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Asia in Western and World History: A Guide for Teaching

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A perennial question posed by historians of world history asks, what should one include? Some general responses to the query are to be selective but maintain a chronological and geographical balance (since one cannot cover each region equally); to have a clear organizing principle and use the world as your unit of analysis; to accommodate some of the requests of the students, and to relate the issues and themes to a larger picture. Another response, sometimes offered in moments of frustration, is that one can teach almost anything one wants! While such a blank check appears to be attractive, historians of world history, even Western history, cannot ignore the needs of their students, since these students are acquainted with and interested in certain issues and topics, but also need to be taught about issues and topics they have never heard of.

The above book, which is a guide primarily for teachers, can answer some of the queries as to what could and should be included on Asia in Western and world history. It is part of the trilogy of the Columbia Project on Asia in the Core Curriculum; the other two companion publications cover case studies in the social sciences and the masterworks of Asian literature in comparative perspective. In this project, fifty-seven articles and essays are divided into four sections including Asia in Western history, Asia in world history, modern Asia from 1660 to 1990, and themes in Asian history. Also included is a valuable postscript section with summaries on the essays in the guide, historical timelines on Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Southeast Asian history, and Carol Gluck’s brief essay on East Asia in the National Standards for World History. There are ample insights, historiographical interpretations, and numerous bibliographical references for instructors who teach Asia in Western and world history.

The main position the authors take is that Asia is not a supplemental but an integral part of world history, and can be used as a unit of analysis (see p. xvii). The “inter-approach” predominates throughout the book, since there has been an “[inter]connectedness of peoples across time and space” (p. 203). The approach includes the interaction, interfusion, interchange, interdependence, even integration and inter­section between Asia and Europe.

The emphasis in the first of the four sections is on Western history and the interactions of Asian civilizations with the West. The wealth of Asia, even the technological discoveries of the compass and gun­powder, fascinated and attracted Western explorers and travellers. In their contacts with Asia, Westerners were enriched culturally and materially. Both the East and the West, Asia and Europe, have inter­changed ideas over a long period of time. While Marc Van De Mieroop notes that contacts between Europe and Asia reach back to the Paleolithic period, Monis Rossabi contends that it was the Mongol contact which “indirectly led to the European age of exploration of the fifteenth century” (p. 56).

In the process of examining the interest of the West in Asia, K. M. Pannikkar’s view, that “the arrival of Vasco de Gama in Calicut in 1498 inaugurated an era of Western dominance that would last until the end of the Second World War” (p. 63), is effectively debunked, along with perceptions of Asians as being childlike and despotic. It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that Western dominance became a reality, and before then, Europeans were mainly participants in the Asian trade. Europeans were not only ignorant of Asian cus­toms and laws, but they desperately needed Asian assistance in com­mercial activities. While Europeans were concerned principally about wealth, Asians were concerned primarily about military and political consequences. As Derek S. Linton succinctly observes, Europeans destroyed the structure and pattern of trade relations in Asia.

A possible response to the question of what to include in coveting Asia in Western history could be Leonard A. Gordon’s recommenda­tion that one “consider the impact which Western ideas about Asia have had on Asia itself, i.e. how have the people of India, China, or Japan responded to Western attitudes about them” (p. 117).

In the second part of the book on Asia in world11istory, covered by two dozen essays, the “inter-approach” predominates. The authors remind their readers as to what topics should not be omitted. One surely cannot teach about Asia without covering the Asian religious world views that impacted social relationships, economics, and politics. Themes such as cultural borrowing and historiographical issues as to why Song China did not remain a highly developed society must also be included.

While comparative studies are useful and highly recommended, H. Paul Varley cautions readers not to press the comparisons between feudal Europe and feudal Japan too far. William T. Rowe offers a very practical recommendation that “we need to think of China’s history in this era (1500–1800) as but one part of an increasingly interconnected process of world history, one in which China, the West, and indeed much of the rest of the globe underwent changes marked by an increasing similarity one to another” (p. 466).

Another useful recommendation made by Monis David Monis in his perceptive but short essay on Indian economic history refers to the need to examine the growth and impact of India’s cotton industry during the period of British control. These historiographical issues and recommended approaches are more innovative than the traditional historiographical approaches identified by Lloyd E. Lee: the challenge-and-response approach, the imperialist exploitation by the West, the “world economy” concept, and “the model of global interaction with multiple stimuli and responses in which power is unequally distributed” (p. 405).

the exception of the essay on modem India, in which David Lelyveld offers pertinent insights on how South Asians “define their history and cultural boundaries” (p. 608), the six remaining essays in the third part of the book on modern Asia, 1600-1900, are on East Asia-China, Japan, and Korea. The absence of an essay on modem Southeast Asia is conspicuous.

The process of becoming modern is divided into four periods: 1850-1900, 1900-40, 1940-80 and 1980-90s. Of course, Asia is used as the unit of analysis. Most students taking world history, even an introductory course in Asian history, will welcome the essays and coverage on the modern period, especially after 1945. The essay by Henry D. Smith II on the “Five Myths about Early Modern Japan” is one students will read and find enlightening. Students will be receptive to the process of exposing stereotypes of Asian societies as being dictatorial, feudal, and isolated. Tokugawa Japan was more peaceful that it has been made out to be; Qing China, faced with manifold pressures in the nineteenth century, had an integrated social system, and Korea was not isolated, weak, and stagnant.

If one is still concerned about what could be included in Asia in world history thematically, the last section with eleven essays can settle many doubts. One does not have to be dogmatic in following all the themes, but the judicious use of some of the significant themes can produce a valuable framework.

While this last section briefly covers the entire history of significant countries and histories, it is also a useful section for valuable insights to help one maintain coherence and to stress continuity in Asian history. Familiar themes such as cultural borrowing, empire building, nationalism, and modernization are included. Misconceptions, such as those concerning Chinese history, are exposed, and one can use some of the major themes to develop a framework for comparative studies. In addition, the relationships between Japan and the United States, Asia and Latin America (countries and regions that have shared mutual histories and impacted each other), are topics offered in the book so readers can better understand these kinds of interrelationships.

In identifying the “texts, themes, and comparative concepts” (p. xi) on Asia, the authors of the fifty-seven articles and essays successfully offer their readers a wide selection of insights that could be included into Western and world history even as the scope and definition of these histories change. Terms such as “Asia,” “empire,” “culture and civilization,” and even “modernization” have to be defined succinctly. Student needs will also define what significant themes and insights will be integrated into Western and world history.

The book is intended to steer instructors in what could and should be included in teaching Asia in Western and world history. While the book is a guide, it is an indispensable resource for instructors, and college and university libraries.