Andre Gunder Frank

Asia Comes Full Circle in a Round World

Table of Contents
Personal and Professional
Research Interests
ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age
On the New World Order
On-line Essays
IISH Archives
AGF on the Internet
A Review Essay of
Asia in Western and World History. A Guide for Teaching.
Edited by Ainslie T. Embree and Carol Gluck
   for the Columbia Project on Asia in the Core Curriculum.
Armonk/London: M.E. Sharpe/ East Gate 1997, 998 pp.

The question follows from the need to establish world history as a framework that goes beyond a somewhat random collection of separate histories.... To conceptualize world history in terms of patterns, to make chronological breaks more than haphazard pauses for breath, is one of the real challenges in teaching an effective world history course.... Asia was, by all relevant measurements, the center of the world through the centuries following 1000 C.E.

- Peter N. Stearns, AWWA pp 372, 375

Edited books are notoriously difficult to review, and a fortiori so is a thousand page one written by 41 authors. Moreover, this one is only part of a wider project [CPACC above] that also includes volumes on literature and social sciences. In this book, the difficulty seems to be alleviated by the book's neat division into parts I. Asia ['s influence] in Western History, II. Asia ['s role] in World History, III. Modern Asia, 1600-1990, and IV. Themes in Asian History, and by the editors' careful introduction to each except the third. Additionally, the book offers the reader a world of multicultural and other alternative and historical material and evidence to supplement and even counter Eurocentric Western Civilization perspectives and courses -- but unfortunately not on the history of the world itself, which is hardly visible.

Moreover, the book's title and appearances or contents are deceiving, for

  1. These parts of the book often contain matter rather different from and even the opposite to what the above cited sub-titles advertise.
  2. The editors' introductions to the same sometimes contradict each other and even themselves.
  3. The editors' theses are often contradicted by the historical material presented by their contributors.
  4. The contributions are not only as usual uneven and often contradictory among each other, but some of the authors even contradict themselves and their own evidence.
  5. The reference to world history in the title and Part II, as well as its evocation by one of the contributors in the epigraph above is belied in most of the other contributions and even in much of his own.
  6. The senior editor is explicit in denying the existence of any world historical patterns and chronologies and does all he can to avoid their emergence and presentation in this book -- which is quite a lot.

We may begin by accentuating much of the positive in the book. The editors and many of the contributors are quite self-conscious and explicit about the limitations of received historiography and of their present attempts to go beyond them:

In the course of this project we learned again and again the limitations of our conceptual "world," and the lesson proved humbling and salutary at the same time.... Europe remains the focus. But Asian history is treated in its own right.... As a result, we often found ourselves "adding Asia" to the main story....Thus the guide is very much a work in progress, which does not pretend to offer a coherent framework or integrated corpus [xvi,xvii].

Moreover, the editors and many authors display a reassuring self-consciousness of how artificial and arbitrary, not to mention recent, the use of the term "Asia" or for that matter "Europe" is.

Part I on "Asia in Western History" does indeed add much about how Asian exercised manifold influences on Europeans over the millennia. George Saliba stresses the influences of Asia and Asia Minor on Greece and of Islam on Europe. Morris Rossabi evokes the overland connections that the Mongols furthered between East and West. Leonard Gordon reviews Asian impacts also on dozens of Western writers, especially on their thinking about Asians, ranging from Herodutus, Hippocrates, and Aristotle, via Ricci, Shakespeare, and Bernier, to Herder, Schopenhauer, and Lenin, as well as more recent twentieth century ones. He concentrates on the favorable views of Voltaire and the unfavorable ones of Montesquieu; and Goldman shows how the latter's turn to negativism about and even dismissal of Asia was then followed by 'theories' of Hegel, Marx and Weber.

Yet their nineteenth century Eurocentrism is still reflected in praxis even in this part on "Asia in Western History" by Derek Linton and Edward Malefakis. For although the former begins with "initially the Europeans lacked the means to create an Asian Empire," the remainder of his and Malefakis' three chapters is devoted almost entirely to the same old story about the alleged "expansion" of Europe and the "penetration" of and "impact" its trading companies in and on Asia. So it is indeed "often forgotten that European influence was not decisive ... prior to 1750," as one of the editors, Ainslie Embree, rightly but ineffectually warned [6]. On the other hand, several chapters in various parts of the book serve usefully to debunk various 'myths' and 'illusions' about China, Japan and Southeast Asia that still have currency in the West, although hardly any longer among its students of Asia.

