Asia in World History

Re-positioning Asia

“Eurasia and the End of History”

By Wynn Gadkar-Wilcox

Winter 2021

  • Key terms: Eurasia, world history, global history, historiography, case studies
  • Best for: high school, post-secondary
  • Article type: pedagogy, curriculum

The author offers a retrospective on changing pedagogy in world history instruction with reflections on historian Rhoads Murphey short article, “The Shape of the World: Eurasia.” That article, written in the 1990s, outlined the sweep of Eurasian history in a few pages. According to Gadkar-Wilcox, Murphey’s essay offered a valuable guide to educators newly charged with teaching global world histories, especially at the high-school level in the 1990s. In 2021, Gadkar-Wilcox revisits the Murphey article from the vantage point of a world history teaching discipline that has evolved significantly. In so doing, he argues against broad narratives of world history that emerge from comprehensive survey textbooks in favor of teaching students to engage in deep reading of a wide variety of historical texts—including primary sources—to focus on examples and case studies through which students can make their own connections.

“Teaching China in a Global History Survey” and “Syllabus for Global History Since 1500”

By Kenneth J. Hammond

Fall 2020

  • Key terms: China, world history, global history, case studies
  • Best for: high school, post-secondary
  • Article type: pedagogy, curriculum, instruction

For instructors looking for models for course development or restructuring, these two companion articles detail the design of a college-level global history survey and provides a full syllabus.

“Teaching Multiple Asias: Confessions of a Europeanist Teaching World History”

By Alexander Maxwell

Spring 2016

  • Key terms: China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Russia, Inner Asia, Northeast Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, world history
  • Best for: high school, post-secondary
  • Article type: pedagogy, curriculum, instruction

Area specialists face challenges in teaching a subject as broad as world history. The task  may pose additional hurdles for Europeanists in trying to move from a Eurocentric perspective to teach world areas with which they are unfamiliar. To address these challenges, the author proposes strategies and topics for teaching world history through thematic organizers that can effectively integrate information about different world regions. He shares his experiences in developing and teaching a thematically organized world history course for college freshmen and provides a full syllabus.

“Rethinking Early East Asian History”

By Charles Holcombe

Fall 2006

  • Key terms: Eurocentrism, world history, historiography, global history, multiple perspectives, cultural transmission, national identity, ethnic identity, political science
  • Best for: middle school, high school
  • Article type: research, pedagogy, instruction

This is a highly useful article for educators transitioning to teaching a more global world history, providing a long view on “rethinking” and “recentering” Asia in the world by considering how Asians have seen themselves over time and how notions of cultural and national identities have emerged. Holcomb begins by establishing that “Asia” is a concept, and one of Western (ancient Greek) origin that should not be misunderstood as conveying how those living in Asia in premodern times thought of themselves or their lands. At the same time, those living in what we now term Asia did not think of themselves as Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, or any other nationality. Holcomb considers the evolution of Asian identities in section on languages, different Chinas, and the genesis of East Asian nations, touching throughout on key themes for the classroom such as identity, cultural transmission, regionalism and nationalism. This article might serve as a thought-provoking and challenging article for upper level high school history students as well.

“Asia in the ReMaking of the Modern World”

By Robert B. Marks

Fall 2006

  • Key terms: Eurocentrism, historical narratives, revisionist history, historiography, Western history, global history, world history, multiple perspectives, cultural transmission
  • Best for: high school, post-secondary
  • Article type: research, pedagogy, curriculum

