Kathlene Baldanza . Ming China and Vietnam: Negotiating Borders in Early Modern Asia. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016. Pp. xi, 235.
The specks of islets or cays in the South China Sea collectively (and controversially) known as the Spratly Islands might have been mentioned only once in this new study on the history of Sino-Vietnamese relations, but the careful and judicious arguments Kathlene Baldanza puts forth in Ming China and Vietnam: Negotiating Borders in Early Modern Asia make a convincing case that understanding the tangled past of the two countries is essential in plotting one’s way forward.
Baldanza’s point is not that conventional wisdom is completely wrong; there is some truth, she would agree, to comparing Vietnam to David and China to Goliath. Yet it would be misguided to cast the story of Sino-Vietnamese (or, in Baldanza’s framing, Sino-Viet) relations as simply one of “Chinese aggression and Vietnamese resistance” (7). In fact, Baldanza argues, at least as far as the period between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries is concerned, the relations between China and Vietnam (or, more accurately, between the Great Ming and Dai Viet) were characterized by three “themes”: “the close relations between the two countries and their concomitant need to cooperate” (5), the “conflicting understandings [by the two countries] of history and of the transmission of culture” (5), and “the internal debates and divisions underlying decisions about foreign relations in both countries” (7).
To make her case, Baldanza organizes the book into seven chronological chapters, each of which follows a particular life or explores a specific set of circumstances “when the cultural, historical, and political borders of the two countries were negotiated” (7). Thus, the reader is introduced to a variety of “border-crossers,” among them: Le Tac (ca. 1260–ca. 1340), a Vietnamese scholar in exile who consciously presented Vietnam “as an integral and historical part of the northern [Mongol Yuan] empire” (8); Ho Nguyen Trung (1374–1446), “a prince of the short-lived Ho dynasty [1400–1407]” who, as an exile in Ming-dynasty China, also sought to emphasize the cultural connections between the two countries (8); Zhu Houcong (1507–1567) and Mac Dang Dung (1483–1541), who, as rulers of the Great Ming and (part of) Dai Viet, respectively, had to learn to calibrate both their rhetorics and actions; Lin Xiyuan (ca. 1480–1550), a Ming-dynasty official who supported the use of force against Vietnam, which he considered to have long been an integral part of China; Jiang Yigui (fl. 1540), a Ming official “who, in contrast to Lin Xiyuan, worked hard to avert war” (9); Trinh Kiem (1503–1570) and his son Trinh Tung (1550–1623), who, as de facto heads of the Le dynasty, were locked in an extended period of power struggle with the Mac; and Phung Khac Khoan (1528–1613), who, as an envoy to the Ming court, once again sought to present Vietnam as a rightful heir to the classical culture.
Overall, by so framing her study and by offering a close reading of the poems, letters, and other writings left behind by both Vietnamese and Chinese scholars and officials, Baldanza has succeeded in building on the work of, among others, John K. Whitmore (Vietnam, Hồ Quý Ly, and the Ming, 1371–1421 ) in not only giving much-needed texture to the story of interactions between Ming China and Dai Viet but also writing a truly Sino-Vietnamese history, “one that takes up the sources, perspectives, and concerns of scholars and officials of both countries simultaneously” (10).
That said, for this reader, a number of points raised in this important study deserve further attention.
The first has to do with time. To be sure, the ruling house that was the Ming did annex and occupy Dai Viet for about two decades in the early fifteenth century. And for that, the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) does loom large in the historiography of Vietnam. Yet, given Baldanza’s central concern in telling a story of negotiation and compromise, it is not absolutely clear why the main story told in the book ends when it does in the seventeenth century. Did the demise of the Ming and the rise of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) fundamentally alter the Sino-Viet equilibrium? Or did the modes of negotiation undergo significant changes during the course of the Qing period?
The second point has to do with the idea of negotiation. While Baldanza has made a strong case that “the most persistent theme of Sino-Viet relations is negotiation” (210), the overall arguments would be even more compelling if she could explain further than she does (55, 133) how her insights would supplement Brantly Womack’s highly influential concept of “politics of asymmetry” (China and Vietnam: The Politics of Asymmetry ). Did the acknowledgment of asymmetry shape the ways “negotiation” was conducted? And how did such “negotiation,” in turn, transform the “politics of asymmetry”? Answers to such questions can be found here and there in the book, but a more explicit and extensive discussion would have been very helpful.
The third point has to do with the broader historiography. The story of the history of Sino-Vietnamese relations is no doubt important, but how does the story told here fit into the existing historiography of either Southeast Asia or China’s “international relations”? To be sure, neither “China” nor “Vietnam” nor “Southeast Asia” is unproblematic as a unit for analysis. Still, since China—in all its manifestations—has cast a long shadow over what we now generally refer to as Southeast Asia, whether in terms of history or historiography, how a “post-national” history of Sino-Vietnamese relations should be written is certainly a question well worth pursuing.
Leo K. Shin; KATHLENE BALDANZA. Ming China and Vietnam: Negotiating Borders in Early Modern Asia., The American Historical Review, Volume 122, Issue 4, 1 October 2017, Pages 1196–1197, https://doi.org/10.1093/ahr/122.4.1196
About the author
Assistant Professor of History and Asian Studies
201 Weaver Building
University Park , PA 16802
Office Phone: (814) 863-0131
PhD, University of Pennsylvania, 2010
MA, University of Pennsylvania, 2004
BA, Bryn Mawr College, 2001
I am a historian of China and Vietnam. My first book, Ming China and Vietnam: Negotiating Borders in Early Modern Asia (Cambridge, 2016), illustrates the overlapping local, national, and universal loyalties and alliances that complicated early modern political relations. The early modern authors I studied in that project frequently described the disease-causing miasmic mists that they encountered in the Sino-Viet borderlands. Thus, in my current research project, I take up the way those miasmic diseases contributed to the outcome of military campaigns, to settlement patterns, and to cultural and medical understandings of tropical disease. A third project investigates print culture in pre-colonial Vietnam, particularly its relation to the book market in China. Recent course offerings have covered the history of Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and gender in East Asia.
“De-Civilizing Ming China’s Southern Border: Vietnam as Lost Province or Barbarian Culture,” in Jeff McClain and Yongtao Du, editors, Chinese History in Geographical Perspective, Lexington Books, 2013.
“A State Agent at Odds with the State: Lin Xiyuan and the Recovery of the Four Dong,” in James Anderson and John K. Whitmore, editors, Forging the Fiery Frontier: Two Millennia of Encounters in the South and Southwest, Brill, 2014.
“Perspectives on the Mac Surrender of 1540,” Asia Major, November 2014.
Awards and Service:
ACLS Comparative Perspectives on Chinese Culture and Society Conference Grant (2013)
National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute, University of Hawaii/East-West Center (2011)
Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation Doctoral Fellowship (2009-2010)
Fulbright IIE Award for research at Academia Sinica, Taiwan (2008)
HIST010 – World History I
HIST174 – The History of Traditional East Asia
HIST302W – Gender and Family Life in China
HIST483 – Chinese Society and Culture to 1800
More information can be found here: http://history.psu.edu/directory/ktb3