careful trusting Hevia (or any scholar, unfortunately) too blindly – Joseph Esherick published a review entitled “Cherishing Sources from Afar” in which he roundly tears Hevia apart for, allegedly, supposedly, mis-translating terms and misinterpreting documents. Who to trust? I don’t know. Much of Hevia’s writing is quite compelling – but if Esherick is right, and it’s based on mistaken interpretations, then we have a problem. But, if Esherick is the one who is mistaken, then perhaps we don’t. Beats me.

For Macartney, and in the dominant Western understanding since that time, ritual performance was merely representational; within the Chinese paradigm, however, ritual performance was itself constitutive – the ritual is not just a show of respect, but is indeed the construction and maintenance itself of power relationships, and of the domestic and international order otherwise. For the British, performing ceremony poorly or not at all was disrespectful, but for the Chinese, performing it incorrectly or not at all was destructive of the natural order itself.

The various aspects of the Chinese emperor-centric cosmological worldview, and its manifestations in foreign (“tributary”) relations, as well as the role of ritual and performance as not merely discursive, but constitutive, are two concepts which are central to my research on the Ryukyuan embassies to Edo. Certainly, both Ryukyu and Tokugawa Japan were deeply enmeshed in Confucian and Sinocentric discourses, with the Tokugawa shogunate appropriating those discourses to construct a sort of Japan-centric, or shogun-centric mode of constructing and performing hierarchical relationships (including the reception of foreign envoys from Ryukyu and Korea, in emulation of the Chinese Emperor’s reception of foreign envoys ); but, more examination and consideration will be necessary, I think, not only to more fully grasp these two concepts to begin with, but also to consider how they might be applied to the case of Ryukyu/Tokugawa relations, and how to articulate their functionings in that context.

“Welcoming Ceremonies for the Governor” (detail). Attr. Kim Hongdo (1745-c. 1806). National Museum of Korea. Seen on loan at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.

Up until now, I’ve been relying on review essays I wrote last year, while in the process of doing these readings. But, now, I realize (remember) that for the rest of my China-related readings, I didn’t actually produce such review essays. So the next few blog posts are going to have to be based on my notes, not taking essays and merely fixing them up a little, but rather writing them anew. So, if there’s an even greater slowdown than usual in my getting these out, that’s why. Bear with me. Cheers.

Today, I’m discussing an article by Adam Bohnet, entitled “Ruling Ideology and Marginal Subjects: Ming Loyalism and Foreign Lineages in Late Chosŏn Korea.” I must admit, for the longest time, as a student interested in Japan, and then as a young emerging scholar of Japanese Studies, I was never really so interested in Korea (or China, for that matter) – it was Japan I was interested in. I don’t mean for it to be a political thing – not hardly; it’s just that we each have our interests, and our specialties. France scholars don’t necessarily have to have an interest in England, and vice versa, and the same for specialists in Spanish or Italian history. We each have our personal reasons that one place or culture or history has grabbed our attention more than others… though I’m sure that the prominence of Japan in the pop culture and general American consciousness during my younger years, and the relative absence of Korea in that consciousness (which has grown by leaps and bounds since then), had some significant influence. In any case, since I began studying Ryûkyû (and perhaps not coincidentally, since K-dramas and K-pop and so forth, and Korea Foundation-funded exhibitions at major US art museums, have started becoming much more prominent in popular consciousness) I have started to become a lot more interested in Korea.

Like Ryûkyû, Korea was also a Confucian kingdom, heavily influenced by China, and with considerable cultural exchange with Japan, yet politically independent, and culturally distinct, unique, in myriad important ways. Like Ryûkyû, Joseon/Chosŏn Dynasty Korea sent tributary missions to Beijing, and received investiture from the Ming and Qing in return, and like Ryûkyû, Chŏson sent missions to Edo. Thus, not only are there numerous parallels of direct relevance to my research, but beyond that, Korea simply presents, as Ryûkyû does, another interesting variation on the East Asian theme, without being the oh-so-standard elephant in the room, China. Plus, it is an essential part of the broader East Asian “world order,” a vital piece of the puzzle towards understanding the so-called “tribute system.”