A significant and ongoing contemporary intellectual debate revolves around the relative roles of the West and non-West in the development of the modern world. This article discusses the basic positions and research underpinning this debate. The author first introduces the “usual story of the modern world,” which rests on a narrative of “the Rise of the West” or “the European miracle.” He then focuses on the essence of the counter-narrative by posing the question: “What if this whole way of looking at the making of the modern world—’the rise of the West’ and the spread of its system on the basis of its supposed superiority to the rest of the world—is wrong?” This is one of the question raised and answered in a body of recent scholarship on Asia by a group of scholars dubbed the “California school.” Marks notes that this new scholarship has challenged historians to rethink long-accepted understandings and the accepted story of modern world history and to re-position Asia and the rest of the world in that story. He elaborates on these challenges to established historical interpretations by considering four ground-breaking books of the 1990s: R. Bin Wong’s China Transformed (1997); André Gunder Frank’s ReOrient (1998); James Lee and Wang Feng’s One-Quarter of Humanity (1999), and Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence (2000). In all of these books, Asia or China figure prominently in the story of the modern world. The debate over these two narratives, laid out in this article, is critical. It raises the fundamental question for instructors of how to frame the study of world history and “right-size” Asia within that narrative. At the same time, the debate constitutes a real, contemporary case study to engage students in an inquiry and analysis of nature of history.

“The Legacy of the Chinese Empires Beyond ‘the West and the Rest’”

By Magnus Fiskesjö

Spring 2017

  • Key terms: China, imperialism, colonialism, historiography, global history
  • Best for: post-secondary
  • Article type: research, curriculum

The author problematizes the concept of “the West and the Rest,” in which “Rest” refers to the cultures and places that have been the objects of Western imperialism, colonialism, and other forms of exploitation. He looks at how history encompasses other global perpetrators, specifically China with its long history of successive empires built by military conquest, expansion, and settler colonialism within Asia. Positioning China within a global narrative of conquest and exploitation requires more knowledge of the legacy of empire and colonialism in Asia than educators may possess. Within Chinese education, which is the article’s primary focus, the dominant historical narrative is complicated by the challenges modern China has coming to terms with its own history as an empire. Fiskesjö note, “In today’s China, with rising nationalism promoted by the government and because this new nationalism involves glorification rather than criticism of the imperial past, there is not much room for a sustained critique of China’s past empires. Accordingly, one won’t find these issues addressed in educational materials or other state-sponsored depictions of China.”

Thematic Approaches: Comparisons, Connections, Conflicts


“Encounters Between Chinese and Jewish Civilizations”

By Shalom Salomon Wald

Fall 2018

  • Key terms: China, Inner Asia, cultural transmission, philosophy, religion, world history, Judaism, Confucianism
  • Best for: post-secondary
  • Article type: Research, curriculum

This essay offers an interesting contribution to the comparative approach in world history curricula—a case study considering Jewish and Chinese civilizations. The author notes that the differences in the two cultures’ histories would seem to undermine a comparison, yet both offer rich histories of “spiritual memory, language, and the written word.” The article discusses historical and contemporary encounters between Chinese and Jews both within and outside China. Subsections examine the Jews of Kaifeng, Chinese views of Jews and Jewish impacts in the 19th-20th centuries, Jewish views of China and Chinese Cultural Influence in the same decades, and modern histories of China and Israel.  In the final section, the author raises a question regarding the non-proselytizing nature of Chinese Confucianism and Judaism and suggests that this characteristic has had significant historical consequences for both.

“Teaching Early China and Ancient Rome Comparatively”

By Jeffrey L. Richey

Fall 2008

  • Key terms: China, Roman Empire, comparative history, world history, global history, cultural studies
  • Best for: high school, college
  • Article type: Research, pedagogy, instruction

Comparative approaches to world history are often considered a strong strategy for helping students make connections and identify universals of human experience. Curriculum outlines and textbooks often promote comparative approaches. The civilizations of Ancient Rome and Han China are a popular comparison. In this article, Jeffrey Richey discusses the points of comparison for a successful unit, while emphasizing the equally valuable lessons in the civilizations’ contrasts and divergencies. Richey shares his experience of teaching a full semester comparative course at the college level, providing conceptual organizers, strategies, resources, and activities.

