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  • La Méditerranée asiatique: Villes portuaires et réseaux marchands en Chine, au Japon et en Asie du Sud-est, XVIe–XXIe siècle
  • Laurence Monnais
La Méditerranée asiatique: Villes portuaires et réseaux marchands en Chine, au Japon et en Asie du Sud-est, XVIe–XXIe siècle. By François Gipouloux. Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2009. 480 pp. €35 (paper).

The most recent work of François Gipouloux, a specialist on the Chinese economy, is an ambitious tome: “tome” because it is nearly five hundred pages and twenty chapters long, “ambitious” because the work attempts not only to cover the history of commercial networks in East and Southeast Asia from the sixteenth century onward but also to test Braudel’s Mediterranean metaphor so as to render a clearer image of the nature and cultures of these Asian networks. More specifically, the author’s goal is to demonstrate the preeminent place of commercial flows and port cities, from Vladivostock to Singapore and everything in between, in the management, the control, and ultimately the grandeur of East Asia. Gipouloux is not the first to use Braudel’s concept— contested by some scholars who remind us of the historical presence of certain Asian states—nor does he claim to be. At the same time, he hopes to innovate in using the “Mediterranean” metaphor as a means of proving that East Asia, the scene of an early transnational economic integration, achieved by maritime cities that enjoyed considerable [End Page 380] entrepreneurial and legal autonomy, was not simply a pale imitation of Europe —not now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and not “before” (pp. 15–20).

La Méditerranée asiatique is a response to increasing—and understandable — demands for further research on globalization, its mechanisms, and above all its origins, all of which are helpful in ongoing scholarly efforts to decenter our understanding of the world economy and its history. For these reasons, Gipouloux’s work deserves careful reading by all those who are interested in Asia and the specific nature of its economy. That said, historians may be disappointed. First, even if he seeks to establish links in time and space, Gipouloux takes great liberties with chronology. He tends to lump the sixteenth and the twenty-first centuries together and to overlook the regional histories of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as well as the history of the relations between East Asia and the West during this same period. The end of the tribute system is given short shrift, as is the subject of the rules controlling regional commerce prior to the forced opening by the West (part 3). The Cold War seems largely forgotten as well, even though much of today’s world is the direct product either of the American role in the growth of the Japanese economy, or that of the Socialist bloc in the planned (autarchic?) economies of the period between 1960 and 1980. The Cold War also figures prominently in the genealogy of institutions such as ASEAN. To what extent is it justified to draw parallels between the grafting of Western commerce onto local Asian networks in the sixteenth century with similar twentieth-century economic activities? Was “reglobalization” of the post-1945 era a simple intensification of the exchanges of the sixteenth century? These questions remain unanswered.

In addition, the title is misleading in that the book does not really discuss Southeast Asia but rather East Asia—and barely that: Korea is absent, and Japan sketched in an impressionistic fashion. Much could have been said about the seventeenth-century cosmopolitan Vietnamese port of Hoi An (mentioned only once, p. 121), or about the piracy and smuggling networks (briefly discussed, pp. 107–108), a dynamic presence throughout Southeast Asia up to the twentieth century, despite the efforts by colonial governments to neutralize them, as recently demonstrated by Eric Tagliacozzo.1 These illicit networks, marginal but flexible, have returned in force since the 1990s. Gipouloux’s [End Page 381] analysis of the role of the Chinese diaspora in the economy of the region seems paradoxically limited: nothing is said of the Hakkas, for example, although this group offers, historically, one of...


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pp. 380-382
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