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Gradually getting there. After a year of doing this, I’m finally almost done posting these book reviews from my comprehensive exams. Feels like a whole other world – exams feel so far behind me; a month from now, I’ll be in Japan, for the next big step in this PhD process. Well, well. Looks like this was the last of the reviews. I didn’t realize that. Okay. Well, here we are, my last review from the exam process. Look forward to a return to some other sorts of posts, coming up soon.

In the meantime, Marius Jansen’s China in the Tokugawa World (Harvard University Press, 1992)

Jansen’s China in the Tokugawa World provides an outline of a wide range of major aspects and themes in the role of Chinese people in Tokugawa Japan, perceptions of China, Chinese cultural influences, and the like, nestled into overarching narratives of changes and developments in Japanese relationships with China during this period, both as a concept and as a real political and economic entity. He devotes particular attention to the Chinese community at Nagasaki, providing a considerable degree of detail as to the logistics and economics of trade activity, as well as intellectual and cultural interactions in Nagasaki, and the role of the fūsetsugaki, imported books, and visiting Chinese scholars and monks as sources of information and intelligence on goings-on in the outside world, complemented by intelligence obtained from the Dutch, Korea, and Ryukyu. Jansen also touches upon numerous other topics, including the introduction of Ōbaku Zen, interactions with Ming loyalists & their cause, and perceptions of China following the fall of the Ming among scholars, political elites, and the general populace. In the last thirty pages or so of this short 120-page volume, Jansen describes the turn in perceptions of & attitudes towards China, as over the course of the 19th century, the Qing Dynasty experiences considerable difficulties, and in the eyes of many Japanese, severe decline.

The volume serves as a fine introduction to these many themes or aspects, and to the overall arc of interactions with, and perceptions of, China. In a sense, it reads more like a textbook than a scholarly argument piece, summarizing the topic of “China in Tokugawa Japan” overall, and providing descriptions, rarely more than a page or two long, of a variety of individual topics, such as the biographies of Li Hongzhang and the monk Yinyuan Longqi, as a textbook would, less as examples of evidence to further an argument than as descriptions of items within a topical umbrella.

That said, there are significant chronological and thematic arcs presented. Jansen describes a number of related but differing understandings or imaginations among Tokugawa period scholars of a conceptual China, ranging from those who viewed China not as a real place existing coevally in time, but as a land of Sages, tranquility, and the ultimate manifestations of high culture and civilization, to the subtly but importantly different position of those for whom China served as a sort of straw man, an Other against which Japan could be described in contrast. While many Confucian scholars idealized China, many kokugaku scholars, some of them still looking to Confucianism or other aspects of Chinese civilization as an ideal, presented varying notions of why or how Japan superseded China as the civilizational center. Meanwhile, much of the popular discourse conflated China with the foreign more generally, making little distinction between various Others (e.g. Koreans, Ryukyuans, or Dutch). This topic is of particular relevance to my own project, as I attempt to gain some understanding of how Ryukyu was perceived, understood, or imagined at this time; while Keiko Suzuki has argued similarly in her article “The Making of Tôjin” of an undifferentiating perception of the foreign, the true story seems considerably more complex, given that there were numerous widely available popular publications describing or depicting Ryukyuan subjects as specifically Ryukyuan. In any case, I am eager to delve into this subject further, and while Jansen’s discussion of it is most welcome, and valuable in its way, it is also far too brief and cursory for my purposes. The same is true of his discussion of perceptions of Japan (or Korea or Ryukyu) as representing the place where the great high culture and civilization of (Ming) China survives, since it has been corrupted or destroyed in China’s fall to barbarian (Manchu) invaders. This, in particular, is a topic which I think to be of great interest, and potentially of great relevance to my project, and yet Jansen’s brief discussion of it remains, perhaps, the most extensive such discussion I have come across; he does not, in his citations, point the way to any more extensive treatments of the subject.