“China and the World History of Science, 1450-1770”

By Benjamin Elman

Spring 2007

  • Key terms: China, history of science, global history, world history, Eurocentrism, STEAM, STEM, historiography
  • Best for: high school, post-secondary
  • Article type: research, curriculum

As the focus of research on world and Asian histories shifted to Asian sources and Asian perspectives in the late 20th century, new evidence emerged to challenge Eurocentric models of human discovery, interaction, and accomplishment.  This article challenges that Eurocentric narrative of scientific discovery and advancement which, through its focus on the success of Western science, has implicitly led to a parallel narrative of non-Western failures. The article addresses the question of how retell story of science and scientific progress through history and, in modern times, to counter the still-standard textbook narrative in which late imperial Chinese elites are usually considered to be anti-science and anti-technology. The author suggests that focusing on Chinese advances in natural studies can contribute to a broader view of scientific perspectives, methods, and progress while countering generalizations based on approaches to science in the West.

“Why Did Japan Succeed and China Fail? And Isn’t Modernization the Same Thing as Westernization?”

By Brian Platt

Winter 2003

  • Key terms: China, Japan, comparative history, Eurocentrism, economic development, industrial revolution, modernization, Westernization, imperialism, world history, global history
  • Best for: middle school, high school
  • Article type: research, pedagogy, instruction

This article is a valuable corrective for instructors, particularly at the secondary level, whose textbooks and/or personal learning may have led them to teach a narrative of success and failure in the 19th-century modernization experiences of Japan and China. The article addresses two foundational premises of a Eurocentric approach that characterized world history instruction until very recent times and continue to be entrenched in popular understandings about China and Japan. The first is that there exists only one path to “becoming modern” and so modernization and Westernization are equivalent processes and interchangeable terms. The second is a success/failure dichotomy of response to the West in the late 19th-century. Japan succeeded in modernizing because it successfully responded to the threat of Western imperialism by copying a singular Western model of political and economic development. China, on the other hand, was both unable and unwilling to successfully follow that model. It failed to Westernize and thus succumbed to Western imperialism. The essay seeks to address educators and a broader audience about why these assumptions are problematic and suggest how educators might teach this critical chapter in modern world and East Asian history without perpetuating these assumptions.

“Using the Concept ‘Feudalism‘ to Compare Japan with Europe: Words of Caution”

By Diana Marston Wood

Winter 2000

  • Key terms: Japan, European history, world history, comparative history, historiography
  • Best for: middle school, high school
  • Article type: research, pedagogy, instruction

This article addresses the applicability of the term feudalism to explore the history of Tokugawa Japan (1608-1867) with students. What is particularly noteworthy about this essay is that the author, Diana M. Wood, discusses these concepts in the context of her own continuing research and commitment to revising her instruction for secondary students and inservice teachers. She reflects on a unit of study she had developed during her high school teaching. Several years into teaching the unit, she learned that her comparisons of European feudalism and Japan’s Tokugawa order were questionable in light of new scholarship. Woods provides a brief review of research that challenges whether feudalism–a concept developed to explain a phase of Western European development–can accurately describe what was happening in Tokugawa Japan. The process by which Wood reflects on her own teaching, undertakes further research, and modifies her own instruction offers a valuable case study for classroom teachers and students highlighting the dynamic and evolving nature of history and the imperative to continuously re-examine narratives and revise instruction.


“Variolation to Vaccine: Smallpox Inoculation Travels East to West and Back Again”

By Susan Spencer

Spring 2022

  • Key terms: China, global history, history of science, cultural transmission, disease, global health, epidemic, STEAM, STEM, case studies
  • Best for: high school, post-secondary
  • Article type: research, pedagogy, instruction

