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Mitani Hiroshi, David Noble (trans.), Escape from Impasse, Tokyo: International House of Japan, 2006.

Time for another book review from my exams. I thought we were at an end, which would have been sad, but there are still a few more to go.

In Escape from Impasse (David Noble, trans.), Mitani Hiroshi details attitudes and events relating to Japanese relations with Western powers, from the time of Matsudaira Sadanobu in the 1790s and the Russian incursions of the 1800s, through the signing of treaties with five Western powers in 1858.

Among his arguments is that the concept of sakoku, of a “traditional” “ancestral” policy of keeping the country closed against formal diplomatic or trade relations with other nations (with only strictly limited exceptions), originates in the 1790s-1800s, and marks a significant change or shift from earlier attitudes about foreign relations. In support of this, in addition to descriptions of Shizuki Tadao’s Sakokuron and other writings, he notes a number of shifts in wording or terminology in official documents. First, he points to the fact that the original so-called sakokurei (鎖国令, “Closed Country Edicts”) of the 1630s only specified the expulsion of specific peoples (the Spanish and the Portuguese), rather than expressing a more all-encompassing policy of seclusion or isolation from intercourse with all foreign powers; it was only in the 19th century, in Mitani’s estimation, that the shogunate explicitly pursued such a policy stance. He also points to the identification of China, Holland, Ryukyu, and Korea as the only countries with which Japan engaged in intercourse (tsūshin tsūshō 通信通商) – to the exclusion of all others – as being first articulated only in the 19th century. At that time, for the first time, China and Holland were formally named (in a letter to Russia) as the only countries with which the shogunate had only trade relations (tsūhō) and Korea and Ryukyu as being the only countries with which Japan had diplomatic relations (tsūshin).

An 1832 woodblock print depicting the street procession of a Ryukyuan mission to Japan. These diplomatic/tribute missions received in audience by the shogun in Edo were a key element of tsūshin relations. University of Hawaiʻi Sakamaki-Hawley Collection. Photo my own.

I find this argument less than entirely convincing, however, relying as it does on shifts in wording, rather than on fundamental shifts in policy stances. Attitudes and interpretations of policies can change over time, and Mitani certainly provides compelling and extremely detailed evidence that this took place, but if there were major policy changes enacted in the 1790s, 1810s, or 1820s, to fundamentally alter the core of the so-called “sakoku” policies put into place in the 1630s, these are not evident in Mitani’s narrative. Further, despite his emphasis on changing ideas of “sakoku” in the 1790s-1850s, Mitani makes no mention of the concept of kaikin 海禁, or maritime restrictions, and the associated arguments by Arano Yasunori, Nagazumi Yoko, and others, who assert that the concept of sakoku, essentially coined by Shizuki Tadao in 1801 as a translation of a foreign (mis)understanding of Japanese foreign policy positions, and seen in only a handful of uses prior to that time, is an inappropriate framework for understanding a policy position that was neither one of isolation nor seclusion, but rather one of seeking to exercise strong control over the archipelago’s engagement with the world beyond. While there are certainly other points on which Mitani offers decidedly intriguing and compelling alternatives to standard scholarly interpretations, for him to neglect discussion of this matter seems a glaring omission.

The major strength of Mitani’s volume is its incredible degree of detail as to every single step in the process of encounters and negotiations between the Japanese and the Westerners, particularly in the densely complex and contentious period of the 1850s. There is so much more to this – so much more – than any simple narrative of Commodore Perry coming and “opening” up the country and boom bam that’s it. No. There were French and English and Dutch and Russians, and the Japanese negotiating with each of them under slightly different conditions, as the situation shifted and changed with each new development.

A Korean mission makes its way through the streets of Edo, in a painting by Hanegawa Tôei. Image from blog ペンギンの足跡II.

Yet, despite Mitani’s astonishingly detailed attention to these episodes of encounters and negotiations, and of policy debates both within the shogunate and among “private” intellectuals of the time, he neglects to address how Japanese officials and intellectuals of the time conceived of diplomatic relations, in contrast to Western understandings. At times, Mitani seems to take the ideological, political, or practical/logical reasons for Japanese positions as given, as understood, without explaining more deeply or extensively the reasoning behind them. For example, why was it that the Japanese wished to avoid formal diplomatic relations with Western powers at the outset (in the 1800s-1850s, when Western ships started coming with greater and greater frequency), and what, more precisely, did “formal diplomatic relations” mean, or entail, in their minds? Hellyer, Roberts, Ravina, and Toby each in different ways provide for their reader some understanding of how people of that time conceived of their nation, and how they conceived of the nature of commercial intercourse and its potential benefits and drawbacks. James Hevia, in Cherishing Men from Afar, places particular emphasis on the great disparities between how a British envoy and the Qing Chinese court in the 1790s conceived of diplomatic relations, including what constitutes diplomatic intercourse, how it is undertaken, and for what purposes. He explains, to cite just one example, why the British concept of the establishment of a permanent consulate in Beijing was so foreign to the Qing, and in doing so suggests that the reader should reconsider the notion that either the British or Qing ways of thinking, and of performing diplomatic interactions, are rational or natural; both are arbitrary, and reflective of different conceptions of the nature of the “nation,” and of international relations.

