Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The Tongking Gulf through History

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The Tongking Gulf through History

Article excerpt


The Tongking Gulf through history


Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011. Pp. 222. Maps, Illustrations,

Notes, Glossary, Index.

In the twentieth century, many outside Vietnam had never heard of the Gulf of Tongking until the USS Maddox incident in 1964 which ignited the United States' bombardment of North Vietnam and escalated American involvement in the Second Indochina War. Subsequently, little attention was paid to this 'backwater' or 'isolated Gulf', given the frigid China-Vietnam relationship following the 1979 border conflict. The perception of the Gulf as a 'backwater' was a product of the colonial era, following the French establishment of control over the area and successful forcing of the Qing government to allow them to 'rent' Guangzhou Bay in 1899. Up until then, the Gulf was well known as a centre for regional and international trade and cultural exchange. Historians of the late twentieth century began to reconsider this maritime area as a 'mini Mediterranean Sea' as had long been proposed by Braudelian scholars such as Denys Lombard. Applying this regional perspective, The Tongking Gulf through history highlights the lively history of the Gulf prior to the French colonial era.

This important book not only views the history of the Gulf from 'a horizontal angle', as the editors state, but it also combines a diachronic and synchronic approach in its two parts. Part I examines the Gulf's development until the tenth century, when the Vietnamese finally regained their millennia-old loss of independence. Prior to this political settlement, which theoretically set a border (though a highly ambiguous one) between China and Vietnam, numerous transformations had taken place in this dynamic water frontier region. And as Li Tana convincingly points out in her argument about the Han-era Jiaozhi region (encompassing northern Vietnam and southern China), such developments can only be perceived clearly if China-centred views are cast off, allowing us to see the other 'principalities' along the coastline that stretched between the southeastern China coast and central Vietnam (chap. 2). Sharing this view and analysing in detail the history of the ethnic Li-Lao 'stateless societies' in the north, Michael Churchman warns us that the history of the Gulf should not be, in any case, regarded as simply the history of the two contemporary nations sharing the water, but the history of a variety of groups and powers interacting with each other (chap. …

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