Opening Up to the Ocean: The Changing Shape of Maritime East Asia

Adam Clulow, Monash University

Xing Hang, Conflict and Commerce in Maritime East Asia: The Zheng Family and the Shaping of the Modern World, c. 1620-1720. Cambridge University Press, 2016. 344 pp. $100 (cloth).

Gang Zhao, The Qing Opening to the Ocean: Chinese Maritime Policies, 1684-1757. Hawai'i University Press, 2013. 280 pp. $56 (cloth).
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I find Zhao’s argument that the Qing regime was broadly supportive of private trade persuasive, but putting his book in conversation with Hang’s is instructive. Kangxi may have opened up trade, but there was nothing approximating the kind of maritime-centered polity described by Hang. Reading these books together reminds us that China—or Japan, for that matter—was never closed to the world during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and that the focus on the European experience has obscured a great deal. Merchants continued to sail, goods continued to flow, and the great East Asian powers continued to be connected to global commercial circuits. But Hang’s study in particular shows the remarkably open nature of the seventeenth century, when maritime entrepreneurs like Zheng Zhilong or Koxinga on the Chinese side (or Suetsugu Heizō and Yamada Nagamasa on the Japanese) constructed sprawling maritime networks and organizations capable of defeating the most powerful European overseas enterprises. There was never a withdrawal from the ocean, but the seventeenth century bore witness to an intensity of East Asian maritime activity that was not matched until long after the collapse of the Qing and Tokugawa regimes...