John E. Wills, Jr., 1936–2017: An Appreciation (by Tonio Andrade)

This tribute to the late Jack Wills is the first essay written for H-Asia that we have published. The editors hope it will be the first of many as we build on the immense potential of the H-Net Commons in service of open-access scholarship in Asian Studies.

Tonio Andrade’s essay follows on from the discussion thread on H-Asia last month remembering Jack Wills and his many contributions to the shared scholarly enterprise. H-Asia readers wishing to respond to or comment on this essay may do so there. RD


By Tonio Andrade
Emory University
February, 2017

John Eliot Wills, Jr., known to his students and friends as Jack, was a pioneer in historical scholarship whose contributions have touched many fields and subfields, most notably global history and Chinese history. Long before global history existed as a research field, he was already focused on the maritime interactions that have become one of global historians’ key obsessions. His work is exceptional for its ability to understand global encounters in human terms, and for prose that brings those exchanges alive.

He was born in 1936 and grew up in Urbana-Champaign, site of the main campus of the University of Illinois. His father was a professor and had graduate students from all over the world. Jack enrolled as a university student in his hometown and majored in philosophy, but his girlfriend was a student in the history department. She eventually became his wife, and he eventually decided to devote himself to the study of history.

Jack’s interest in China came through an encounter with Confucius. While in the army in San Antonio, Texas, he began reading an English translation of the ancient sage’s work, and he felt an immediate affinity. He connected with Confucius’s ethical pragmatism, which eschewed spiritual and metaphysical speculation in favor of concrete action to improve the world below heaven. In 1958, after finishing his military service, he enrolled in the MA program in East Asian Regional Studies at Harvard University, a training ground for so many of the leading lights in China studies of the twentieth century. He went on to the Ph.D. program, where his dissertation advisor was the famous John King Fairbank.

Fairbank, Harvard’s first professor of Chinese history, was fascinated by China’s relations with the West, and historians today still grapple with his pathbreaking and lucid descriptions of the “Sinocentric World Order” or “Tributary System.” Jack, too, set out to explore Sino-western relations, but whereas Fairbank had focused on the 19th century and primarily explored Chinese relations with the Anglophone world, Jack focused on the seventeenth century and explored China’s relations with the United Netherlands, or, more accurately, with the Dutch East India Company. At the time, it seemed an odd choice, but it turned out to be a fruitful one.

In 1963, Jack traveled to The Hague, Netherlands, and began researching in the Dutch National Archives (then known as the Algemeen Rijksarchief). During the morning and afternoon coffee breaks – a ritual that fellow researchers in the Dutch archives will recognize – he made friends with other scholars from around the world, including Indian historian Om Prakash and Africanists Kwame Daaku and John Fynn. He also discovered the incredible richness of those records, which, when paired with Chinese sources, allowed him to make minute reconstructions of voyages, parleys, and exchanges of delegates and letters.

This ability to look at both sides of the story is the most important hallmark of Jack’s work. In fact, one should say all sides of the story, because his linguistic expertise wasn’t limited to Dutch and Chinese. He also used sources in Spanish, Portuguese, French, Japanese, and, as the Dutch say, noem maar op. He was a historian’s historian, and his meticulous readings and stunning range of experience made for authoritative accounts.

The result of his fieldwork was a 700-page dissertation on Dutch-Qing relations, which became the basis for his two seminal monographs, Pepper, Guns, and Parleys (1974), and Embassies and Illusions (1984). At the time, they were well received by specialists, who appreciated the way they both built upon and challenged the Fairbank Tributary model, but it was only later that they took on their iconic status as pioneering studies in global and maritime history.

What has given these books their unusual staying power? For one thing, they’re painstakingly researched, drawing on an immense corpus of primary and secondary sources in many different languages. Yet Wills wore his scholarship lightly. The books are a delight to read: vivid, compelling, and, most important of all, human. Wills understood that it was difficult to communicate across vast cultural gulfs and treated his historical actors with understanding and compassion. There are few villains in his work, just confused humans struggling with their roles in life. Historian Kenneth Swope remembers seeking advice from Jack about the late-Ming military figure Mao Wenlong and whether he should be seen as a Ming loyalist or traitor. Jack said, “It's not really about heroes and villains; it's about people finding a way to get by within their respective frameworks of action.”

This humanistic insistence on balance is, I believe, a key reason that his work has had such resonance among younger generations of scholars, particularly as global history emerged as a research field. Jack got there first and has been an example to all who followed. His focus was always on interaction and transcultural exchange.

