“It is a common rule of propriety that culturally inferior foreign peoples should respect the Central Kingdom.” So begins a 1374 letter from Ming China’s founding Hongwu Emperor to a regional ruler in Japan. It continues: “One principle in both ancient and modern times has been for the small to serve the great.”

Discussions on the so-called “rise” of China at some point tend to cycle ’round to the question as to whether these developments are new or instead herald a return to a status quo ante, a consideration which depends in no small part as what that status quo actually was. That China was dominant in East Asia at least until the 19th century is subject to hardly any debate; there is less consensus as to what that dominance consisted of and whence it derived.