I have in recent years grown more and more interested to simply learn more about Korean history in general, overall. I know so little, after all, and so the basic overall narrative, from pre-history, through the Three Kingdoms, United Silla, Koryŏ, and Chosŏn, to the Colonial Period and today, would all be new and interesting to me. But, one thing that I have been particularly eager to learn about is how the idea of the Ming Dynasty, as the greatest and the last true Chinese dynasty (in contrast to the “barbarian” Qing Dynasty of the Manchus) was conceived and acted upon in Korea, Ryûkyû, and Japan. Adam Bohnet’s article was, thus, my first exploration of this subject as it pertains to Korea, and one of my first times delving into Chosŏn history;1 there are entire books on Korean history on my list right now, and I eagerly look forward to getting around to getting into them. This also provides a thought-provoking contrast, or contribution, to my thinking about this alongside Yingkit Chan’s work on Ming-Ryûkyû relations. Though Chan only talks about the Ming period, and not the Qing, I think that along with what I know about Ryûkyû from some other sources – and just given the fact that Ryûkyû continued to employ Ming costume and other aspects of Ming court practice well into the Qing period, never adopting Qing practices – it’s safe to say that there are some potentially very valid parallels to be drawn here.

The Center for Korean Studies building at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, based on the Gyeongbok Palace, the main royal palace of the Joseon dynasty.

Let’s get to it, properly. Bohnet explains that prior to the fall of the Ming, people of Chinese descent who resided within Korea were grouped together with Jurchens, Japanese, and certain other ethnic groups under the Korean term hwang hwain. Bohnet translates this term very roughly as “submitting foreigners,” i.e. foreigners who submit(ted) to the authority of the Korean court. A little deductive Googling reveals this is equivalent to the Chinese term xiàng huà rén (or xiàng huá rén), but Bohnet does not give the Chinese characters (K: hanja) for any of his terms, making it difficult for someone like myself, who does not know Korean, to figure out whether hwang hwain refers to “people leaning towards transformation” (向化人) or “people leaning towards civilization” (向華人). I find this terribly frustrating. More works need to provide the characters, to give a clearer indication as to the etymologies, or meanings, of terms.

But, regardless of precisely which term it may be, this is really interesting: the Koreans had essentially adopted the Chinese, or perhaps simply Confucian, notion of foreigners traveling to the imperial (or royal) center, recognizing it as a civilizational center, and seeking to be transformed, or civilized. This is something which comes up in Hevia’s Cherishing Men from Afar (which, I know, I still haven’t reviewed. Maybe I should do that one next) and elsewhere – the traditional Chinese idea of the civilizing force which extends from the Emperor in all directions. It is closely tied into the rhetoric or logics of the tribute system (in which missions from other lands are said to be coming of their own free will, to pay homage and tribute, in recognition of the Emperor as source of superior civilization), and of the Sinocentric vision of the world as concentric circles, growing more barbaric, or less civilized, the further one moved from the Imperial center.

So, the Chinese were originally, in the 16th-17th centuries, “submitting foreigners,” or hwang hwain, leaning towards transformation, or civilization, a notion which placed Korean culture at a civilizational zenith. Korea represented itself as an exceptionally civilized kingdom, i.e. in terms of Confucian civilization.

Right: A statue of Samyeongdang, first Korean ambassador to the Tokugawa shogunate, at the Buddhist temple Honpô-ji in Kyoto.

But, then, following the fall of the Ming in 1644 to Manchu invaders, some one hundred years later, the Chosŏn court redefined the Han Chinese people under its rulership no longer as “submitting foreigners” there to be civilized or culturally transformed by Korea’s Confucian royal graces, but rather as remnants of the Great Ming, as people whose presence in the kingdom and whose participation in Ming loyalist rituals at the royal palace represented Ming support for the legitimacy of Chosŏn rule, and represented their approval of Chosŏn as the continuation of the proper “high” “great” Confucian civilization. Throughout the region, the Ming represented the last, greatest, true form of Chinese Confucian civilization. The Ming had fallen to barbarian invaders from the north, and while the Korean and Ryukyuan courts, and Confucian scholarly communities in Japan, all turned to the Qing to one extent or another, they also all developed rhetoric that represented their own country as the true successor of the Ming, the true protector and maintainer of proper Ming high civilization. In Ryukyu, this is most clearly seen in the court’s continued use of Ming robes and various other aspects of Ming court culture, never adopting Qing robes or customs in most respects. In Japan, Confucian scholars & kangakusha (“scholars of Chinese Studies”) kept up with the latest philosophical trends in Qing Confucianism, even going so far as to assert their superiority over Korean Confucians who held to woefully outdated Ming notions, and were thus seen as far behind on the latest developments; yet, even so, they too crafted narratives and explanations of how Ming high civilization survived best in Japan, i.e. how Japan was the greatest or truest Confucian country in the region (and thus, in the world).

