Connecting the Dots to See the Whole Picture: A Scholar Who Broke the Mode of Historical Research Methods—Prof. Yoshinobu Shiba
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Chinese original by Hsin-Yin Lin

(This article is a project collaboration between the Tang Prize Foundation, Pan Sci Taiwan and Story Studio.)

In 1968, Japanese scholar Yoshinobu Shiba, one of the recipients of the 2018 Tang Prize in Sinology, published Sōdai shōgyōshi kenkyū (Commerce and Society in Sung China), which, based on the arguments laid out his PhD thesis, has become one of the standard textbooks on the study of the history of the Song Dynasty for university students in America and Europe.  

For over two decades, Prof. Shiba worked in the University of Tokyo and Osaka University, cultivating young minds while continuing his research work. Fluent in Chinese, English and Japanese, he is known for his great attention to details that is typical of Japanese scholars and for how well-versed he is in the theoretical underpinnings of the French Annales School. Upholding the rigorous tradition of Japanese Sinology and drawing on the métier of Western social sciences, he has made many in-depth analyses of a wide range of Chinese resources and yielded many profound insights into China’s economic and urban history. Commanding Eastern and Western scholarship with great dexterity, Prof. Shiba created a landmark for his remarkable achievements and attained an academic peak others will feel hard pressed to ever surpass.    

Japanese sinologist Yoshinobu Shinba is a polymath of Chinese history, renowned for his encyclopedic knowledge of Western and Eastern research on the urban and economic history of China. (Photo courtesy of the Tang Prize Foundation.)

Retelling the story of the prosperous city of Jiangnan in the Song Dynasty from the perspective of its commercial and social development

To undertake research on the commerce in Song China, Prof. Shiba had to sift through a huge amount of official documents, personal letters, local chronicles and so forth, look into a variety of subjects such as the empire’s transport network, domestic market, cities and townships, business organizations, and the relationship between the state and its commercial activities, collect information and consolidate the existing scholarship that would otherwise be scattered among different sources, and finally employ the research method of Western social sciences to perform comprehensive and systematic analyses.     

The Chinese characters for “city,”cheng and shi, carry different connotations. While the former refers to city walls, hence belonging to the domain of politics, the latter means markets, thus pointing at the commercial activities and daily life in a city. In the past, discussions about China’s urban development usually revolved around city walls, namely its political or military aspects. However, Prof. Shiba chose to focus on documents about economic development, goods and materials, district history and the daily lives of common people, all of which have helped him reinterpret the prosperity of regions south of the Yangtze, known as Jiangnan, in the Song Dynasty through the lenses of its commercial and social activities, an approach that took the sinology community by storm. Commerce and Society in Sung China became a great sensation when published in 1968, and the abridged English version by Mark Elvin ensued in 1970. From then on, this book has enjoyed unabated, international reputation and even until today is still a staple of the list of textbooks for history students.    

Commerce and Society in Sung China is often considered Prof. Shiba’s masterpiece. (Photo courtesy of the Tang Prize Foundation)


Studying local histories made Prof. Shiba aware of the huge geographical differences between Chinese cities from an early stage. To exploring Jiangnan as a regional center and carrying out an analysis of its social and economic development, and to explain why regional history should be understood as an integration of national and social history, Prof. Shiba knew he had to have a firm grasp of spatial and territorial differences while also employing Western theories and the empirical research method adopted in Japanese sinology. All these efforts culminated in his 1988 book, Sōdai kōnan kēzaishi no kenkyū (A Study of the Economic History of Jiangnan in the Song Dynasty), in which he pointed out that besides its water transport networks, ecological issues are another key to the development of regional economy in the Sony Dynasty. This is a truly groundbreaking argument. Building on his existing research findings, Prof. Shiba then started to delve into the study of China’s cities. In 2002, he published Chūgoku toshishi (The Urban History of China), offering a macro and systemic analysis of urban societies in Chinese history.    

A structured approach to the changing dynamics of the overseas Chinese network

Another scholastic accomplishment of Prof Shiba’s that by no means pales next to his revolutionary findings on the development of commerce and society in China is his research into the overseas Chinese, an attempt to decipher how the Chinese emigrating to different parts of East and Southeast Asia got acclimatized to a new environment and culture, and correspondingly formed their own unique communities. 

Beginning by sorting, organizing and compiling historical materials about the overseas Chinese from the Edo period and existing in places such as Osaka, Hakodate (a main port south of Hokkaido), and others, Prof. Shiba laid a solid foundation for his further research on Chinese people residing in East and Southeast Asia during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. He prepared comprehensive statistics and carried out thorough investigation of related phenomena concerning the Chinese and Taiwanese living in Japan at that time while paying close attention to individual actions and possible economic motivations, consequently uncovering the reasons why the outcomes of the interactions between the overseas Chinese communities and the societies they emigrated to vary from one another. By exploring the history of the overseas Chinese in Asia, Prof. Shiba not only came up with an explanation of their behavior patterns but also offered cogent exposition of how overseas Chinese communities all over the world were created and how they fell apart. His original views on the strong correlations between personal activities and the contextual, economic factors are nothing short of a flaunt of his great flair for performing systematic analyses.

Prof. Shiba is currently executive librarian of the Tokyo Bunko. (Photo courtesy of the Tang Prize Foundation)


Highly proficient at combing through complicate historical data for critical information and having a penchant for studying maps, Prof. Shiba often started his research projects by perusing and analyzing local chronicles. As the incumbent executive librarian of the Tokyo Bunko, he sometimes doubles as docent, talking to visitors about the importance of the maps collected in the library and showcasing his exceptional ability to dissect historical sources.  

This brief survey of Prof. Shiba’s research methods and works gives us a glimpse of his consummate skills in inferring the whole situation from individual events. It is not too high an accolade to say that his works are the fusion of the essences of Western and Eastern scholarship and a demonstration of how to piece together separate events leading up to historical phenomena. While the outset of his investigation is usually the study of local societies and individual activities, he will then draw on extensive historical accounts and carry out detailed analyses of possible economic motivations so as to reconstruct the relationship between people and their surroundings. The Commerce and Society in Sung China is an academic marvel, breaking away from the conventional understanding of China’s cities, setting in cement his status as an eminent historian, and extending his influence over many generations to come. For several decades, he has been committed to his academic cause with a will of steel, following a scrupulous methodology and making momentous breakthroughs in the study of China’s cities and the overseas Chinese communities. Prof. Shiba is every inch a true master whose achievements and character will shine for as long as human history goes.