David C. Kang


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

Cover Interview of January 23, 2011


How much of the past affects the present in East Asia?

The East Asian tribute system dissolved quickly in the nineteenth century when the arrival of the West and its norms, institutions, and ideas, created an enormous challenge to the existing worldviews of East Asian nations.  The tribute system is gone, never to return.  It is thus unlikely that patterns of behavior that existed under the tribute system would continue under these Western ideas in the current international system.

On the other hand, Western ideas and institutions have not ever been universally accepted—and even within the West there have been numerous exceptions to and selective acceptance of the ostensibly universal principles.  Thus, it might be worth exploring how much and how deeply East Asian states have internalized these Western notions—and whether and to what extent any of East Asia’s past history may affect their beliefs and goals in the future.

The difference between China at the height of its hegemony five centuries ago and China today is most clearly reflected in the fact that few people today think that China is still the cultural center of the world.  Few contemporary East Asian states or peoples look to China for cultural innovation or for practical solutions to present-day problems.

The question is not only whether China reaches back to its past for guidance—the questions are also whether other states and peoples will believe contemporary China’s goals and intentions are benign, and whether contemporary China finds a stable identity for itself within the Westphalian system.

© 2010 David Kang