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Late Imperial China’s maritime boundaries and beyond (Review)

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Ng Chin-keong. 2016. Boundaries and Beyond: China’s Maritime Southeast in Late Imperial Times. Singapore: NUS Press, ISBN: 9789814722018

Most of us should be familiar with Professor Ng Chin-keong’s seminal study, Trade and Society: The Amoy Network on the China Coast, 1683-1735, which was first published in 1983. But perhaps we are less familiar with his many other important studies on China’s maritime history – mostly articles and chapters in books in English and Chinese – published over the past forty years. Many of these shorter studies are scattered about in hard to find, obscure journals. Ng Chin-keong’s new book under review here is a collection of fourteen essays published between 1970 and 2015. The book is divided into four parts loosely arranged around the concepts of physical, political, and cultural boundaries and crossing boundaries as applied to maritime China during the fourteenth through nineteenth centuries. As the author explains in his Preface, the ‘boundaries and beyond’ used in the book’s title “highlights the two contesting forces of continuities and discontinuities that characterized China’s maritime southeast in late imperial times” (p. ix). Although boundaries were meant to maintain stability, status quo, and sociopolitical order – to demarcate stability and instability – nonetheless because they were always in a state of flux rulers, statesmen, merchants, and ordinary seafarers had to constantly make adjustments according to particular circumstances.
As with his other studies the essays included in this book concern mostly the economic, political, diplomatic, and social relationships between southern China, especially Fujian province, and Southeast Asia. Avoiding the more typical Eurocentric and Sinocentric approaches to the study of maritime history, Ng instead takes a broad perspective for understanding the interactions and connections between China, her southern neighbors, and Europeans across the wide South China Sea. His first chapter (part 1) provides a concise overview of the long history of maritime southeastern Asia, covering some two thousand years from ancient times to the fifteenth century, a period that was characterized by flexibility and inclusiveness in conducting long-distance trade. The other chapters delineate perceived boundaries between Chinese and the “other” (part 2), undercurrents of social and economic forces that challenged official demarcations (part 3), and transnational movements of people, goods, and ideas across boundaries (part 4). The author views maritime history in terms of a continuous struggle between tradition and innovation through the interactions, compromises, and accommodations of governments and people. In the process old boundaries disappeared only to be replaced by new ones.
In one way or another most of the chapters deal with maritime trade, the interactions between merchants and officials, and relations between Chinese and foreigners, whose perspectives and objectives were seldom the same. Challenging long held views, Ng shows that Chinese officials tended to be pragmatic and flexible in their dealings with Portuguese traders (chapters 3, 8 and 9 ) and British officials (chapters 4, 5, 11, 13 and 14). The late imperial state, too, was not universally opposed to merchants and their overseas economic activities; in fact, many officials realized that the substantial revenues from customs fees provided both economic benefits and social stability in seaboard provinces (chapters 2, 9 and 13). For their part, Ng argues that the merchants also willingly made compromises that allowed them to be more acceptable to Confucian elites. In what the author calls the “Confucianization of merchant culture”, individual merchants and trade guilds tried to accommodate mercantile and Confucian values by playing down profit-seeking and by using their wealth and organizational capabilities for responsive public welfare (chapter 10). Ng is at his best in his case study (chapter 13) of a successful Fujian merchant in Batavia, Chen Yilao, who was arrested after he returned to his homeland in 1749 and was subsequently sent into life exile. Ng astutely argues the complex and extenuating circumstances in this case and the reasons for Chen’s harsh treatment. The author convincingly challenges previous scholarship that has viewed this case as a prime example of Qing anti-maritime attitudes and policies by showing that, in fact, Chen Yilao was not punished because of any underlying governmental hostility towards trade but rather because he had violated the laws concerning crossing borders, remaining abroad for too long, and employment by a foreign government. From the government’s perspective the main issue was national security. Taken as a whole, Ng’s main conclusion is that despite the strict governmental prohibitions and often ambiguous policies, the late imperial age was a time of vibrant maritime activities and wholesome transnational exchanges that were chiefly the results of “the dynamic spirit of the maritime population” (p. 442).
In any book of this sort – one that is a collection of previously published essays by the same author – there are bound to be some problems. One problem is overlap between different chapters where some of the same materials are repeated again and again. Another problem, of course, is the lack of updating of essays published in the 1970s (chapters 7, 8 and 9). Although these are still useful chapters on the socioeconomic conditions in rural Fujian that provide the context for understanding overseas commercial expansion in the Ming and Qing periods, nonetheless they could have benefitted by the inclusion and updating of recent studies by Paul Van Dyke on Canton merchants or by Philip Kuhn on overseas Chinese.
But those are minor quibbles. Ng Chin-keong and NUS Press are to be commended for making available this fine and useful collection of essays by one of the doyens of Asian maritime history. This book should be essential reading for anyone interested in the history of East Asian maritime commerce, international relations, and transnational migrations, and required reading in graduate courses dealing with those subjects.

Robert J. Antony, Guangzhou University
Robert J. Antony is distinguished professor and senior researcher in the Canton’s Thirteen Hongs Research Center at Guangzhou University (China) where he specializes in south China’s social, legal, and maritime history.

Philip A. Kuhn, Chinese among Others: Emigration in Modern Times (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008).
Ng Chin-keong, Trade and Society: The Amoy Network on the China Coast, 1683-1735 (Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 1983).
Paul A. Van Dyke, The Canton Trade: Life and Enterprise on the China Coast, 1700-1845 (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2005).
Paul A. Van Dyke, Merchants of Canton and Macao: Politics and Strategies in Eighteenth-Century Chinese Trade (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2011).

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