Published in the time of Covid, this article offers a valuable case study in the history of science. The author presents the global story of smallpox and the adoption of the smallpox vaccine. She suggests this case may provide a historical perspective and example to aid in discussion of the Covid pandemic, which carries many political and societal controversies. Apart from this contemporary comparison, this expansive historical geography of the smallpox vaccination should be very useful on its own, as an avenue for integrating Asian connections into STEAM, STEM, biology, and history curricula. The article first traces the dissemination of the smallpox vaccine from the west to Asia, discussing the varied cultural and religious contexts for its adoption and administration. The story of the smallpox vaccine begins with its development in response to the English epidemic of the 1700s, building on knowledge of inoculation well-established in Asia and the Middle East. As the vaccine spread around the world in the 1800s, its implementation reflects the positives and negatives of global exchange, from the positive sharing of scientific knowledge to the negatives of culturally based inoculation resistance, xenophobia, religious-based rejections, and the spread of misinformation. The author closes with a useful discussion of connections to 21st-century public health issues in cultural context and offers classroom strategies for further exploration and student research.

“Japan’s Impact on World History”

By Peter K. Frost

Spring 2022

  • Key terms: Japan, world history, US history
  • Best for: high school, post-secondary
  • Article type: research, pedagogy

Historian Peter Frost proposes that Japan’s most significant impacts on 20th-century world history can be viewed through the complementary lenses of that nation at war and at peace. The essay first considers Japan in the world through Japan’s wars. Moving from the Sino-Japanese War through the Pacific War, it details how each conflict created ripples impacting global economic and political systems, race relations, and international relations. Frost then turns to Japan’s transformation to a nation committed to peace in the second half of the 20th century, with special attention to Japan’s relations with its Asian neighbors and the United States. The essay provides an insightful and effective lens for instructors seeking to create a thematic organizer for integrating Japan into contemporary world history, a Japanese history, or Asian studies course.

“China, Global History, and the Sea: Pedagogical Perspectives and Applications”

By Eugenio Menegon, Eytan Goldstein, Grant Rhode, Robert Murowchik, Thomas Kennelly, and William Grimes

Fall 2020

  • Key terms: China, Maritime Asia, world history, geography, globalization, pedagogy, historiography, comparative history
  • Best for: high school, post-secondary
  • Article type: research, curriculum, pedagogy, instruction

Recent scholarship on maritime history offers alternative narratives to the history of land-based exchange and interaction that characterizes most world and Asian history textbooks. These narratives expand understanding of Asian regional and global relations and cultural transmission, bringing Asia into greater focus and centrality in world-history narratives. The six contributors to this article each offer a rationale for inclusion of maritime Asian history in secondary and college courses and outline case studies that, collectively, provide a tool kit for educators wanting to expand perspectives and narratives of Asia in their history, geography, and global studies courses. 

“The Early Modern Jesuit Mission to China: A Marriage of Faith and Culture”

By Elena Vishnevskaya

Spring 2020

  • Key terms: Jesuits, religion, cultural encounters, cultural transmission, Confucianism, world history, case studies
  • Best for: high school, post-secondary
  • Article type: research

The Roman Catholic order of priests known as the Jesuits launched foreign missions in the early-16th century with the goal not simply of conversion, but of adapting their Christian faith to host cultures. To accomplish this, Jesuits exercised a strategy of deep engagement, embedding themselves in Asian societies as a means of better understanding the peoples with whom they sought to share their Christian gospel. The story of how Jesuit priests who embraced the concept of contemplatives in action encountered highly educated Chinese Confucian offers a valuable case study to demonstrate cultural differences, cultural transmission, and cultural adaptation.

“Asia’s Role in the Four Industrial Revolutions”

By Mousumi Roy

Spring 2018

  • Key terms: China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, world history, economic history, economics, information technology, industrial revolution
  • Best for: post-secondary
  • Article type: research

This essay argues for re-positioning Asian countries and the Asian region as actors in the industrial revolutions that have characterized the modern era in world history. While Western nations and Japan were the principals in these industrial revolutions, many Asian nations– including China, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, India, Indonesia, and Malaysia– made significant contributions to the Third Industrial Revolution of the late 20th century, which was characterized by advances in digital technology and virtual communication. The author discusses the contributions of Japan, China, India and the four “Asian Tigers” (South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan) in the first three Industrial Revolutions that took place from the 18th through the 20th centuries. The article concludes with an extended discussion of the significant roles of several Asian nations in what has been called the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which includes advances in technology and Artificial Intelligence.