In Escape from Impasse, we see scraps of treatment of these matters here and there throughout the book, in discussions of the attitudes of a number of different officials and commentators, but there seems to be no coordinated discussion of Japanese conceptions, attitudes, and intentions such as would help the reader form a broader and more solid conception of what the Japanese thought diplomatic relations entailed, how it should be performed, and why. When Mitani mentions how shogunal officials resisted having the shogun sign the treaty with Commodore Perry, because that would mean this treaty constituted formal diplomatic relations, something the shogunate wished very much to avoid, I found myself skimming backwards, scrambling to find any broader or deeper discussion of just what did and did not constitute diplomatic relations in the Japanese view, and just why it was that they were seeking to avoid formal relations, beyond merely the idea of adhering to precedent, and to supposedly “traditional” “ancestral” laws.

Still, Mitani’s work is profoundly informative, and there are a number of ways in which Escape from Impasse contributes significantly to the scholarly discourse on Japan’s engagement with the West in the first half of the 19th century. His point that the Russian incursions of the early years of the 1800s marked a significant moment, awakening fears of Western expansion and military force, is something echoed too by Hellyer and others. As Mitani explains, there was considerable disagreement as to how to respond to these events, with some seeing them as passing crises, not something to be concerned with after the fact, and others deeply concerned, their sense of crisis spurring many government officials to action, or at least to discussion and debate; if this does not mark the very beginnings of pushes for the expansion of coastal defenses, discussions of the expansionist (or not) intentions of the Western powers, the need for more solid claims to the northern territories, etc., it certainly marks the beginning of these topics being discussed, and acted upon, in a more extensive, serious, and prominent way.

Detail of monument to Commodore Matthew C. Perry, Newport RI. Photo my own.

Mitani’s exceptionally detailed narrative also provides a more nuanced view of this process of Japan’s “opening” to the world, revealing elements which, in their absence, cause rougher summarizing overviews to misrepresent the process. As he explains, Commodore Perry did not, in fact, press for the opening of trade relations in 1853-1854, but rather the focus of his mission was on opening ports for the repair, coaling, and supplying otherwise of American ships; along similar lines, we are told that Perry asked for the stationing of an American consul in Shimoda not as part of a push for the opening of true diplomatic relations, but rather primarily in order to oversee the behavior and treatment of American sailors operating in these newly opened ports. This is an important contrast with the understanding of Perry we learned in high school, or which the average person on the street might relate. Mitani also discusses a number of differences between American, Russian, Dutch, British, and French desires, intentions, and interactions with the Japanese, and between interactions and events over time; to name just one example, we see how the Anglo-Japanese Convention of 1854 came about almost by accident, as a result of misunderstandings, and not as part of a coordinated effort by the British to “open” Japan for full diplomatic and commercial relations. Further, Mitani notes stark differences among the Western nations in their economic desires, with the British seeing Japan as a market for their industrially manufactured goods, while the Americans were more interested in access to Japanese export goods. Just as the Industrial Revolution did not happen in the same way throughout the West, and we should take Britain’s experience of it to be an exception, rather than the rule, so too we are led to a clearer understanding of the diversity and differences in the attitudes & desires of the various Western powers vis-à-vis Japan, and in the precise contents of the treaties and relationships which resulted.

Another of Mitani’s arguments, going against what he identifies as the standard interpretation, concerns identification of the key moment when the balance shifted from aims of maintaining or returning to sakoku policies being dominant among the top shogunate officials, restricting as much as possible formal intercourse with foreign powers, to the pursuit of finding ways for Japan to embrace fuller open engagement with the world while preserving its own “national polity” and protecting its interests, economic and otherwise, becoming dominant. Mitani identifies the Dutch treaty with the Japanese in 1856 as marking this shift (262). In fact, of course, there can be no one single moment, as these are ideas which had been discussed in one form or another for quite some time, and which had gained currency due to a combination of factors. Still, it is interesting to see him explicitly point out his argument against interactions with Townsend Harris as being the key stimulus (264).

Perhaps one of the most valuable contributions of this book, overall, is that it reminds us to not think of either Perry’s time in Japan in 1853-1854, or the Treaty signed with Harris in 1858, as hard and fast dividing lines in historical periodization, as if political thought, or the political atmosphere of the time, was something sharply divided and entirely separate from that of the rest of the Edo period. Mitani’s narrative shows us how Perry arrived in a Japan very much dominated by ideas and political structures of a continuity with the past, and that even after he left, it was only in fits and starts, piece by piece, as the result of a series of events and other influences, that different ideas and political paths began to gain dominance and prominence. The Bakumatsu period cannot be seen as a wholly separate thing from the rest of the Edo period, and neither the Western powers nor the Japanese response should be seen as monolithic.

