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A (new) revisionist history of early modern China

Evelyn S. Rawski, Early Modern China and Northeast Asia. Cross-border Perspectives, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2015, 339 pp., (ISBN 9781107471528)

Early Modern China and Northeast Asia. Cross-border Perspectives represents the culmination of a long research work dedicated to the study of Chinese history through a new perspective that goes beyond national histories, while the general trend has been so far to accept the parameters of Chinese nationalist historiography which considers it in a linear way which revolves around the Central Plain (zhongyuan), the cradle of Chinese culture, and its original inhabitants, the Han Chinese. Central in the book is the concept of «decentering China», which is intended to examine Chinese history «from the perspective of the periphery, and not the core» (p. 1), arguing that it was the interaction between borderlands and Central Plain that worked «as the dynamic engine behind the long-term development of China’s imperial function» (p. 225). By doing so, Evelyn Rawski challenges the conventional notion that sees the Chinese history as a linear narrative, centered on the Central plains and the Han culture, asserting that since the sixteenth century China’s history can be better understood by framing it in the wider regional context of Korea, Japan, Jurchen/Manchu and Mongol.

From this perspective the author rejects Chinese history’s interpretation which sees it in terms of an «encompassing and engulfing strength» that sinicizes all who come under its influence, but brings forward the point of view according to which Chinese history has been significantly affected by a multitude of extrinsic forces with which it has interacted over the centuries. In this way she contributes to discarding the conventional view that Korea and Japan were subordinate actors within a Chinese world, while they were in fact strictly interrelated. One of the main strengths of the book lies undoubtedly in the impressive language skills possessed by the author – Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Manchu (one of the two official languages of the Qing state) – and the subsequent masterful use of a staggering array of sources in these languages (pp. 10-14). These include both archival sources – the Veritable Records for the Ming Dinasty, the Veritable Records for the Qing Dinasty, the Veritable Records of the Korean Choson Dinasty and primary sources in Japanese concerning the invasion of Korea from Toyotomi Hideyoshi, among the others – and an abundant secondary literature in both Asian and Western languages, as revealed by the extensive bibliography at the end of the book. The importance of reading and comparing numerous sources (beyond the Chinese ones) resides in the fact that it «provide(s) valuable information that was censored or edited out of Chinese texts, and reveal other views that are absent from the diplomatic correspondence between states» (p. 14), thus offering divergent interpretations from orthodoxy, represented by Chinese history that has long enjoyed the «hegemony of inscriptions».

The book is articulated in five chapters grouped in two parts, preceded by an introduction and followed by a conclusion, a substantial epilogue and an extensive bibliography. Part I provides an overview of northeast Asia’s role in Chinese history, and thus of China’s position in regional and world history, while Part II focuses on the crucial issues of culture and identity, encompassing what Victor Lieberman calls «politicized ethnicity», i.e. the «cultural practices created by elites that simultaneously affirmed their shared civilization roots and their uniqueness» (p. 105). The first chapter places northeast Asia with respect to China’s core region in the Central Plain and argues that the creation of Korean and Japanese states was the result of an «intense interaction with other entities on the steppe and the Central Plain» (p. 21). The author divides this long history of interaction in three phases. The first, which lasted until the rise of the Tang (618-907), saw the early formation of autochthonous states on China’s northeast frontier, that interacted more intensively with other polities at the periphery than with China’s core region; the second, which followed the decline of the Tang, witnessed an important shift in power to northeast Asian states – Khitan Liao, Jurchen Jin, Mongol Yuan – that used their military advantage to defeat regimes based in the Central Plain and ruled large empires composed by both nomadic and agrarian subjects. The third phase began with the arrival of Europeans in maritime Asia, an event which disrupted and eventually shifted the power balance among these states. In particular, Korea and Japan began to behave as confident players, and eventually challenged the traditional sinocentric world order (p. 55).

The second chapter deals with the transformative new practices adopted by China and Japan through cross-border commercial activities and multi-state competition between 1550 and 1650. After providing an account of the invasion of Korea by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1592 and the rise of the Jurchen/Manchu in the first half of the 17th century, the chapter focuses on the consequences of the increasing trading exchanges initiated with European traders, colonizers, and missionaries, which contributed to «make the 1550-1650 period ‘early modern’» (p. 62), and favored the adoption by the Qing state and Japan of «the perspectives of early modern European states» (p. 101). At the same time, the growing of the territorial awareness, and the rising of the cultural boundaries delineating national self-images, contributed to make intellectuals in China, Korea, and Japan increasingly willing to articulate their distinctive national identities in the 17th and 18th centuries, as argued in Part 2.

The third and four chapter are more connected as they analyze Japan and Korea’s adaptations (and resistance) of the Chinese model. While the former is specifically dedicated to state rituals, which aimed at «legitimat[ing] political systems and creat[ing] symbolic communities» (p. 105), reflecting each state’s desire to assert its specific identity; the latter provides a new perspective on the aversion of Chinese Confucian practices, with special reference to the contrast between Chinese patrilineality and Japanese/Korean bilateral kinship. In both cases the author reveals the existence of similar tensions between indigenous traditions and Chinese (Confucian) norms. A special attention deserves the fifth chapter that looks into the discourse of civilized (hua) and barbarian (yi) propounded at first by Chinese, and adopted later by Korean and Japanese, in order to clarify how elites in the 17th and 18th centuries resolved identity issues.

According to the Chinese scholar Li Dalong, the historical origins of the Hua-Yi discourse in China date back to before 221 BCE (p. 191), while the term huaren (people of Hua, meaning the «core group», i.e. the civilized and educated people) seems to have appeared in 229 CE, in the text Zuo Zhuan (Zou Commentary), to which Rawski refers without explicitly mention it (p. 192). The concept of Huaren was used to distinguish China (the Zhongguo, the Middle Kingdom), which was identified with civilization, from any other reality. From the early texts emerges that the Chinese would consider all those who did not belong to the world of Chinese culture to be «hardly human». Starting from the northern dynasties period (220-589 CE), Chinese writings include many passages describing the Yi as persons without culture, sometimes likening them to «jackals and wolves», «animals», rather than humans (ibid.). In more recent times, the term Yi was a prefix commonly found in references to Englishmen, and in general to all foreigners, in Qing documents.

Interestingly, while the Qing rulers asserted that «Heaven chose a ruling house on the basis of virtue, not ethnicity» (p. 222), Koreans and Japanese in contrast cited the barbarian origins of the Manchu to reject the political legitimacy of the Qing, thus asserting their own view of the Asian world order (p. 222-3). Finally, the Epilogue scrutinizes some historical understandings that still complicate contemporary China’s relations not only with its northeast Asian neighbors – taken the struggle between PRC and the two Koreas over the historical ownership of Gaoguoli/Koguryo as an example – but also with the minority people living within its territorial boundaries that contributed to build Chinese civilization, whose role has yet to be totally recognized by Chinese historiography.

The book offers some interesting clues to understand how Chinese interpret their own history – which directly affect contemporary interstate relations –and the way through which Chinese see themselves. The perspective of «de-centering» China proposed by the author is remarkable and very reliably founded. But «the final product» contains some passages difficult to understand and in general is not easy to read, especially for non-experts. That said it is an outstanding book whose reading/study should definitely be recommended.


Giorgio Borsa

The Founder of Asia Maior

Università di Pavia

The "Cesare Bonacossa" Centre for the Study of Extra-European Peoples


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