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Thursday, March 15, 2001

Taking the long view on history


Staff writer
EAST ASIA AT THE CENTER: Four Thousand Years of Engagement with the World, by Warren I. Cohen. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000, 516 pp.

You don't have to believe in the Asian Century or any other form of that nonsense to admit that Western understanding of Asia is woefully inadequate. The intellectual imperialism of the 20th century is as pernicious as the economic and political imperialism that preceded it. The conventional wisdom has Europe discovering Asia -- the Far East, as a decidedly Eurocentric map would frame the world. That conveniently overlooks the centuries of contact initiated by Asian traders who worked their way west in search of new markets and products. It ignores millennia of civilizations that rose and fell, the culture, traditions and glories they created and destroyed.

Calling those omissions an oversight is like calling murder a mistake: It just doesn't sound right.

Remedying the problem is not as easy as it might sound. First, there is that most basic issue: What is Asia? What countries does it include, what are its borders? It's easy to declare the Pacific its eastern limit, but how far does it stretch to the West? Where does South Asia shade into the Middle East, where does Central Asia become Russia?

Once we grasp its contours, we then have to come to grips with its contents: 20-plus countries, each with its own long and rich history. Whatever your metaphor, making sense of thousands of years of cultural interaction and providing a coherent account of the influences and ideas is a daunting assignment.

Most mortals would conclude that daring to write a history of all Asia in a single book is folly or arrogance. Fortunately, Warren I. Cohen was not deterred. Chalk it up to age, experience, curiosity and humility -- whatever. Cohen, distinguished university professor of history at University of Maryland Baltimore County and author of several histories of U.S. foreign policy, has attempted the impossible with "East Asia at the Center" and largely succeeded. His book is an absorbing corrective to the Eurocentric view that dominates most thinking about the world.

Cohen's interest was triggered by his discovery of Chinese coins and pottery shards in a 13th-century Swahili village on the coast of Kenya. Coming just after he had read a history of the travels of Zheng He, the Chinese eunuch who voyaged across Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean during the 15th century, Cohen confessed that "it was time to broaden my education." He admits that "specialists on every country of the region and every period I have covered doubtless will be appalled at the brevity of my treatment of issues on which they have written countless monographs. Some will be troubled by the lack of detail in a landscape painted with so broad a brush, by my apparent lack of appreciation of the subtle distinctions they have portrayed so painstakingly."

Fair enough. Four thousand years in 484 pages is sure to irritate most specialists. I guess Oda Nobunaga was lucky to get his one long paragraph. (Readers will appreciate the maps, time lines and tables that make historical references and parallels. "East Asia at the Center" is very reader-friendly.)

Others will challenge Cohen's focus on "states" when, for much of the time, states as we know them did not exist. He acknowledges the conceptual difficulty but argues that the term is useful, even if not exact.

The result is a sweeping history of Asia, with China firmly at the center. Cohen brings just about everything into his work -- politics, economics, culture, international relations -- and takes a variety of perspectives. Although China dominates the narrative, there is ample material on Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia and Central Asia, at least insofar as its inhabitants played a role in East Asia.

There is something of a "gee whiz" element to the narrative. Since Cohen's own interest was piqued by his discovery of Zheng He, he is alert to those details that tweak the conventional wisdom. That doesn't make them any less interesting or important, but they can be distracting, as if the subject itself might not be sufficient to sustain a reader's interest.

For example, he notes that by 681 BCE, Duke Huan of Qi had convened a conference that was the first recorded collective-security arrangement; it joined all the eastern and central Chinese states that existed at the time. A few years later, Huan was named hegemon, director of collective security. Cohen also points out that this period of Chinese history, known as the Spring and Autumn Era, also witnessed the rise of a collection of individuals who aspired to be national-security advisers to feudal lords; readers taking notes might remember that the United States didn't institutionalize the position until after World War II.