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Recently (okay, not so recently, a few months ago), Nate Ledbetter and Chris West, my fellow podcasters on the Samurai-Archives Podcast (where I am frequently the third person talking) did a two-part discussion (for which I was not present) about the tensions and difficulties surrounding the pursuit of Military History today within the fields of Japanese Studies, and History.

Frankly, I have little to add, but I did think it was a rather interesting, and important, conversation, so I wanted to re-share the two podcasts here.

EP118 Military History and Japanese Studies Part 1click through for the podcast blog, or listen directly, below:

EP119 Military History and Japanese Studies Part 2click through for the podcast blog, or listen directly, below:

Blogger T. Greer then responded, expanding upon Nate & Chris’ conversation on his blog (The Scholar’s Stage), in a post entitled East Asian Military History: A Few Historiographical Notes.

It is certainly an interesting phenomenon, that military history should be so discouraged, so marginalized, within our field. To be sure, social and cultural histories, including post-modernist and post-colonialist perspectives, histories of race & ethnicity, and gender studies, have grown more central and more dominant in recent decades, as the political and economic histories which were so standard in past generations have become decidedly less so. And, to a large extent, I think this is a good thing. We are engaging with myriad new and different perspectives that were never addressed before, challenging standard understandings, and exploring new aspects and new avenues which the old approaches – which excessively privileged political and economic narratives, particularly of institutions and great men – discouraged, marginalized, or ignored entirely. We’re seeing women’s perspectives, indigenous and non-Western perspectives, culturally-informed and interdisciplinary analyses, and so on and so forth. I am certainly glad that I get to do what I do, looking at Japanese and Okinawan perspectives (with a minimum of attention paid to European actors or European Theory), and doing capital-H History while looking at music, dance, costume, and art, as well as ritual/ceremony and identity performance, without being told I have to focus more on the politics or economics of the situation. I do think it a shame, though, as I have ranted about in previous posts, that detailed or narrative history, in general, is so discouraged, and theoretical or conceptual analysis so privileged. There is so much out there to know, to uncover and extract from the archive, and to simply put together and put out there – here’s something we didn’t know before, and now we do. Why should I always have to be forced to answer “so what?” and to have it connect into some broader conceptual argument?

The Sekigahara Kassen Byōbu held by the Gifu City History Museum. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

But, I’m getting off-track. What’s interesting here is that among the innumerable aspects of history one could study, the myriad topics, military history seems the only one that’s as marginalized as it is. Maybe I’m just overlooking something, but I truly cannot think of a (sub-)field that’s discouraged and marginalized like Military History is. Sure, some things are crazy popular right now – Memory, Identity, and Empire, for example – and some things perhaps less popular. But I know people doing histories of science and medicine, deeply Marxist histories (yes, still), religious history, women’s history, urban histories of space and place, studies of travel and tourism, studies of radio and music in statecraft, studies of fashion and of sewing machines, studies of local wine festivals, and of horse racing. Some people absolutely are studying individual leaders’ policies, if not their biographies per se, and some are deep in economic history. Morgan Pitelka has just put out a new book on Tokugawa Ieyasu, focusing on material culture approaches, and in particular on Ieyasu as a collector of tea implements.

And yet, even among all these incredibly varied topics and approaches, one thing is still missing: military history. And, for example, in the case of Tokugawa Ieyasu, even someone such as myself, deeply interested in the material culture side, can see there is something ridiculous about the absence of works closely examining Ieyasu as a strategic & tactical commander. Nate and T. Greer suggest that the culture surrounding the Vietnam War – particularly on college campuses – brought a significant shift away from military history. It was no longer seen as appropriate, or acceptable, I guess, politically, within the discipline to be studying war. I myself really don’t know anything about this, though I can certainly vouch for the unspoken pressures to adhere to liberal/progressive ideological values, even as we speak about open-mindedness, critical thinking, and embracing diverse perspectives and ideas. Yet, regardless of politics, regardless of left/right, liberal/conservative, Nate makes an extremely important point, in that just because someone studies military history doesn’t mean they agree with war, or violence. So many of us study a great many things we don’t agree with, from slavery to imperialism to fascism. So, that’s really no explanation. In truth, the discipline of History (and academia more broadly) should be accepting and incorporative of the study of any and all aspects of history. If book history and the history of sewing machines are important and valid objects of study (and I believe they are – I’m not making fun), if the histories of chocolate, sugar, and coffee, of conceptions of race & gender, of theatre and painting, are all taken as valid – if the study of manga and K-pop and video games is taken as valid – then why not military history? It really seems a crazy oversight.

Statue of Ii Naomasa at Hikone Station. Photo my own.

