Journal of World History 24.2 (2003) 250-253
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The Genesis of East Asia, 221 B.C.-A.D. 907. By Charles Holcombe. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2001. 344 pp. $19.95 (paper); $55.00 (cloth).
Joshua Fogel, the series editor of Asian Interactions and Comparisons, of which Charles Holcombe's The Genesis of East Asia, 221 B.C.-A.D. 907 is the third installment, characterizes the book as neither monograph nor textbook, but rather a "synoptic history of the first millennium of East Asian history," one with an important comparative approach (p. vii). Holcombe argues that between the third century B.C.E. and the tenth century C.E. "a distinct Asian region first took [End Page 250] shape," an unapologetically Sinocentric sphere defined by the extension of tianxia, or the notion that "all-under-heaven" shared a common written language and Confucian humanism, but also a sphere that tolerated an astonishing degree of ethnic diversity (p. 3). Holcombe rejects the idea that the modern nations of East Asia remain rooted in "primordial ethnonational distinctions," submitting instead that modern nations are "created and evolve through both deliberate and unintended human action" (p. 7). If modern nations remain creations of "imagined communities," then the time period and geographic region under consideration in The Genesis of East Asia possessed more real affinities, ones that can be identified and teased out by the hands of a skillful historian like Holcombe.
Holcombe divides The Genesis of East Asia into nine chapters (including an introduction and conclusion), and draws on an impressive array of sources to illustrate how the nations now defined by these linguistic groups came to constitute an East Asian civilization. Perhaps the only weak part of the book itself are the maps, which, to be perfectly frank, are essentially useless considering the geographic and ethnic complexities discussed in the narrative. In chapters two and three, Holcombe demonstrates how China, after the birth of Confucian humanism, became not a geographic space but a more malleable cultural one in the form of a civilization. China then extended the benefits of Confucianism to ethnic groups not considered Han Chinese by contemporary standards, illustrating why, as Holcombe explains, "a modern Western-style ethnonational image of premodern China is so misleading" (p. 41). In the fourth chapter, by contrast, Holcombe traces the spread of Buddhism, the extension of the silk roads and other trade arteries, the birth of maritime economies, and the emergence of a vibrant Indic civilization in the South Seas. In the fifth chapter, Holcombe then turns our attention to the role that various ethnic groups played in the creation of Chinese civilization, such as the role of the Tuoba Xianbei of the Northern Wei in the establishment of the equal-field system (pp. 131-33). In the final three chapters, Holcombe examines the civilizing mission of the Sinocentric order as it extended to the countries of Vietnam, Korea, and Japan, respectively.
In the case of the extension of East Asian civilization to Japan, Holcombe explains that once early courtiers adopted the trappings of this civilization, largely in the form of the Chinese written language (Holcombe here characterizes kanji, or Chinese characters, as an "empire of ideas") and Confucian humanism, there emerged "one universal elite East Asian high culture and as many different local popular cultures as there were local communities" (p. 45). In other words, the [End Page 251] elite culture of a primordial Japan was in some respects trumped by a broader Sinocentric East Asian civilization. This is, as Holcombe admits, a provocative assertion, as it suggests that historians who search for traces of Japanese civilization in this elite culture, say, in such classics as the Genji Monogatari (Tale of Genji), fall prey to the imaginary genealogy of the modern nation. Interestingly, Holcombe also points out how such East Asian affinities transcended the period discussed in The Genesis of East Asia, including the Qin dynasty slogan fuguo qiangbing (or fukoku kyöhei in Japanese), which Meiji leaders later popularized in the nineteenth century as...