The East Asian 'Mediterranean', c. 1500-1800: A New Quality in the Development of Trade Relations between its Neighbouring Countries

During the time period from the 15th/16th to the 19th centuries, East Asia, especially China, experienced a significant economic upswing. Already for centuries China's political, economic, and cultural success and superiority had, last not least, been reflected in the consciousness of the Chinese emperors in the traditional concept of the "Middle Kingdom". The idea of being situated in the middle of the world also characterized and defined China's relations to her neighbouring countries: These were barbarians which could only learn from China and otherwise were required to subject themselves to and to accept Chinese suzerainty as tribute states. Because and as long as the wealth of their society sufficed to satisfy their demands, many Chinese emperors were often not even really interested in a foreign trade, although foreign exotic goods and luxury articles were almost always welcomed by the social and ruling elite and although China was certainly not an enemy of trade and commerce. But, as a rule, the Chinese government strictly sought to control freign trade and exchange relations. Only from time to time, such as e.g. particularly during the Song dynasty, foreign trade was considered a motor to enrich the state. But during Ming and early Qing times[1] – with few exceptions – more than the wish to satisfy the elite's demand for foreign specialities was, as it would appear, at least officially not desired by contemporary Chinese rulers. China seems to have sought for "seclusion". The reasons for this "anti-foreign-trade-policy" were basically of political and military not economic nature. At the beginning of the second third of the 17th century, at a time when in China the interest in foreign trade gradually began to re-emerge and became more liberalized, Japan and Korea largely cut themselves off from the outer world. For a time period of two centuries Japan's relationships to the outer world seem to have been limited to the trade with the Dutch East India Company (VOC). Thus, the picture and idea may emerge that in 16th to early 19th East Asia there existed nothing more than a range of more or less isolated states.

Parallel to this official foreign policy, however, an intensive economic and cultural exchange developed – to a great extent on the basis of private initiatives, as a consequence of which a real network of supra-regional and "international" trade relations emerged in contemporary East Asia, the origins of which have already to be sought for in the Song dynasty. The centres of this exchange lay in China and Japan. But also smaller countries and regions in the north and south of the China Sea, such as the Ryukyus, participated and were integrated in this network of economic and cultural relations. Its initiators often were private organizations and merchants who sought to maintain and cherish their contacts also under politically rather unfavourable conditions. Nevertheless, also government officials, even (sub-official) government organizations, privately and "illegally" participated in this trade. Numerous, so far only superficially investigated, documents, inscriptions, and manuscripts as well as archaeological findings can bring more and new light into the nature of this economic and cultural exchange in East Asia. They include (stone) inscriptions, private manuscripts (letters, commodity lists etc.), local gazetteers, records of local authorities, and archaeological relics.

The aim of the project consists in the documentation and analysis of such written – mostly manuscripts and stone inscriptions – and archaeological sources and to place them into the larger spacial context of East Asia, in order to be able to demonstrate and expound the characteristics of the economic and cultural exchange and the mutual inter-relationships in this greater area. The project will not primarily focus on cultural aspects, but the latter shall also receive their suitable and proper consideration. Whereas previous research has basically documented the history of a specific region or the trade relations between two areas, it is intended - on the basis of sources of all integrated regions and countries, above all China, Japan, Korea, and the Ryukyus – to analyze and expound the supra-regional and international economic (and cultural) exchange within the region of greater East Asia. The research shall focus on "inter-East-Asian" relations.

In the sense of Fernand Braudel, it is, in this context, doubtlessly appropriate to speak of an "East Asian Mediterranean", of a region which was characterized more by connecting than separating factors. Extremely important for the planned research are, therefore, both the geographic concept of greater East Asia and an interdisciplinary approach. A close cooperation is intended with other disciplines, primarily Japanese and Korean Studies, archaeology, European colonial history, and Southeast Asian Studies, but also natural sciences, such e.g. as medical studies and pharmacology - medical products constituting one of the major trade items in Asia during the time period to be investigated. As research has so far often concentrated on Southeast Asian networks - the interrelationship within East Asia, as a rule, not being re-placed into the centre of investigations before the second half of the 19th century – it shall, in addition, be demonstrated that contemporary merchants were by far not only trading with countries in South and Southeast Asia, but through private channels "expanded" their networks also to the north and northeast.

[1] The seclusion policy of the Qing government was liberalized in 1684.