The Sino-Viet Borderlands in the Premodern Age

John Whitmore, University of Michigan

Kathlene Baldanza. Ming China and Vietnam: Negotiating Borders in Early Modern Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 237 pp. $100 (cloth); $29 (paper); $80 (e-book).

Bradley Camp Davis. Imperial Bandits: Outlaws and Rebels in the China-Vietnam Borderlands. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017. 237 pp. $90 (cloth); $30 (paper).

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As the world is currently concerned with the government of China and its growing power along its southern frontier, it is useful to consider past events that reflect the pattern of interactions between this northern power and the states lying along this frontier. East Asian historians Kathlene Baldanza and Bradley Camp Davis provide excellent, detailed studies of Vietnam and Beijing as they worked to resolve issues in the territory separating them. Although in the early modern age, the scholar-officials of both lands shared a Confucian ideology and practice, the asymmetric relationship between the two lands (Womack 2006) engendered very different perspectives on each side of the frontier. Baldanza and Davis offer valuable views on these relationships: the former focusing on the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) in China; the latter on the late Qing (1850–1911). Each of the authors also gives us a view of the Vietnamese dynasties of those ages: the Tran (1225–1400), the Le (1428–1527, 1592–1788), the Mac (1528–1592) of Dai Viet, and the Nguyen (1802–1945) of Vietnam. The two authors bring us into their scenes through engagement with a variety of primary sources. Baldanza does a masterful job with contemporary Vietnamese and Chinese documents (both in Chinese characters), mining the interactions between the two. Davis, in a more recent setting, does a fine job bringing local oral traditions together with official imperial documents of both Hue and Beijing, as well as official and nonofficial French documentation. Both books offer a rich mixture of analysis of the contemporary textual record, written and oral, as well as critiques of recent studies from Vietnam, China, and elsewhere...