China in the Tokugawa World represents a great start, a great survey of the subject. The overall thematic and chronological arcs, of differing ways in which China was perceived, and how this changed over time, help provide a fundamental sense of the thing, informing and deepening one’s understanding of the character of the Tokugawa period as a whole. Jansen’s detailed description of the workings of trade and other activity at Nagasaki is also sufficiently lengthy and detailed to constitute a source one can turn to for citeable details. On other topics, however, Jansen’s volume serves as only a starting point, requiring one to look elsewhere for a more thorough or extensive description of kangaku or kokugaku, popular depictions of China, the influence of Ōbaku Zen, or any one of a number of other topics.

The Chinatown (tôjin yashiki) of early modern Nagasaki, as seen in a handscroll painting (detail) on display at the British Museum. Photo my own.

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I found something kind of neat today. Continuing my investigations into the Ryukyuan tribute missions to China, I started reading a short article by Maehira Fusaaki 真栄平房昭, entitled Ryûkyû shisetsu no ikoku taiken1, and discovered a mention of George Lord Macartney coming across Ryukyuan ambassadors on their way to Beijing.

Right: Image of Lord George Macartney. Quite the fashionable looker. Source unknown. Public domain image courtesy Wikipedia.

For those unfamiliar, George Lord Macartney was the head of the first official British mission to China, in 1793. This has become a particularly famous event in Chinese history, a meeting in which British and Chinese notions of diplomacy, and cultures of court ritual, clashed and resulted in misunderstandings and a general failure to achieve good relations. This was also the occasion of the Qianlong Emperor’s famous saying, that China had all the things it could want in the world, and that China had no need of such nonsense trinkets as some petty small country such as Britain might have to offer.

Meanwhile, the Kingdom of Ryukyu became a tributary to the Ming Court in 1372, and continued to send tributary missions to Beijing quite regularly from that time, all the way up until the 1870s. For much of the 17th-19th centuries, Ryukyu was sending missions to Beijing once every two years, as Korea did as well. The Ryukyuans and Koreans presented gifts of local goods (i.e. Ryukyuan or Korean products) as tribute, as a show of their king’s gratitude and deference to the Emperor of China, and in return the Emperor bestowed lavish gifts upon them, as a show of his grace and generosity. Unlike what Lord Macartney had in mind, there were no policy discussions involved in these meetings. Rather, they were ritual performances, enactments, of the maintenance or reaffirmation of the relationship between the two countries. The Emperor of China invested the kings of Korea and Ryukyu in their thrones, officially recognizing them as King, and serving as the source of their legitimacy, and in return those kings dispatched tribute missions.

Given how frequent these tribute missions were, I suppose it should come as no surprise that the Ryukyuans would have crossed paths with Macartney. Still, it was a neat find. Coming across this mention in Maehira’s article, who quotes it in Japanese translation, I decided to go try to find the original English. Unsurprisingly, Macartney’s diary, An Embassy to China: Being the journal kept by Lord Macartney during his embassy to the Emperor Ch’ien-lung 1793-1794, has been reprinted in modern publication, and can be easily found in a 1963 volume edited by J.L. Cranmer-Byng. Turning to November 18, 1793, when Macartney & the Ryukyuans crossed paths on the Grand Canal just south of Hangzhou, on pp182-183, it reads:

Monday, November 18. The river spreads here a good deal, and is very shallow. The banks rich, pleasant and generally level, but we see the mountains at a distance before us, and approach them very fast. I suppose we shall be amongst them to-morrow.