Part II opens with an introduction by Carol Gluck: "Teaching world history is both necessary and impossible ... because the expanse of time and space is too broad for the classroom.... Selection, often brutal in its excisions, is the only answer. And it leaves much of world history on the curricular cutting-room floor" [199]. In this book, alas, almost all of it does, and even deliberately so. Gluck rightly rejects the "Vasco Da Gama epoch in Asian History" approach [just practiced in the aforementioned preceding chapters!].

As alternatives she poses the 1] the "Collision Model" of Teng-Fairbank; 2] the "braid of intertwined histories" of " 'grand civilizational studies' of William H. McNeill and Marshall Hodgson" [without mention that the latter critiqued the former precisely for focusing too much on separate civilizations and not enough on a single Afro-Eurasian world history 30 years before the latter made an auto-critique to the same effect for failing to take sufficient account of the ecumenical 'world-system'] (Hodgson 1993, McNeill 1990); and 3] " 'trans-' history [of]... migration, travellers, trade, diasporas and borderlands" [201] promoted by Philip Curtin [without mentioning that he consciously rejects any and all integrative systemic analysis]. Not only is any and all such analysis totally absent from the editors' list of alternatives, it hardly appears either in any of the chapters on "world history."

Indeed, Gluck warns against alleged excesses of "connectedness... in the works of William McNeill and in Lynda Shaffer ... [because] too much of this, and history becomes a shopping list. Also, too great a stress on interaction, interfusion, interchange, interdependence... can sometimes give cultural diffusionism an exaggerated role" [203]. "We know there is more than one story ... [and we must] struggle to keep the stories multiple.... For even if [God forbid!] we chose to tell an interrelated story of the world's past, at least we may do so without rounding everything and everyone off" [206]. But Gluck does not shy away from also contradicting herself and the evidence: "The consequences of Eurasian cultural diffusion and flourishing were immense" [211]. "The historiographic rule is to grant each society the process of its own modern condition....The macro-historical principle here is that modernity happened first in the West, but is not by virtue of that fact, Western.... They all belong to the world" [212]. So do the major religions and world views reviewed in three chapters under the also misleading section title "Systematizing the Transcendental."

In this collection world history does indeed end up or remain on the cutting floor, if it was ever inserted at all; and even what remains in the picture is shot through with contradictions. What perspective are we supposed to get on "Asia in World History" from Parts II and III of this book with chapters and assertions such as the following?: "Some historians have even proposed using the fragmentation theme as the basic labelling device for the period [but] ... we all know that the West is about to 'rise' by the fifteenth century" ... [even if] finally some civilizations [sic] developed entirely separately" [Stearns 373,374,378]. "The Rise of an Interdependent World, 1500-1990" by Loyd Lee gives us the Hobson's choice of "two approaches to world history. The fist stresses the concept of modernization, the second, the methods of comparative history. Both have pitfalls" [397].

Stearns himself troubles and struggles far more than the other contributors to "establish a world history" that has some coherence other than Eurocentrism, and that is why I quote him in my opening epigraph. Yet even Stearns writes in a sub-title: "The World Encompassed (1500-1750) European Expansion in Asia," although "the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal dynasties also expanded.... in spite of this intensification of activity... the main civilizational units of Asia in 1500 continued along paths laid down centuries before... Each society, state, culture, or region must retain its separate integrity, even as it is related to common experiences transcending the subunits of world history" [399,398].

Where in the world is any whole world history to be found here -- or even Asia in world history? For the next chapter by John W. Cell in this so entitled part is literally about "The Expansion of Europe 1450-1700"! That is followed by another on 1700 - 1850. What's more it just repeats the same tired old Weberian theses about economic, political. social and cultural myths, as Blaut dubbed the "European Miracle," which have long since been disproved by historical research on Asia and even by a more objective comparison with Europe itself (Blaut 1993, Goody 1996, Frank 1998). Moreover. even a couple of other chapters in this same book dispute what their authors also term myths and illusions. Let a thousand contradictions bloom!

