Journal of World History 10.1 (1999) 240-243
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In Borders of Chinese Civilization: Geography and History at Empire's End, D. R. Howland examines the fluctuating cultural, social, and political borders between China and Japan in the 1870s and 1880s through the eyes of a select group of Chinese intellectuals. Using travelogues, poetry, and geographical treatises, he traces the changing perception of Japan among Chinese scholars as Japan "was leaving behind the universal [Chinese-centered] order known as Civilization, and establishing itself within another, alien order based on a new 'international' principle forced upon the world of East Asia by the West" (p. 2). According to Howland, "once Japan was removed from the Chinese worldview, that worldview was irreparably changed. The encounter with Japan...presented Chinese scholars and officials in Japan with concrete evidence of the practical limits to the worldview of their Civilization; it is these limits that I identify as 'borders' of Chinese Civilization" (pp. 2-3).
Howland addresses the issue of these changing borders by focusing on how Chinese scholars came to categorize Japan as an object of knowledge. He argues that this categorization was above all geographical, and that there were two basic forms of geographical representation available to nineteenth-century Chinese intellectuals: "poetic" and "expository." The first consisted of travelogues and travel poetry, and the second of "third-person and abstracted representations of reality [which make] a certain claim to truthfulness as objective knowledge" (p. 4). [End Page 240]
Rather than revisit what Howland considers traditional approaches that concentrate on the diplomatic relations between China and Japan or the debates over whether or not to westernize, he instead "examines the epistemology underlying Chinese perceptions of Japan and Japan's Westernization" (p. 5). This approach allows him to investigate a fundamental issue that has too often been neglected by Western historians in their studies of China's reaction to the West and Japan in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Howland rightly notes that "most Chinese scholars saw the world differently than us, and...it is worthwhile to begin by taking seriously what they took to be valid representations of their world" (p. 5). His efforts to understand what constituted valid representations of Japan within the nineteenth-century Chinese world view thus becomes the primary focus of the book.
Howland divides his study into three sections: "Encountering Japan" (chapters 1 and 2), "Representing Japan" (chapters 3-5), and "Representing Japan's Modernization" (chapter 6). Chapter 1 explores how China initially used the traditional Chinese-centered world view based on tributary relations in an attempt to contain Japan. When Japan requested a treaty of friendship and trade in 1870, Chinese officials were perplexed as to how to classify Japan. Should it be treated as a neighboring tributary state, like Korea and Vietnam, or as a distant outsider, like the West? Having little concrete information on Japan— since formal relations had been severed for centuries—the Chinese placed Japan somewhere in between and signed the treaty. With Japan's invasion of Taiwan in 1874, Chinese officials were particularly incensed because Japan understood, yet deliberately ignored, the moral principles inherent in the Chinese world view.
Chapter 2 focuses on the records of Chinese diplomats who visited Japan and their use of language and poetic practices to develop favorable representations of Japan based on "shared language" and, by extension, "shared civilization." Through participation in a form of poetry known as "brushtalking," Chinese and Japanese scholars were drawn together in a sharing of universal discourse based on the Chinese classics. This shared involvement in Chinese civilization was supposed to take the Japanese scholars back to a more humane past and away from the efforts of some of their countrymen to push forward with westernization.
In the next section, Howland examines how Chinese scholars employed travelogues, poetry, and geographical treatises to represent Japan. In...