This evening Wang brought two genteel young men with him on board my yacht, and presented them to me as the ambassadors from the King of the Liuchiu islands, now on their way to Pekin. Regularly once in two years this prince sends such ambassadors to Amoy, in the province of Fukien (no other port being open to these strangers), from whence they proceed by this route to carry their master’s homage and tribute to the Emperor. They speak Chinese well, but have a proper language of their own, whether approaching to the Japanese or Korea I could not well comprehend. They told me that no European vessel had ever touched their islands, but if they should come they would be well received. There is no prohibition against foreign intercourse; they have a fine harbor capable of admitting the largest vessels not far from their capital, which is considerable in extent and population. They raise a coarse kind of tea, but far inferior to the Chinese, and have many mines of copper and iron. No gold or silver mines have as yet been discovered among them, which may in some measure account for these islands being so little known.

The dress which these ambassadors wore I particularly remarked. It is a very fine sort of shawl made in their own country, dyed of a beautiful brown colour and lined with a squirrel skin, or petit-gros. They wore turbans very neatly folded round their heads; one was of yellow silk and the other of purple. They had neither linen nor cotton in any part of their dress that I could perceive. The fashion of their habit was nearly Chinese. They were well-looking, tolerably fair complexioned, well-bred, conversable, and communicative. From the geographical position of these islands they should naturally belong either to the Chinese or the Japanese. They have chosen the protection of the former, and when their Sovereign dies his successor receives a sort of investiture or confirmation from Pekin. It would seem that the Japanese give themselves no sort of concern about their neighbours. Concentrated and contented in their own Empire, they seldom make excursions beyond their own coasts, and are equally averse that their coasts should be visited by others. If circumstances permit, I think it may be worth while to explore these Liuchiu islands. The climate is temperate, rather cold in winter, but not very hot in summer.

As Maehira explains, “Wang” refers to Wang Wenxiong 王文雄, a Tongzhou military official. Macartney says Ryukyuans are limited to Amoy (Xiamen), when in fact it was the port of Fuzhou, but otherwise gets the basic notion of tribute missions once every two years correct. He is also right that the Ryukyuans have their own language and culture, close to that of Japanese, but distinct; and I would not be surprised if these ambassadors were well-educated in both Chinese language and Chinese customs, though at the same time, we must always be wary that when a foreigner, even a Japanese, says things like “the fashion of their habit was nearly Chinese,” they could be speaking from Orientalist stereotypes and fantasies, and not from accurate judgement. In any case, I am not sure whether any European ships had ever been to Ryukyu yet, but of course they were not truly open to foreign intercourse. I am also not sure of any iron or copper mines; seems unlikely, given the extremely flat terrain and coral limestone makeup of the islands.

I don’t know quite enough about the Ryukyuan garments to say what sort of “squirrel skin” or other lining they might have been using, but given that it’s November, and the mission is spending New Year’s in Beijing, I should hope that these Ryukyuans – coming from a rather warm climate – would have some kind of lining in their clothes to keep them warm in the North China winter. The “turbans” Macartney refers to are hachimaki – court caps indicative of the two men’s rank. The Lead Envoy, in a purple cap, held the title ueekata 親方, and must have been of the First or Second Rank, while the Deputy Envoy, holding the title of peechin 親雲上, would have been somewhere in the Third to Seventh ranks. It is interesting to see Macartney relate the notion of Japan’s isolation from the world, and his understanding that Ryukyu has “chosen” China, and has no relation with Japan – even with the Qing Court being aware of the connections between Japan and Ryukyu, I guess they were still able to fool some people. Finally, there is Macartney’s note about Ryukyu’s climate being temperate. I suppose that all depends, and is relative, depending on just how “cold” someone considers “cold” to be. I’ll be in Okinawa in winter for the first time this coming year; I guess I’ll find out what it’s like.