Korean Confucian official’s robe, bearing a “mandarin square” or “chest badge,” patterned after the Ming practice and indicating he wearer’s rank. Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

In Korea, even as the court eventually (sometime after Ryukyu) switched its allegiances from Ming loyalists and pretenders in southern China & Taiwan to re-establishing formal tributary relations with the Qing, by 1750 or so, it simultaneously constructed a discourse of Chosŏn Korea as the true inheritor of Ming civilization, where proper high Confucian civilization was maintained and continued. Ambassadors to Japan during this period scoffed at Japanese scholars, with their degraded, barbarian-influenced, Qing Confucianism, declaring themselves to be upholding the true, great, un-corrupted Ming forms of Confucian philosophy and culture. Shrines were established within the royal palace grounds, dedicated to Ming emperors, and rituals were devised to pay homage and demonstrate loyalty to the Ming. Chinese people resident in Korea, and their descendants, up until then considered hwang hwain, were now to be considered remnants of the Great Ming – representatives, in a sense, of the Great Ming, who by their presence could represent Ming approval of Korea’s claims to Confucian civilizational superiority (or centrality).

Yet, what makes this even more interesting is that most of these Chinese were not in fact Confucian scholars of the Ming court – not really representatives of the Ming court or Confucian authority at all. And many were not even from what we might today call “China proper.” Many were Liaodongese, or from other border/frontier identities, and many were descended from those who, in one way or another, to one extent or another, lived or served under the Jurchens or the Manchus for years (if not generations) even before the Qing conquest. Ethnicity is a complex thing, defined not, in fact, purely by descent or genetics, but actually by cultural and political associations, and so it’s hard to say whether we should consider them to have been “Chinese” or “Han Chinese” by our modern definitions, or another ethnicity; and we’ll discuss the fuzzy category that is the Liaodongese when we get to discussing Pamela Crossley. But, whoever these “Chinese” people were, they were hardly “loyal” “remnants” of the Ming. And yet, they served that purpose for the Korean court.

Ethnicity is socially constructed, flexible, and often changed to suit political purposes. In East Asia, where tensions based on ethnic nationalisms are so strong, and where the politics of today so color people’s visions of the past, it is important to look back at the ways in which ethnicity was defined and changed over time. What did it mean to be “Chinese” in 17th century Korea, and then in 18th century Korea? What did it mean to be “Korean” or “Japanese” prior to the 7th century? I’ll bet you that if those sorts of identity concepts even existed at all, they meant something very very different from what they do today. When we get to Pamela Crossley, we’ll talk about the 17th century invention of the Manchu people, a group which never existed before that, and a group whose 17th-19th century history continues to be heavily colored by anachronistically applied ideas of the 1900-1911 era.

So that, basically, in a nutshell, is Bohnet’s argument in this one journal article. It certainly got me thinking about ethnicity, and also filled me in a bit on how Ming loyalism played out in the Korean court. I definitely need to read more, though – my knowledge of Korean history is pretty embarrassingly minimal.

All photos my own.

(1) See earlier posts on Korean art exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum and San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum. For the moment, my other sources of knowledge on Chosŏn are mostly books and articles about the missions to Japan (K: Chosŏn tongsinsa; J: Chôsen tsûshinshi), though I have read a good few of these; I’ve found them fascinating, and have learned a lot, but I am still learning.

Above: A replica, at Shuri castle in Okinawa, of the Bankoku shinryô no kane, the “Bridge of Myriad Nations Bell,” after which Chan’s thesis takes its title.

Since it is “only” an MA thesis, I almost didn’t read Ying-kit Chan’sA Bridge between Myriad Lands: The Ryukyu Kingdom and Ming China (1372-1526).” But I am so glad that I did. He puts into practice what Zhang Feng advocates – a less-China-centered treatment of the Sinocentric world order / tribute system – and does it mind-blowingly brilliantly. This is one of only a very few works I’ve read in English to really place Ryukyuan interests and desires front and center, as we would do for any other national history. Thus far, plenty has been written on East Asian history from the Korean perspective, the Chinese perspective, and the Japanese perspective. You can pick up a book like Fairbank’s “Chinese World Order” and read about how the tribute system worked from China’s point of view, according to China’s interests, or you can read Tanaka’s essays from “Japan in the Muromachi Age” (ed. John Whitney Hall, Toyoda Takeshi) and see how the system worked from the Japanese point of view. But, while there are admittedly works by Angela Schottenhammer, Hamashita Takeshi, and others which do decenter this, centering the conversation instead on the maritime world of pirates, merchants, and smugglers, or on East and Southeast Asian ports, and while a few of these essays do devote considerable attention to Ryukyu, there’s something quite different, quite radically new about Chan’s piece. I guess I would have to go re-read a number of the Hamashita and Schottenhammer pieces to be able to really pinpoint or articulate what’s so different, but I have a hunch that it has something to do with paying attention not just to what Ryukyu was doing, where Ryukyu fits into this, or what was happening to/in Ryukyu, but paying attention, rather, and very much so, to how the Ryukyuan court viewed all of this, what they wanted out of their relationship with China, and what they got out of the relationship.