His first two monographs were accompanied by numerous articles, including two influential chapters for the monumental Cambridge History of China and a seminal chapter in a volume he co-edited with his friend, Jonathan Spence: From Ming to Ch’ing (1979). That chapter explores China’s peculiar relationship to the oceans, hypothesizing that official attitudes toward maritime commerce were shaped by China’s geography. Whereas certain maritime regions – such as the Baltic, the Mediterranean, and large parts of current-day Malaysia and Indonesia – had maritime bottlenecks, where local polities could control and tax maritime trade, China had a vast and open coastline. “Maritime China”, he wrote, “offered only meager opportunities for ... positive interactions between profit and power.” Another prominent piece was a review article for The American Historical Review, “The Interactive Emergence of European Domination”, whose thesis remains as compelling today as it was when it was first published in 1993: European dominance in maritime Asia emerged gradually after 1500, and it was based on close interactions with seafaring Asians and their polities. This thesis helped lay the groundwork for dozens of dissertations and books and is still widely cited.

Jack also published three books for more general audiences. Mountain of Fame, whose first edition appeared in 1994, is an accessible introduction to Chinese history and historiography by means of biography. In short sketches, some no more than ten pages in length, he provides a sweep of China’s long history, from the mythical Yellow Emperor to Mao Zedong. In 1688: A Global History (2001), he took the opposite approach, painting a picture of one year in global history. It’s a delightful and pioneering book, and, again, it is filled with sympathetic and illuminating portraits of individual humans: a Congolese king writing in Portuguese to an Italian priest; a fifteen-year-old girl and her suitors in Potosí, Peru; the King of Siam sending emissaries to Louis XIV of France; and the Jesuit Ferdinand Verbiest negotiating the court of China’s Kangxi emperor. In The World from 1450 to Today, Jack traced the increasingly dense connections that bound together the societies of the world during the early modern period, and also the odd parallel developments that occurred in far-flung regions. This book, too, was praised for its vivid prose and its focus on human stories and global connections.

Connecting was something Jack did well in his personal and professional life as well. He made close and enduring friendships with people he met during his many trips around the world: Om Prakash, Kwame Daaku, John Fynn, Leonard Blussé, Ts’ao Young-ho, Geoffrey Parker, C.R. Boxer, Jonathan Spence, and many, many more. As a faculty member at the University of Southern California, he built up its Asian and global curricula, working closely with his colleagues, most notably Peter Mancall, Charlotte Furth, and Gordon Berger, the latter two recruited by Jack himself. He was an active administrator as well, founding USC’s East Asian Studies Center and organizing meetings and symposia. He particularly enjoyed conferences, keeping an active presence in them to the very end of his life. Similarly, his scholarly production didn’t flag after his retirement in 2004. He went on to publish three books and many articles.

Throughout his busy life, he always made time to mentor younger scholars, many of whom were not even his own students. Among his many mentees and students are Paul Van Dyke, Kenneth Swope, Tonio Andrade, Xing Hang, Dahpon Ho, David Bello, Jennifer Gaynor, David Kang, and Sun Laichen. He was also generous with his money, donating large sums to fund scholarships at the University of Southern California.

Few scholars of his generations have had as large of an effect on the practice of history, and his influence will not end with his passing. His publications will continue to resonate in the work of younger scholars, and all of us who have had the pleasure of knowing him will never forget his example. In addition, a group of his students and mentees are preparing a volume in his honor. It is scheduled to appear in 2017.


Books by John E. Wills

Pepper, Guns, and Parleys: The Dutch East India Company and China, 1662-1681. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1974.

Embassies and Illusions: Dutch and Portuguese Envoys to Kʻang-Hsi, 1666-1687. Cambridge, Mass.: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University, 1984.

Spence, Jonathan D., and John E. Wills, Jr., eds. From Ming to Chʻing: Conquest, Region, and Continuity in Seventeenth-Century China. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979.

Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994; second edition 2012.

1688: A Global History. New York; London: Norton, 2002.

The World from 1450 to 1700. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Past and Present in China's Foreign Policy: From "Tribute System" to "Peaceful Rise". Portland, Me.: MerwinAsia, 2011.

China and Maritime Europe, 1500-1800: Trade, Settlement, Diplomacy, and Missions. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
---------------------
In addition to these books, Tonio Andrade mentions Jack Wills' seminal review article:

“Maritime Asia, 1500–1800: The Interactive Emergence of European Domination,” American Historical Review 98.1 (1993): 83-105.
----------------------
Lastly, the forthcoming book mentioned in the final paragraph is Tonio Andrade and Kenneth Swope, eds., Early Modern East Asia: War, Commerce & Cultural Exchange (forthcoming from Routledge: 2017).  RD

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.