Ambassadors from the Islands of Immortals: China-Japan Relations in the Han-Tang Period. Wang Zhenping.

Ambassadors from the Islands of Immortals: China-Japan Relations in the Han-Tang Period

Honolulu: Association for Asian Studies / University of Hawaii, 2005. Santos Barbasa Jr. First Edition. First Printing. Hardcover. Signed by author. Used - Fine/As New. Green cloth boards with gilt lettering on front board and spine. B/W illustrations. Source notes Glossary. Index. 15.5 x 23.5 cm. 387 pp. Signed by author in black ink on front free endpaper. Item #5727

A review of the book from the Japan Times by Donald Richie:


Relations between Japan and China may be troubled right now, but then they often have been. Back at the beginning, Chinese rulers saw the whole world as coming under their jurisdiction. “Under the wide heaven,” as one Chinese saying had it, “all is the King’s land; within the sea-boundaries of the land, all are the King’s servants.”

Such an attitude leads to argument. Hence the necessity of ambassadors, the purpose of whom is to evade controversy, or to create it. Those from Japan to the Sui (581-618 A.D.) and Tang (618-907 A.D.) courts of China, however, were not interested in establishing a relationship of equality with China. Rather, they were concerned with collecting information and siphoning knowledge from the country, thus producing for Japan as much cultural and material benefit as possible. The interests of China and Japan may have been in many respects antithetical but they were alike in their mutual self-interest.

This interesting story of official relations between Japan and China from the 2nd century B.C. to the 10th century A.D. constitutes what the author calls an “inner history” of the designs of both countries. And though the title perhaps suggests a somewhat dry topic, the available history is so anecdotal that the results are readably juicy.

Ambassadors were sometimes murdered and often detained. In addition, though the official description of Japan and China was “two countries joined by a band of water,” more often than not this water was turbulent and dangerous. Boat after boat foundered and sank with all hands aboard, diplomatic or not.

Japanese ambassadors to China were liable to all sorts of restrictions. In 717 A.D. one such diplomat made an official request to go shopping — then as now, apparently, a national passion. Though this was granted, the ambassador found he could not purchase “items under imperial prohibition.” Others discovered that they could buy or sell nothing at all. Trading without imperial permission was a crime considered equivalent to robbery and there was no “diplomatic immunity.”

One Japanese mission in 659 A.D. was locked up in its Chinese quarters for over a year, unable to seek release or explanation. Only later was the reason revealed. The Tang court and the Silla court of Korea planned to destroy the other Korean court at Paekche. But since Japan was on good terms with Paekche, the Chinese locked up the ambassador and his mission to prevent leaks.

As was so often to occur, ambassadors were victims of military intrigues. Several paid heavily. Some Tibetan missions were detained in China forever — most died there of old age.

Not that the Chinese did not have their reasons for such murders and arrests. One of the duties of an ambassador is to spy. All Japanese on missions to China — diplomats, students or monks — had an obligation to collect information on China and to report it to the Japanese court. The monk Ennin, traveling in China from 838 to 848, even coined a term for this major activity. He called it gathering “news from Tang” and this “news” was something to be included in every report.

Such spying was common knowledge. Hence the various rituals and rites that were used to restrict the ambassador and his staff. The Chinese court had a standard policy of minimum and controlled interaction between foreign visitors and the Chinese.

All unauthorized people were forbidden entry to the country, their names were checked by the Court of State Ceremonial Guards, and interpreters or other stewards had to show their warrants while guards escorted them in or out. Unauthorized liaison with foreigners was subject to severe punishment. One scribe was detected and Emperor Zuanzong personally sentenced him to death, a decree later mitigated but only to flogging and banishment for life.

Given all the complications on either side, it is not surprising that China and Japan often disagreed. The unexpected fact is that they agreed at all. Yet they occasionally did. The author of this account describes how messages were conveyed through ceremonial arrangements — their accepting or rejecting them — and argues that China’s tributary system was not only a unilateral tool for hegemonic purposes, but also a game in which multiple powers (among them Japan) modified the rules depending on the circumstances.

That, even this early, “ambassador diplomacy” was both practiced and needed is shown in scholarly detail (appendixes, 100 pages of notes, big bibliography) and with a storyteller’s flair.

Price: HK$2,950.00

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