Okay, so I took this photo in San Francisco. But, it’s evocative of the maritime world Ryûkyû was at the center of. And, it’s got a famous bridge (between myriad lands?) in the picture.

Chan’s thesis also puts into practice, beautifully, the somewhat abstract, difficult-to-grasp, concept of the political power and meaningfulness of ritual. Figures such as Victor Turner and Clifford Geertz tell us that ritual is not merely for show, that it has real serious political impacts – impacts real and serious enough that ritual can be an end unto itself. And yet, in the case of the 17th century Balinese kingdom Geertz is examining we are told that the chief effect of the ritual is believed to be a spiritual, or cosmological, one – the state exists to effect the ritual, because the ritual is essential to constituting the universe. I do find this a compelling notion, including in the Chinese or Japanese context, where there is a belief, at least in certain periods, that the Emperor, as the axis between Heaven and Earth (in the Chinese case) or as the descendant of the Sun Goddess and leading divine being embodying the nation (or however it may have been articulated in pre-Meiji times, in the Japanese case), must perform certain rituals in order to keep the cosmos in order. Perhaps there was something similar in Ryukyu, related to the idea of the king as Tedako (太陽子), the child of the Sun.

But, these cosmological explanations don’t explain how these things worked in real political terms. What about the side, or aspect, of things that had to do with quote-unquote “real” political relations? Even after reading Hevia (who I’ll get around to reviewing too, soon), I was still unclear on this very important point. But Chan puts it all right out there. The performance of Ming investiture rituals and all the rest by the Ryukyuan kings was, simultaneously:

(1) a demonstration of his membership in Chinese civilization, a performance of his identity as a cultured, civilized person,
(2) a show of conspicuous consumption, that he wielded the power and wealth that made him unquestionable, un-challengable, ruler of the country,
(3) a display of his recognition, his acknowledgement, by the Chinese as the legitimate ruler, and
(4) a demonstration that he, and only he, had the relationship to China that allowed Ryukyu to be civilized, cultured, and economically prosperous (through its connections to the Chinese tribute trade, and regional trade networks more broadly).

Ryukyuans welcome Chinese investiture envoys at Naha Harbor. As seen in a handscroll painting by Yamaguchi Suiô, in the University of Hawaii Library collection.

Chan breaks free from the idea that neighboring countries like Ryukyu and Korea bought into China’s rhetoric – as if explaining the Chinese world order / tribute system from the Chinese point of view sufficed to explain it for the whole region, as if it only functioned in a singular way for all participants. He shows, quite clearly and directly, how Ryukyu viewed its position within this system, and how participation benefited the Ryukyuan kings to their own benefit, both in terms of the Ryukyu-China relationship, and in terms of the court’s relationship with rival noble houses (the anji) within Ryukyu.

And he does all of this, something quite radical indeed, all in a fairly straightforward manner, without calling attention to how radical it is. Chan doesn’t argue for the need to have more Ryukyu-centric scholarship, and he doesn’t argue in defense of his approach. He just does it, as if it’s oh so natural, and this makes it all the more powerful, radical, and satisfying. I seriously came out of this paper wanting to tell everyone – and I did, in fact, tell my committee in just so many words – just how mindblowing this essay was for me.

All photos are my own.

We now return to our regularly scheduled set of book/article reviews.

*Kang, David C. “Hierarchy and Legitimacy in International Systems: The Tribute System in Early Modern East Asia.” Security Studies 19, no. 4 (2010): 591–622.

*———. “Hierarchy in Asian International Relations: 1300-1900.” Asian Security 1, no. 1 (2005): 53–79.

*Schottenhammer, Angela. “Empire and Periphery? The Qing Empire’s Relations with Japan and the Ryūkyūs (1644–c. 1800), a Comparison.” The Medieval History Journal 16, no. 1 (April 1, 2013): 139–96.

Having spent the better part of seven pages in my previous post summarizing Zhang Feng’s argument,1 with only a sprinkling of Kang and Schottenhammer for comparison, I think I will start afresh in comparing and contrasting Schottenhammer and Kang’s approaches, in these few particular articles under review.

The investiture ceremony for Ryukyuan kings, a crucial part of the China-Ryukyu relationships, as seen in a model on display at Shuri castle.