And, as T. Greer points out, as in so many things with East Asian history (and, indeed, with non-Western history more broadly), the trends have leapt past too quickly, passing over all too many subjects. I would not be surprised if you told me that the major battles of European and American history – from Salamis to Agincourt, to Valley Forge to Gettysburg, from Normandy to Iwo Jima – have been analyzed and over-analyzed to the point of excess. And, from the Western point of view at least, things like the Boer War and the Maori Wars may have received considerable attention as well. So maybe it really is time for Military History, as a sub-discipline, to move on, in certain respects, and for History as a discipline to move on from tactical & strategic analyses, at least for certain topics. I do think that the new social-cultural directions military history has been going are fascinating, and important, including discussions of war photography, gender performance, the social & cultural impact upon civilians on the home front and on the battlefront. But, when it comes to non-Western battles, we can’t move on so fast! Firstly, there are plenty of battles to be re-examined from the non-Western point of view. I touched briefly, in a post last year, upon a fascinating essay by James Belich on how British historiography has severely distorted understandings about the wars against the Maori, in New Zealand. The British refusal to admit intelligence on the part of the Maori, or a lack of technical, technological, or strategic superiority on their own part, severely skewed the historiography on the whole thing.

But, secondly, and coming back once again from digression, while Crecy and Midway, Marathon and Antietam, may have been analyzed to death already, there are countless East Asian conflicts which haven’t been (not to mention conflicts in even less-studied parts of the world). The many campaigns and battles of Japan’s Sengoku period, the Taiping Rebellion, and the battles of the Qing conquest, are only three of the many, many, conflicts which desperately need greater attention. There’s seriously nothing I can add, except to repeat and support what Nate has said, which is (1) that much of what’s already out there about these battles is wrong, from a strategic and/or tactical point of view, and (2) that it’s patently absurd to study the political, economic, social, and cultural history of a particular time and place while just skipping right over the details of the warfare. For me too, it’s not at all my specialty, and I don’t anticipate I’ll ever be doing tactical or strategic analysis in order to really write a military history of anything, but I am definitely interested to learn more about, well, any and all of this, but in particular about the Okinawan conquest of the Ryukyus in the 1500s, the Satsuma conquest of Okinawa in 1609, and the 1874 Imperial Japanese Army expedition to Taiwan… but if military history continues to be as sidelined as it is, we’re only going to continue to be in the dark – repeating the same stuff we already know about the political implications, but still not better understanding just what kinds of weapons and tactics, what kind of military organization, these groups had. How exactly /did/ these fights go? You’d never skip over a political debate, to only talk about its outcomes, so why would you skip over a military campaign?

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Anne Walthall (ed.), The Human Tradition in Modern Japan, Scholarly Resources Inc. (2002).

The Human Tradition in Modern Japan offers a refreshingly and intriguingly different perspective on the history of early modern and modern Japan. Through biographies of figures representative of perspectives, groups, or types largely absent from the standard historical narratives, the volume contributes to a more nuanced, complex, and diversified understanding of Japan’s history. By describing how conditions and developments of the Edo, Meiji, and later periods impacted, for example, court ladies, samurai women, Okinawans, and middle-ranking officials in a provincial domain, these biographies further challenge the ability of those standard narratives to present themselves as representing the “whole” story.

Cecilia Segawa Seigle’s biography of Shinano-miya, a daughter of Emperor Go-Mizunoo, based on the princess’ diary, is of particular value in (at least) two ways. One, it indicates something of the activities and lives of members of the imperial court during a time when the court, and court aristocracy, had very little direct impact on political affairs, and are thus very often almost entirely absent from summarizing narratives. Our standard narrative of the Edo period, e.g. if one were to summarize the entire period in a lecture or two or three, might mention the court only so far as to say that, unlike in earlier periods, the court had effectively no power in the Edo period, and largely simply carried on in the cultural and ritual pursuits they had pursued previously. When asked about the role of the emperor during the Edo period, I myself often comment that the emperor did not leave Kyoto, and hardly left the palace, for a considerable span in the 17th-19th centuries. Only in a discussion of the period more centered on Kyoto, and on cultural activities (e.g. poetry circles), among a limited set of other aspects, might one expect to see the court aristocrats achieve any prominence in the narrative. Yet, just what did court nobles, and the imperial family, do during this time? Segawa Seigle’s biography of Shinano-miya reveals, not in vague broadstrokes, but in evocative vivid details, the familial and cultural activities, and trials and tribulations of court politics of an imperial princess’ life. We learn that leading members of the five sekke families could expect to pass through certain high court positions (e.g. Kanpaku, Udaijin, Sadaijin), and that these rotated between the families in a standard enough fashion that one would feel directly slighted when passed over for such a promotion. We also learn that members of the court were entrusted, or at least saw themselves as having been entrusted, with maintaining and preserving the cultural traditions of their ancestors, an active responsibility importantly different in character from the passive continuation of these traditions we might have assumed – that is, the idea that the courtiers simply continued these traditions because that is what they did.

