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  • The Genesis of East Asia, 221 B.C.–A.D. 907
  • Gideon Shelach
The Genesis of East Asia, 221 B.C.–A.D. 907. Charles Holcombe. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2001. xii + 332 pp., maps. ISBN 0-8248-2465-2.

A good research book, in contrast to a textbook, is not one that provides ready-made answers but one that forces us to ponder fundamental questions that continue to occupy our minds even after we finish reading the book. According to this criterion, The Genesis of East Asia is a very good book, highly recommended for advanced students and researchers of East Asian cultures and history as well as for scholars working in other parts of the world. While disagreement about details or even about the main thesis of the book is inevitable, Holcombe should be commended for having the courage to dive into the endless ocean of primary and secondary sources, and for his ability to distill a coherent and thought-provoking work.

As is clearly stated in the title, the book addresses the region defined as East Asia (the area covered roughly by the modern states of China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan) during the last centuries B.C. and the first millennium A.D., a period during which, according to Holcombe's analysis, a unique East Asian identity was shaped. The basic argument of the book, that such an identity existed (insofar as any identity can really "exist") during the first millennium and is not merely a post-factum fabrication, is addressed head-on in the introduction and demonstrated time and again through historical anecdotes and analysis of historical records from the different cultures that have evolved in this region. Chapters 2–5 are devoted mainly to China (though with many eye-opening excursions to other areas in the region and beyond); chapter 6 to Vietnam; chapter 7 to Korea; and chapter 8 to Japan. The thematic strands of the book are effectively brought together in the concluding chapter, where the author argues that globalization, or "East Asianization," to use Holcombe's term ( p. 219), and the creation of distinct local cultures and identities are two sides of the same fundamental historical process that shaped the East Asian region as we know it.

The author, especially in the first five chapters, which deal primarily with the history of mainland China, does not follow a strict chronological line. Although the chapters can be seen as arranged according to a vague developmental trajectory, Holcombe freely travels back and forth through the millennium addressed by the book with examples from different periods sometimes discussed in the same paragraph. While this style is not very didactic, it makes for very interesting reading, bursting with amusing historical anecdotes and insights. Indeed the best parts of the book are those in which the author is able to transcend the chronological and geographic boundaries and highlight meaningful patterns of East Asian cultures and history. Such is, for example, the discussion of the importance of the Chinese script (Holcombe prefers the Japanese term kanji) to the integration of the region and to [End Page 381] the independent growth of local cultures within it (pp. 60–77). Abandoning the chronological-descriptive style typical of most books that address global and long-term processes allows for a higher level of discussion that assumes the reader has a certain basic knowledge, although there may be a price (to the publisher, perhaps, more than to the author) of losing the large potential audience of introduction-class students. In chapters 6–8, on regions outside mainland China, the discussion is less thematic and much more chronological, and these chapters are, to my mind, the less inspiring parts of the book.

The Genesis of East Asia is an important book not only because of the sheer amount of data it contains, which is limited by the format of the book, but because it is insightful and thought-provoking. Time and time again the author exerts considerable effort to avoid simplistic presumptions and to present historical processes in their immense complexity. Repeated attempts to address the concept of "ethnicity" and what it meant (or did not mean) in East...


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