Education About Asia: Online Archives

The Genesis of East Asia: 221 B.C.–A.D. 907

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332 PAGES, ISBN 082482465, PAPERBACK

Reviewed by James A. Anderson

In a time when marveling at the modern “rise of China” is a familiar topic of conversation, scholarship on China’s historical place in the world has once again become fashionable. Such scholarship often takes its lead from research on transnational economic and cultural flows in modern world history, although scholars of premodern East Asia are seeking out the historical roots in this region of these supposedly recent phenomena. Charles Holcombe’s The Genesis of East Asia: 221 B.C.–A.D. 907 is an excellent example of new research that attempts to describe the complex nature of the Chinese cultural impact on the East Asia region. Although the use of Genesis as a textbook may present certain challenges in the classroom, Holcombe’s exploration of Sinification, cultural capital, and ethnogenesis in East Asia is thought-provoking and ultimately rewarding.

Holcombe argues that between the rise of the Chinese Qin empire in the third century BCE and the fall of the cosmopolitan Tang empire in the early tenth century, the region we now know of as “East Asia” (modern-day China, Japan, Korea, and Viet Nam) took on many of its prevailing characteristics. The central role China played in the region is never in doubt. As Holcombe writes, “the story of East Asia begins in China”; yet, the author continues, “China itself had many beginnings.”(note 1) Here, Holcombe makes a claim that will stir up controversy among scholars still committed to the idea that the Central Plain (zhongyuan) settlements of North China were the only sources of cultural, political, and social brilliance that radiated out into East Asia. To support his contention, Holcombe has located multiple sites among the states that surrounded the Central Plain region that can lay claim to various aspects of the cultural and religious norms later labeled as “Chinese.”