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Reviewed by:
  • Boundaries and Beyond: China's Maritime Southeast in Late Imperial Times by Ng Chin-Keong
  • Ronald C. Po
Boundaries and Beyond: China's Maritime Southeast in Late Imperial Times. By ng chin-keong. Singapore: NUS Press, 2016. 518 pp. $56.00 (hardcover).

Occasionally it can be tedious to read and review collections of essays that have already been published elsewhere. Those who need to read them have probably already consulted these pieces elsewhere, whereas those who do not are unlikely to seek out a book that, at best, contains one or two papers of relevance to their academic interests. [End Page 464] Fortunately, none of these criticisms applies to Ng Chin-keong's engaging volume of essays entitled Boundaries and Beyond: China's Maritime Southeast in Late Imperial Times. Even though all chapters have appeared before and the author tells us that, "the essays are kept in their original form and style," their fresh juxtaposition under four main categories brings with it a new unity of theme and insightful inspiration.

Ng Chin-keong is well known for his academic contribution to the history of Southeast China and frontier studies. Born in Singapore, trained in the United States and Australia as a scholar of Chinese history, and then joining the National University of Singapore, Ng brings a rich range of experiences and resources to a discussion of Chinese maritime consciousness along the coastal region of Southeast China. In this collection of his scholarly pieces we shall be able to dissect the distinctiveness of his point of view. Yet it can be hoped that in the very near future he will have the time and intellectual energy to provide us with an accumulation of his thinking and observations than he does here in a two-page preface, or sort of an Introduction.

Boundaries and Beyond consists of fourteen essays, which take up some 470 pages of a 500-page volume. Alongside Ng's classic Trade and Society: The Amoy Network on the China Coast, 1683–1735, here, we have an important set of contributions toward understanding two of the most significant provinces of coastal China, namely, Fujian and Guangdong. It is particularly inspiring to find Ng insisting, throughout the entire volume, that China's maritime southeast was bounded to the contesting forces of continuities and discontinuities in late imperial times. In addition to these two forces, the concept of boundary is also visibly highlighted not just in the book title but also in most chapters. I agree with Ng that these boundaries were always shifting, their state of flux continually being driven by emerging socioeconomic and, perhaps, cultural forces and, hence, they "embodied dualistic characters of tradition and change." (p. ix)

Ng's book is divided into four main categories: "Maritime East Asia in Historical Perspective" [consisting of one essay]; "Between 'Us' and 'Them'" [five essays]; "Pushing the Traditional Boundaries" [5 essays]; and "Transcending Borders" [3 essays]. The first chapter opens with the structure of long distance trade in the East Asian Sea prior to the early nineteenth century. It provides readers with a panoramic view to situate the subsequent chapters within a broader historical context. Ng's summary and analyses on the historical patterns of maritime development in China is nuanced and grounded in excellent textual scholarship. This chapter provides a foundational read for those [End Page 465] interested in how East Asia is conceptualized in terms of the region's popularity from the perspectives of its port-to-port and port-to-hinterland usages by various maritime entities.

Part Two, entitled "Between 'Us' and 'Them'", explores the shifting and perceived boundaries demarcated between familiarity (us) and otherness (them) in Southeast China. The thematic focus of this section is very much on the conception of haifang (coastal defence). As the author argues, "this conception sets self-imposed limits on their activities beyond the coastlines and kept away those whom they perceived to be intruders from outside of the boundary." (p. 55) In general, I have no reservations about this statement. But, I would like to remind our readers that the haifang concept from the Ming to the Qing changed over time. In addition, we must be careful to not...