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The Resurgence of East Asia, 500, 150 and 50 Year Perspectives

Author(s):Arrighi, Giovanni
Hamashita, Takeshi
Selden, Mark

Published by EH.NET (February 2005)

Giovanni Arrighi, Takeshi Hamashita and Mark Selden, editors, The Resurgence of East Asia, 500, 150 and 50 Year Perspectives. London and New York: Routledge, 2003. xii + 354 pp. $36.95 (paperback), ISBN: 0-415-31637-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Debin Ma, Foundation for Advanced Studies on International Development (FASID).

This is an ambitious volume that brings together a group of distinguished historians, sinologists and sociologists. As pointed out in the introductory chapter, the volume’s basic premise is that “the exceptional economic dynamism of the East Asian region in the closing decades of the twentieth century should be viewed as the joint product of a single process operating at the world-regional level rather as the sum of separate processes operating primarily at the national level” (p. 1-2). It lays out three distinctive temporalities — 50, 150 and 500 years — of the East Asian region, which includes Northeast, Inner and Southeast Asia. The first temporality marked the retreat of Western colonialism and the resurgence of East Asia. The “150 year” perspective saw the decline of the traditional regimes of China and Japan under Western imperialism (punctuated by the rise of Meiji Japan). The 500-year perspective was one when the region remained in the forefront of world-development. This volume is intended to bring out the connections between the present rise of East Asia and the region’s earlier phase of global eminence.

In Chapter 1, Takeshi Hamashita, portrays the traditional political order of East Asia with a series of concentric circles with China seated at the inner core. This China-centered political order, as encapsulated in the tribute-trade relations, was hierarchical and sustained by the Confucian conception of the “rule of virtue.” It was further percolated to those “periphery states” such as Korea, Japan and Vietnam who asserted themselves as “centers” vis-?-vis their smaller neighboring states.

The intrusion of Western imperialism along the shores of East Asia set off a process of confrontation between two different political orders: the China-centered order versus the Western nation-states, or as Hamashita put it, the historically hierarchical politics of East Asia versus the mutually contractual treaty diplomacy (p. 25). But the treaty relations did not swiftly displace the tributary relation as often presumed in the earlier “modernization” thesis. Rather, as he points out, at least in the sixty-year period between the 1830s and the 1890s, the former was often subsumed by the latter.

Hamashita illustrated the full intrigue of this relationship through the 1882 trade treaties between China and Korea. Often under the guise of Western-style legal lexicons in the treaty were embedded the allusions to a long-standing suzerain-vassal relationship. Furthermore, the Western powers, in their negotiation with China and Korea, acquiesced to this suzerain-vassal status in the traditional tributary order. In contrast, it was the rapidly Westernizing Meiji Japan that became most opposed to this China-centered political order. Rather than pursuing negotiation as the Western powers did, Japan favored “direct action” that eventually led to its military conquest and colonization of Okinawa, Taiwan and Korea.

Chapter 2 by Peter Perdue on the traditional geo-political order in China’s land-based northwestern frontier would seem like a natural complement to chapter 1. But it is more a review and commentary — inter-juxtaposed with the author’s own ongoing research — on a disparate amount of literature related to the topic. Perdue points out that the Northwestern frontier had traditionally loomed as a threat far larger to China’s security and finance than her coastal borders. Thus, many of the institutional arrangements that emerged in the so-called tributary order had initially been experimented and practiced in the northwest frontier. More significantly, the so-called China-centered hierarchical order was far less secure and severely challenged by the powerful states and peoples such as the Mongols, Tibetans, Kazakhs and, of course, the Russians.

The East Asian historical dynamism has garnered renewed interest in the so-called “Great Divergence” debate that revolves around the publication of Kenneth Pomeranz’s book of the same title. It claims that eighteenth-century China, particularly its most advanced Lower Yangzi region, was probably comparable in living standards and levels of development to Northwestern Europe. Pomeranz emphasized that the Lower Yangzi path of growth, as distinguished from the power-driven industrial revolution, is distinctively labor-using and resource saving. This thesis is somewhat a distant echo to the “industrious revolution” hypothesis advanced for the path of Tokugawa Japanese economic development. Chapter 3 by Kaoru Sugihara is a lucid synthesis of these strands of literature on the long-term East Asian economic development along what he summarizes as the “labor-intensive” path. It also illustrates the long-term impact of labor endowments to the overall path of industrialization in East and Southeast Asia from the nineteenth century until today.

Chapter 4 by Kenneth Pomeranz examines the role of gender and women in economic development in East Asia and Europe. Its scope — covering China, Japan and Europe with 500, 200 and 50 year perspective — is so ambitious, perhaps over-ambitious, that the reader is at times left to struggle through the multitudes of facts and hypotheses to stay atop of the major themes and threads: the parallels and differences in gender patterns in geographic mobility, division of labor and orientation towards production for market and domestic household. But these differences, Pomeranz is quick to emphasize, should not be viewed as East Asia deviating from the “normal” Western path of development, but rather as another development path with equally significant success within a family of intensely commercialized economic systems (p. 128).