“Maritime Southeast Asia: Not Just a Crossroads”

By Jennifer L. Gaynor

Fall 2014

  • Key terms: Southeast Asia, world history, global history, global networks, Africa, Europe, maritime Asia, trade, cultural transmission, international relations, historiography
  • Best for: high school, post-secondary
  • Article type: research, pedagogy, curriculum, instruction

In her article, Jennifer Gaynor argues for an expanded place for Southeast Asia in world history narratives and curricula in light of contemporary scholarship based on Southeast Asian primary sources. Traditional scholarship has positioned the region as dominated by actions of other players, presenting the region’s primary importance as a geographic and cultural crossroads of trade and empire. While these roles are valid and essential, new findings call for revisiting and expanding instruction to demonstrate other themes and approaches as well as the agency of Southeast Asian players in the development of the modern world. The author contextualizes the narrative of Southeast Asia within newer scholarship and shifting historiography and paradigms. Her goal is to guide history teachers “in understanding why the region’s portrayal as a crossroads can be a double-edged sword, demonstrate the importance of the two shifts in scholarship, and offer constructive suggestions for how to show students what is “maritime” in the history of maritime Southeast Asia.”

“Chinese Tea in World History”

By Marc Jason Gilbert

Fall 2008

  • Key terms: China, international relations, global systems, cultural transmission, foodways, economic history, case studies
  • Best for: post-secondary
  • Article type: research, curriculum

Case studies of global commodities can make essential concepts and themes in world history real and tangible to students. This article offers instructors a particularly rich case study in Chinese tea. The article details the growth of tea from a local beverage within China to a prized commodity disseminated through trade routes to Arab world in the 12th century and to Europe in the 17th century. Demand in the West made tea China’s principal export and drew China into a developing global trade network. An exploration of the tea trade and tea’s wide impact on trade, global and national economies, international conflicts, society and cultures, and religions demonstrates China’s centrality in global systems through history. The author offers several resources for deeper investigation of the role of tea in the world economy and suggests avenues for integrating this case study into world history courses.

“India in the World; the World in India 1450-1770”

By Howard Spodek, Michele Langford Louro

Spring 2007

  • Key terms: India, South Asia, international relations, cultural transmission, world history, border crossings
  • Best for: high school, post-secondary
  • Article type: research

The authors seek to bring together world history and Indian history, situating India’s story within the ongoing larger processes that were transforming the entire world through three centuries from the mid 1400s to the late 1700s. This lengthy essay is organized around and addresses four fundamental questions: 1) Which people and processes brought India into greater participation in the wider world outside its borders? 2) Which originated from outside India and which from within? 3) How did India change? 4) How did the world? These questions also offer an approach for re-focusing on India in a global history curriculum.

“Japan and the World, 1450-1770: Was Japan a ‘“’Closed Country?’”

By Conrad Totman

Spring 2007

  • Key terms: Japan, United States, world history, international relations, historiography
  • Best for: middle school, high school
  • Article type: research, curriculum, instruction

Historian Conrad Totman tackles a well-established narrative that Japan was a closed country until it was forcibly opened to the modern world by the United States. He notes that this historical “fact” was challenged and discredited by his own scholarship and that Ronald Toby and other scholars decades ago. And yet the narrative of the sealed-off, isolated country persists, as does its corollary storyline that Europeans were the most important part of Japan’s external world from the era of Columbus onward. Totman’s goal in this article is to put these conclusions of earlier research into the dustbin of history and update history textbooks and instruction based on current research. He addresses this goal by providing a concise overview of Japan’s multi-dimensional connections to other world regions from the 15th century to the early 19th century from the vantage point of contemporary historical scholarship. 