The more monographic chapters on China, Japan, Korea, and India are a bit better, but not much. The last is by Morris D. Morris, who repeats his well known rejections of both Marxist and dependency analyses. But what does he have to offer instead? "A checklist of five general, interdependent requirements": political stability, capital accumulation, increasing agricultural productivity, a trained and versatile labor force, and expanding market demand [496]. Morris begins his review of their availability in India under British rule in the mid nineteenth century. Alas, he says not a word about them before that, for if he sought to be similarly objective, he would have to tell us that each and every one of the items on his checklist was far more available and in evidence in India earlier under Mughal rule.

On China, Myron L. Cohen adopts what he calls "anthropology's holistic approach, which seeks to pull cultural and social facts together, [and] I treat China as having an integrated social system" [523]. Alas, far from being holistic this 'approach' to China and India is in total disregard of their integration in the whole world economy or in the whole of world history. Indeed, these authors even deny that there was any world history to speak of "in" which Asia or regions they discuss might have had a place and role.

William T. Rowe at least entitles his chapter "China and the World, 1500-1800" and rejects the model of Western impact and Chinese response as inadequate to the study of this problematique. That is a step in the right direction, but it does not go nearly far enough. To elucidate China's role in the world at that time, it is not enough to refer to its "unprecedented expansion ... [with] trade reaching unprecedented levels... [and] China's integration into world history was growing" [470,471]. Nor does it suffice to "counter the myth of East Asian culture as an obstacle to development" by comparing China and Japan as Madeleine Zelin does in the following chapter.

The limitations of all these comparisons is that they cannot and do not address the real issues of "China and the world" or "Asia in World History." For to do that, we must start with the whole that is more than the sum of and indeed helps shape the parts of world history. If any of these authors had done that and the editors had not intentionally prevented them from doing so, they would have found that the 'Middle Kingdom' of China was indeed the 'center' of the world economy until 1800. Without its high productivity, its greatest competitiveness on the world market, and the effective demand for silver by China and by the second ranking center in India, Europe would have been literally out of business even with its access to American silver. That, as Cell [455] points out, was the only thing that made Europe a player in world history at all [though four pages later he turns around and rejects "Marxists and the so-called dependency school" and adds that "the role of slavery in financing British capitalism [and the industrial revolution] was surprisingly modest"] [459]. Indeed, as Dennis Flynn (1996) points out, all Spanish and European and world history then and now would have been totally different had it not been for the place and role of China in world history during this period.

"The West Did not develop in a vacuum" correctly writes Michael Marme' [14] and Cho-yun Hsu looks at some "Asian Influences on the West" since the time of Han China and Imperial Rome, including that the Chinese expulsion of the Xiongnu also pushed the Huns into Europe and Rome. Rome and China had "tantalizingly near misses at direct contact" according to Rhoades Murphy [10]. Yet, a chapter on India cites the Periplus of the Erythraen Sea, a contemporary account that documents the intermediary role that India played between Rome and China [358-9]. Yet nobody in this book evokes or even mentions, much less uses Rome and China in which Francis Teggart (1939) showed how events in China materially and directly affected those in Rome already two millennia ago. Our 'world' historians in this book don't even trouble to look whether or how there were similar inter-regional connections in the last half millennium.

That is because they do no world history at all. Not then, not now. Fairservis goes so far as to claim that "Sumerian and Egyptian civilizations are in sharp contrast to one another.... India and China invite similar consideration" [242], no matter that it has become commonplace among archaeologists to demonstrate the close Bronze Age connections and mutual influences among at least the first three of these already in the second millennium.

World historical connections let alone commonalities are hardly treated even during early modern times after 1500. Part III contains seven chapters on "Modern Asia" since 1600, but each of them is confined to a single country or society, like China, Japan, Korea, and India. Part IV has eleven chapters on "Themes in Asian History," but most of them again review the same countries and regions individually without any attempt to connect one to another, let alone to relate any to world history. Only two chapters are partial exceptions. Theopolis Fair mentions, but mostly denies, some pre-Columbian relations between Asia and the Americas and then reviews well-known items of the Columbian Exchange.

