Yoshinobu Shiba


Yoshinobu Shiba has been the leading authority on Chinese social-economic history. His scholarship innovatively synthesizes the strengths of the Japanese Sinological tradition with that of the Western social sciences, while skillfully making use of a variety of Chinese primary sources, adeptly merging the distinctive fortes of these three academic traditions. His breakthrough insights in the study of Chinese history, particularly in Song studies, make him a foremost exemplar to emulate. In short, he is a scholar in the field of Sinology today who perfectly integrates the essence of Chinese, Japanese, and Western scholarship to attain the highest level of achievement.


Over the last half a century, Yoshinobu Shiba (斯波義信, 1930-) has greatly expanded and taken the field of Chinese social-economic history to unprecedented heights of sophistication. Each of his highly groundbreaking monographs have taken years of research to complete. His research is pioneering and wide-ranging as it simultaneously upholds the rigorous tradition of Japanese Sinology, draws on the métiers of Western social sciences, and integrates the distinctive features of Chinese historiography, making use of a wide range of primary sources to uncover and reveal new insights—what those before him did not see.


Before the Second World War, studies in social-economic history had deeply taken root in the field of Sinology in Japan, building a solid foundation. Shiba is a product of this solid academic tradition as well as a catalyst within the tradition, expanding research in this field while ensuring its continued study and development. Studying at the Department of Oriental History at the University of Tokyo, Shiba was influenced by the academic contributions of two leading scholars, Shigeshi Katō (加藤繁, 1880-1946) and Noboru Niida (仁井田陞, 1904-1966), who had contributed to the study of ancient Chinese legal systems. Katō and Niida, in their research, noticed that although the public and legal systems encompassing administrative law and criminal law in China have been developed since ancient times, many regulations governing economic activities such as transactions and property rights were formed from daily habitus. Thus, firmly grasping both types of systems was integral to understanding social changes via the legal system of the time. Shiba was deeply influenced by their methodology. Under the tutelage of Yoshiyuki Suto (周藤吉之, 1907-1990), Shiba became involved in the annotated translation of the Shihuo zhi食貨志 or the chapter on “Food and Money” of the official Songshi 宋史 (Song History) where he used the newly discovered Song huiyao jigao (宋會要輯稿), a Qing collection of Song writings on Song government, to confirm and verify its contents. This endeavor was key in cultivating Shiba’s solid foundation in the study of Song economic history and propelled him forward in his own chosen field of research.


How exactly did the development of commerce affect the subsequent changes in Chinese history since the Song Dynasty? Shiba, through his systemic exploration of an enormous range of source materials, offers a historically solid and insightful as well as theoretically sound portrayal of the full dimensions of the Chinese economic revolution by exploring the parts played by the overall economy, regional social trends, transport, trade, business organization, and urbanization. Beyond Chinese social-economic history, Shiba also offered compelling insight in the history of overseas Chinese. His research carves out a new methodology and approach to research that ultimately paves the way for future scholars. In his academic career of over half a century, Shiba’s pioneering and overarching academic contributions cover the following major areas:


Social-economic history of Song China

In 1968, Shiba’s publication of his Sōdai shōgyōshi kenkyū 宋代商業史研究 (Commerce and Society in Sung China) brought sweeping change across this field of research and set the standard to emulate. His contribution achieved through the unprecedented usage of primary sources, theoretical foundations, and his vision set the stage for his future research and set defining trademark characteristics. Setting aside the popular modernization theory—a model or framework of a progressive transition from a ‘pre-modern’ or ‘traditional’ to a ‘modern’ society—Shiba revisited historical facts of specific social changes to give a profound answer to the much debated topic of the Tang-Song transition period. Probing into this topic from an economic perspective as opposed to employing existing approaches, Shiba led the way by examining the Tang-Song transition—a fundamental transformation in Chinese government and society from the eighth to the twelfth centuries during which aristocratic domination dissolved or was superseded both by a more autocratic state and greater autonomy for village society—by looking at the economy and its developments in the context of politics, society, and culture as a whole, thus inaugurating a whole new field of research.


Shiba, in his magisterial study of the commercial economy of Song China, employed the dual lenses of legal history and social-economic history and delved into the impacts of commerce and business developments on the social structure during the Song Dynasty and strove to offer new answers. He posed a key question: As society underwent extensive changes and transformations, why did the government remained or have a tendency to be centralized and stable?