Right: A lithograph depicting Sōrikan Shō Kōkun, also known as Prince Yonashiro Chōki 総理官・尚宏勲こと、与那城王子朝紀, the chief Ryukyuan official who met with Commodore Perry in 1853. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Though Macartney doesn’t give their names, it is easy to deduce that the two Ryukyuans he met were the two heads of that year’s tribute mission, Lead Envoy Misato ueekata Mô Kokutô 美里親方毛国棟 and Vice Envoy Kanemoto peechin Mô Teichû 兼本親雲上毛廷柱. I don’t know much about Mô Kokutô yet, except that he would return to Beijing in 1801 as the head of a special mission, dispatched in gratitude for the investiture of Ryukyu’s King Shô On 尚温王. Mô Teichû, meanwhile, is a somewhat more familiar figure for me – not that he’s the most influential, significant figure in Ryukyuan history, not by a longshot. But, still. This was not Mô Teichû’s first rodeo – he had previously served as gieisei 儀衛生 (head of street musicians) on the 1790 mission to Edo, during which time he produced a number of notable works of calligraphy which remain in private Japanese collections (e.g. at Buddhist temples) today. Maehira gives his title as Gusukuda peechin 城田親雲上, though I’ve always seen him referred to as Kanemoto peechin. Perhaps he was promoted in between 1790 and 1793. If one were so inclined, one could check the Mô family genealogies, which if we’re lucky might be reproduced within the volumes of the Naha shishi (那覇市史, “City History of Naha”).

I love this sort of thing. It doesn’t add anything to my dissertation, I don’t think, as I’m really looking to better understand the Ryukyu tribute missions to Beijing themselves, and elements of formal ritual and performance in the execution of those missions. So, in that respect, maybe it was a little bit of a waste of time for me to pursue it today. And, while I suppose this does reveal something about British conceptions & misconceptions about Ryukyu at that time, in the grander scheme of things, I don’t think we actually learn that much from this passage. This likely won’t make it into my dissertation, and if I were writing a study of the Macartney mission, I don’t think it would make it into that paper either.

But! I do think it’s interesting, and fun, and of value to know that these people crossed paths in this way. Adds just one more instance, one more example, to a broader notion of the incredible complexity and vibrancy of historic interactions – a vision of the world of centuries past as vibrantly, busily, actively full of people crisscrossing back and forth, a world of interaction and interconnection… Macartney is of course a rather significant figure himself, and the Ryukyuans he ran into aren’t exactly nobodies either. Adds just a little more to our knowledge of the biographies of Mô Kokutô and Mô Teichû, and while I admittedly don’t really plan to be writing full-on biographies at any point, I do feel passionate about recovering the memory, the story, of figures like these – far too many historians treat historical figures (as individuals) as merely pawns, or footnotes, in their pursuit of some broader interpretive argument. But these were real people who populated the stories we are telling; history should be about stories, about people, about recovering and retelling the narratives of their lives and of the events they were caught up in; it should not be only about the broader interpretive analyses.

Even if we have no record of any particularly extensive or impactful exchange between Macartney and these two, even so, there is something interesting and meaningful about knowing that there was at least one occasion when Ryukyuan ambassadors to China crossed paths with a European embassy, and that that embassy was none other than the famous 1793 mission of George Lord Macartney; and further that the British mission encountered not only Chinese people and sights and culture during their trip, but Ryukyuans as well. And as a result, that Ryukyuans and Brits both had at least some notion of one another, at this early stage. I don’t know if it’s a result of my many years poking around as an editor on Wikipedia, but I’ve long had a real interest in the chance interconnections between people, places, events – as much as I do enjoy reading history scholarship that brings up new understandings, new interpretations, new insights, I enjoy in a different way reading works that introduce me to new people, places, events, or to new interconnections between them, or information about them, expanding my concrete knowledge of History, bit by bit. The kinds of works where I can feel that having read them, I’ve not only been exposed to one author’s opinion or interpretation, some hopefully possibly potentially thought-provoking ideas, but the kinds of works where I’ve really learned something I didn’t know before, however small or obscure.


1. Maehira Fusaaki, Ryûkyû shisetsu no ikoku taiken 琉球使節の異国体験 (“The Ryukyu Envoys’ Experiences of Foreign Countries”), Kokusai kôryû 国際交流 59 (1992), 60-67.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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, 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.

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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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