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  • A History of East Asia: From the Origins of Civilization to the Twenty-first Century
  • James A. Anderson (bio)
Charles Holcombe. A History of East Asia: From the Origins of Civilization to the Twenty-first Century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. xxiv, 430 pp. Illustrations and maps. Hardcover $95.00, ISBN 978-0-521-51595-5. Paperback $32.99, ISBN 978-0-521-73164-5.

Textbooks in an East Asian survey course can serve several different functions. Some texts are intended to create a context for an instructor’s lectures, providing necessary information about each country’s general history. This information is often accompanied by primary source excerpts, upon which supplementary class discussion may be focused. Rhoads Murphey’s East Asia: A New History, now in its fifth edition, fits well into this category. Some textbooks are intended to challenge accepted narratives, while still providing the topical coverage of earlier accounts. Pamela Kyle Crossley’s recent text on modern China The Wobbling Pivot, China since 1800: An Interpretive History would suit this category. Charles Holcombe’s ambitious A History of East Asia: From the Origins of Civilization to the Twenty-first Century fits somewhere between these approaches as a work that not only covers the bases but also manages to bring fresh historiographical insights to the classroom. Textbooks are not often known for innovation and originality, but Holcombe’s text significantly advances the area studies model of East Asian history first introduced by John King Fairbank, Albert Craig, and Edwin Reischauer in the field’s once dominant East Asia: Tradition and Transformation (1973). I congratulate the author on this achievement.

Holcombe’s textbook draws from recent secondary literature that addresses the weaknesses in prevailing nationalist narratives of the modern East Asian nations. These nationalist histories, often products of postcolonial efforts to find [End Page 190] the essence of national identity in the distant past, emphasize the unique characteristics of individual nations over longstanding cultural and historical links with other nations in the region. Contentious relations between Korea and Japan in the modern era, for example, influenced domestic scholarship in both countries on the ancient cultural ties between settlements in the Korean peninsula and the inhabitants of the islands now composing southern Japan. Depending on the political inclinations of the scholars involved, scholarship outside of China sought to downplay the sustained regional impact of various imperial-period Chinese regimes, although the Chinese writing system, Chinese style bureaucratic institutions, Confucianism, and Mahayana Buddhism were all acknowledged as widespread influences. Holcombe’s account acknowledges the distinct historical origins of each modern East Asian state, while the underlying connections between the core societies of the region are properly acknowledged.

Holcombe’s general approach in A History of East Asia is strongly interregional, and the text follows the author’s own earlier work and the current trend in the field to think cross-culturally, or transnationally, even in the period prior to the emergence of the nation-state.1 Holcombe notes the regional influence that Chinese culture, specifically the cultural norms developed in societies located on the North China plain, had on East Asia, but he reminds the reader that independent developments at the local level could be equally significant. Nonetheless, defining characteristics of social identity spread regionally, and East Asian elites had, at times, more in common with each other than they did with their own social subordinates. Holcombe does not, however, ascribe to the conventional notion that East Asian civilization developed in full on China’s central plains (zhongyuan) and, subsequently, flowed into other parts of East Asia. There were multiple cultural cores across modern-day China, East Asia, and even Eurasia that all contributed over time to various aspects of what is now deemed “Chinese” cultural practice. As Holcombe writes, “although [ancient] Chinese civilization did develop largely indigenously, it was never entirely a closed and isolated system” (p. 30).

I have used the author’s earlier work Genesis of East Asia several times in the classroom for my lecture survey on the early imperial period, and I am happy to see many fine elements of that work included in his textbook. In A History of East Asia, the author...