While Zhang, as discussed in the previous post, offers much valuable critique of Fairbank’s “Chinese World Order” tributary system” model, “Empire and Periphery?,” just one of Angela Schottenhammer’s many broad-ranging and yet thoroughly detailed essays on maritime East Asia, seems to actually put these suggestions into practice. Schottenhammer demonstrates recognition of the so-called “tribute system” schema articulated by John K. Fairbank as pointing to some meaningful and important historical structures, but also as being only a model, describing only one of a complex of institutions in the very complex world of East Asian maritime trade relations. She examines the actual relations that took place between Qing Dynasty China and Japan & the Ryukyu Kingdom, in particular, comparing ideology and reality, and tracing shifts and developments in Qing attitudes and policies. She writes,

We will discuss not only why and in which respect China’s relations with these two countries differed but also if her concepts and visions correlated with reality or were simply ‘Chinese projections’ that drew an idealistic picture of the East Asian world. … Did the Qing rulers simply act on the basis of a traditional vision that saw them in the center of East Asian civilization, or were they able to distinguish between vision and reality, consequently making decisions on the basis of political necessities[?] (142)

Zhang, quoting John Wills, also advocates not taking the tribute system or Sinocentric worldview themselves as a starting point, as this “short-circuits” thinking about, seeing, recognizing, the fuller, more complex, more nuanced range of interactions going on in the region, outside of the tribute system.2 Schottenhammer certainly does seem to epitomize this complex and nuanced approach, though she does begin with a Chinese / Confucian definition of “empire,” as being the idea of tianxia, or “all-under-heaven,” a realm within which all is ordered, peaceful, and harmonious because of emulation of the emperor as the paragon model of virtue (141).

All in all, Schottenhammer provides a nuanced and complex view of the situation in mid-Qing maritime East Asia, covering the reigns of the Kangxi (r. 1662-1722), Yongzheng (r. 1723-35), and Qianlong (r. 1736-1795) Emperors. Balancing both ideology and practical reality, she explains that Qing attitudes and policies shifted over the course of time, from flexibility and toleration at the beginning of the dynasty (1644) through the Kangxi reign, to guarded caution under Yongzheng, to self-assured disinterest under Qianlong. For the first decade or two after 1644, despite the Manchus’ need to establish themselves – and not the Ming pretenders and loyalists – as the legitimate rulers of China, or perhaps because of this desperate need for legitimacy, the Qing were quite flexible in their relations with other courts and polities. They did send out missions almost immediately after the conquest, to seek the establishment of tributary relations with Korea, Ryukyu, and Annam, securing such relations by the early 1650s, but Schottenhammer suggests that at that time,

while foreign countries were requested to emulate a good action and return to allegiance, to submit tribute items (nakuan 納款) and pay the [new] court its respects, … the formal recognition of the ruler of a tributary state, in the form of investiture (cefeng 冊封), does not seem to have been an absolute prerequisite for the tributary trade (144-145).

As an aside, the regular, consistent willingness of Schottenhammer’s publishers to include Chinese characters within the text makes her work not only much more helpful and informative, but also makes it feel more professional, more scholarly. So, insofar as this is a review, two thumbs up for including the original Chinese, Japanese, Korean terms in the paper – not only does it show that Schottenhammer is engaging with the original texts, and the original language (complexities of translation, nuances of meaning), but it also provides the tools for the reader to more directly engage with that, on a higher level. Speaking to that point, Schottenhammer introduces and engages with a number of Chinese terms and the associated concepts, elucidating how relations were understood, or at least how they were described in the rhetoric of the day.

Right: Map of the traditional Chinese conception of the world, with civilization at the center, and barbarism at the edges. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Even a single phrase such as that inscribed on a 1751 world map commissioned by Qianlong can contain great insights, when the characters are given, and the meanings unpacked and discussed a bit. The inscription reads: “After our dynasty had unified the Empire, all non-Chinese peoples (苗夷) in the regions of the universe (區宇) have paid tribute and pronounced their cordial bonds [with us] beyond our [borders]. They approached us, in order to come under our transforming influence (輸誠向化).” (151) The term given for “non-Chinese peoples” here, miao-yi, incorporates two of the traditional Chinese terms for barbarians of the four directions – the miao to the south (today, the term has become a proper noun to refer to a particular ethnic group), and the yi to the east.

The “regions of the universe” (quyu), Schottenhammer explains, covers not just the realm (tianxia) itself, but all the world, conveying a paternalistic, possessive, and universal connotation – no more universalist or paternalistic, though, than European rhetoric of the Enlightenment, rationalism, imperialism, and the “White Man’s Burden,” however. Finally, this concept that “they approached us, in order to come under our transforming influence” (shucheng xianghua) is of particular interest, giving the reader a direct insight into the precise language, and through that the character of the logics, employed in this system. Though we may never truly be able to understand the past quite exactly as it was understood at the time, looking at the actual language gets us a little closer, removing one more intermediate layer of translation.

