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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 Braudels 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 productspun cottonimportation 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 balmbut also the founder of numerous newspapers and amusement parks throughout Asiawas 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 integrationChinese, Japanese and Western. The diversity of viewpoints developeda particular geographical area, a network of traders or a specific companyconstitutes 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
1. One thinks of course of the pioneering works by Denys Lombard, Le carrefour javanais : essai d'histoire globale (The Javanese Junction: An Essay in Global History), Paris, Ed. de lEHESS, 1990, or those by Hamashita Takeshi and Kawakatsu Heita, Ajia koeki-ken to nihon kogyoka, 1500-1900 (The Asian Sphere of Commercial Exchanges and the Industrialisation of Japan from 1500 to 1900), Tokyo, Libro, 1991.