- Asia Inside Out: Changing Times ed. by Eric Tagliacozzo, Helen F. Siu, and Peter C. Purdue
Since the publication of Ray Huang’s classic 1981 work, 1587: A Year of No Significance, many years that were putatively insignificant have been found to be quite historically significant after all. Huang’s ironic rhetorical pronouncement is of course a reminder of just what the enterprise of history is all about. Instead of focusing on cataclysmic moments of momentous changes, history should be seen as a seamless temporo-spatial web of continuous developments, wherein apparently tiny segments and units of time serve as windows to much broader vistas. The edited volume under review is animated by this very spirit of appreciating and savoring microscopic moments as narrative and analytic sites on which understandings of macroscopic historical imports can be reached. By delving into small moments—in most cases single, individual years—the contributors together re-limn a big picture of Asia as an intricately connected geographical entity in an effort to “redefine conventional understandings of the vast land and sea regions stretching from the Middle East and South, across the seas of Southeast Asia, and up the East Asian coast to China, Korea, and Japan” (p. 1). Their goal is to break free from the straightjacketing conceptions of Asian territories as spatial pockets having disparate and separate histories, [End Page 146] defined in terms of some taken-for-granted state boundaries, linguistic commonalities, religious associations, cultural affinities, and so on. Such criteria of self-contained regions elide much of the internal diversity of an area as well as its external interconnectivity to other lands.
To accomplish the task of reconceptualizing Asia by revealing its interregional interaction and international nexus at different historical junctures, each of the contributors probes deeply into the events and occurrences of a year or a decade in one small area so as to throw into sharp relief the larger englobing historical forces, from the sixteenth century all the way to the twenty-first. Heidi Walcher’s essay, “1501 in Tabriz: From Tribal Takeover to Imperial Trading Circuit?” challenges the historiographic convention of accepting the year of 1501 as the founding date of modern Iran by highlighting the continuities with former regimes and locating the establishment of the Safavid dynasty in the larger contexts of Central Asian histories, thereby showing the complexities of the geopolitics of a place and regime that was situated in the vast interstice between Europe and China. Victor Lieberman’s chapter, “1555: Four Imperial Revivals,” is a wide-ranging comparative study of four Asian states, arguing that the mid-sixteenth century was the crucial time during which Burma, Russia, Japan, and India embarked on substantial transformation and revealing the many similar factors that enabled each of them to become an enduring empire. Peter C. Purdue’s “1557: A Year of Some Significance” begins with the year when Ming China awarded the Portuguese a foothold in Macau and then promptly weaves this event into a larger fabric of roughly concurrent happenings: the surrender of Chinese pirate-merchants to a Ming official, the rise of an overseas Chinese enclave in Southeast Asia, and the negotiations to end the Mongol incursions into the northwest—and offers in the process an integrated story that shows the importance of the relations between the Ming Empire and its borderlands, which were in many ways governed by the forces generated by global economic exchanges and the imperial imperatives of Portugal and Spain.
With Nancy Um’s piece, “1636 and 1726: Yemen after the First Ottoman Era,” the volume brings us to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Um examines the global coffee trade in terms of Yemen’s strategic location, and the Yemenese imams’ efforts to navigate the stormy commercial seas traveled by European, Middle Eastern, and Asian traders, as these local leaders catered to the economic needs of the Ottomans while responding to the contingencies of the transactions and transfers of the global commodity of coffee. Charles Wheeler’s “An Offshore...