The "Theme of Asia in World History" is really broached only by Lynda Shaffer. She does so mostly by documenting the originating and pivotal role of India and its diffusion of mathematics and science, religion and art, crops and technology both eastward to China and westward to Europe. Thereby she seeks to relate "the rise of the West to ... antecedents in other parts of the world" and to show how artificially Eurocentric it is to "sever the final ocean-crossing episode from its larger global history" [854,855].

Yet that global history itself still remains out of bounds for this book on "Asia in World History." Only a Postscript thus offers even a basis therefor. Its "Historical Timelines" establish a nine page chronology of simultaneous events from the year 1 AD [curiously labelled 0] to the 1940s in regions from Rome through South and Southeast Asia to China and Japan, but with no mention or entries for the largest part of Eurasia, which is in Central and Inner Asia. Any student who provides a tabulation of data in an appendix to a paper or thesis, would or should be obliged by the instructor again to take it back out, no matter how useful the data potentially are, if they are not used. And that is the case in this book in which none of the 41 authors even refer to, let alone try to use such simultaneities in their analyses. Perhaps also woe be to the student or teacher who follows the "National Standards for World History" that are reproduced here for East Asia but, as one of its authors notes, "raised a firestorm of controversy."

Joseph Fletcher's essay on historical simultaneities does receive a passing mention by one author, but it is passed over so much that I could not again locate it in the text and his name does not even appear in the index. So why do I mention it here? Because Fletcher wrote

The fact remains, however, that the field of history, as it is cultivated at most European and American universities, produces a microhistorical, even parochial outlook.... Historians are alert to vertical continuities (the persistence of tradition, etc.) but blind to horizontal ones.... However beautiful the mosaic of specific studies that make up the "discipline" of history may be, without a macrohistory, a tentative general schema of the continuities, or at least, parallelisms in history, the full significance of the historical peculiarities of a given society cannot be seen.... Integrative history is the search for and description and explanation of such interrelated historical phenomena. Its methodology is conceptually simple, if not easy to put into practice: first one searches for historical parallelisms (roughly contemporaneous similar developments in the world's various societies), and then one determines whether they are causally interrelated.... To find interconnections and horizontal continuities of early modern history, one must look underneath the surface of political and institutional history, and examine developments in economics, societies, and cultures of the early modern period. If we do this, it may appear that in the seventeenth century for example, Japan, Tibet, Iran, Asia Minor, and the Iberian peninsula, all seemingly cut off from one another, were responding to some of the same, interrelated, or at least similar demographic, economic and even social forces (Fletcher 1985:39,38).

Fletcher was a student of Central Asia, which gets no more than Rossabi's one chapter in this book. Beyond that, connecting The Centrality of Central Asia (Frank 1992) falls through the cracks between 'civilizations' altogether. Instead, to use Fletcher's words, the fact remains that not a single contributor to this book on Asia in "world" history even attempts, and the editors explicitly discourage, doing as Fletcher said. Yet Teggart (1939) already did so for what he called the historical correlations [really connections and mutual causation] between Rome and China two thousand years ago, and I have tried to do so across all of Afro-Eurasian back to 3000 BC [Frank 1993]. But our authors do not even make such connections among any parts of Asia, let alone around the world. Therefore none of them is even remotely true to their title "Asia ... in World History."

Not only do we need Fletcher's horizontally integrative macro-history to do world history. We need it even to get the place and role of any selected part, region, people, 'society' or 'civilization' right. And because no author in this book even tries that, several of them get even what happened in their own professional back yard wrong. I confine myself to only a couple of examples: "1750-1947: The Indian Subcontinent Becomes Part of the World System" [648] the editor Ainslie Embree subtitles his "Cursory Review" chapter. Wrong! South Asia had been part and parcel of the world system for ages when Vasco Da Gama arrived five hundred years ago, and it was a much more active and central one before 1750 than after that time. "Both Ming China and Tokugawa Japan turned inward," writes the other editor Gluck [210], who seems not to have read even the chapters in this book which lay these myths and illusions to rest. The same goes for Frederic Wakeman Jr. when he writes that China "had more or less stood still during the intervening eigtheenth century while Western states became fundamentally 'modern'" [716] when on page 718 by Cho-yun Hsu we can fortunately read "the following are a few of the most common misconceptions about China to which many people cling. China was a static, unchanging system until jarred by ompact with the West" [italics in original]. Of course, even objective comparisons could help here, but showing or even seeing how all these changes took place in horizontally integrative relation to each other would help much more.

