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  • Response: Theory and Empirics in the Study of Historical East Asian International Relations
  • David C. Kang 강찬웅

East Asia, tributary system, international order, measurement, war, history, international relations theory

It is a genuine honor that these wonderful scholars have engaged critically and thoughtfully with my work, and I am grateful for their detailed comments on the themes and arguments of East Asia before the West.1 My main point in that book is that early modern East Asia had an international system with its own institutions and norms. This system was neither universal nor inevitable; rather, it was the result of a series of choices and decisions over centuries. In their articles, Joshua Van Lieu questions whether it is possible to reify structures and institutions that existed back in time, and he subjects the issue of whether there can be such a thing as “historical facts” to scrutiny; Hendrik Spruyt argues that the historical cultural order was not as central to the working of the system as I argue; Saeyoung Park writes that explaining why China wanted status in the first place is a key unexplored issue; and Sankaran Krishna argues that despite my best attempts, my work still reflects deeply Eurocentric views. These are all interesting and important arguments, deserving careful scrutiny and discussion.

In this response, I avoid simply reiterating the arguments made in East Asia before the West and instead try to move debate forward by making two main points. First, a number of the critiques are in fact calls to extend the basic argument and approach presented in East Asia before the West. These criticisms emphasize the need for even more [End Page 111] research on the era and the region; they press for even greater attention to the myriad complex and nuanced ways in which international relations worked at the time. Second, the fact that East Asian history—and the study of East Asian history—can be politicized for contemporary political ends does not mean that we should all be political; rather, the solution to the politicization of scholarship is to redouble scholarly efforts and reemphasize scholarly methods for evaluating research: What is the logic of the argument, and what is the evidence presented? What are we measuring? How well do our causal arguments explain the observed patterns?

International Systems before Westphalia

Spruyt and Van Lieu argue that East Asia before the West overstates China’s role as hegemon in early modern East Asia. However, if we accept the existence in East Asia of an international system different from that of the West, with different norms and institutions, then debate is largely about the elements of that different system and about how to more clearly delineate the complex and myriad causal factors and empirical patterns of that system. In such a debate, the basic premise of East Asia before the West has already been accepted. Such critiques, which call for extensions and further nuance, are complementary in nature.

For example, two common criticisms of my work on historical East Asia arise from the facts that the international system there was not called a tributary system at the time, and that the tributary system was not an all-encompassing, complete set of norms and institutions that was used everywhere by everyone. Van Lieu’s argument that there was a lack of knowledge at the time about a tributary system and that it was not then called a tributary system is similar to an argument Liam Kelley makes, when he refuses to call historical countries by their contemporary names. Thus, Kelley writes about the “northern kingdom” and the “southern kingdom” instead of China and Vietnam, because those ideas would have been mystifying to ancient kings five hundred years ago.2 [End Page 112]

On the one hand, I agree with Van Lieu—it was not called a tributary system at the time. However, what actors themselves call their behavior can be completely different from how an outside observer characterizes it. After all, the “Westphalian” system of international relations was not so named until the 1970s, even though the system ostensibly came into existence during the 1600s; similarly, the “balance of power” system of historical Europe was...


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