A second great contribution of Segawa Seigle’s essay is in bringing to the forefront the personal, emotional aspect of individuals’ lives, something all too often overlooked in history, often because of the inability to glean it from the documents, and thus easily forgotten. It is one thing to speak of court ladies, for example, as a group or as a type, offering generalizing descriptions of aspects of their lifestyles, their place in society, and so forth. Even in biographies, we often focus in on a chronology of key moments in their lives, noting the dates at which they married, had children, moved cities, or took up different ranks or positions, perhaps stopping at times to give more detailed treatment to certain political events. We see this in both Roberts’ biography of Mori Yoshiki, in which several pages are devoted to discussion of a particular murder, and in Smits’ biography of Jahana Noboru, where various personal political conflicts are described in some detail; and that is of course of great value as well, illuminating interesting and important aspects, respectively, of the functioning of systems of justice under the Tokugawa, and key social-political developments in Okinawa’s Meiji period history. But, it is quite another to do what Segawa Seigle does here, relating to the reader, by virtue of the fortune of having Shinano-miya’s personal diary, her thoughts and emotions, bringing to life the emotional humanity of the individual, and by extension inspiring, or challenging, us to think about the individual humanity of all historical figures. This is a major theme, too, of Anne Allison’s recent book, Precarious Japan, in which she emphasizes that economically and socially precarious positions – e.g. lacking in job security; financial savings or retirement funds; or familial, corporate, or governmental safety nets for social welfare – have not only economic and social impacts, but profound impacts emotionally and otherwise upon one’s sense of identity, of self-worth, and so forth, and that these need to be recognized as of profound significance.

Walthall does this to an extent as well in her essay for the volume, on Nishimiya Hide, a lady-in-waiting to the wife of a prominent daimyō, who after the Meiji Restoration struggles to get by. Nishimiya’s story also serves as suggestive of what many others likely faced in the early Meiji period, a period of incredible social, political, economic, and cultural upheaval. While we may have some conception, in broad strokes, of which types of people were “winners” and “losers” as the results of these changes, there are many who fall through the cracks. Nishimiya’s biography, in fact, makes one curious to read about others’ experiences at this time. In her biography, we see someone who, after passing an interview and being hired by a high-ranking daimyō family, enjoyed a rather stable and comfortable life, but who lost very nearly everything when the bakuhan system was dismantled. One can easily imagine that there were many of similar station who fared better, many worse, and many similarly; like Dusinberre’s treatment of the town of Kaminoseki, Nishimiya may not be “typical” or “representative,” but she is certainly suggestive or evocative of other cases. One is inspired to wonder about other cases, other stories from this period. We know of certain merchants, and certain daimyō who did quite well, and that in broad strokes there were many farmers who did not. What happened to other daimyō, other merchants? What happened to someone of similar rank and position to Mori Yoshiki? Nishimiya tried her hand for a time at applying her experience in refined arts and elite housekeeping to open a geisha house; in her case this does not last, but one cannot help but wonder about other cases where it might have succeeded. How many individuals from samurai or court noble families succeeded in transferring their abilities in the traditional arts (and/or in aspects of traditional lifestyle, such as Nishimiya’s experience in serving her lady) into successful employment or commercial pursuits in the modern period? At the very least, despite her geisha house not lasting very long, Nishimiya’s willingness to go that route, and to have her son become a leatherworker, is a dramatic indication of shifts in attitudes, as one allows oneself to (or is forced to) put aside “traditional” attitudes about “low” things that one of such elite birth could not imagine being involved in.

Jahana Noboru (left) and Narahara Shigeru (right), as portrayed in Ishikawa Mao’s photo installation “Dai-Ryûkyû shashin emaki” (2014).

Gregory Smits’ biography of Jahana Noboru, in addition to simply bringing Okinawa into the story of modern Japan, also serves as a good example of a point made by Anne Walthall in her introduction to the volume. Human lives and careers happen in fits and starts, and we should not allow ourselves to deceive ourselves into thinking that any person’s life takes place in a smooth, linear fashion, with all major occurrences prefiguring later key accomplishments. Jahana is remembered today as a hero, a champion of peasants’ rights and a defender of Okinawan interests against the predations of both government officials & corporate interests from mainland Japan, and of the former Ryukyuan aristocracy. Yet, as Smits points out, citing the work of other scholars, several years prior to Jahana’s famous stand-off against Narahara Shigeru in 1897-1898, and against the aristocratic interests of the Kōdōkai c. 1900, Jahana in 1894 was perhaps rather dismissive of peasants’ attitudes and demands, and resentful of their questioning his expertise, as someone trained at the top agricultural college in the country.

Biographies such as these contribute to our understanding of Japanese history in a number of profound and significant ways, providing diversity and challenging the national-level version of narratives of historical developments, and in doing so problematizing generalizing notions of “the Japanese people,” as well as inviting us to consider the personal and emotional, human, aspect of historical experience, and providing us with valuable details on specific cases and situations – even beyond these unquestionably important broader, historiographical aspects, these biographies also teach us much about the material and logistical culture of the court, of samurai life, and so forth, and about the names, dates, and events of Mito and Tosa domains, the Imperial court, the city of Tokyo, and of Meiji period Okinawa.

