Book Review: J.K. Fairbank, "The Chinese World Order"

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This is an anthology in the area of understanding the attitude and nature of foreign policies of a particular civilizational country, China. It is an example of scholarly works for understanding nation like China who is very frequent in extracting values from its tradition and practicing in modern international politics. The Chinese world order can be considered external order but one can also be convinced that China’s external order is very much dependent on internal order or disorder. Motivated by the proper balance of power and virtue and in theory, China’s material-and-moral superiority the Chinese world order stretches within its concentric hierarchical zones which John K. Fairbank has mentioned in the very introduction a preliminary framework.

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 Furthermore, China’s foreign relations can be understood through three main zones i.e. the sinic zone, the inner Asian zone and the outer zone. With some assumptions in this preliminary framework in the next three chapters one can take a dip in the nature and growth of Chinese world order in general. John Fairbank’s ranges of assumptions are from meaning of tribute to administration within China. If one is accustomed with pinyin system then he/she can encounter some difficulties in reading names throughout this book. Lien-Sheng Yang, Wang Gungwu and Mark Mancall have tried to explain the core of Chinese world order i.e. tributary system. Or in other words, they have tried to explain the relations with so-called barbarians. 

For example, Lien-Sheng Yang differentiates China and barbarians as China being internal, large, and high while barbarians being external, small and low. In Confucian China there was a concept of militarism and pacifism which were used against barbarians which the author has compared with idealism and realism in western world order. One can also become familiar with China’s ancient policy such as bone-and-stick policy, loose rein policy, etc. Wang Gungwu addresses the Chinese theory of superiority as myth where he tried to differentiate the cultural myth from political reality. 

This is important to understand the difference between myth and reality especially while one is trying to understand China’s foreign relations because Chinese influence or Sinocentrism is more cultural than political. This cultural aspect many times justifies the fact that foreigner ruled Chinese mainland but in Chinese way. This is the cultural aspect where under the umbrella of son of heaven and elements of Confucian ethics China build its influential zone where it sown the idea of impartiality, bilateralism, tribute, trade, etc.

In the next eight chapters bilateralism has been studies in detail. I understood from these chapters that to some extent modern bilateral relations between nations are very close to China’s tributary system. It cannot be denied that the king leaves nothing and nobody outside his realm. But within that realm everyone was handled in a very different manner depending on the other party. For example, Korea is considered a model tributary and it influenced Korea in trade, culture, politics and ruler elites whereas Ryukyu was a matter of dual subordination. 

Throughout these eight chapters one can understand some kind of bilateral relation of China with Korea, Ryukyu, Vietnam, Inner Asia, Mongolia, Central Asia and Dutch. And China’s relation with each mentioned nations were distinct in its nature. Hae-jong Chun has beautifully explained the Sino-Korean tributary relations where he broadly focused on whether tributary relation was functioned for economic purposes. Robert K. Sakai has given a note on relationship between two powers, China and Japan, through their unconscious contest on Ryukyu Islands where Ryukyu kingdom subjected herself to both powers, China and Japan, and also paid tribute to both. In the case of Vietnam, Truong Buu Lam says that In order to keep his interests protected i.e. to be protected from rebellions, Vietnamese kings were comfortable in surrendering part of their sovereignty in the form of tribute. 

In addition, also to avoid serious intervention by China Vietnamese Kings acknowledged the tributary system. It has also been mentioned throughout this book that Chinese tributary system was not for nations but for the rulers. In the case of Inner Asian and Mongolian nomadic peoples China struggled repeatedly due to the differences in culture and social system. And China adopted different methods while handling them For example, through banner system Manchu administration got big convenience among Mongolian people. 

While discussing China’s relations with the Dutch, John E. Wills mentions that both side exhibited surprisingly very less curiosity about each other but there can frequent fluctuations be observed between these two from time to time. While discussing all those relations elements of tributary, trade etc have been discussed which will lead one to link China’s traditional world order otherwise he/she can misunderstand them with separate and pure bilateral relations.

In the last two chapters the concept of Chinese world order has been deconstructed through direct interaction with western values whether it is modernism, Christianity, education, technology, extraterritoriality, or treaty, etc. I perceived from these last two chapters that writers like Fairbank or Schwartz is not considering Chinese world order as a unique order. In the beginning chapters also it is mentioned that Chinese perception was only limited within certain areas and its isolation cannot justify its superiority over other order. Schwartz also mentions that other civilizations have also concept of universal kingship. These two writers in last two chapters tried to relate various elements of Chinese world order with modern cum western order elements.

After going through this book I found the detailed understanding of the Chinese world order. For example, previously I was very frequent to use Korea as a tributary state of China, as I know the nature of Korea-China traditional relations in detail now I will be very cautious and specific while using this statement. Chinese world order can be different from modern world order but it cannot be considered very unique.

 In fact modern/western world order is based on equality of state, balance of power among states and world order is more in a multistate system. On other hand, Chinese world order was based on inequality among states, centralized authority and more a bilateral system. I found my experience of reading this book bit similar to John Keay’s China: A history, such as Fairbank provided us some assumptions in the beginning so that it becomes more reader friendly.

This is a book in which one can explore the myths of greatness and uniqueness of Chinese world order in the first three chapters and in the next eight chapters one will know the details which will create one’s own perception and in the last two chapters readers will contest with Fairbank and Schwartz with his/her constructed ideas through the previous chapters.

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