Thanks to Columbia University Press I just got a copy of David Kang, East Asia Before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute1 This is a very fine book, and it is great that it has been published. The reason it is great that it has been published is that it is cheap, readable, and based on secondary sources. While the book is about the East Asian international system in the early modern period, Kang is not a historian. He is a “professor of international relations and business.” His only real qualifications2 for writing this book are that he has read the relevant secondary literature, writes well and is smart. As I have lamented before, writings on Asian history in English tend to be either the obviously academic or really bad. The type of serious stuff that is halfway in between, that my Americanist colleagues get to read and use in class all the time, is very thin on the ground.
Of course if, like Kang, you are writing after the model of universal equality of states has become a crucial part of East Asian nationalism—even for those who are not aware that they are hard-core Westphalians– it might be good to be cautious as you advance an argument for the historical inequality of states. Plus, like a good scholar, he is not wildly concerned with providing historical ammunition for modern arguments. So he argues that East Asian states created a system where “Far from being autarkic, the early modern East Asian system developed rules and norms governing trade, diplomacy, and international migration.”5 So he is arguing against the common idea that East Asia consisted of a collection of Hermit Kingdoms until they were brought to life by contact with the West, but he also uses words like autarkic6 He is bringing you up to date on the literature without talking down to you. This is the type of book that not only makes you think you should use it in class, but also makes you wonder what classes you could create that would use it if you don’t have one already.
Kang, David C. East Asia Before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute. Columbia University Press, 2010. ↩
O.k., yes he’s an academic heavy hitter, but not a historian, particularly not of this period ↩
I don’t have a cite for this, just old lore from grad school ↩
which my spell-czech does not recognize. ↩