Category Archives: Asia

Melaka, Asia’s “Gullet”

From Singapore: Unlikely Power, by John Curtis Perry (Oxford U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 552-76, 592-600:

The fleeing rulers of Temasek found a new home in Melaka, almost exactly as far from today’s Singapore as Albany is from Manhattan (127 miles). The name Melaka proved highly appropriate, deriving as it does from the Arabic meaning “meeting place” or “rendezvous.” Its origins are hazy like those of its predecessors Temasek or Singapura being the stuff of legend, but early in the fifteenth century a Hindu kingdom emerged there, soon to become a Muslim sultanate, the faith brought in by itinerant merchants traveling from the west.

Melaka was not a new kind of settlement but was in the pattern of other Southeast Asian cosmopolitan maritime entrepôts, a place for trading. Here on the straits a tiny fishing community evolved into a hangout for those wanting a center to conduct commerce or to exploit a strategic position to exact fees from passing ships, and, more crudely, we might say a place to fence stolen goods.

Unlike most Southeast Asian trading towns, which placed themselves defensively upriver to discourage maritime marauders, Melaka sat boldly at the mouth of a muddy stream where moored vessels rolled gently in the current or rode offshore in a sheltered spot on an easily navigable approach where ships could find safe anchorage.

The city that arose there depended almost totally on trade even, with the exception of fish, needing to import its basic foods to fill the rice bowl as well as to provide most other sustenance. Its land, hacked out of dense jungle, was ill-suited to growing grain although fruit orchards flourished at hand. Fruit does not travel well, especially in a hot climate. If you wanted to eat it, you had to grow it. Melaka, with its back to untamed jungle, lacked continental hinterland and we have no indication that anyone was interested in clearing and farming land beyond the outskirts of town.

Without an easily accessible hinterland, trade furnished Melaka’s life stream. Although not situated at the straits’ narrowest point, the city could control a navigable passage through which much oceanic traffic passed. It lay on the direct route between the Maluku islands (the Moluccas), the heart of Indonesian spice growing, and Alexandria, the Egyptian feeder port for Venice, the European distributor. Melaka would become the metropolis of the straits for more than a century, a flourishing maritime state presumably never as populous as Venice, but comparable to London at the time. Like other trading cities in the region, it was largely independent of any bigger territorial authority. Saltwater space formed its true sphere, “the axis of the realm.”

At the peak of its power in the fifteenth century, Melaka made itself master of both sides of the straits and the islands within, but its empire was less a matter of territory than situation, its purpose being to protect trade streams and sources of manpower and foodstuffs.

The cast of characters in Melaka at its peak illustrates the multiethnic, multicultural character of maritime life. Giving it color and pulse were Chinese, Javanese, Tagalogs, Persians, Tamils from South India, Gulf Arabs, Gujerati Indians from the far northwest of the subcontinent, and even a few of the great cosmopolitan traders, Armenians and Jews. In short, people from the whole of the Asian maritime littoral and beyond crowded the streets and bazaars of the city, all intent on doing business.

An early European visitor would call the straits, a place of cultural and commercial convergence, Asia’s “gullet,” and, mindful of its wide-ranging significance in the spice trade, declared “Whoever is lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice,” the center for distributing spices to consumers throughout Europe. If Venice were the “hinge of Europe,” so Melaka might have been described as the hinge of Eurasia.

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Trans-Siberian Railway to 1916

From Dreams of a Great Small Nation: The Mutinous Army that Threatened a Revolution, Destroyed an Empire, Founded a Republic, and Remade the Map of Europe, by Kevin J. McNamara (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2982-3019:

A LITTLE MORE than one hundred years ago, two elements were introduced into Russia without which the Russian Civil War would not have been so consequential or so deadly. One element was the Czecho-Slovak Legion, which quickly emerged as the most disciplined fighting force in that conflict. The other was the Trans-Siberian Railway. According to Harmon Tupper’s history of the railway, “The Trans-Siberian is inseparable from the history of this bloodshed.”

Virtually completed as the war dawned over the neighboring continent of Europe, the Trans-Siberian was designed chiefly to move settlers and soldiers across distant lands Russia first claimed in 1582, when Vasily Timofeyevich, the Cossack known as Yermak, embarked on an expedition beyond the Urals with an army of 840 men. Although Yermak was paid by the wealthy Stroganov family, he claimed Siberia for Tsar Ivan the Terrible, with whom he hoped to make amends for past crimes. Siberia gave the tsarist kingdom at Moscow the world’s largest land empire and the reach and resources of a great power, without which she would have remained just another European power on a par with France or Italy.