Returning to the dynastic narrative, Schottenhammer explains that this initial period of flexibility blended into a period under the Kangxi Emperor characterized by toleration. The Tokugawa, by the beginning of the 18th century, were working to make Japan more economically self-sufficient, and in particular to stem the great outflow of silver and copper from Japan to China. The Ming had severed formal relations with Japan in the 16th century, and the Tokugawa never made any effort to enter into formal relations with the Qing; many regarded China as having fallen to the barbarians, and some, such as Hayashi Gahô and Nobuatsu, in their book Ka’i-hentai, even advocated taking military action to drive the Manchus from China (158-160). Though the Qing also did not make efforts to bring Japan in as an official tributary, the Qing Court tolerated Japan’s official stubbornness, and took a number of steps towards the end of the 17th century to not only implicitly allow, but to even encourage the unofficial trade with Japan, which was, after all, essential to China’s precious metal needs (160). Despite the lack of official relations, which many analyses might take to mean there were no governmental interactions at all, the Qing even sent secret agents, or spies, to Japan, during this period (160-161).

Not the most popular attitude in Japan at that time.

Schottenhammer goes into wonderful detail about relations between the Tokugawa and the Ming loyalists based on Taiwan, such as we do not see regularly discussed elsewhere in the scholarship, almost at all. This is what I love most about Schottenhammer’s scholarship – she goes beyond the standard China-Japan-Korea metropole-politically-centered narratives to show the vibrant, colorful, textured complexity of history, bringing in all sorts of other actors that we just don’t hear about enough otherwise. In connection with this Japan-Taiwan relationship, and perhaps other causes, the Yongzheng Emperor’s reign came to be characterized chiefly by an increase in coastal patrols, and other steps taken to secure China’s maritime borders. Schottenhammer emphasizes numerous times that China’s rhetoric of centrality and superiority, and its aloofness, did not necessarily mean that the Court was willfully oblivious of goings-on in the region, including within Japanese politics. They kept an eye on such things, through a variety of means, including secret agents (166), though one imagines that Korean and Ryukyuan officials, and southern Chinese merchants and port officials, probably contributed to the providing of information as well.

Under the Qianlong Emperor, the Qing made efforts to become more independent of Japanese exports, directly working on expanding mining efforts in Yunnan, for example. Qianlong also led several rather successful expeditions to expand Qing territory, and to suppress rebellions and so forth. Qianlong’s reign is thus characterized by a self-assured disinterest in maritime matters, stemming from a reassurance of Qing strength and centrality, and from the belief that it was Japan’s responsibility to seek better relations with China, and not the other way around (170-173). In short, Schottenhammer’s argument throughout this paper is simply that Qing Emperors were not blinded, nor immobilized, by tradition, and were very much capable of addressing “reality” and changing policy, when necessary.

The Ryukyuan throne room at Shuri castle, filled with gifts from Chinese emperors, and designed thoroughly after Ming (& Qing?) models.

Turning to Qing relations with Ryukyu, Schottenhammer walks through a nuanced but relatively standard description of the narrative. She describes Ryukyu as China’s most filial country, and writes that it is beyond a doubt that tributary/investiture relations were economically profitable for the small island country, as China practiced houwang bolai (厚往薄來, “giving much and receiving little”), a part of the broader Emperor-centric ideology, which portrayed the emperor as the benevolent and virtuous giver of gracious bestowals to his loyal tributaries. All trade and interaction outside of the official tributary/ investiture relationship was officially ignored – officially, it did not exist at all – but in truth, there was plenty of illegal and semi-legal trade and interaction between Ryukyu and China, as Schottenhammer explains.

She then goes on to touch upon China’s views on Ryukyu’s relationship with Satsuma. That Ryukyu was a vassal (or whatever the proper term should be) of Satsuma was an open secret. Under the belief that a no-longer independent Ryukyu, controlled by or incorporated into a Japan that refused to be a tributary, could no longer engage in tributary relations, the Japanese and Ryukyuans both made efforts to hide the relationship; however, these efforts were largely for naught, as Chinese investiture officials, and other sources of information, saw more than enough to reveal to the Qing at least the general outlines of the situation. Still, the Qing tolerated, or overlooked this situation, proving, Schottenhammer argues, that the Qing never had any political-military intentions in the islands – so long as the cultural-ideological relationship continued, they didn’t care. There is the question, however, of why the Ming rushed to the defense of Korea in the 1590s, and not to the defense of Ryukyu less than 20 years later. Was the Ming so weakened by the Korean conflict, and/or by other factors, that they couldn’t? Perhaps it ties into Schottenhammer’s initial argument, that continental borders and maritime frontiers are separate categories of matters. But, that’s a topic for another time.

