A History of East Asia: From the Origins of Civilization to the Twenty-First Century. By CHARLES HOLCOMBE. Cambridge: CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2011. Pp. xxiv + 403. $33 (paper).
Charles Holcombe's A History of East Asia is a fine addition to the corpus of textbooks on East Asian history and civilizations. Holcombe addresses both "larger global connections and local differences," while presenting "a relatively integrated history of East Asia as a whole" (pp. 3-4). What sets this work apart is its unusual emphasis on the period of "Middle Antiquity" (third--tenth centuries C.E.). This focus is not surprising, given Holcombe's own expertise in China's early medieval period, and is a welcome feature. The book's organization is well suited to either a one- or two-semester sequence on East Asian history. Framed by a thoughtful introduction and afterword, the twelve main chapters of the book are neatly divided, with chapters one through six dealing with "Traditional" East Asia, and chapters seven through twelve covering "Modern" East Asia. Several major themes are developed within the two main sections, as well as across the whole of the book.
The introduction opens with the trope of "East Asian economic miracles," with Holcombe presenting one of his main arguments: The late-twentieth-century "rise of East Asia" is really more of a "return to normal" when viewed in the context of the long history of the region (p. 1). Holcombe then offers a working definition of "East Asia," framing the region in historical and cultural terms, rather than purely geographic. He argues, "East Asia is most usefully defined as that region of the world that came to extensively use the Chinese writing system, and absorbed through those written words many of the ideas and values of what we call Confucianism, much of the associated legal and political structure of government, and certain specifically East Asian forms of Buddhism" (p. 3). The work focuses on China, Korea, and Japan, with limited coverage of Vietnam and the Central Asian steppe.
The first section of the book, chapters one through six, covers the period from early neolithic societies through the eighteenth century, addressing themes such as the foundations of East Asian societies, cosmopolitanism, community, independence, and early modern developments. Chapter 1 focuses on the Chinese written language, while the sprawling chapter 2 presents the "The Formative Era" (ca. 1043 B.C.E.-ca. 300 C.E.), including...