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Reviewed by:
  • Diplomacy and Trade in the Chinese World, 589–1276
  • Tansen Sen (bio)
Hans Bielenstein. Diplomacy and Trade in the Chinese World, 589–1276. Handbook of Oriental Studies, Section 4: China. Leiden: Brill, 2005. x, 720 pp. Hardcover € 135.00; US $193.00, Isbn 90–04–14416–1.

The author of this book, Hans Bielenstein, is a renowned scholar of early Chinese history who has produced seminal works on the Han dynasty. The book under review, however, is a disappointment. It lacks detailed analysis of the diplomatic and commercial exchanges between the Chinese dynasties and foreign kingdoms. Many of the author's claims on China's trade and diplomatic relations with specific foreign kingdoms are questionable because of his failure to consult relevant secondary literature. Secondary works, including annotated editions of Chinese primary sources, are important because they clarify the sometimes conflicting dates of tribute missions, identify the kingdoms that sent them, and reconstruct the names of tribute carriers. They often place the tributary missions to the Chinese courts within the larger context of regional history and Sino-foreign relations. Bielenstein says that in writing the book, he follows his "usual habit of working from the sources up and not from my imagination down" (p. 3). His indifference to secondary literature and his reliance on only select, few primary sources seems to have led him astray. As a result, the opinions expressed in this book should be used with caution. The primary sources used for this book, as Bielenstein points out, are limited to the Chinese dynastic histories, the "texts called Collected Matters of Importance" (i.e., huiyao) and encyclopedias (p. 1). Bielenstein does not use [End Page 381] any foreign sources for the study because he wanted to "restrict" it to "a maneagable [sic] proportion, and therefore base it on the Chinese corpus of information" (p. 2). But, the "Chinese corpus" also includes local histories, travel records, miscellanies (biji), and Buddhist texts. Some of these sources include substantial information on Sino-foreign exchanges. For instance, the Buddhist work Fayuan zhulin (Pearl-grove of the Garden of the Law, T. 2122) has accounts of the Tang embassies to Middle India and the envoy Wang Xuance (fl. seventh century) not available in the dynastic histories or the encyclopedias. Since he is unaware of these records, Bielenstein has nothing to say about the possible religious motives of the Tang missions led by Wang Xuance or the sugar-making technology acquired by some of the Tang emissaries during one of their trips to southern Asia.1

After his note on the primary and secondary sources, Bielenstein outlines the aim of the book in a four-page introduction (pp. 5–8). The book, he writes, "is chiefly a study of the exchange of missions and the goods they brought. Government trade is therefore a major theme of this work" (p. 5). Bielenstein then lists the issues he does not address in the book: "[T]he theory of foreign policy," "the high-level debates and discussions at the court" on the foreign peoples, "the strategies of diplomatic specialists," and "the diplomatic correspondences, or the reminiscences of envoys." "Military conflicts," he notes, "are mentioned only in passing" (p. 5). He also dismisses "private and foreign travelers," such as Buddhist monks, because "they did not represent their countries" (p. 5). In Bielenstein's opinion, trade "was the exclusive purpose" (p. 5) for most of the diplomatic missions to the Chinese courts. He repeats this contention throughout the 720-page book, but never offers a detailed analysis on the connection between diplomacy and trade. He does not explain how foreign embassies and kingdoms may have profited from the diplomatic missions, nor does he address the possible impact of tributary missions on Chinese economy (especially during the Song period).

Following the introduction are fifteen chapters that focus on geographical regions (such as "Continental South Asia" and "The Middle East"), neighboring tribes, and the non-Chinese empires of Xixia, Liao, and Jin. Most of these chapters are divided into four sections: a short introduction, a list of tribute missions exchanged between the region and the Chinese court, data on the tribute presented by the foreign missions, and maps relevant...