S. Sugiyama and Linda Grove eds., Commercial Networks in Modern Asia

The economic history of Asia has long been dominated by studies
confined within national boundaries and with a focus on agricultural activity.
Over the past two decades, researchers, drawing on Fernand Braudel’s works
on the Mediterranean, have rediscovered an Asian maritime space criss-crossed
by a class of merchants as a unifying principle transcending national borders
imposed by the European colonial powers((1). The work edited by S. Sugiyama, a
Professor of economic history at Keio University, Tokyo, and Linda Grove, a Professor
of Chinese history at Sophia University, Tokyo, is in this tradition. It brings
together 13 contributions on the trade networks linking the various regions of
Asia between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, from Yokohama and Pusan to
Istanbul. These studies based on archival research give special prominence to
the dimension of trade, adopting the view that hitherto history has been too exclusively
concerned with productive activity, and that questions pertaining to the sale
and distribution of goods have been overly neglected. The work thus also intends
to contribute to opening up a new field of research, between production and consumption.

On the one hand, these contributions set themselves the task
of studying the competition between Asian and Western traders. This involves a
macro-analysis focussing on a particular trade network based around such and such
a city or region. On the other hand, they concentrate on a specific enterprise
or a single product from a more micro perspective. The development of international
networks and the emergence of centres in the form of free port cities (Singapore,
Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tianjin or Nagasaki) have long been attributed to nineteenth
century Western companies bursting on the scene, be they in the form of trading
houses (Swire and Jardine in Hong Kong, Guthrie, Broustead, Harrisons and Crosfield
in Singapore), banks or shipping companies. The new historiography engages in
a much more sophisticated examination of the consequences of the West flooding
into Asia. Admittedly, it was foreign businesses that controlled most of the commercial
infrastructure, in particular the navigation companies and financial institutions.
Their activities were spatially circumscribed, however, and more often than not
restricted to the free ports. These companies did not control the distribution
of goods. On the internal markets, the traditional local traders seized the opportunities
that went with the opening up to the West, reorganising their sales and distribution
systems. Strictly speaking, Western companies dominated trade between Europe and
Asia. But the distribution of European goods in Asia and the inland purchase of
goods to be exported to the West were conducted by Chinese, Indian or Arabian
traders long accustomed to setting up commercial networks regionally. One of the
major conclusions of the case studies presented in the work is that it is not
appropriate to analyse the relations between Western trading houses and Asian
traders in terms of confrontation and rivalry. Their relationship was much more
one of collaboration, linked to a differential access to information about international
and local markets. This system was characterised by a complex division of labour.

Tanimoto Masayuki shows how in Japan some traders were able
to seize the opportunities created by the import of textile articles. If these
were brought into the archipelago by Western trading houses, some Japanese merchants
knew how to adapt to the new environment. Hamashita Takeshi identifies the financial
networks between Japan, China and Korea, on the basis of which Japanese merchants
were trading in Korea. For his part, Furuta Kazuko studies the links between Shanghai,
Osaka and Inchon in the early 1890s. Linda Grove shows how the inclusion of Tianjin
in international trade after 1862 gave rise to the development of commercial networks
inside the country, the opening up to foreigners, thereby bringing about new commercial
links between the city and the overall level of economic activity in northern
China. In the case of one specific product—spun cotton—importation had,
as in Japan, positive effects on the local production which, given a boost, began
to compete with the imported goods. Hamashita Takeshi studies the banking activities
of Shanxi entrepreneurs in Korea and shows how Shanghai became the centre of a
financial system linking the various ports of the Far East. Lin Manhong refutes
the classic view that the activity of merchant guilds in trade across the Taiwan
Strait was supposedly reduced by the opening of the free ports. The decline of
commercial activity in the 1850s is the local reflection of a world economic recession.
At the end of the century, having modernised their organisation, the merchant
guilds experienced a renewal of activity and showed themselves capable of competing
effectively with foreign traders (in particular in the sugar trade).

The three case studies by Kimura Kenji, Sherman Cochran and
K.C. Fok show how some traders were in a position to use, in line with traditional
methods, commercial networks to develop business that went beyond national confines,
mixing together production, distribution, communication and even financial activities.
Kimura Kenji goes back over the career of Kameya Aisuke, a Japanese merchant in
Korea who started out as a simple trade clerk and ended his career as the head
of the Wonsen Chamber of Commerce. From private archives, K.C. Fok analyses the
case of two traders from Hong Kong at the end of the nineteenth century who actively
mobilised networks of personal relations in order to develop their activities.
Sherman Cochran shows how the commercial empire of Aw Boon-haw, the maker of “tiger
balm”—but also the founder of numerous newspapers and amusement parks
throughout Asia—was based on a network of personal connections underpinned
by family relations and a common local background. This network was put into play
not only in the context of production activities, but also to organise distribution
and sales networks, and orchestrate vast publicity campaigns in the Asian press.

The papers by Sugiyama, Post and Naoto study the degree of
competition and the strategies of the various companies in specific markets. S.
Sugiyama investigates British and Japanese firms in the sugar market in China
in the early twentieth century. Peter Post analyses the role of Dutch trading
houses in intra-Asian trade between 1850 and 1930. He shows that the external
trade of the Dutch East Indies was more or less equally shared between Dutch and
Asian merchants, the latter mostly Chinese. Kagotani Naoto examines the Japanese
commercial presence in British India, in particular the activities of the Bombay
office of Toyo Menka. Two final essays by Miki Sayako and Sakamoto Tsutomu are
devoted to trade in specific goods, cereals in Bengal in the late eighteenth and
early nineteenth centuries on the one hand, and in silk and silk cocoons in Iran
and Anatolia in the second half of the nineteenth century on the other. They both
relate the dynamism of the local economies to the colonial system.

As one can appreciate, the work abounds in case studies that
confirm the need for a complex view of the “Asian trading system” both
before and after the West broke in. The stress placed on commercial networks shows
quite clearly a great variety of situations, ranging from competition to collaboration
and mutual dependence between Western and Asian traders in the context of an economy
with multiple vectors of integration—Chinese, Japanese and Western. The diversity
of viewpoints developed—a particular geographical area, a network of traders
or a specific company—constitutes one of the chief interests of this publication.
It provides a wealth of new facts, at the same time as opening up many different
perspectives for future research, such as comparing the strategies of Western
and Japanese firms or studying the role of the colonial administrations or the
consequences of the introduction of trade legislation. This work is thus an important
contribution to the economic history of Asia.

Translated from the French original by Peter Brown

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