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Imperial Maritime China  

Angela Schottenhammer

Imperial China has a long-standing, multifaceted, and interesting imperial maritime history. Of particular importance in this context are the commercial dimensions of China’s maritime contacts with the outside world. From approximately the 7th century until Yuan 元 times (1279–1367), China even developed as a commercial maritime power, although its maritime trade was, until the late 11th century, basically dominated by foreign merchants. During the Yuan and early Ming dynasties (1368–1644), China was also a naval power—the attempts of Qubilai Khan (r. 1260–1295) to subdue Japan are well known. But their maritime interests took the Mongols as far as Southeast and South Asia. The early Ming 明 period, under the third Ming Emperor, Yongle 永樂 (r. 1403–1424), is characterized by unforeseen political, military, and commercial maritime expansion. After 1435, following the instructions of the first Ming emperor, Hongwu 洪武 (r. 1368–1398), China officially retreated from the seas and prohibited all private maritime commerce, until internal socioeconomic and financial problems and the great demand of foreigners—after 1500 also including the Europeans—for Chinese products urged the government to “reopen” its borders for trade. The rulers of the last imperial dynasty, the Qing 清 (1644–1911), first concentrated on securing their maritime borders against competing commercial and political interests, then managed a flourishing trade, increasingly also with Europeans, but were finally confronted with the colonialist and imperialistic claims of the Europeans. After the Opium Wars (1839–1842), the maritime commerce and politics of China were more and more controlled by European powers, especially the British.


The Dutch East India Company (VOC) in Southeast Asia  

Peter Borschberg

The Dutch East India Company, also known by its historic initials VOC, was a chartered trading company that was active between 1602 and 1795. Formed by a merger of six smaller trading firms that traded in the East Indies and backed by a monopoly of trade, this proto-conglomerate emerged as a driving force in globalization, transregional investment, and early European colonization in Asia and Africa. The VOC operated as a profit-driven shareholder corporation and at the apex of its power, around the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries, maintained a series of factories and settlements stretching from Cape Town in Southern Africa, the Malabar and Coromandel coasts of India, Bengal, to insular and mainland Southeast Asia and as far as Taiwan (Formosa) and Japan. Chartered companies possessed considerable investments and infrastructure outside Europe, especially with their administrative apparatus, contacts, business networks, and trading knowledge. This in turn laid the foundations for Dutch imperialism during the 19th century.


Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s Invasion of the Chosŏn Kingdom, 1592–1598  

Nam-lin Hur

In the fourth month of 1592, and at the direction of Toyotomi Hideyoshi—the feudal baron, or daimyo, who unified the Warring States (Sengoku) across the Japanese Archipelago—a massive force invaded the Korean Peninsula, which, at the time, was controlled by the Chosŏn dynasty. The war lasted until late 1598. Initially, the defending Chosŏn armies were helpless, but they managed to frustrate Hideyoshi’s goals before leaders of the Ming dynasty dispatched a large rescue force in the twelfth month of 1592. The Ming, whose empire spanned much of the central and eastern territories of present-day China, were concerned about the security of their borders, but they were also pressured by the Chosŏn to help. There were two intense battles in 1593 (albeit the second did not involve the Ming); however, despite the Chosŏn’s strong opposition, the Ming court and the Hideyoshi regime pursued a negotiated settlement to end the war. These negotiations ended in failure: Hideyoshi ordered his daimyo generals to resume an attack against the Chosŏn in 1597, the Ming court sent reinforcements, and more battles ensued. In the end, none of the belligerents got what they wanted. The war came to an end when Hideyoshi died in the eighth month of 1598. All battles took place in the Chosŏn-controlled Korean Peninsula, and the casualties far exceeded those that occurred anywhere else in the world during the 16th and 17th centuries. Hideyoshi’s invasion of the Chosŏn kingdom went through three phases: (1) invasion, defense, and retreat (4/1592–4/1593); (2) attempted truce negotiations (5/1593–8/1596); and (3) massive resumption of battle and the path to the withdrawal of Hideyoshi’s invading troops (9/1596–11/1598). The aftermath of the war involved the collapse of the Hideyoshi regime and socially transformed the entire region.