A Ryukyuan lacquerware dish with mother-of-pearl inlay.

Both in her discussion of Qing relations with Japan, and with Ryukyu, Schottenhammer draws upon ideas and elements of the tribute system, but combines them with practical political, military, and economic concerns, and shows that the Qing were flexible and dynamic in their approaches to this part of the world, deploying their traditional rhetorics and systems, but using them as a tool, or sometimes as a screen, in concert with a rather vibrant and complex set of other modes of interaction. All in all, she seems to embody, or enact, the approaches that Zhang advocates.

David Kang, meanwhile, does not. Despite writing in 2005 and 2010, Kang shows little of the nuance or complexity, little of the post-modern(ist) approach that Schottenhammer does. In fact, he is rather dismissive of the criticism that has been leveled against the tribute system model, and argues quite boldly and straightforwardly, in essence, that the tribute system is clearly evidenced in the documents and that to think otherwise is absurd. Now, admittedly, both of the articles I happened to read by Kang were published in Asian Security journals (that is, the field of International Relations and regional security), and so they are written for a rather different audience – not for historians, but for policy wonks and political scientists who may have very little knowledge of the history, or the historiography. Still, nevertheless, rather than bring his audience up to speed on the latest interpretations and approaches – those of Zhang, Schottenhammer, and the numerous scholars they regularly cite, including Hevia, Wills, and so forth – Kang cites works as old as the 1980s as reflective of historians’ approaches “today.”3

Given that for the most part all that Zhang and others are arguing for is admission of nuance and complexity – and not for throwing the tribute system out entirely – Kang’s reactionary resistance, strict adherence to the traditional narrative, and refusal to accommodate nuance or complexity is shocking, and confusing. In discussing the feudal, decentralized, nature of the Tokugawa state, which many scholars since as early as 1989, if not earlier, have described as more of a confederation of pseudo- or quasi-independent states, Kang again blows right past any nuanced interpretation, ignoring entirely the various scholarship on this subject since then, to simply assert that, for all intents and purposes, the Chinese and Korean courts saw Japan as a single entity throughout the medieval and early modern periods. He writes, “we should not overemphasize the feudal nature of Japanese politics, nor its differences with the other Asian states,” and then, despite an entire section on the significance of the bureaucratic and centralized nature of the Chinese and Korean governments in allowing us to consider them “nation-states” even as early as the 1300s (if not much further back than that), asserts that “all countries were essentially feudal, and Japan was no exception” (Kang 2005: 58).

Does this look like a centralized unified state to you? Come on. (Charger with Japanese map design. 1830s-40s. LACMA.)

While, simply in terms of the “factual” details, much of the content of his historical details and narrative is quite interesting, and valuable, Kang is utterly uncritical of Fairbank’s approach, citing essays from the 1968 volume Chinese World Order as if those arguments are infallibly just as valid as they have always been; to take just one example, he uncritically asserts that “there is no doubt that China had at least a vague concept of state (kuo) by late Chou times (BC 400),” quoting and citing Lien-shang Yang.4 Perhaps it is his disciplinary bias as a specialist in modern/contemporary relations, and in particular in political science & IR rather than history, which leads him to unquestioningly apply generalizing modern definitions – such as the idea that a “nation-state” is sovereign within its borders, and had a concept of itself and its neighbors as 國 (C: kuo, J: kuni or koku; “countries”). However, historians such as Luke Roberts and Mark Ravina have written in some considerable depth questioning and problematizing the meaning of , which in the early modern Japanese usage really can mean “country” (as in Japan, China, or Holland), or geographic “province,” or lordly domain, just as it can equally mean hometown or home region, depending on the context. To simply ignore this shows, I don’t know, either ignorance of the field, or a willful rejection of those arguments.

Kang’s 2005 article starts off strong, boldly calling out the Eurocentrism at the core of “objective,” “universal” IR theory. His chief argument, throughout both this article, and one from 2010, that a hierarchical system could be just as valid, and in fact far more stable and peaceful than a Westphalian system based on maintaining balance of power between states that are considered equally sovereign, is a compelling, interesting, and valuable one. And there is, indeed, much merit to be found in Kang’s discussion; his treatment of the ways in which Chinese cultural or civilizational centrality – and not political power or influence – functioned (605-606) was particularly thought-provoking for me, and his assertions about the importance of considering ritual and rhetoric also do much to support my own positions. As he writes,

Norms and beliefs are not epiphenomal to material power; that is, they are more than a convenient velvet glove over an iron fist. Legitimacy in itself is a form of power, but it derives from the values or norms a state projects, not necessarily from the state’s military might and economic wealth (Kang 2010: 598).