“Asian Travelers’ Visions of Britain and Ireland in the Early Modern Period”

By Michael H. Fisher

  • Key terms: biographies, traveler’s tales, Great Britain, South Asia, India, border crossing, cultural transmission, historiography, global history, world history

Like many selections in this resource list, this article seeks to provide world history instructors with research and strategies for moving the narrative of world history to a less Eurocentric and more global, network-bases approach to history. The author argues for the enrichment of conventional narratives specifically through consideration of Asians travelers and their contributions to an understanding of multidirectional geographical, cultural, and social border crossings as well as a more global, network-based approach to history. In this case, the author offers examples of Asian travelers’ perspectives of Great Britain. He focuses on the travels of South Asian men and women of all social classes who journeyed to Britain through the case studies of two Indian travelers, Sake Dean Mahomed (1759–1851) and Mirza Abu Talib Khan Isfahani (1752–1806). These accounts provide a valuable and refreshing balance to the many available European travelers’ accounts of discoveries and impressions upon visiting Asia, which support a one-way story of the West bringing “modernity” to other peoples and places.


“Japan Meets Russia”

By Viktor Shmagin

Spring 2022

  • Key terms: Japan, Russia, Northeast Asia, maritime history, world history, international relations, colonization, imperialism, Ainu
  • Best for: high school, post-secondary
  • Article type: research

This article echoes a recurring theme in discussions of what and how to teach about Japan in world history: Japan was not a closed country during the Tokugawa period, despite the endurance of this narrative in the popular imagination and in some classrooms. Viktor Shmagin clarifies that Tokugawa policies of exclusion for Western countries did not apply to East Asia. Nor did such policies apply to the northern islands and waters where Japan-Russian interaction dates to the beginning of the 1600s. To support teachers in presenting a narrative based on Asian perspectives and Asian sources, Shmagin offers a detailed account of increasing interaction with Russia, largely focused on competing imperial interests in Hokkaido and nearby islands. The indigenous Ainu population of these islands became the victims of these bilateral confrontations, eventually becoming Japanese subjects in Japan’s early expansionist pursuits. The well-documented Tokugawa-era interactions with Russia offered in this article provide instructors with a powerful case study to dispel generalizations about isolationist policies of the Tokugawa and to complicate the story of Japan’s role in the early modern world.

“The Russo-Japanese War and World History”

By John W. Steinberg

Fall 2008

  • Key terms: Japan, Russia, international relations, imperialism, modernization, war, global history, world history
  • Best for: high school, post-secondary
  • Article type: research, pedagogy, instruction

The author argues that the global significance of the Russo-Japanese war (1904-1905) was so profound that it warrants study as a modern conflict comparable to the world wars that would follow. The essay debates the strengths and weaknesses of such a narrative, suggesting that a focus on similarities with World War II opens the door to useful discussions and new perspectives on this war and its aftermath on a global stage. The perspectives for an alternate exploration of the Russo-Japanese War presented here could provide the foundation for a student debate at the high school level.

“Qianlong Meets Macartney: Collision of Two World Views”

By John R. Watt

Winter 2000

Key terms: China, United States, world history, cultural encounters, diplomatic history, cultural transmission, international relations, case studies
Best for: middle school, high school
Article type: pedagogy, instruction

This entry is a complete teaching simulation on the initial encounters between Great Britain and Qing Empire at the close of the 18th century. The author offers a detailed introduction on the Qing and British states to set context and provide both British and Chinese “lenses” on the encounter. Guidelines for setting up the simulation, roles, and debrief activities are all provided. The script and background for this play are extensively researched. However, resources are from the 1980s and 1990s, so instructors may wish to consider updating the activity with current historical narratives on this encounter.

Curated resource list developed by Lynn Parisi, supported by generous funding from the Freeman Foundation.