X-POSTED REVIEW: Rüegg on Tagliacozzo, 'In Asian Waters: Oceanic Worlds from Yemen to Yokohama'

Caroline Marris's picture
Eric Tagliacozzo
Jonas Rüegg

Rüegg on Tagliacozzo, 'In Asian Waters: Oceanic Worlds from Yemen to Yokohama'

Eric Tagliacozzo. In Asian Waters: Oceanic Worlds from Yemen to Yokohama. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2022. 512 pp. Ill. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-691-14682-9.

Reviewed by Jonas Rüegg (University of Zürich) Published on H-Water (March, 2023) Commissioned by Yan Gao

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58318

In Asian Waters is a big, fascinating, at times overwhelming book, with which the author Eric Tagliacozzo achieves a special feat, that of writing a global history of maritime commerce and exchange that functions largely independently of Eurocentric narratives and chronologies. It does so by redefining “Asia” not as the landmass east of the Bosporus, but as a maritime zone lined up along the shores of a vast terraqueous zone that stretches from the shores of eastern Africa to the Southeast Asian Archipelago and all the way to the icy waters of the Sea of Okhotsk. Tagliacozzo’s choice to connect the histories of places as disparate as Hormuz, Zamboanga, and Yokohama around a shared maritime geography is both provocative and powerful. The book’s unconventionally large geographical and temporal scope enables new perspectives on big processes, by surveying and connecting distant bodies of scholarship. Its great ambition, and the sheer vastness of ground covered, however, unavoidably obfuscate the book’s many arguments at times, and they program a somewhat encyclopedic tendency. Nevertheless, In Asian Waters makes an important contribution to a fast-evolving field. As historians and anthropologists explore the oceanic dimensions of their regional fields, big pictures like the one Tagliacozzo paints play an increasingly important role in facilitating transregional and multidisciplinary conversations.

In Asian Waters makes two overarching arguments: first, that maritime Asia is a diverse and decentralized entity that is yet historically tied together at so many levels that it defies any attempts at a single, integrated story line. Second, the book argues that for at least two millennia, encounters at sea over vast distances created the maritime geographies of culture, power, and trade that are at the burning point of major geopolitical transformations today. In the author’s words, “those are the routes that we have now inherited … open, sprawling, and running in many directions, and through the harbor of many ports. It is a long history and a complex one” (p. 384). How true, for already the Chinese admiral Zheng He (1371–ca. 1433), when he sailed to Africa in the 1410s, followed the path of older maritime trade routes that had long connected Northeast Asia to the Indian Ocean, the Middle East, and to places on the East African coast as far south as Madagascar. The Indian Ocean, Tagliacozzo argues, was intimately connected with East Asian Seas from Java to Japan since deep time: genetic and archaeological evidence give proof of long-distance engagements that have largely escaped the attention of classical historiography, but that suggests a radically new picture of greater Asia as a meta-region connected by the sea.

The meta-region’s de-centrality, and the diversity in historical experiences it harbors, finds expression in the book’s organization. Structured like an “accordion” (p. 15), In Asian Waters contains six thematic sections, centered on maritime connections, bodies of water, religion on the tides, cities and the sea, marine resources, and technologies of sea power. These sections are again subdivided into fourteen chapters. Each section comes with a brief thematic introduction to help the reader gain an overview over the broad and incredibly diverse topics covered by the book. The sites studied reach from Mombasa to the Bay of Bengal and on to the South China Sea and the harbor of Pusan, and temporally, they span from the Austronesian migrations in prehistoric times to the tensions over the South China Sea in the twenty-first century. Each chapter experiments with different spatial entities, perspectives, and chronologies. If the book opens with a macroscopic account of Afro-Chinese encounters over the past two millennia, subsequent chapters focus on early modern Vietnam as a maritime polity, the transmission of “Hindu/Buddhist” beliefs from South to Southeast Asia, or on the long and continuing history of smuggling in the making of the South China Sea. These chapters each contribute a different approach to the complex mosaic that constitutes maritime Asia.

There is a deeper meaning to Tagliacozzo’s experiments with geography. In the process of the environmental turn, historians of different coastal regions have cultivated an interest in maritime environments not just as pieces of infrastructure, but as social and natural ecosystems. With currents, winds, and tides, maritime environments have been recognized as distinct, fluid contexts to the making of local and imperial structures.[1] Much inspiration for such inversions of conventional, terracentric conceptions of the world comes out of Pacific history. A shift of focus toward coastal and insular localities now creates views of the Asia-Pacific as a “sea of islands” akin to Epeli Hau'ofa’s seminal vision for the Pacific.[2] In East Asian area studies, the subordination of national historiographies to transnational entities—such as Tagliacozzo’s South China Sea, or the East China Sea in Micah Muscolino’s work—is still provocative.[3] With Hamashita Takeshi’s model of interlinked maritime interaction spheres, or what François Gipouloux has termed the “East Asian Mediterranean,” the field has been set up and is waiting for an overarching theory to bring the regions together.[4]. Even after Tagliacozzo, however, the one concept that defines maritime “Asia” remains up to the reader’s interpretation.