Further, Kang is quite good in his critiques of the “functionalist” and “symbolic” approaches to the tribute system, which describe the system as either a series of arcane and comically unnecessary or excessive rules and procedures – an over-bureaucratization, perhaps – through which trade & relations had to be conducted, or else as a series of meaningless symbolic gestures, irrelevant to the task of examining the “true” political motives and actions underneath. His reactionary stance, though, against those who suggest further nuance or complexity, and who point out that it is, originally, a Western theoretical construct and not a native Chinese concept – a position he misrepresents as “challeng[ing] the tribute system’s very existence” (600) – and refusal to incorporate any such nuance or complexity, continues to be terribly off-putting.

A celebration for the Crown Prince Yi Cheok (later, Emperor Sunjong of Korea), as depicted on a 1874 screen painting. National Palace Museum of Korea. Ritual is not merely empty prancing; it is powerful, and meaningful, as individuals enact their rank and position, constituting the political order through their acts.

Even if we look past this excessive conservatism, and forgive the numerous examples of iffy or outright incorrect dates, a number of the subordinate arguments in the 2010 paper leave me confused, and utterly unconvinced. One of these is the assertion that Japan (along with Korea, Ryukyu, and others in the region) “consciously copied Chinese institutional and discursive practices in part to craft stable relations with China, not to challenge it” (593). While this argument, too, has some merit in so far as those adopting Chinese modes could then play the part of “buying into” the Confucian world order, to display to itself, to China, and to others, how civilized it was, numerous academic articles by other scholars extensively detail how the Tokugawa shogunate in particular, as well as the Ashikaga shogunate, and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, worked to construct a Japan-centric regional order, and to do that very thing: to challenge China.5 In the 17th century, following the fall of the Ming, and again in the 19th century in the wake of the Opium War, there were again numerous Japanese scholars, some of them directly influential in government, who pressed for Japan to take action against the Manchus, or at least for the idea of Japanese superiority.6

All of that said, though, skimming over Kang’s two articles again, I realize I may have been too harsh in my initial assessment. I suppose I shall have to revisit this. These articles certainly have their points where they raised red flags for me, but all in all, Kang’s articles are lengthy arguments against the idea that the tribute system & Sinocentrism are mere myths, and against the idea that engaging in tributary relations & Sinocentric rhetoric was merely paying lip service in order to attain “real” “practical” goals. He attacks the idea that Korea (in particular, maybe a lesser extent Japan) only ever wanted to placate China, and asserts that the thorough adoption of Confucian governance and political philosophy, as well as countless other aspects of Chinese elite culture, stands as evidence that neighboring states such as Korea, Japan, and Vietnam absolutely did see China as a cultural center, a source of superior civilization. And the tribute/investiture system allowed Koreans, Vietnamese, and Ryukyuans to perform or display their cultured refinement, and membership among the civilized nations of the world. So, in the end, who knows what to think?

(1) Zhang Feng. “Rethinking the ‘Tribute System’: Broadening the Conceptual Horizon of Historical East Asian Politics.” The Chinese Journal of International Politics 2, no. 4 (December 21, 2009): 545–74.
(2) Zhang, 557, quoting J. E. Wills, “Tribute, Defensiveness, and Dependency : Uses and Limits of Some Basic Ideas About Mid-Qing Dynasty Foreign Relations.” The American Neptune 48, no. 4 (1988): 226.
(3) Kang (2005), 64, citing Ronald Toby, State and Diplomacy, 1991, which is simply a newer edition of Toby, 1984. Admittedly, Wills’ book Illusions & Embassies, cited by Zhang and Schottenhammer, is just as old, and Toby is still largely valid and extremely valuable. His arguments very much inform my own understanding of the topic. But, even so, to say this reflects scholarship “today,” seems problematic, when there are scholars such as Schottenhammer putting out new stuff all the time, and when Toby is, in fact, problematic in some important ways.
(4) Kang (2005), 57, citing Lien-sheng Yang, “Historical Notes on the Chinese World Order,” in John Fairbank, ed., The Chinese World Order: Traditional China’s Foreign Relations (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968), p. 21.
(5) Arano Yasunori. “The Formation of a Japanocentric World Order.” International Journal of Asian Studies 2, no. 02 (2005): 185–216.; Tanaka Takeo, “Japan’s Relations with Overseas Countries,” in John Whitney Hall and Toyoda Takeshi (eds.) Japan in the Muromachi Age, Cornell University East Asia Program (2001), 159-178.; Toby, State and Diplomacy, op cit.
(6) According to Marius Jansen, China in the Tokugawa World (Harvard, 2000).


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