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  • History without Borders: The Making of an Asian World Region, 1000–1800 by Geoffrey C. Gunn
  • Keng We Koh
History without Borders: The Making of an Asian World Region, 1000–1800. By Geoffrey C. Gunn. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2011. 444 pp. $60.00 (cloth).

History without Borders is not just an Asian-centered world history. It is a Southeast Asian–centered world history. It is not only an attempt to “re-orient” world history, in response to the call of scholars like Janet Abu-Lughod, Andre Gunder Frank, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and Takeshi Hamashita for an Asian perspective, but also distinguishes itself from these earlier Asian-centered world historians by taking Southeast Asia, rather than territorial or maritime China or India (or the Indian Ocean), as its starting point and as the central axis of the book. It might not be the first to write Southeast Asia into world history and vice versa, given Anthony Reid’s An Age of Commerce, Victor Lieberman’s Strange Parallels, and Craig Lockard’s Southeast Asia in World History, but it departs from all three in its time frame and its ultimate aim of writing an Asian-centered and maritime-based world history.

The time frame of Gunn’s work is also rather different from earlier Asian-centered world histories, which had used the chronologies of European expansion, the emergence and spread of Islam (Abu-Lughod), and the Ming engagement with China (Anthony Reid). Recent works by Southeast Asian historians have also sought to push back what Reid (1993) had termed the Age of Commerce to circa 900 (Wade, 2009). Instrumental in this periodization (from 1000 c.e. onward) and highlighting [End Page 679] the importance of East-Southeast Asian interactions in this scheme would be the advent of private Chinese trade to Southeast Asia during the Song dynasty.

Gunn begins with a discussion of the recent works positing an Asian world history, from what he calls the East Asian Regionalism school to the Indian Ocean specialists, with the aim of outlining an approach to a “Long Orient-First” world history. Encapsulated within this discussion is the problem of conceptualizing East and Southeast Asia as a region. Following Takeshi Hamashita, Denys Lombard, and Francois Gipouloux, and perhaps the recent works of Angela Schottenhammer, Gunn posits the idea of an Oriental Mediterranean and the role of water in the framing of an East Asian region that incorporates Southeast Asia. In his schema, and one might say that that is where he departs from Schottenhammer, maritime Southeast Asia is the center of this frame rather than maritime China.

The centrality of Southeast Asia in this world history is clear in the structure of his book. His next few chapters chart the early history of Southeast Asia, from the prehistoric and early historic periods through the rise and fall of the “charter” kingdoms. Processes receiving attention include the development of different metal technologies, the Austronesian migrations, and Indian trade and “civilizational” transfers.

In the chapters on Islamic courts and maritime ports, and tribute trade and Chinese diasporas, respectively, he surveys the roles of the Indian Ocean and East Asian connections, both in the spread of Islam to island Southeast Asia as well as the changing modes of exchange and flows of commodities and people between China and Southeast Asia. The importance of trade in his approach is seen in the separate chapter on commerce, currencies, and commodities, dealing with coinages in Southeast Asia as well as East–Southeast Asian commodity connections.

This is followed by his discussion of the European interactions with Southeast and East Asia, namely the Iberian “maritime networks,” and what he called the “hegemonic sequence” of the Dutch and English trading companies. In the rest of the book, he goes beyond the conventional historiography of maritime Southeast Asia between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, which had hitherto focused on European expansion and spices, by incorporating recent research trends that have posited the continuity of earlier intra-Asian flows and systems during the period of European expansion. Thus Japanese diasporic communities in Southeast Asia, the intra-Asian bullion trade networks, the global ceramic trade (and the East–Southeast Asia axis), and...


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pp. 679-681
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