Journal of World History 10.1 (1999) 213-215
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In Chinese Maritime Activities and Socioeconomic Development, Gang Deng offers a rare and comprehensive effort to summarize 4,000 years of Chinese maritime history. Rather than presenting a plain narrative, however, the author begins by introducing an economic model of path dependency in an attempt to explain why the maritime industry reached its peak in the Song dynasty and did not continue to develop. Although it possessed numerous vessels and a wide range of technological innovations (previously described by Needham and others), China faced real limitations to growth relative to Western powers. In spite of achievements, maritime development "lay within the threshold of 'agrarian dominance' in the Chinese economy" (p. 160). Later chapters again take up this paradox. The body of the work is more concerned with the description of very large-scale political, environmental, technological, and economic trends affecting China's long involvement with the sea.
Deng outlines the physical environment early on, stating that appropriate monsoon climate and coastal resources offered easy access to the South China Sea, the "Asian Mediterranean" (p. 1). Thus, struggles for territorial control were fought at sea as early as the fifth century B.C. (though what distinguishes a real sea battle from a minor skirmish remains unstated). Next, maritime technology is treated in overview. Ship size and structure and innovations in rudders and sails and navigation are placed in chronological context. Broad generalizations [End Page 213] fall roughly into three periods: (1) a period of rudimentary development (6000-700 B.C.); (2) a period of progress (700 B.C.-A.D. 1279); and (3) a period of status quo (A.D. 1279-1911), reflecting the theme of limited growth. It is significant that Zheng He's famous voyages in the early fifteenth century are deemphasized in this view. Most notable achievements occurred before the fourth century A.D. and later during the Song dynasty. Zheng He's exploits, though accessible to westerners, do not represent the pinnacle of technological achievement and have received undue attention in the past.
The author, an economic historian, is in a good position to engage in quantitative estimation when it comes to sketching total numbers for the supply of ships in China. Numbers of grain transport vessels, naval ships, commercial traders, and ocean fishermen can be educated guesses at best, but Deng does offer a good outline of the scale of the ship construction industry, a specialized profession often capable of launching 3,000-5,000 seagoing ships a year. His chapter "Trade Types and Agents" is on firmer ground, taking into account illegal trade and the ineffectiveness of maritime bans, the hidden nature of the merchant class in China, and the family-based structure of overseas trade operations. He acknowledges a wider role for profit-motivated private trade than is often granted. Deng also emphasizes the bulk nature of trade goods, not unlike K. N. Chaudhuri's descriptions of Indian Ocean trade. (In a sense, this work complements Chaudhuri's maritime emphasis on the Indian Ocean, creating a larger picture of maritime Asia.) Large shipments of weapons, incense woods, and spices were a far cry from the limited quantities of truly exotic items, such as kingfisher feathers.
In his analysis of markets and trade patterns, Deng returns to the path dependency model. Once having dominated the "pan-Asian trading ring" (p. 107) centered on the South China Sea, China then falls in status from industrial producer to primary producer as Western demands for tea and silk penetrate the coastal area. The failure to adapt to the emerging world economy was not only a matter of Western imperial domination, but a combination of Chinese bureaucratic determinism and technological restraints as well. Rulers with vested interest in the status quo impoverished naval defense funds; reliance on imported timber...