The Trans-Siberian infused this empire with a thin metal spine that extends from the Ural Mountains to the edge of the Pacific, stretching almost five thousand miles. Siberia’s 5 million square miles are bounded by the Urals in the west and the Bering Sea, the Sea of Okhotsk, and the Sea of Japan in the east. To provide perspective, Siberia could contain the United States (including Alaska) and all of Europe (excepting Russia) and still have 300,000 square miles to spare.

In 1891 Tsar Alexander III’s ministers announced their intention to build the Trans-Siberian Railway, and the heir apparent, Grand Duke Nicholas—the future Tsar Nicholas II—broke ground for the rail line at Vladivostok on May 19, 1891 (OS). The line would connect Vladivostok with Chelyabinsk, the frontier town on the eastern slopes of the Urals, which was already connected with European Russia’s rail network. To save money, the designers adopted building standards far below those used elsewhere. Plans called for only a single track of lightweight rails laid on fewer, and smaller, ties and a narrow, thinly ballasted roadbed, while timber was used for bridges crossing three-quarters of the streams. All this parsimoniousness raised safety concerns, though Italian stonemasons built the massive stone piers supporting the steel bridges over Siberia’s widest rivers, most of which still stand. While most Siberian towns and cities were built on rivers, further cost saving dictated that the Trans-Siberian cross those rivers at their narrowest point, which placed most train stations one to fourteen miles from towns. Three miles outside of Chelyabinsk, construction of the eastbound route was begun on July 19, 1892, eventually linking the city with the cities (west to east) of Omsk, Novosibirsk, Tomsk, Krasnoyarsk, and Irkutsk.

Discouraged by the rough terrain between Sretensk and Khabarovsk—where steamships along the Shilka and Amur rivers filled a gap in the railway, but frequently ran aground—the Russians in 1896 negotiated a loan and treaty of alliance with China to build a line from Chita to Vladivostok across Manchurian China, reducing the length of the rail journey by 341 miles. China surrendered a strip of land more than nine hundred miles long to the Russian-controlled Chinese Eastern Railway Company and construction began in 1897. The Chinese Eastern lines connecting Chita with Vladivostok, through the city of Harbin, and a branch line south from Harbin to Port Arthur, opened in 1901. With the start of regular traffic on the line in 1903, the Trans-Siberian Railway was complete—except for a 162-mile missing link around the southern tip of Lake Baikal.

Russia was still putting the finishing touches on that link on February 8, 1904, when Japan opened a torpedo-boat attack on Russia’s naval squadron at Port Arthur. Competing with Russia to dominate Manchuria and the Korean peninsula, Japan decided to strike at Russia before the completion of the Trans-Siberian would allow for easier shipment of Russian troops into China—due to the gap at Lake Baikal that was not yet closed. In the peace treaty signed on September 5, 1905—mediated by US president Theodore Roosevelt, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts—Russia had to surrender to Japan its lease of the Chinese Eastern’s branch line south from Harbin to Port Arthur; the southern half of Russia’s Sakhalin Island, which sits north of Japan; and an exclusive sphere of influence in Korea. Fearful that Tokyo might one day seize the Chinese Eastern Railway, Russia later built the stretch of the Trans-Siberian between Sretensk and Khabarovsk. The five-thousand-foot-long bridge across the Amur at Khabarovsk completed this stretch in October 1916, as well as the original dream of a railway crossing Russia entirely on Russian soil.

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South Caucasus: European or Asian?

From Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal (Oxford U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 186-210:

Is the South Caucasus in Europe or Asia? By one definition, proposed by the eighteenth-century German-Swedish geographer Philip Johan von Strahlenberg, the region is in Asia, and the border with Europe runs along the Kuma-Manych Depression, north of the Greater Caucasus range. Other geographers, a bit more tidily, have made the mountains of the Caucasus themselves the border between Europe and Asia. Nowadays, the consensus is to place Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan in Europe and make the Turkish border and the river Araxes the Europe-Asia frontier. The strange result of this is that “Europe” in Armenia and Azerbaijan is directly due east of the “Asian” Turkish towns of Kars and Trabzon.

