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Reviewed by:
  • Ambassadors from the Islands of Immortals: China-Japan Relations in the Han-Tang Period
  • Charlotte von Verschuer
Ambassadors from the Islands of Immortals: China-Japan Relations in the Han-Tang Period. By Zhenping Wang. University of Hawai'i Press, 2005. 387 pages. Hardcover $53.00.

For the last decade or so the Japanese public seems to have taken an increasing interest in Japan's historical relations with its Asian neighbors. The new Kyushu National Museum in Fukuoka has as a main theme of its permanent collection the exchange of goods in East Asia. Numerous international conferences and other events recently have focused on the community of East Asian countries. Ambassadors from the Islands of Immortals: China-Japan Relations in the Han-Tang Period, by Zhenping Wang, offers English readers a welcome introduction to this field. It is even more timely as conferences on the official Japanese missions to Tang China have boomed since the discovery, in November 2004, of a gravestone with the epitaph of a Japanese who died in the Tang capital of Chang'an in 734 A.D. Featured in the 2005 exhibition "Embassies to China and Tang Art" (Kentōshi to Tō no bijutsu) at the National Museum in Tokyo, the tombstone and the Japanese missions have received much attention in the media.

The book under review has ten chapters of different styles and formats. The first two chapters give a convenient abstract of studies on Yamatai and Japan-China relations from the first to the seventh century. Wang cites the reports on Japan included in the Chinese dynastic histories from the translation by L. Carrington Goodrich and Ryusaku Tsunoda (Japan in the Chinese Dynastic Histories; South Pasadena: PD and Lone Perkins, 1951). He also takes up Japanese archaeological findings, including the famous seal of investiture bestowed by the Han court on "the king of Na/Nu" in A.D. 57, and discusses the female ruler Himiko, who is reported to have sent envoys to China in the 230s. (For a more detailed discussion of Himiko, see Joan Piggott, The Emergence of Japanese Kingship, Stanford University Press, 1997.) In chapter 3 Wang provides an outline, based on Chinese primary and secondary sources, of the Chinese tributary system and an analysis of Chinese official missions to other Asian countries (the interested reader can find a fuller and more analytic account of Sui-Tang foreign relations in Pan Yihong, Son of Heaven and Heavenly Qaghan: Sui-Tang China and Its Neighbors, Western Washington University, 1997). In the second half of this chapter, Wang adds a description of the system of "Japanese missions to Tang" (kentōshi) by introducing concrete cases of several diplomats who crossed the sea in the eighth and ninth centuries.

"The Voyage to China" (chapter 4) provides an account of the organization of the Japanese embassies, from the construction of ships and holding of court ceremonies to accidents and shipwrecks. To illustrate such procedures and events, the author [End Page 251] follows the course of the embassy of 838, to which the monk Ennin (794-864) was attached. The same embassy was also documented in English by Edwin O. Reischauer in Ennin's Diary (New York: Ronald Press, 1955). A similar study can be found in an article by Robert Borgen, "The Japanese Mission to China, 801-806," MN 37:1 (Spring 1982). But Wang also offers the reader translations of poems by members of the embassy that vividly show the fears and mixed feelings of the official delegates.

Wang quotes Japanese primary sources, especially the official chronicles (Rikko-kushi), but he sometimes adds questionable interpretations of his own. One also gains the impression that he is not very familiar with the protocol of the Heian court. He writes, for instance, that before the departure to China, "in order to boost the morale of the diplomats, in the late fourth month [of 838], the emperor treated them to a grand banquet at the Ceremonial Court. … To add an atmosphere of jubilation to the occasion, participants were ordered to compose poems using the farewell party as a theme" (p. 71). The source cited does not say anything about the banquet being intended to improve the...


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