David C. Kang, East Asia before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute

By Ellington, Lucien | Southeast Review of Asian Studies, Annual 2011 | Go to article overview

David C. Kang, East Asia before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute


Ellington, Lucien, Southeast Review of Asian Studies


David C. Kang, East Asia Before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010. xiv+221 pages.

David Kang, professor of international relations and business and director of USC's Korean Studies Institute, entitles the concluding chapter of East Asia Before the West "Lessons: History Forward and Backward." This is a play on a Soren Kierkegaard (1813-55) quotation: "Life can only be understood backward; but it must be lived forward." The quotation reflects the primary purposes of Kang's book. Kang's history of East Asian relations before Western colonialism is not simply a historical narrative but a focused attempt to inform readers about a regional system predicated on different cultural assumptions than those of the West. This is an important goal because traces of these differing perspectives still linger and matter.

The book is part of Columbia University Press' series Contemporary Asia in the World, which Kang co-edits with Victor Cha. The book achieves the series' avowed aim of addressing the gap in public policy and scholarly discussion about Asia. Scholars, policy wonks, and lay people interested in Asia should find the book informative. In his systematic treatment of East Asia's China-centered tribute system, complemented by intermittent comparisons with Europe's post-1648 Peace of Westphalia international order, Kang provides a rich cultural, historical, and political context vital for understanding East Asia's past and how it might inform its present and future. The book is clearly-written, concise, and thoroughly documented. Kang has created an excellent pedagogical tool that can be used in undergraduate and advanced secondary school courses, including world history, international relations, comparative politics, and introduction to East Asia.

Kang begins the book with a brief discussion of the 1592-98 Imjin War, a major conflict in pre-modern history that pitted Korea and China against Japan, which had seriously challenged the East Asian status quo by invading Korea. The author then asks why, for approximately three hundred years before and three hundred years after this traumatic event, China, Korea, Vietnam and Japan enjoyed relatively consistent stability. From 1598 until 1841, for example, there was only one other war involving East Asian states (China and Vietnam). Europe, by comparison, was mired in perpetual conflict. Kang then introduces the book's themes, including the historical and cultural roots of Chinese hegemony, an examination of the tribute system that accentuates not only its symbolic but also its practical importance for East Asian states, China's relation to other Sinic states as well as various Southeast Asian polities, the demise of the Sino-centric tribute system, and what all this means for better understanding contemporary international relations.

In the ensuing chapter Kang describes the concepts of hierarchy, status, and hegemony, and explains why they are important in international relations theory and particularly in understanding the evolution of East Asia's international relations. In chapter three, he provides a historical overview of East Asia that focuses upon China's ascent primarily as a result of its earlier cultural achievements, including the development of a written language and accompanying literary, philosophical, and historical canon, and the creation of effective public and private institutions in conjunction with the establishment of coherent and functional belief systems including, most notably, Confucianism.

In a particularly well-argued chapter, the author elaborates upon the East Asian tribute system that China, with the cooperation of Korea, Vietnam, and a more ambivalent Japan, created and maintained for almost six centuries. The system also encompassed, to varying degrees, the Ryukyu Islands and parts of Southeast Asia. This Sino-centric system was based upon subordinate states formally recognizing China's cultural (but not political) hegemony. …

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