Departing from linear conceptions of history to study the facts of economic life, Shiba leveraged an enormous amount of official and private documents as well as letters to investigate this question from a wide range of angles. In meticulous detail, Shiba reconstructed the innovations in markets, agricultural and industrial productivity, business enterprise, and urban structure that stimulated an unprecedented commercial efflorescence. Through which he demonstrated that the Song period witnessed the formation of regional, national, and international markets for a wide range of commodities. Shiba’s portrait of pre-modern China was painted using a mosaic of perspectives; he looked at issues that span the gamut, including transportation, national markets, cities and towns, commerce organizations, countries, and commerce, ultimately gathering and aggregating related topics of research that were previously dispersed and not necessarily seen as related in a systemic manner to paint a comprehensive mural of the economic history of the Song Dynasty. In contemporary terms, he leveraged an interdisciplinary approach long before the term, concept, and approach became popular.


As such, Sōdai shōgyōshi kenkyū was not only highly regarded by the scholarly community of Sinology in Japan, it was also translated into English (Commerce and Society in Sung China) in 1970 by Mark Elvin and sparked sweeping change in the international academic community. For the first time, the rich and important literature in this area of study was made available to the English reading audience, surpassing a pivotal impasse at the time, greatly raising the level of knowledge and understanding of an even wider audience.


Integration of regional history and economic history

The society in China is vast, and there are great differences between regions. How can we grasp the significance of economic changes that happen locally and ones that occur on the whole?


Understanding that the geography plays a huge role in not only the economic history but the general history of China, since the late 1960s, Shiba saw the limitations of traditional research methodologies and turned his attention to the conception of spatial and regional analysis, introducing the academic achievements of contemporary Western historiography and social sciences. In combination with the empirical style of research typical of Sinological studies in Japan, Shiba advanced the notion of a regional society centered in the Jiangnan (kōnan) 江南 area. Literally meaning “south of the river,” Jiangnan is a geographic area in China referring to lands directly to the south of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, including the southern part of the Yangtze Delta.


Exploring Jiangnan as a regional center, Shiba offered economic analysis that integrates the history of the country with its regional history and social characteristics and trends. His novel findings culminated in his 1988 book entitled, Sōdai kōnan kēzaishi no kenkyū 宋代江南経済史の研究 (A Study of the Economic History of Jiangnan in the Song). This book borrows its approach from the École des Annales, underscoring long-term social history while also accounting for the impact and influence of short-term happenings. Sōdai kōnan kēzaishi no kenkyū focuses on the natural environmental conditions and technological changes while also paying attention to the impact of political events and changes in the legal system and their impacts on the economy. At the same time, Shiba’s approach does not ignore the historical importance of short-term events; instead it seeks to understand the history comprehensively by exploring the dynamics and operation of historical structures at different levels.


Besides leveraging the theoretical underpinnings of the École des Annales, Shiba also integrates G. William Skinner’s theoretical framework of regional analysis as a springboard and offers his own methodology, an approach that combines physiographic regions and ecosystems. While Skinner’s findings emphasize that regional markets are shaped by the availability of waterborne transportation, Shiba further extended Skinner’s contributions, pointing out that for market systems during the Song Dynasty, which are not as developed as those of the Qing Dynasty, determinants of regional economic development comprise of drainage basins (water transportation) as well as the overall ecological environment. Shiba’s penetrating insights illustrates his mastery of the core theoretical frameworks of Western scholars which allow him to artfully and innovatively appropriate them within the context of Chinese history and offer breakthrough perspectives.


Urban history of China

Building upon his regional approach to analyzing history, Shiba has also devoted considerable efforts to urban studies. In his 2002 publication titled, Chūgoku toshishi 中国都市史 (Urban History of China), Shiba put forward a new argument for the long-standing debate over the nature of Chinese cities. When Max Weber compared Chinese and Western cities, he saw the two as very different: The modern Western metropolis emerged from autonomous medieval cities and was self-governed by industries and commercial organizations. As Chinese cities were dominated by bureaucrats, emphasizing military functions and consumerism, Weber argued that it was difficult for autonomous groups to oppose bureaucratic interference.