So, can the vastly diverse experiences of a maritime “Asia” even be told in one book, or is the region too vast and too diverse to constitute more than an anti-Europe? Is there a limit to how far these regions can be stretched and still make for a coherent analytical category? It seems that Tagliacozzo keeps both temporal and spatial boundaries intentionally vague. He explains that his book argues “for a vision of Asia’s oceanic history focused less on the power and politics … and more on the notion of conjoined seas—the mingling of waters connecting the Middle East to Japan, with all of the maritime realms and possibilities in between” (p. 373). Tagliacozzo steers clear of provincializing Europe at all costs. Yet his active avoidance of iconic figures or turning points—familiar or alternative—at times leaves the reader somewhat disoriented. If maritime “Asia” is a useful category, then what are the common moments and processes that distinguish the region from the rest of the world? Or, ought we to think beyond human history and understand “Asia” as a greater monsoon zone, which encompasses not only the northern half of the Indian Ocean, but also the Northeast Asian and the West Pacific Monsoon?[5] Geophysical processes such as winds, currents, and tidal patterns are explored in individual chapters, but perhaps they would prove productive if explored as encompassing factors in the making of maritime Asia.

A historian of Southeast Asia by training, Eric Tagliacozzo is known as a globetrotting scholar whose work has previously led him north to the maritime Sinosphere,[6] and west along the networks of Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.[7] As is evident from his use of sources, besides Malay/Indonesian, Tagliacozzo also reads Chinese, as well as a number of European languages. With the help of translators, he has furthermore conducted interviews in Africa, the Arab Peninsula, and Thailand, among other locations. The work’s authenticity is strengthened by the author’s presence throughout the piece, in personal anecdotes from the beaches of Tanzania, where he once cut his feet on the shards of Ming-dynasty porcelain (p. 36), or from a “sack of salt out on the deck … somewhere between Sulawesi and Java,” on which he slept one night while pursuing the path of those who sailed these waters in the distant past (p. 387). Though compelling, these traveling episodes are mostly anecdotal in nature, an impression also supported by the eclectic fieldwork excerpts in the appendix. Some readers may feel somewhat unsatisfied with the way scholarly trends are alluded to, but not spoken to in due depth. The reviewer took a special interest in the chapters advertised as “the environmental history of Asian seas” to find that they operate as economic histories of marine industries and trade (p. 251). The profound environmental ramifications of intensifying resource extraction are left unexplored. These quibbles aside, In Asian Waters needed to be written by no one other than Tagliacozzo. By daring to leave his academic comfort zone, he manages to paint maritime Southeast Asia as the crucial juncture at the center of the world’s most densely populated meta-region.

In Asian Waters is well written and enlivened by illustrative maps and figures. It is full of interesting information that will appeal to the academic as much as to the curious leisurely reader. Yet the book demands a fair amount of preliminary knowledge. For example, the fall of the Vietnamese Lê dynasty and the realm’s subsequent dissolution into three entities is alluded to, but not supported with temporal orientation for those unfamiliar with Vietnamese history (p. 54). Regardless, individual chapters will be highly useful as teaching materials, some as windows on regional histories, others for those crucial teaching moments that push students to the meta-level of history and area studies.

Once again, this is a daring and thought-provoking book. I especially recommend the read to those interested in transregional histories of commerce, navigation, migration, and non-Western perspectives on early modern globalization. Besides the novel vision it draws by challenging the spatial and temporal conventions of the field, In Asian Waters is also a prompt to rethink seemingly peripheral localities as epicenters of global history in their own right.


[1]. Ryan Tucker Jones, “Running into Whales: The History of the North Pacific from below the Waves,” American Historical Review 118, no. 2 (April 1, 2013): 349–77, https://doi.org/10.1093/ahr/118.2.349.

[2]. Epeli Hau’ofa, “Our Sea of Islands,” The Contemporary Pacific 6, no. 1 (1994): 148–61.

[3]. Micah S. Muscolino, Fishing Wars and Environmental Change in Late Imperial and Modern China, Harvard East Asian Monographs, 325 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center; distrib. Harvard University Press, 2009).

[4]. Takeshi Hamashita, “Changing Regions and China: Historical Perspectives,” China Report 37, no. 3 (2001): 333–51, https://doi.org/10.1177/000944550103700304; François Gipouloux, La Méditerranée asiatique: villes portuaires et réseaux marchands en Chine, au Japon et en Asie du sud-est, XVIe-XXIe siècle (Paris: CNRS, 2009).

[5]. Yihui Ding and Johnny C. L. Chan, “The East Asian Summer Monsoon: An Overview,” Meteorology and Atmospheric Physics 89, nos. 1–4 (June 2005): 117–42, https://doi.org/10.1007/s00703-005-0125-z.

[6]. Eric Tagliacozzo and Wen-chin Chang, eds., Chinese Circulations: Capital, Commodities, and Networks in Southeast Asia (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011); Eric Tagliacozzo, Helen F. Siu, Peter C. Perdue, eds., Asia Inside Out: Connected Places (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).

[7]. Eric Tagliacozzo, The Longest Journey: Southeast Asians and the Pilgrimage to Mecca (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

Citation: Jonas Rüegg. Review of Tagliacozzo, Eric, In Asian Waters: Oceanic Worlds from Yemen to Yokohama. H-Water, H-Net Reviews. March, 2023. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58318

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