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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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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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Having finished going through reviews of books & articles I read for my exam field in Pacific Islands history, we now finally come around to the China readings. I promise we’ll get to Japan before too much longer.

For now, we begin with a summary / synthesis / response to a pair of articles on the so-called “Chinese World Order” and “tribute system” of traditional East Asian international trade relations.

*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.
*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.

The East China Sea, where so much of this tribute trade was centered. As seen on a map at Pearl Harbor.

These two articles by Zhang Feng and Angela Schottenhammer are only two, chosen admittedly somewhat arbitrarily, from the body of recent scholarship on the so-called Sinocentric world order and tribute system. However, after reading them, they seem to present a good cross-section representation of the discourse. Further, Zhang and Schottenhammer draw extensively on a handful of other significant recent works on the subject, giving a sense of the key arguments and ideas of James Hevia, John Wills, Peter Perdue, Guo Yinjing (see book chapter), Cheng Wei-chung, Wang Gungwu, and Zheng Yongnian, among others.

Zhang summarizes and critiques the scholarship on the “tribute system” which has developed largely out of the work of John K. Fairbank, and essays published by a handful of other scholars in the landmark 1968 volume Chinese World Order, edited by Fairbank and published by Harvard University Press. Zhang emphasizes that the “tribute system” is first and foremost “a Western invention for descriptive purposes,” an analytical tool that even Fairbank himself thought should be revisited and revised in each generation. He explains that only since the 1980s have scholars begun to critique this model, “exposing hidden assumptions and bringing to light new historical evidence that contradicts existing interpretations.” Yet, even as more recent scholarship of the 2000s and 2010s (including numerous conference proceedings & edited volumes edited by Schottenhammer) has continued to explore the history of pre-modern / early modern East Asian foreign relations, few of these critiques have disproven or significantly revised Fairbank’s model, or offered satisfactory alternative models. Zhang admits he is guilty of the same, and writes that “Only James Hevia has set out to bypass it and construct his own analysis from a postmodern perspective.” In practice, however, I would counter that Hevia does not actually significantly depart from the tribute system model, but merely builds upon it, elucidating the conceptual and ritual (logistical) workings somewhat more deeply, and offering additional or alternative language for talking about it. His idea that the emperor “initiates” and the foreign envoy “completes” a ritual action, or ritual relationship, for example, while thought-provoking and evocative, does not substantially alter our fundamental notion that the Chinese emperor takes a superior position, requiring ritual submission from envoys from foreign lands if they wish to enter into formal relations. I expect I will cover Hevia’s book in greater detail in a future blog post.

Zhang, too, admits that the tributary/investiture relationship, and the Confucian/cosmological rhetoric and ritual practices associated with it, was “a prominent feature of historical East Asian politics,” but suggests that “overemphasis on it over the years has created biases in conceptual and empirical enquiries.” As we continue, endlessly, to struggle with the legacies of Orientalism, this is something we must take very seriously – to be guilty of perpetuating or reifying the artificial construction of a conceptual “Asia” that differs from reality is essentially the very crime which Said railed against. At its core, Zhang’s argument is simply that which dominates scholars’ outlooks and methodology today more broadly, regardless of chronological or geographic specialty (and quite rightfully so): the world is complicated, and no single model is sufficient to explain everything; it is imperative to acknowledge complexity, nuance, and difference. The tribute system, Sinocentric attitudes, and so forth, are not the beginning and end of East Asian attitudes or practices of foreign relations, but merely one of a number of institutions operating within the region.

Zhang devotes the majority of his article to summarizing Fairbank’s model, and offering critiques. Fairbank and Teng Ssu-Yu, in that 1968 volume, describe the system as “the medium for Chinese international relations and diplomacy” and “a scheme of things entire … the mechanism by which barbarous non-Chinese regions were given their place in the all-embracing Chinese political, and therefore ethical, scheme of things.” It was based on an extension of China’s internal hierarchies, with the Son of Heaven at the center, and at the peak of the hierarchy, and all others subordinate to the central, awe-inspiring, person of the emperor, from whom virtue and civilization emanated. “Respect for this hierarchy and acknowledgment of Chinese superiority were absolute requirements for opening relations with China.” China’s participation in the system was motivated chiefly by prestige, and that of foreign countries chiefly by desire for trade, according to this traditional interpretation. This model connects into Confucian and cosmological notions of the Son of Heaven as the source of all civilization and virtue, and the idea that foreign envoys come to pay homage and tribute in recognition of the Emperor’s virtue, which has extended even so far as their corner of the world. “Non-Chinese rulers participated in the Chinese world order by observing the appropriate forms and ceremonies (禮) in their contact with the Son of Heaven.”

