- Early Modern China and Northeast Asia: Cross-Border Perspectives by Evelyn S. Rawski
In her previous book, The Last Emperors, Evelyn Rawski drew on her knowledge of Manchu and Chinese sources to give us a remarkable account of the Qing administrative structure.1 In that volume she shows us a state that a Confucian scholar of the Ming era would hardly recognize as Chinese, with an army organized according to banners and an administration dominated by the Imperial Household Service at the top, a state manned by a dyad of banner and scholar leaders for every ministry and province. Moreover, it was a Chinese administration that not only celebrated Confucian rituals within its central and southern core but also carried out Buddhist rituals for its Tibetan and Mongol territories and maintained nomadic customs and rituals for its northeast regions. However much it supported Confucian scholars and enforced Confucian orthodoxy in law and letters within the basins [End Page 258] of the Yellow, Yangzi, and Pearl Rivers, the Qing domain extended far beyond these regions. To rule this vast multiethnic space and maintain the loyalty of both its Manchu conquest elite and its Han bureaucratic officials, Qing leaders blended a variety of cultural and administrative practices to create something novel and far richer and more complex than traditional Chinese governance.
In her new book, Rawski again challenges what we might think of as “Chinese” history. Drawing now also on Korean and Japanese, as well as Manchu and Chinese, sources and on secondary literatures, she develops a vision of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Northeast Asia that radically decenters China from the narrative. Rawski argues that the dominant approach to East Asia prior to 1840 has been to treat China’s history as driven mainly by the dynamics of developing and collapsing dynasties, with other Asian states—Japan, Korea, the Liao, Jin, and Manchu—playing a peripheral role and becoming more or less Sinicized the more they penetrated into the Chinese space. Spurred in part by the need of modern states to create national histories, scholars continue to relate Chinese history as the story of successive dynasties (as in the Harvard University Press History of Imperial China series),2 while the histories of Japan and Korea are also relayed mainly as self-centered national narratives.
Rawski seeks to overturn the idea that East Asian history can be meaningfully told as discrete national narratives. Reminding us that for two-thirds of the period from 1000 to 2000 much of what we think of as “China” was ruled by non-Chinese dynasties, she forcefully states that the politics, culture, and history of China cannot be understood as simply and characteristically Chinese. Rather, the impact of non-Chinese polities and cultures shaped what happened in China and left indelible marks.
Her book focuses in particular on the period from 1550 to 1800, centuries in which China’s economy and politics were increasingly impacted by events in Korea, Japan, the Northeast (the region roughly from Beijing to the Amur River), and Russia, as well as by the activities of European merchants, scholars, soldiers, armorers, and missionaries. Telling the story of the collapse of Ming rule and the conquest of [End Page 259] China and Central Asia from “the other side,” using Manchu, Korean, and Japanese narratives, Rawski creates quite a different perspective from the Beijing-centered view that typically emphasizes imperial power and unity.
The story begins with the spread of European influence into East Asia, not only from Portugal and Spain via the sea, but also from Russia via Siberia. Europeans brought with them superior guns and artillery, which were quickly adopted by the Japanese, who used them in their invasion of Korea and then in the civil wars that eventually unified the country under the Tokugawa shogunate. Foreigners also brought silver, which in conjunction with Japanese silver and copper allowed the Ming rulers to shift to a silver-based bimetallic tax and commercial system. Rawski also puts much emphasis...