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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: May 2018

6 - Early Modern East Asia (Sixteenth-Eighteenth Centuries)


Late Ming ([1368–] Sixteenth Century–1644) and Qing (1644–Eighteenth Century [–1912]) Dynasty China

Late Ming Consumer Culture

Even to suggest that East Asia had an early modern period remains somewhat controversial. The word modern comes from Late Latin, and the entire concept of modernity emerged originally in the specific context of European history. There is, furthermore, no denying the driving role that was played by western Europe (and its overseas colonial offspring, including the United States) in giving shape to what we think of as the modern world. With regard to non-Western civilizations, there is still a tendency to prefer imagining them as societies that had always been changelessly traditional, from some primordial beginning until relatively recently, when the process of modernization (often assumed to be synonymous with Westernization) finally started as a direct consequence of contact with the modern West. East Asian history is still commonly divided into only two major parts, premodern and modern, with the point of transition placed somewhere in the nineteenth century. Yet, paradoxically, the use of paper money, printing, gunpowder, urbanization, market-based commercialization, complex bureaucratic administration, and a relatively fluid meritocratic sociopolitical order based on the examination system all make Song Dynasty China (960–1279) seem curiously modern already a thousand years ago! The idea of a changelessly static East Asia, at any rate, is a fantasy, sustained only by lack of historical knowledge.

If long-term historical change is acknowledged for the non-Western world, another common approach has been to assume that it must naturally have followed the familiar three-stage European historical sequence of ancient, medieval, and modern. This sequence is often presumed to be universal, and applied rather mechanically to East Asian history. As it happens, within East Asia, the case of Japan actually does provide one of the closest parallels to this European developmental curve that can be found anywhere in world history. Between Japan's age of classical antiquity and modern times, Japan did experience a feudal middle phase that was uncannily (though imperfectly) reminiscent of the European Middle Ages. Neither China nor Korea nor Vietnam, however, fits this three-stage European formula nearly as well.