A Chinese investiture ship, and to the left, Chinese investiture envoys being welcomed at Naha harbor, in a scroll owned by the University of Hawaii Library. Investiture was a crucial part of the so-called tribute system.

Zhang describes two alternate views of the system, but ultimately goes on to critique all three. His “Second View” (Fairbank’s model itself being the first) focuses on examining the rules and procedures of the Chinese system, while the “Third View” takes the tribute system and ideas of Sinocentrism as an “institution,” well-established and widely understood and agreed upon throughout the region. Zhang categorizes these things apart, but really they seem all just facets of the same thing, and with other facets, other approaches, possible – including the idea still popular among too many scholars that all ritual is merely symbolic, and can be (or must be) ignored, in order to examine the “real” underlying political motivations.

All of these interpretations, Zhang points out, run the risks of:

  • being terribly Sinocentric, focusing only on Chinese perceptions, attitudes, and constructions, to the detriment of an examination of what other polities thought of the system, and of their participation within it,
  • reifying a view of the system as fixed, as static and unchanging across the centuries, and finally
  • reifying the centrality of the “tribute system” and failing to recognize or incorporate other aspects of foreign relations attitudes, practices and developments. Further, these last two problems also tie into the risk of assuming the preeminence of the rigid structures and ideological beliefs of the system, denying the Chinese rulers agency and rationality, thinking them blinded or restricted by ideology or tradition, and thus overlooking or ignoring the pragmatism and flexibility with which the Court very often was able to act.
  • focusing too much on the forms, on the granting of royal seals and patents, the receiving of tributary goods, the performance of obeisances, and so forth, leaving the reader (or the scholar herself) wondering if the Chinese were capable of thinking, or doing, anything beyond just “going through the motions” of practicing the formalities.
  • ignoring relations that take place outside of the tribute system. Are military conflicts not “relations”? Are official communications between courts (or pretenders) outside of the tribute system – such as Yongle’s commands that the Ashikaga do something about the wakō, the Ashikaga’s response that they have no power to do so, and no responsibility over those independent non-state actors, and Prince Kanenaga’s execution of Ming ambassadors, not count as “relations,” or at least incidents in the history of foreign interactions?
  • taking Sinocentrism and the tribute system as givens, without questioning, problematizing, or investigating their actual meanings and functions. Zhang quotes John Wills as writing: “Sinocentrism might be the wrong place to begin the analysis of Chinese foreign policy, because it short-circuits the necessity of paying attention to all the evidence, to all institutions and patterns of action…” Scholars such as Angela Schottenhammer have done much to begin to complicate this picture, giving wonderfully vibrant and nuanced descriptions of the complex and very busy scene of the world of East Asian (and Southeast Asia) maritime trade.

Meanwhile, Adam Bohnet, who I will also talk about in a future blog post, is but one of a number of scholars whose work on Chosŏn Korea helps unpack and illuminate the meanings and functioning of “Sinocentrism.” In an article on “Ming Loyalism and Foreign Lineages,” Bohnet examines how the Chosŏn Court deployed its loyalty to the Ming to bolster its own legitimacy, and how the court’s views and treatment of the descendants of Ming subjects resident in Korea changed over the course of the 18th century. As David Kang emphasizes, the system was never about Chinese political domination or control over tributary countries, and indeed China did not interfere at all in the domestic policies of Korea or Ryukyu, let alone Japan. Rather, it was always about cultural superiority, and more than that, centrality.

“Confucianism is thus a set of ideas based on ancient Chinese classic philosophical texts about the proper ways by which government and society were to be organized,” and Korean elites “saw their relationship to China as more than a political arrangement; it was a confirmation of their membership in Confucian civilization.”

Thus, following on Kang’s argument, we begin to get a sense that it wasn’t so much “Chinese” culture as an arbitrary choice in a cultural relativist world of equal options that was considered “superior,” so much as a recognition of Confucianism as the most enlightened, civilized, proper, and successful guide to ethics and governance there was. This gives additional force to the idea of the performance of membership in Confucian civilization. A comparison to court fashions in Europe seems apt, though it is not one Kang or Zhang address. While French language, court protocols, fashion, and so forth were for a time employed throughout much of Europe, as French culture was seen to be the peak of cultural refinement, this was at its core merely an aesthetic, cultural, fashion choice – France had no more claim to being “civilized,” let alone the source of civilization, than England or any of the Italian city-states. Chinese culture, however, from calligraphy and painting to music and language, to court costume, ranks, offices, and protocols, were all intimately tied into the ideas of Confucian government, Confucian society, and the arts of the refined Confucian gentleman. Thus, again, the emulation of Chinese, in particular Ming, norms in fashion and the arts was, arguably, perhaps, not merely a culturally arbitrary choice – e.g. to think that this style hat is somehow more culturally superior, more civilized, than that style of hat – but, rather, it is tied into a demonstration of the performance of Confucian civilization, as manifested in its most mature, fully-developed, form in the Ming Dynasty Court.