While we credit the Greeks and Romans with laying the foundations of Western thought, Cohen reminds us that the great debates over foreign policy and international relations were anticipated by the Chinese thousands of years earlier. No matter who was ruling China, in whatever form it took, two questions were continually asked in court. First, should the empire expand (which was another way of asking whether empire was worth the price of defense), and second, what was the best way to deal with neighbors, allies, friends and enemies? Those questions preoccupy governments and policymakers to this day. And the answers we have are no more definitive than those reached by the Chinese.

From Cohen's perspective, the single most important feature of East Asian history is Chinese imperialism. Every Chinese leader -- and the adjective must be used in the loosest possible sense, since many emperors were not Han and would take on the label (or be adopted as Chinese) only after taking power -- endeavored to extend the boundaries of the state. Conflict was a constant.

But the Chinese need to be at the center of the world clashed with the reality of Chinese strength. The result was a curious kind of imperialism. While Chinese leaders demanded that other states kowtow and submit to them, in fact the tributes paid to China were often considerably less than the rewards offered in return. In other words, Chinese suzerainty was something of a sham: Chinese leaders got the credit, the lackeys got the gold or silk or ceramics. Not a bad deal.

At the same time, Cohen notes that, despite the Middle Kingdom mentality, the Chinese proved to be exceptionally cosmopolitan. They were quite willing to absorb foreign cultures and influence, be it Buddhism from India or spices from Southeast Asia. Cohen's rendering of history shows that China was one of the first nations to use "soft power" -- the ability to sway other countries though the use of cultural and intellectual influence.

"As the Tang dynasty disintegrated, Chinese dominance over East Asia ended. China was no longer a threat to its neighbors, but it still had incredible influence . . . South China increased participation in international trade and its culture had tremendous influence . . . Chinese porcelains were in demand as far as the Mediterranean and evidence of their import and influence is found today in West Africa and much of the Middle East, as well as many points along the way. Chinese law, literature, and philosophy continued to attract intellectuals and officials in Japan, Korea and Vietnam."

The real turning point in East Asian history was the 16th century, according to Cohen. Then the Chinese still controlled the spice trade through Southeast Asia. Yet, "the Ming walked away -- and into the vacuum poured the surging Europeans." Traders and governments were drawn by the lure of incalculable wealth; missionaries followed searching for souls and opportunities to extend the influence of their church or sect. At this point, the narrative becomes more familiar.

There is a lot to contemplate in "East Asia at the Center." For Cohen, the chief question at the dawn of the 21st century is China's power. How will that nation use its new wealth and influence? What lessons from its history will it choose to learn? What lessons will its neighbors learn?

But there is considerably more to plumb in the book. Even though the two Korean governments have only initiated their diplomatic dance after a half-century of hostility, it isn't too early to start thinking about their future. Cohen's account provides some insight into how that might develop. Many observers anticipate friction between Japan and Korea in the future, and forecast some sort of rapprochement between Seoul and Beijing. But history reveals a much longer antagonism between China and Korea; the game of divide and conquer that Chinese leaders have played with the various Korean dynasties makes for fascinating reading -- and suggests that a little history is a dangerous thing.

As are short memories. Cohen reminds us that Tibet has a proud and glorious history. "By the 8th century, the Tibetans were an aggressive empire that overwhelmed China. The 783 truce between the two ceded all territory Tibet had taken since 756." China's subsequent claim that the country has always been a tributary reflects both a particularly short-sighted view of history and a Western take on the past. Validation for Beijing's claim comes indirectly from British acquiescence to Chinese assertions of control over Tibet.

Finally, there is the long-overdue recognition given to the Mongol Empire, the greatest the world has ever seen. Westerners tend to think of the Romans and the British as conquering the world. In fact, the Mongols' reach extended farthest, from the Danube to the Pacific. No government has dominated more territory, yet they are, for the most part, the stuff of myth, legend and the odd paperback best seller. That is a healthy reminder at the dawn of the 21st century.



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