No definition is satisfactory because the South Caucasus has multiple identities. It is both European and Asian, with strong Middle Eastern influences as well. Politically the three countries, and Georgia in particular, tend to look to Europe. They are members of the two European institutions, the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—but then so is Turkey. The Georgian politician Zurab Zhvania famously told the Council of Europe in 1999, “I am Georgian and therefore I am European.” But Armenians maintain links with their diaspora communities in Iran, Lebanon, and Syria, and Azerbaijanis have affinities with the Turkic nations of Central Asia. In the end, it comes down to a matter of self-identification. At the beginning of Kurban Said’s classic 1937 novel of the Caucasus, Ali and Nino, set in Baku before and during the First World War, a Russian teacher informs his pupils that the Russian Empire has resolved the ancient geographical dispute over the Caucasus in favor of Europe. The teacher says, “It can therefore be said, my children, that it is partly your responsibility as to whether our town should belong to progressive Europe or to reactionary Asia”—at which point Mehmed Haidar, sitting in the back row, raises his hand and says, “Please, sir, we would rather stay in Asia.”

The Caucasus also has its own identity. Anthropologists identify its customs and traditions fairly easily, and they get more marked the closer to the mountains one gets. The Caucasian nationalities share similar wedding and funeral ceremonies, and all mark the fortieth day after the death of a loved one with strikingly similar rituals. The same elaborate rituals of hospitality and toasting are found across the region, even among Muslim Azerbaijanis. Foreign mediators between “warring” Armenians and Azerbaijanis or Georgians and Abkhaz have frequently seen how once the two sides sit down to dinner together, political differences are forgotten and convivial rituals of eating and drinking precisely observed. Ethnic and religious differences were always there but are much more accentuated by modern politics. A century ago, attitudes toward religion could be deeply pragmatic. In her memoir of early twentieth-century Abkhazia, Adile Abas-oglu writes, “Arriving in Mokva for the Muslim festivals I always laughed when I observed how people drink wine and vodka at them and some families cooked holiday dishes from pork.”

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Political Implosion Journalism

From Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden (Penguin, 2012), Kindle Loc. 178-195:

As a correspondent for the Washington Post in Northeast Asia, I had been searching for more than a year for a story that could explain how North Korea used repression to keep from falling apart.

Political implosion had become my specialty. For the Post and for the New York Times, I spent nearly three decades covering failed states in Africa, the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the breakup of Yugoslavia, and the slow-motion rot in Burma under the generals. From the outside looking in, North Korea seemed ripe—indeed, overripe—for the kind of collapse I had witnessed elsewhere. In a part of the world where nearly everyone else was getting rich, its people were increasingly isolated, poor, and hungry.

Still, the Kim family dynasty kept the lid on. Totalitarian repression preserved their basket case state.

My problem in showing how the government did it was lack of access. Elsewhere in the world, repressive states were not always successful in sealing their borders. I had been able to work openly in Mengistu’s Ethiopia, Mobutu’s Congo, and Milosevic’s Serbia, and had slipped in as a tourist to write about Burma.

North Korea was much more careful. Foreign reporters, especially Americans, were rarely allowed inside. I visited North Korea only once, saw what my minders wanted me to see, and learned little. If journalists entered illegally, they risked months or years of imprisonment as spies. To win release, they sometimes needed the help of a former American president.

Given these restrictions, most reporting about North Korea was distant and hollow. Written from Seoul or Tokyo or Beijing, stories began with an account of Pyongyang’s latest provocation, such as sinking a ship or shooting a tourist. Then the dreary conventions of journalism kicked in: American and South Korean officials expressed outrage. Chinese officials called for restraint. Think tank experts opined about what it might mean. I wrote more than my share of these pieces.

Shin, though, shattered these conventions. His life unlocked the door, allowing outsiders to see how the Kim family sustained itself with child slavery and murder. A few days after we met, Shin’s appealing picture and appalling story ran prominently on the front page of the Washington Post.

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Comparing the Russian and Turkish Revolutions

From The Sultans, by Noel Barber (Simon & Schuster, 1973), p. 284:

During all these years there were remarkable parallels between those two arch-enemies of the past, Turkey and Russia. The Russian revolution in 1905, the Young Turks in 1908, had both sprung from the same original passions – a deeply rooted desire for democratic government at a time when the equivalent of Britain’s Industrial Revolution was changing the face of the two empires, each half European, half Asian. Each had reached a moment of destiny after losing a succession of wars. The parallels went further. Both separated Church from State. And while Constantinople became Istanbul, and a new capital was built out of a primitive village on the steppes, St Petersburg became Petrograd, then Leningrad and the capital was moved to Moscow. In both cases the move was symbolic, the sign not only that each country wanted to blot out its tarnished history but wanted also to signalise to the world that it was making a fresh start.