There’s nothing like the main hall of Shuri castle, seat of the Ryukyu Kingdom, for an example of a court demonstrating its membership in high (Ming Confucian) civilization.

Returning to Zhang’s argument, one weakness in his assertions about the complexity of Chinese foreign relations is, ironically, an element of Sinocentrism on his part. One prominent element of his argument for the complexity of Chinese foreign relations is that relations with nomadic peoples (e.g. Jurchens, Mongols, Manchus) and peoples & polities to the west (e.g. Uyghurs and Tibet) followed different patterns from the “tribute system,” and that thus there are multiple other institutions at play. From the Chinese Studies or History of China point of view, this is a very valuable and valid point. However, from the maritime East Asia point of view, and in particular for studies of Korean and Ryukyuan history, the nomads and Tibet are irrelevant. Korea and Ryukyu were the two most loyal tributaries to Ming & Qing China, and the two treated the most highly, the most beneficially, by China. The tribute system, or whatever we want to call it, however we want to envision it, along with the notion of Confucian (and Chinese, especially Ming, cultural) centrality, were fundamental to both Sino-Korean and Sino-Ryukyuan relations in this period. Schottenhammer’s essay lends support to this critique of Zhang’s otherwise important arguments, as she opens by saying “analysing Qing China’s relations with her neighbours, a distinction between her continental and maritime border space is evident.” While the Qing were vigilant towards threats from the continental border regions to the north and west, and often treated these regions with military force, “maritime space was viewed differently, but as we want to show, not simply as a distant periphery nor as frontier as it is often claimed.”

Zhang ends by reiterating that 朝貢體系 (cháogòng tǐxì) is a translation of the English “tribute system” – it is a neologism in Chinese, and so however the Chinese may have thought of this at the time, the “tribute system” as a model remains a Western construct. The chief task at hand, Zhang proposes, is to try to understand what lay behind these tributary relations, and to try to get a broader, and more nuanced, complex, picture of the full range of China’s foreign relations.

In summary, he critiques the Sinocentric tribute system model quite roundly, and well-deservedly, it would seem. It is important to keep in mind these critiques, and in the post-modern fashion, to keep in mind nuance and complexity – nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Motivations and means are myriad and multifarious. But Zhang does not dismiss the model entirely, in the end. He merely suggests that it needs to be taken as one element among many, and as less of a starting point than has generally been the case in scholarship up until now. We can keep the model, but we need to work around it, continuing to look for nuance and complexity, other models or institutions working alongside it (or at cross-purposes), and other viewpoints – we need to pay closer attention to the motivations, attitudes, and perceptions of other countries, and not just of China.

Schottenhammer may be doing more or less exactly what Zhang advocates. The Sinocentric model is not entirely mistaken, it is not entirely false, and so it cannot be thrown out altogether. In her essay “Empire and Periphery?” Schottenhammer focuses on the changing attitudes of mid-Qing emperors, as circumstances change, and in accordance with practical concerns, concluding that “Chinese ruling elites … were flexible enough to overcome traditional concepts and Sino-centric attitudes if they really considered it necessary.” When China was (or seemed, looked, felt) strong, there was less need to worry about dangers from outside; when China was less firm on its feet, Chinese rulers were not delusional, and absolutely took in real information about the outside world – albeit, information sometimes colored by traditional Sinocentric rhetoric (e.g. when the Tokugawa bakufu had no intentions of invading China, and pirates were few, Qing agents reported to their court that Japan was a small, weak, barbarian island country on the peripheries). Schottenhammer also closely examines motivations by foreign countries.

Perhaps the problem is simply in where one is looking. When Schottenhammer and Zhang allege that the field of scholarship is too focused on a Sinocentric perspective, are they speaking only of scholarship in Chinese Studies? I have no doubt that the field of Chinese History is largely focused on China, and, to be sure, works on the whole region could afford to be less Sinocentric in their analysis. I think Schottenhammer does a decent job of being less Sinocentric in her work. But, if one looks at the Japan Studies scholarship, and Korea Studies scholarship, there is no doubt that the interests, motivations, attitudes of non-Chinese courts *are* being examined and taken into account. Robert Hellyer’s book is just one of many that considers Japanese attitudes on foreign relations deeply; Greg Smits’ offers similarly for Ryukyu, albeit more in the intellectual history vein than economic/diplomatic policy.

So, what is the answer? What is the new framework? Maybe it’s just not time yet (still). Work on this topic has only just begun to really grow in the last decade or so, and so maybe someday, maybe soon, someone will be able to better synthesize the work of Zhang, Hevia, Schottenhammer, Oba Osamu, Smits, Hellyer, James Lewis, and all the rest, to come up with something new from which to work. But in the meantime, I think it’s going to continue to be a multitude of voices, a complex of different bits and pieces, and we just have to work within that…

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