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The Evolving Structure of the East Asian Economic System since 1700: A Comparative Analysis
Published by EH.Net (September 2012)
A.J.H. Latham and Heita Kawakatsu, editors, The Evolving Structure of the East Asian Economic System since 1700: A Comparative Analysis. London: Routledge, 2011. xii + 148 pp. $140 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-415-60032-3.
Reviewed for EH.Net by Linda Grove, Faculty of Liberal Arts, Sophia University, Tokyo.
This small volume, like several others edited by Latham and Kawakatsu and published by Routledge, brings together papers presented at sessions of the International Economic History Congresses; in the case of this volume, the papers were originally presented at the Berne Congress in 1986 and the Milan Congress in 1994. Part I includes two longer papers, one by Kawakatsu on “International Competition in Cotton Goods in the Late Nineteenth Century: Britain versus India and East Asia,” and one by Latham, “The International Trade in Rice and Wheat since 1868: A Study in Market Integration.” Part II includes nine short papers from the 1994 conference that were originally included in the congress proceedings. The book takes its title from the title of the session at Milan, and includes papers by an international group of scholars writing about China, Southeast Asia (Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore) and Hong Kong.
Kawakatsu’s paper on the international competition in cotton goods in the late nineteenth century presents a short version of his now well-known argument on the different markets for cotton goods in Asia and the western world, and Latham’s paper uses price data on world rice and wheat markets to argue for an integrated grain market and examine the consequences of a series of bumper harvests in the late 1920s that drove down prices, bankrupting grain farmers and contributing to the world-wide depression.
The case studies in Part II of the volume include a joint paper by Kawakatsu and the late D.A. Farnie on the cotton industry in China that argues for the resilience of the indigenous handloom weaving industry which shifted to the use of machine-spun yarn, first from Indian mills, then Japanese and later Chinese domestic mills. This is followed by a paper by Latham which looks at the intra-Asian and world trade in rice, and argues for the integration of grain markets in which we can observe common patterns of price movements worldwide in the markets for rice and wheat. In explaining why south China became a major importer of rice, Latham argues that since rice is the grain of choice for most Asians, when income rises consumers will choose to eat rice rather than what they see as inferior grains, creating a rising demand for rice that could not be met by domestic supplies.
The next two papers survey developments in the Chinese economy. The first, by Shi Zhihong of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), looks at long-term changes in the landlord economy during the last imperial dynasty up to the time of the Opium War. Shi identifies a shift from a system in which privileged large landlords were dominant to a system in which landlords had much smaller holdings. Tenants’ major obligations were to pay rent, and extra-legal pressure or subordination were rare. A system of permanent tenancy rights had developed in many regions, strengthening the position of the tenants vis a vis the landlords. The second paper on China by Mi Ru-cheng, also of CASS, surveys the evolution of the Chinese economic system from 1796-1978. This is a big project to tackle in only eight pages, and the overview raises more questions than it answers.
The remaining papers focus on various aspects of intra-Asian trade and the mechanisms that facilitated exchange. Takeshi Hamashita’s paper focuses on the roles of Hong Kong and Singapore in international trade, briefly taking up three issues: the role of overseas remittances and how they were managed; the circulation of silver; and the creation of the Japanese silver yen and its role in intra-Asian financial markets. Hamashita has written in much greater detail about all of these issues, and a number of his most important essays were published in 2008 in China, East Asia and the Global Economy: Regional and Historical Perspectives (Routledge). J. Thomas Lindblad, a leading expert on the late colonial economy of Indonesia, discusses foreign trade and economic growth from 1900-1940, briefly examining patterns of integration between the Indonesian economy and the world economy, as well as between the economic center in Java and the outlying regions. Drawing on the work of leading experts, he raises questions about the role of foreign investment in economic growth, at the same time considering the question of how to define what was “foreign” under the colonial system. Norman G. Owen provides a quick survey of economic development and foreign trade in the Philippines from 1500 to the twentieth century, sketching broad patterns of trade and the ways in which efforts by the Spanish colonial authorities to keep trade under their control pushed the Philippines into a marginal position in intra-Asian trade, the impact of which continued to the twentieth century. W.G. Huff’s paper examines competition in the shipping industry in pre-World War II Singapore, looking at the various “shipping conferences” (a quasi-cartel designed to limit competition and maintain shipping charges) and the ways in which Japanese shipping firms challenged the established European firms. The final paper – and the only one that really attempts to draw comparisons – is Pierre van der Eng’s paper on economic growth and living standards in Asia from 1870-1990. This paper was an early attempt to try to compare living standards across Asia, and to estimate how growth impacted living standards. Subsequent congresses, including the most recent one in Stellenbosch, have presented continuing discussions around this issue.
These papers were written close to two decades ago; while the editors have added an informative introduction that provides relatively detailed summaries of each of the papers, the papers themselves have not been reworked. Moreover, many of the authors have gone on to publish other papers and monographs on the subjects touched on here that provide much more sophisticated treatment of these materials. So one cannot but wonder why this volume is being published now, and what relevance it may have for contemporary scholars. There is no question that the two editors played a major role through their organizational and publishing efforts in focusing attention on intra-Asian trade and the role it played in industrial development in East and Southeast Asia. Latham, who was one of the pioneers in this field, retired from his teaching position at Swansea in 2003, and his younger Japanese colleague, Heita Kawakatsu, after a distinguished academic career, ran for political office and is now the Governor of Shizuoka Prefecture. For those interested in the development of discourses on intra-Asian trade, the volume provides a useful introduction to research in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but most readers will be better served by turning to longer works by all of the authors whose papers are included in this slim volume.
Linda Grove, Emerita Professor, Sophia University, Tokyo, is the author of A Chinese Economic Revolution: Rural Entrepreneurship in the Twentieth Century (Rowman and Littlefield, 2006) and co-editor of Commercial Networks in Modern Asia (Curzon, 2001)
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