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  • China's Hegemony: Four Hundred Years of East Asian Domination by Ji-Young Lee
  • Yang Li
China's Hegemony: Four Hundred Years of East Asian Domination, by Ji-Young Lee. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016. 304 pp. US$60 (Hardcover). ISBN 9780231179744.

Ji-Young Lee's book, China's Hegemony: Four Hundred Years of East Asian Domination, is based on substantive research efforts to extract a part of underresearched history of less powerful countries (Korea and Japan in particular) in relation to China's hegemony in early modern East Asia. Under a common title, the book shows uncommon endeavors to patch mainstream theories on hegemony and related concepts with modern theoretical thinking. Culling through a great amount of historical facts, the author insightfully identified an overlooked factor, that is, the dynamic domestic needs for legitimation on the part of the less powerful countries, for explaining fluctuations in their attitude toward late traditional China through tribute practice. Furthermore, the author intuitively applied her historical findings to analyzing the current dynamics in East Asia, characterized by China's rise against the backdrop of the relative decline of American hegemony, and made an inconclusive observation on the trajectory of the interactive competitive process of the region. She prudently concluded, in Gaddis's way, that the certainty of China's rise does not guarantee the return of her historic hegemonic status in the region.

In separate chapters, Lee laboriously cuts into a mountain of accumulated literature addressing various important concepts and terms in the areas of international relations (IR), history and politics, such as hegemony (pp. 2, 4–6, 56–63), tribute system (pp. 2, 24, 27, 38, 47, 177), the character of Chinese hegemony (pp. 6–7, 10, 51) (from the beginning of the Ming empire in 1368 to the end of the eighteenth century; p. 17), authority (pp. 5–7, 41, 47), and hierarchy (pp. 5–6, 9–10, 51), which provided bricks for building her own way of studying history via a road less traveled. Regarding the hegemony, she argues that "the heart of" Chinese hegemony in history should be understood through "neighboring actors' pursuit of political legitimation in domestic power struggles rather than as an outcome of a single actor and its activities" (p. 2), and that "East Asian actors were not passive recipients of Chinese influence or domination" (p. 3). The argument is intended to complement mainstream theories on hegemony, various concepts of which are used to giving too much weight to the role of a dominant power, but goes too far as to have hastily arrived at the opposite extreme. If the notion of hegemony simply lies in "the centrality of less powerful actors' domestic legitimation [End Page 231] strategies" (p. 74), how could that be hegemony at all? If the argument were true to history, shouldn't we modify the term to "the collective hegemony of lesser states towards imperial China"? Paradoxically, it seems that Lee acknowledged the fact of the hegemonic status of imperial China, which reflected the existence of a social structure of hierarchy, and at the same time made great efforts to raise the importance of less powerful neighboring states, that is, Korea and Japan, to the same level as that of imperial China, which would resemble the existence of a social structure of anarchy. Then, how could it be possible for the author to make coherent her basic thesis if she deems, in the order of early modern East Asia, the existence of the simultaneity of hierarchy and anarchy, which are mutually incompatible?

Regarding the tribute system (TS), the author rightly points out that "the workings of the tribute system required the actions of other actors, not just China" (p. 3), but her lopsided analysis on the counter effect of the less powerful countries' participation in the system may mislead readers to consider this partial attribute as the whole picture of the TS. Moreover, her brief attack on Sino-centrism in the literature on the TS seems ineffective, as the bulk of the narrative, concentrating on explaining varying degrees of neighborly responses to the imperial China, is not diminishing the historical fact of the existence of a system with a...


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pp. 231-236
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