Chapter 5 is in general agreement with the spirit of Pomeranz’s Great Divergence thesis although the authors, Hamilton and Chang, point out his neglect of commercial organization. Instead of viewing the family-based, group-oriented, non-vertically integrated business enterprise and merchant networks in China and East Asia simply as “deviation” from the West, or just traditional, pre-capitalistic, or backward, they describe them as more akin to “flexible production or specialization,” terms borrowed from Piore and Sabel’s The Second Industrial Divide.

According to them, the pre-modern Chinese economy and society were relatively decentralized and socially mobile in contrast to early modern Europe and Japan, which they label as “aristocratic.” They find that late-Imperial China with its vast domestic market was more in common with the United States as portrayed by Alex de Tocqueville — an analogy that would likely confound or even surprise some readers. They note the emergence of large private business in the post-bellum U.S. following the courts’ reinterpretation of shareholding companies as a legal person. On the contrary, in imperial China, only the state and political contenders could organize large centrally-controlled groups (p. 190). But the possible implications of such differences do not seem to bother them. Nor do concepts like “scale economies” or “transaction costs” — standard terms that economists would use as efficiency criteria for firm size and degree of vertical integration — enter into their analysis. In conclusion, they view the dispersed and family-based production, marketing and merchant networks in traditional China as highly resilient. In fact, its constant reinvention has enabled East Asia and China (especially the coastal areas) to seamlessly integrate into global capitalism and become a competitive (and alternative) form of capitalist production.

Chapter 6 by Peter Katzenstein is a fairly broad review on the interrelation between Japanese technology and the Asian economies and emphasizes differences between Japanese and Asian business networks. Unlike the other chapters, this chapter is mostly for the post-War period only.

Chapter 7, the final and the longest chapter, touches on both the new “Great Divergence” debate and the old but related “rise of the West” question. Arrighi, Hui, Hung and Selden seem to be persuaded by the argument that the eighteenth-century Chinese level of development was as high as that of contemporaneous Northwestern Europe. They are also ready to accept Europe’s overseas exploration and colonization as essential for explaining the post-eighteenth century divergence between the West and the Rest. But they raise a highly relevant question: “why starting in the fifteenth century European states showed a much stronger disposition than East Asian states to expand territorially overseas … that eventually enabled Britain to open up the path of their industrial revolution” (p. 261).

The thesis they advance is the difference in regional political orders — the intensely competitive state system in Europe vis-a-vis the China-centered tributary-trade system in Asia. Capitalism, they cite Braudel, only triumphed when it became identified with the state, as displayed in the union of mercantile and state interests in the Italian city-states, the rise of Holland, and post-Glorious Revolution England. According to them, the intense political-military competition led to great governmental demand for revenue that (by mechanisms still obscure to me) in turn generated a growing surplus of capital within the European regional system. Directly and indirectly, this self-reinforcing cycle of capital accumulation and territorial expansion became the main driving force of those technological organization innovations (“industrial revolutions” included) (p. 265).

By comparison with Europe, the China-centered tributary-trade system can often mediate inter-state relations and articulate hierarchies with minimal recourse to war. Japan and Vietnam, being peripheral members of the system, seemed more content to replicate this hierarchical relationship within their own sub-systems than vie directly against China in the larger order (p. 269). There were exceptions, the most notable of which is the rise of the Zheng commercial empire in the transition from the Ming to the Qing. The rebel state built by the Zheng along China’s southern coast, at one time out-competed the Portuguese and the Dutch, defied the Ming and challenged the Qing. But by the late-seventeenth century, it finally succumbed to the Qing’s scorched-earth policy that forcibly removed population along the Fujian coasts. The policy itself, however, was a devastating blow to China’s coastal economy and her once thriving maritime mercantile ventures, creating a void later to be filled by the European trading powers.

Thus, for all its similarities and association with the Dutch republic, the Zheng empire really never had a chance to lead “from behind” the larger territorial organization of East Asia as the Dutch republic did with the European states in Westphalia. What the Zheng confronted was — rather than a politically fractured continent as the Dutch faced in Europe — a unified empire and centralized political order with all her demographic weight. In the rest of the chapter, this extremely stimulating line of inquiry gives way to an extended discussion of the changing global order and its impact on East Asia to the present time.

This volume is a valuable contribution to the important “Great Divergence” debate especially by incorporating a much-needed regional perspective. The overall quality of the articles is good. Quantitatively-oriented economic historians may not feel entirely at ease with the lack of specificity or rigor, and the profusion of terminologies and labels. But these “shortcomings” are more than made up by the weightiness of the issues that these articles jointly address. They serve as a powerful reminder that a fruitful research agenda on long-term economic growth urgently needs to incorporate issues such as commercial organization, regional political orders and cultural ideology.

Debin Ma is a faculty fellow of the Foundation for Advanced Studies on International Development (FASID) based in Tokyo, Japan. His research focuses on the economic history of East Asia. He is the author of “Why Japan, not China, Was the First to Develop in East Asia: Lessons from Sericulture, 1850-1937” (2004) 52: 2, Economic Development and Cultural Change, and “Growth, Institutions and Knowledge: A Review and Reflection on the Historiography of 18th-20th Century China” Volume 44, Issue 3, Nov. 2004, Australian Economic History Review.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII