Excerpt: The Dream of East Asia

We are pleased to announce the publication of the second book in our new “Asia Shorts” series, The Dream of East Asia: The Rise of China, Nationalism, Popular Memory, and Regional Dynamics in Northeast Asia, by John Lie, C.K. Cho Professor of Sociology at UC Berkeley. In this concise and engaging volume, Lie analyzes the standard sound-bite narratives that have come to dominate American and European ideas about East Asia and discusses how to move beyond these and arrive at a more historically informed and culturally nuanced understanding of the region. Below is the book’s “Overture,” in which Lie provides an overview of the argument he makes in the pages that follow.

What do we talk about when we talk about East Asia? Breaking news and newspaper headlines, or blogs and tweets, transmit sensational stories of a turbulent region full of storm and stress. But the same stories appear and reappear in these scripts, with surprising uniformity. We are worried about China’s emergence as an economic giant and military power that may upset the regional and, indeed, the global status quo. Much more mercurial, however, and therefore more frightening, is that riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma known as North Korea, with its alternate launching of rhetorical fusillades and long-range missiles. And what has happened to Japan, that once mighty economic engine now reduced to a source of bleak news about stagnation and stagflation? Then there is South Korea, manufacturer of such technologically advanced products as smartphones, and lately a generator of transnational fads ranging from snail cream to K-pop.

These standard scripts mix more than a few grains of truth with many granules of misinformation and misrecognition. To begin with, the very idea of East Asia maps poorly onto the existing reality of the eponymous region. Almost all discussions of East Asia bypass the Philippines and Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia and Cambodia. There is a woeful tendency to divide eastern Asia into East (rather than Northeast) Asia and Southeast Asia. And beyond the spatial mismatch is a temporal disjuncture: the Cold War supposedly ended more than a quarter of a century ago, but Northeast Asia seems to have missed the memo; consider only the continuing divisions across the Taiwan Strait and the 38th parallel. Finally, our received perspectives are fraught with flaws, the most significant being our pervasive belief in the naturalness and integrity of the nation-state. By following the logic of nationalism, we not only miscast the distinctiveness of areas ranging from Okinawa to Taiwan but also misapprehend the past.

In this book, I present a framework for understanding contemporary Northeast Asia, focusing on the countries that comprise our conventional understanding of what we call East Asia—namely, China, Taiwan, Japan, and the two Koreas. To do so, I criticize two dominant perspectives on the region. One reflects the influence of European analogies, which encourage ethnocentric misrecognition. The other is marked by the certitudes of nativists and nationalists, which lead to another sort of ethnocentric fallacy. These two perspectives project two alternative scenarios: on the one hand, the rise of China, which upsets the status quo and augurs a period of instability and possibly warfare; and, on the other hand, the ascent of economic interdependence, which approximates post–World War II European integration. But neither perspective strikes me as cogent. Rather, it seems to me that the region, instead of giving rise to either conflict or convergence, will most likely muddle through, sustaining an uneasy peace along with robust commerce, with both principally due to the primacy of domestic politics. In this short book, as I move toward my rather prosaic conclusion, I seek along the way to illuminate regional economic, political, and cultural dynamics. It is true, needless to say, that we cannot possibly make sense of Northeast Asia without considering the impact of neighboring polities (Mongolia and Vietnam, Russia and the United States, Singapore and India), not to mention extraregional and global forces. Nevertheless, the focus here is on the region itself.