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Book Review


Charles A. Desnoyers, Patterns of East Asian History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. xxxi + 512. Glossary and Index. $49.95 (paper).


     Charles Desnoyers opens this most recent installment in the Oxford University Patterns series (following on Patterns of World History, 2016, and Patterns of Chinese History, 2017) by identifying himself in the view that historical thinking is a constantly changing process, where ideas are not monolithic. Desnoyers' book shares much in common with Charles Holcombe's A History of East Asia: From the Origins of Civilization to the Twenty-First Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011). However, it differs in its inclusion of short vignettes which help to give focus and provide a lively narrative snapshot to each chapter.

     Unlike more traditional surveys, which typically represent history as one thing after another, Desnoyers' book embraces the controversies and debates of the field. In Chapter Five 'From Super-power to Semi-Colony,' Desnoyers examines Mark Elvin's highly-influential concept of the "high-level equilibrium trap" (171) which seeks to explain why China did not industrialize in the same way as some countries in Western Europe. The inclusion of such a section swiftly exposes new students to major arguments in the field and the lack of consensus concerning such a fundamental issue. Similarly, in Chapter Four: 'The Mongol Super-Empire,' Desnoyers explores the pendulum of extremes concerning the Mongols, demonstrating to students how historical context influences the writing of history. In this instance, the book explores Western millenarian views of the Mongols as a "scourge of god", followed by the contrast of Enlightenment fantasies of Chinese emperors as philosopher-kings (119). These pithy sections would help high school or college instructors introduce students to the nuances and shadings of interpretation fundamental to the historian's craft.

     The book uses an effective yet straightforward periodization scheme: following an initial chapter about the geography of the region, each national/civilizational area gets a chapter, followed by one on the Mongol Super-Empire. Then, the book returns to a more geographically-driven organization, with chapters tracing the development toward the modern era, largely defined by the Sino-Russian War of 1895 and the subsequent changes to the imperial backdrop of East Asia. Each chapter opens with a lively and engrossing case study, spanning from Li Si and Legalism to the Japanese surrender at the end of the Pacific War. These case studies provide students with color and could function as a clear introduction to a primary source.

     Desnoyers uses a concise yet encompassing list of recurring themes: origins, interactions, adaptations, and Sinification. Structuring the book around these threads help students begin to classify important events. Furthermore, by limiting the number of themes, and returning to them explicitly, Desnoyers encourages students to categorize the information by constructing an analytical framework for approaching the history of East Asia. For example, in the case of Chinese writing, he explores the use of writing in divination, followed by the occupation of Korean and Vietnamese territories under the Han Dynasty, which led to the adoption of Chinese characters as a writing system in those kingdoms. As Buddhism spread to Japan via the Korean kingdom of Paekche, it brought Chinese writing along with it, aiding in the Taika Reform of 645 CE. While knowledge of Chinese characters remained a largely elite and male privilege, katakana developed as an alternative writing system in Japan, and the classic Tale of Genji utilized the new system to describe the court life of Heian Japan. Written by Murasaki Shikibu, a female tutor at the court, the work encapsulates some of the most important Japanese aesthetic values, "with elements of sadness, melancholy, fragility, and the fleetingness of life, often symbolized by cherry blossoms." (89) By tracing the origin, interaction, and adaptation of important innovations such as writing systems, Desnoyers shows students the ways concepts and technologies are dynamic and malleable, changing over time and in their utility in different cultures and societies. The final theme of Sinification develops from the core concept that "It is…impossible to overstate the importance of China's influence on East Asia." (96)

     By dividing the work into large temporal chunks in different cultural regions, Desnoyers encourages readers to develop a connected framework for East Asia as a whole while also looking at the detailed historical process in different countries. For example, by looking at how the East Asian economic model exploded after World War II in Korea, Japan, and, later, China and Vietnam, Desnoyers points out the commonalities: tariff protection for local industries while producing goods in different niche markets for export, and using capital to reinvest in development (358). Another interesting large pattern is land reform; from the period of the Han Dynasty onward, the tendency toward rich families acquiring larger estates and leading to heightened disparities between rich and poor led to social tensions, rebellions and attempts at land redistribution. This process is traced from the Zhou Dynasty's well-field system (33) to Wang Mang's reforms under the Han Dynasty (48) to Communist policies under Mao (300–301). Another interesting strain explored in the modern section for each region is the responses to colonialism and imperialism, both from European forces and then from the Japanese. Desnoyers draws our attention to the two waves of nationalist movements: first, after the end of World War I and the failed promise of Versailles and the League of Nations, and second, after the end of World War II and the breakup of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. By focusing on local responses to foreign domination, Desnoyers reminds readers that history is not just a pattern of top-down domination, and that local leaders and actors play major roles in the establishment of colonies, the bureaucratic functioning of empire, and resistance movements that can flare into rebellion, revolution, and independence. 

     From an organizational standpoint, the book includes an annotated bibliography at the end of each chapter, which provides a good jumping off point for both students and teachers who are looking to expand their knowledge of a particular topic. These entries include scholarly monographs, primary source collections, and broader survey texts, and paint with broad strokes the contents of each volume. By providing an extensive, curated list of works to explore, students and teachers can also see the directions recent scholarship has taken in the field.

     Like any survey text, this one has its shortcomings. The most glaring issue is that the picture captions merely restate information from the main body of the text and add little in terms of context or questions for the reader. This criticism should likely be directed at the publisher or the editor, and not directly at the author. Similarly, the paucity of maps, and their somewhat general content, provides little to readers that they could not access with a simple Google search. Finally, all of the images in the book are black and white, save the maps. While this may have helped to lower the price of the book, it detracts from some of the artwork and artifacts which can enliven a scholarly, dense text such as this one.

     An unexpected strength of the text is the inclusion of material and topics that are often deemed controversial. For example, Taiwan and Xinjiang are both included in a section on "Nineteenth Century Qing Expansion," which clearly shows that China was also an imperial player. By casting light on Chinese agency in this period which so often sees China portrayed as a victim, students can see that the simplistic image of modern China as weak, isolationist, and militarily antiquated cannot stand in the face of evidence such as the Patterns Up Close section on The Cooperative Era and Modernization (160–162). Additionally, by including sections on Chinese-Tibetan interaction and politics, from the Qing section entitled "Universal Empire" (143–144), students can begin to look into the complexity and ambiguity of these thorny, geopolitical issues.

     In conclusion, Desnoyers' volume is one that will likely be adopted by a number of university courses. Its density, scholarly tone, and level of detail might be overwhelming for most high school audiences, but it could act as a valuable support for teaching an elective course on East Asian history. Similar to Holcombe's volume, this one covers East Asia from a chronological standpoint, but with the addition of specialized sections on Vietnam. Most importantly, Patterns of East Asian History succeeds in showing readers that the history of this region is one of flux and dynamic change, both in terms of the events as lived on the ground, and in the way scholars have examined, analyzed and expounded on those patterns. While this volume will not be shooting up the best-seller lists, it will likely be a mainstay in many college libraries and on university syllabi for years to come.

Reid Wyatt will begin teaching U.S. History and World History at ‘Iolani School in Honolulu, Hawaii in the fall of 2020. He can be reached at


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