The Dutch East India Company in South Asia  

Guido van Meersbergen

The Dutch East India Company (VOC, 1602–1799) developed into Europe’s largest commercial and colonial power in 17th-century Asia. Within its extensive intra-Asian trading network centered on Batavia (Jakarta), the Indian subcontinent and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) occupied a pivotal position. The VOC’s desire to tap into the exchange of Indian cloth for fine spices from the Maluku Islands first drove the Dutch to the Coromandel Coast, while Surat’s position as the preeminent maritime hub of the western Indian Ocean and Bengal’s status as a major exporter of silk and cottons attracted the Company to the Mughal Empire. Between 1638 and 1663, the VOC also displaced the Portuguese from their colonial holdings in Ceylon and the Malabar Coast, the world’s only source of high-quality cinnamon and an important producer of pepper, respectively. In Mughal India, the Dutch presence was limited to trading posts from which it conducted trade on conditions set by the imperial authorities, whereas along the Coromandel and Malabar Coasts the VOC possessed fortresses, and in Ceylon it acted as a territorial power exercising colonial rule over several hundred thousand Sinhalese and Tamil inhabitants. In all parts of South Asia, the Company’s position relied on and was maintained through diplomatic relations with local rulers. The various commercial, diplomatic, and colonial interactions gave rise to important forms of cultural exchange and knowledge production in the realms of art, religion, language, and botanical science, which testify to significant cross-cultural connections and mutual influences. The VOC maintained a dynamic trade in South Asia until the final quarter of the 18th century, when its Indian possessions were captured by the British first during the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War (1780–1784) and again in 1795 to 1796 during the French Revolutionary Wars.


Zhang Qian  

Shujing Wang

Zhang Qian was a prominent diplomat of the Western Han dynasty in ancient China. Under the threat of the powerful nomadic federation called the Xiongnu, Emperor Wu dispatched Zhang Qian to Central Asia to establish military alliances with the Yuezhi and the Wusun. Zhang Qian also led a diplomatic mission to the kingdoms near the southwest frontier of Han China. His pioneering travels profoundly affected not only Sino-foreign relations in the centuries around the common era but also the development of the Silk Roads. His reports provided the Han government with firsthand information on the states in the Western Regions and beyond and greatly contributed to the exchanges of goods, knowledge, and ideology between Han China and the outside world. In later periods, he became an icon of long-distance travel. Wall paintings, legends, and decorative themes that were created based on his journeys clearly demonstrate his continual influence. More recently, in 2014, a tomb attributed to Zhang Qian was included as a site on the UNESCO World Heritage List.


The Role of Trade in Building the Mongol Empire  

Isenbike Togan

Perennial interest of the nomads in exchange and trade is known, but the transition from exchange to trade is not so well known. Exchange is a kind of barter, while trade entails traders and profits. Though both continued in war and peace, records are scarce for peacetime. Wartime activities are well documented and make it clear that once the transition from exchange to trade was accomplished, war and conquest facilitated the expansion of networks. Expansion, opening up new routes, and maintenance of the old were accomplished by conquest along these routes. The roads needed to be connected to provide safety, eliminate anxiety, and establish an environment of trust for commercial transactions. Muslim merchants were the active participants of these new commercial ventures, which had the protection of Chinggis Khan’s army of conquest. However, in building the empire, Chinggis Khan would first resort to a conciliatory attitude before taking any military measures. Trade and trade routes were the main arteries of the Mongol Empire. These networks were the agreement points among all contenders of power, merchants, warriors, and the commanding members of the ruling dynasty. It was this agreement on the importance of trade that secured the endurance of the empire.