Since it is “only” an MA thesis, I almost didn’t read Ying-kit Chan’s “A 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.
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, 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).
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.