There was, however, one vital difference between the two countries. A massive ideology underlay the tremendous events in Russia, often paralysing the Bolshevik attempts to introduce reforms, to get things done. By contrast Musatafa Kemal, as he Europeanised Turkey, unceremoniously nationalising banks, introducing rural electrification, was never hampered by mystical theories which had to be earnestly debated. Since the basis of Mustafa Kemal’s ideology was to produce a modern, Westernised Turkey, he could bulldoze any measures, however startling, through Parliament simply because reform was the only creed he preached.

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Filed under Asia, democracy, economics, Europe, nationalism, philosophy, religion, Russia, Turkey

Just Another Imperial Expansion

From Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, by Matthew Restall (Oxford, 2004), Kindle Loc. 3230-3243:

If we focus only on the century following Columbus’s voyages we see Mexica and Inca warriors as losers, West Africans as fighting slaves, and Spaniards as quite reasonably contemplating a world empire. But the age of expansion began with the rise of empires outside Europe, with the Mexica fanning out across Mesoamerica and the Inca dominating the Andes, and in West Africa with the rising of the Songhay empire from the ashes of that of Mali. In Europe, the Ottomans and the Muscovites began empire building before the Spaniards, as did the Portuguese—who beat their Iberian neighbors in the race for a sea route to East Asia. And after the sixteenth century the Spanish empire was gradually eclipsed by the trading and colonial networks of the Dutch, English, and French.

Looking at human history over thousands of years, the Spanish Conquest is a mere episode in the globalization of access to resources of food production. The plants and animals of certain Old World environments and regions have a greater potential as food, and the peoples of those regions have enjoyed advantages over others as a result. But eventually, through uneven encounters, those advantages have been introduced to the previously disadvantaged regions. In the case of Europeans introducing new foods to Native Americans, the parallel introduction of Old World diseases made the encounter especially uneven, while colonialism hindered native access to these new resources. This process is too broad and complex to be understood in terms of the alleged and simple “superiority” of one group of people over another. It is also a process that is incomplete. We are still living through the long period of uneven encounters and the gradual globalization of resources.

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Wordcatcher Tales: Datsu-A Nyuu-Ou vs. Datsu-Bei Nyuu-A

One of the frequent catch-phrases in Japanese foreign policy discussions these days is 脱米入亜 datsu-Bei nyuu-A ‘leave America join Asia’, one of many trial balloons floated by the new DPJ-led government. This phrase (r)evokes an older formulation attributed to one of the most avid Westernizers of the Meiji era, Fukuzawa Yukichi, who must hold the world record in Sinographic neologism. (One of the neologisms sometimes attributed to him is minshuushugi [people-master-ism] ‘democracy’.) His policy prescription for Japan in the late 19th century was 脱亜入欧 datsu-A nyuu-Ou ‘leave Asia join Europe’.

How feasible for Japan is 脱米入亜 datsu-Bei nyuu-A ‘leave America join Asia’? Kyushu-based blogger Ampontan is translating and hosting a series of columns by Shimojo Masao, one of Japan’s top specialists on Korea (whose second language is Korean), who weighs in on the issue. Here is Ampontan’s translation of Shimojo’s first column, in its entirety.

The Preconditions for an East Asian Entity

There has been a change of government in Japan for the first time in half a century, and a Democratic Party of Japan administration has taken power under the leadership of Hatoyama Yukio. Among his policy initiatives, the concept of an East Asian entity or community similar to the European Union is receiving widespread attention. The alliance with the United States has been the cornerstone of international relations for Japan since the Liberal Democratic Party came to power. People are discussing whether the change of government might mean Japan has chosen to turn away from the U.S. and place a greater emphasis on Asia.

A full understanding of the distinctive historical characteristics of East Asia is required before embarking on such a course, however. While Japan, the Korean Peninsula, and China on the continent are close geographically, the history of their social systems is different. They have less in common than the members of the European Union, which had shared Christian beliefs and intermarriage of the ruling classes.

In Japan’s case, a social system that incorporated regional authority was formed after the establishment of the Kamakura Shogunate in the 12th century, and the foundation of a market economy was created. That is why Japan, with a system closely resembling capitalism, was quickly receptive to Western civilization after the Opium War of 1840.

In contrast, a system of centralized authority was maintained in China and on the Korean Peninsula despite the arrival of modernization. For many years, they had what amounted to planned economies. The history of Japan vis-à-vis China and the Korean Peninsula is that of relationships similar to the one between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

The achievement of an East Asian entity depends on whether Prime Minister Hatoyama is possessed of the awareness of those historical differences and the insight to perceive what is necessary to overcome them.

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