August 2017

Review: The East Asian World, Chapter 9 of Jackson Spielvogel’s World History: Modern Times

Filling four hundred years of East and Southeast Asian history in a 25-page long chapter is like fitting Alice in the rabbit hole. A taste of Asia can be grasped by following Spielvogel’s description of how China’s last two dynasties flourished and languished, how Japan was unified and ruled under a feudal system, what economic changes took place in East and Southeast Asia through encountering Europeans, as well as the most famous artistic and cultural achievements to be enjoyed should the reader live in Ming-Qing China or Tokugawa Japan.

by Ruochen Chen

Filling four hundred years of East and Southeast Asian history in a 25-page long chapter is like fitting Alice in the rabbit hole. A taste of Asia can be grasped by following Spielvogel’s description of how China’s last two dynasties flourished and languished, how Japan was unified and ruled under a feudal system, what economic changes took place in East and Southeast Asia through encountering Europeans, as well as the most famous artistic and cultural achievements to be enjoyed should the reader live in Ming-Qing China or Tokugawa Japan. What’s especially laudable is the discussion on women’s role in China and Japan, which reflects the frontier of academic trends.

To better appreciate the splendor of the “exotic” Asian wonderland, the influence of Europeans during the pre-industrial era should not be magnified to the extent that it is in this chapter. It is a shame that the vastness of Southeast Asia is reduced to the status of a European purchasing center for spices.

Some flaws should also be pointed out. Firstly, the point that no commercial capitalism developed in China is unfounded considering that approximately two hundred million teals of silver were imported into China from overseas. Consequently, the Chinese had to develop native institutions to digest the inpouring of silver.[1] Besides, one reason the Chinese economy flourished during the 16th and the 18th centuries is that the commercial tax levied on ordinary merchants was insignificant (contrary to what the author described in page 281) because the government relied heavily on land tax for revenue. Secondly, the reader is given the impression that Asian countries isolated themselves from each other, while in fact private trade between China and Japan was never truly cut off and provided the livelihoods for coastal people on both sides. Chinese merchants from Fujian and Guangdong even constituted a large portion of the elite class in Southeast Asian countries.

Chen Image 1
Chinese scholar-officials. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

To better appreciate the splendor of the “exotic” Asian wonderland, the influence of Europeans during the pre-industrial era should not be magnified to the extent that it is in this chapter. It is a shame that the vastness of Southeast Asia is reduced to the status of a European purchasing center for spices. The reader could not help but feel a ghost of colonial ideology, preventing the author from genuinely appreciating the social organs and cultural inventions of Vietnam, Thailand, Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. We must not undervalue the subjectivity of the majority living under the policies made by the emperors, shoguns and sultans, whose governing power was not nearly as strong as the heads of modern nation states. However, more space should have been dedicated to discussing how ordinary people actively dealt with large-scale social trends. Another deficiency of the chapter is that relations between Asian countries are only slightly touched upon. The analysis of the tribute system, which established the diplomatic and economic order in this region, could be expanded into a separate section. Instead of being fed Eurocentric bias about the nature of the system, the reader deserves to know how it actually functioned in establishing China’s superiority in the region for several centuries.

Recommended Readings

Brook, Timothy (1999) The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lieberman, Victor (2003) Strange Parallels Vol.1: Southeast Asia in Global Context, C. 800-1830, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Naquin, Susan (1987) Chinese Society in the Eighteenth Century, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Struve, Lynn (1998) Voices from the Ming-Qing Cataclysm: China in Tigers’ Jaws, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Spence, Jonathan (1974) Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K’ang-Hsi, New York: Knopf.

Toby, Ronald (1991) State and Diplomacy in Early Modern Japan: Asia in the Development of the Tokugawa Bakufu, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Chen HeadshotRuochen Chen got his master degree from the Chinese University of Hong Kong and is now a doctoral student at the Washington University in Saint Louis. He is interested in exploring how politics and technology affected the social structure and the lives of ordinary people, especially in 19th century China.

Notes

[1] For a concise discussion on China’s economy since the 16th century, see Faure, David (2006) China and Capitalism: A History of Modern Enterprise in China, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

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1 comment on “Review: The East Asian World, Chapter 9 of Jackson Spielvogel’s World History: Modern Times

  1. Pingback: Back to School: The Activist History Review Reviews High School History Textbooks – The Activist History Review

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