David C. Kang


On his book East Asia Before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute

Cover Interview of January 23, 2011

A close-up

Vietnam and China first demarcated a border in 1079, when the two sides agreed that “the Quan Nguyen and Guihua prefectures were two sides of a ‘fixed border’ (qiangjie) region between the two states.”  When China and Vietnam signed their modern treaty in 1999 they agreed upon essentially this same border.  Similarly, the Yalu river, which formed the boundary between Korea and China in 1034 A.D., remains the border today.  Ten centuries of the same border is both impressive, and leads us to ask why that was the case.

The difference between a border and a frontier is the difference between a line and a space.  Borders are fixed—a clear line that separates two different political spaces, with clear rights and responsibilities on both sides of the line.  In contrast, a frontier is a zone—an ambiguous area where political control, organization, and institutions gradually diminish and intermingle with other ideas, institutions, rules, and peoples.

While some political relationships in early modern East Asia were demarcated by lines, other historical relationships were mediated by space.  Those that were demarcated by lines proved to be remarkably stable; those mediated by space proved to be more conflictual.

East Asia Before the West focuses on borders and the states that demarcated and controlled them, and on the rules and norms they devised to govern their interactions during a particular time and place in East Asia.

A political entity coherent enough to define itself over geography and to negotiate a fixed line and border with another entity requires considerable organization, institutionalization, and a set of ideas.  These need to be sufficiently shared with the bordering political entity for the two parties to actually view each other as legitimate, agree on a border, and agree on the rights and responsibilities on both sides.  In early modern East Asia, Sinic states had political organization and shared cultural values.  China had clear borders with both Vietnam and Korea, which combined for long periods of stability.