The same is even more the case for "1500 to 1750 [which] saw the world encompassed by European powers, through discoveries, explorations, and the founding of trade routes along the southern rim of Asia" [Loyd Lee 398]. Nonsense! These trade routes had been there since long before the Periplus documented them for the first century AD, and the whole point of the European voyages was to try to muscle in on them, because the Asian ones developed much more while European participation remained marginal at best for another 300 years.

"Although the empirical evidence is far too slender to decide these issues, the debate is a potentially fruitful one for elucidating similarities and differences in European and Asian economic orientations" [85] writes Derek Linton about hypothetical inflation in India and alleged hoarding of silver there and in China. The least of the problem with this statement is his confession that he does not knnow the facts that we have plenty data to disconfirm both. Much more serious are the limits to his historical orientation that would confine him to using these data only to elucidate similarities and differences. The real problem is first that what Fletcher demands is still totally beyond Linton's own orientation.

Secondly, doing what Fletcher advises immediately demonstrates the role and impact of silver money in connecting the places Linton mentions: While the arrival of the new silver drove up prices in Europe, it expanded the frontiers of production and supported population growth much more in India and China (Marks 1997, Wong 1997, von Glahn 1997, Frank 1998). Fletcher also asked specifically whether there was a seventeenth century general crisis in the world and Asia. This book says on a couple of occasion that there was one, but doing the horizontally integrative macrohistory that Fletcher demands shows that this book is analytically and empirically mistaken on that score as well (Frank 1998, chapter 5].

Thirdly and apparently most important for Westerners, doing some horizontally integrative world history would show how the [temporary!] "Rise of the West" was related to the [also temporary] "Decline of the East" as part and parcel of one single world historical structure and process, which generated both as Kenneth Pomeranz (1997) argues under the title A New World of Growth and I in Reorient (Frank 1998).

In short, for a thousand page compendium written by 41 experts on Asian history and published in 1997 when Hong Kong reverted to the "Middle Kingdom" and the world itself is ReOrienting, this book still falls far short of the ReOrientation we need and have the right to expect about "Asia in Western and World History."


Blaut, J.M. 1993. The Colonizer's Model of the World: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History, New York/ London: Guilford Press, 1993,

Fletcher, Joseph 1985/1995, "Integrative Histgory: Parallels and Interconnections in the Early Modern Period, 1500-1800," Journal of Turkish Studies 9: (l985) 37-58, reprinted in Fletscher, Joseph F. 1995. Studies on Chinese and Islamic Inner Asia. Edited by Beatrice Forbes Manz. Aldershot, UK: Variorum.

Flynn, Dennis 1996. World Silver and Monetary History in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Aldershot: Varorium.

Frank, Andre Gunder 1992. The Centrality of Central Asia. Amsterdam: VU University Press for Center for Asian Studies Amsterdam (CASA), Comparative Asian Studies No.8, 1992, 68 pp. Also in Studies in History,New Delhi, Vol.8, No.1, Jan-June 1992, pp 43-122 and in Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, Boulder USA, XXIV, 2, April-June 1992, pp 50-82.

------ 1998. ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Goody, Jack 1996. The East in the West. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hodgson, Marshall G.S. 1993. Rethinking World History. Edited by Edmund Burke III. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McNeill, William 1990. "The Rise of the West After Twenty Five Years" Journal of World History. I,1: 1-22.

Marks, Robert 1997. Tigers, Rice, Silk and Silt. Environment and Economy in Late Imperial South China New York: Cambridge University Press.

Pomeranz, Kenneth 1997. A New World of Growth: Markets, Ecology, Coercion and Industrialization in Global Perspective. Unpublished Ms.

Teggart, Frederick 1939. Rome and China. A Study of Correlations in Historical Events. Berkeley: University of California Press.

von Glahn, Richard 1996. Fountain of Fortune: Money and Monetary Policy in China, Fourteenth to Seventeenth Century. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Table of Contents
Personal and Professional
Research Interests
ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age
On the New World Order
On-line Essays
IISH Archives
AGF on the Internet

This website is hosted by The Róbinson Rojas Archive