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The Origins of the Modern World: A Global and Ecological Narrative

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Editor’s Note: A revised second edition of this book, which the author discusses in this review, was published in August 2006.



192 PAGES, ISBN 0742517543, PAPERBACK

Reviewed by Adrian Carton

The question of the relationship between Asia and world history, or how best to incorporate Asia into the broader global history teaching curriculum, has been a vexed question for teachers and practitioners for some time. In 1999, Education About Asia ran a series of practical and innovative articles aimed at this very question, in an attempt to provide high school and college instructors with the tools to integrate Asia into the teaching of world history programs (Spring 1999, Vol. 4 No. 1). While the ‘add Asia and stir’ formula saw course material become more diversified, the question of Asia’s place in the world survey was still perceived as either a ‘stand-alone’ section amongst a more comprehensive syllabus, or as an offshoot of the larger European and Atlantic experiences. However, world history surveys have changed since 1999 in important ways that require teachers to think beyond additive measures, and to address the methodological and historiographical challenges of what lies beyond the frontiers of ‘area studies’ in a global context.

As an environmental historian of China, Marks is eminently well-qualified to bring Asia to the front of the story about the origins of the modern world. He does so in a way that aims to challenge Eurocentric interpretations. The Origins of the Modern World is not concerned with tracing the “the rise of the West” or by looking towards European exceptionalism as the key to global economic and cultural change, but by looking at the ways China and India, in particular, lost their economic pre-eminence through circumstances that can be explained to students by looking back through the lens of the present. Like so many of the new world histories to be written in the shadows of both the so-called Asian economic ‘miracle’ and the events of September 11, 2001, it emerges from a contemporary context where the current concerns of economic and cultural globalization need to placed in a longer historical genealogy.