New perspectives differing from Weber’s assertion have emerged in the period between the 1930s-1940s and the present. Scholars such as Shigeshi Katō and Noboru Niida have, through their field study—visits to local industrial and commercial organizations—pointed out that with the development of the economy, many self-disciplined and autonomous groups have appeared in the lower rungs of society in cities across China. More recent studies in regional history and urban history have also shown similar findings.


Looking into research in this area, Shiba, in his book, noted the gap between traditional documents and survey data gathered from field studies. Traditional sources written by Confucian bureaucrats and scholars are concerned with the methods of governance and do not necessarily reflect or depict changes in economic development. To this work, Shiba used Skinner’s regional approach to survey and analyze the overlapping factors between administrative cities and economic cities as well as their differences while also pointing out how and where these two models of viewing and categorizing a city diverge.


Shiba also pointed out that the way in which traditional sources categorized and allocated urban and rural areas is not completely accurate. Since the Song Dynasty, at key transportation routes near existing cities, brand new industrial and commercial shi 市 (cities) and zhen 鎮 (towns) appeared and burgeoned; considering their scale or size, these cities and towns were no less developed and prosperous than that of the cheng 城 (“walled” cities). Yet, from the view of state governance and for the sake of consistency, the bureaucracy of the empire only recognizes and looks at the “city” in terms of its legal arrangement and territorial boundaries. The differences that we see today are the product of interactions between the state and society.


Overseas Chinese studies

In his study of regional history and urban history, Shiba also looked at commercial development and explored the emergence of a variety of urban grassroots organizations that have formed based on geography and kinship. His distinctive lens of probing into this area of research allowed him to put forth original ideas regarding the study of overseas Chinese. His voyage into the study of overseas Chinese began with sorting, organizing, and compiling overseas historical materials from the Edo period located in places such as Osaka, Hakodate (main port south of Hokkaido), and others. Then, Shiba further dove into the history of the Ming and Qing Dynasties as well as that of the overseas Chinese in East Asia and Southeast Asia. His research culminated in his 1995 publication titled eponymously, Kakyō (華僑), meaning overseas Chinese in English.


Many scholars in the past have viewed the interaction and social organization of overseas Chinese as an extension of the characteristics typical of rural agricultural societies in China. They reasoned that networks were based on kinship bonds and the hometowns or villages where these people or their ancestors immigrated from. In other words, the social institutions of family, lineage, and village that held communities together in China also applied to overseas communities. As such, these scholars reasoned that these communities tend to be closed off from the greater society and lacked rationality.


Shiba, with his understanding of economic history, was able to offer new and cogent expositions based on a greater scope. He did not simply study and analyze overseas Chinese just based on the characteristics of these communities; he also did not regard the term overseas Chinese as an essential and unchanging concept. Instead, he places and examines overseas Chinese communities in the context of economic interactions in all of East Asia and offered us with new revelations that countered previously held traditional views and explanations. He pointed out that the overseas Chinese network was not enclosed and self-confined; it was instead a multi-dimensional network formed by competition in a commercialized society. This diverse network of many facets was based on intricate relationships among clans, those from the same hometown, those from other villages, and even associations with foreigners. It is a relationship in which feelings are deeply embedded, and interpersonal credibility is the social currency that exerts much influence in economic activities and transactions. Shiba’s revolutionary finding shows us that we cannot regard the overseas Chinese as a small geographically-based organization or group; instead the overseas Chinese dispersed across the global are nodes—convergence points—of a significant node systems that formed in response to the vast market.


While Shiba is a renowned historian of the economic history of the Song Dynasty, his scholastic achievement, vision, impact, and scope of influence far exceed his area of research. Until the 1960s, historians viewed China’s history—and especially its economic history—through the lens of Western frameworks of historical change, the Marxist one in particular. The most potent challenges to this methodology of viewing China were voiced by Japanese historians. Shiba is one of these scholars who in the last almost seven decades paved the way with his contributions that proffered an innovatively insightful understanding of how civilization developed in East Asia. He tendered original and pioneering insights into changes since the advent of the Song Dynasty in areas ranging from the rise in production, division of labor, commercial development and its impact in China, and even East Asia; his contributions weave a rich and dynamic tapestry of history, demonstrating the complexity within, while also offering a method, a lens for us to take a glimpse into not just the history of China but our world as a civilization as a whole. For these compelling reasons and more, Yoshinobu Shiba is awarded as one of the two co-recipients of the Tang Prize in Sinology.

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