Journal of World History 12.1 (2001) 215-217
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On the Eighteenth Century as a Category of Asian History: Van Leur in Retrospect
On the Eighteenth Century as a Category of Asian History: Van Leur in Retrospect. Edited by LEONARD BLUSSÉ and FEMME GAASTRA. Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 1998. Pp. vii + 313. $89.95 (cloth).
Job Van Leur's thirty-five passionate years had an extraordinary effect on the Asian historians who like myself came to maturity in the 1950s and 1960s. The contradictions in his youthful work, to which abundant attention is drawn in this book, make this a little hard for students today to understand. But those introduced to Asia through an already discredited colonial history began to perceive with excitement in his pages how a globally balanced history indebted to Max Weber might be written.
Van Leur is usually assumed to have died in the sinking of the USS Houston in Sunda Strait in February 1942. Having volunteered for the Navy after the outbreak of war, despite a gloomy conviction that both he and the Netherlands colonial project he served were doomed, he was placed as Dutch liaison officer on the U.S. cruiser. Jaap Vogel's biography of Van Leur in this book reveals that he left the ship in Batavia shortly before it sank, so that his death is in fact a mystery. The 1993 conference in his memory was a little late for the fiftieth anniversary of his death, and this book later still, but it remains a fitting tribute.
When his friend W. F. Wertheim arranged for his key writings to be [End Page 215] published in English in 1955, Van Leur became more celebrated outside Holland than he had been within. It may therefore be appropriate that the only one of the thirteen articles in this tribute by a Dutch scholar is Vogel's biography, which alone is worth the price. Drawing on his earlier dissertation, Vogel uses the almost embarrassingly abundant letters of Van Leur to his school history teacher, Dr. Bouman, to show the young man's self doubt, his womanizing, his miserable record in Javanese, his fascination with Weber, Sombart, and a "scientific" approach to global history, his delight in accumulating shopping lists of data from around the world.
The contributors to the book are unanimous in finding the eighteenth century both neglected and critical for Asian history. They support Van Leur's separation of Asian history from the conventional decline which Dutch writers saw in their own country, but deplore his failure to recognize the profound changes which took place in Asia, as in Europe, in that century.
To begin with Japan, where the older view of a peaceful and self-contained century is accepted in relation to the world outside, the two authors concerned both describe an internal economic transformation which laid the basis of modernity. Akira Hayami describes a now familiar picture of overall population stability combined with a shift in that population towards the southwest. Population remained rural and labor intensive, but became very much more productive through Hayami's concept of an "industrious revolution" and the integration of the market. Complementing this, Yoko Nagazumi shows from records of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) that import substitution rendered Japan largely self-sufficient in the silks, sugar, and cottons which the Dutch had imported in bulk in the previous century.
In relation to China, William Rowe sees a roughly upward pattern of commercialization and exchange from the late sixteenth century onwards. While it would have been interesting to compare the population explosion of eighteenth-century China to the stability of Japan, Rowe only notes that the "peace and prosperity" of that century ended around 1800 as the continued population growth was no longer matched by rising per capita yields in agriculture. He argues that the eighteenth century was the point at which longer-distance trade between China's vast macroregions began to dominate the economy, while foreign trade began its rapid upward trajectory. Zhuang Guotu...