Asia: A Concise History

Asia_A Concise History

Author(s): Arthur Cotterell

ISBN:          978-0-470-82504-4

Publisher: Wiley

Year:          2011

Price:        $29.95

Reviewed by Chia-Hui Francis Lin, PhD, The University of Melbourne, Australia.

As one of a few works talking about Asian history (rather than only part of the context, e.g. South Asian or Southeast Asian history), Arthur Cotterell provides a contextual and comprehensive vision looking at Asia’s civilisation trajectories from the ancient time to the present. This book is framed through two axes – the divisions of epochs (divided into the ancient, medieval and modern periods) and geographic locations (in West, South, East and Central Asia). Starting from ancient West Asia, Cotterell introduces one of the very first civilisations in the world – Sumer – and ends the story in modern Southeast Asia; the author concludes his examination with a view of post-WWII scenario of Asia. When compared to traditional ways of framing Asian history, such as categorising the work solely by colonisers, races or civilisations, this book provides a rather complex framework which is sorted by both time and location. However, two concerns regarding to this framework reveal a theoretical problematic of this book. First, the use of “medieval” in this book as the term depicting the period between the ancient and modern periods confuses the readers who have no contextual and historical understanding of Asia. The term “medieval” usually refers to the Middle Ages in European history, although the author talks about Asia at a close periodisation when one sees it as a text in the context of world history (or the author implies the correlation between Asian and European histories?). Secondly, a contextual definition of West, South, East, Central and Southeast Asia is lacking in the book; in this sense, an illustration and classification of these geographic contexts, which are also weak in the book, would be very helpful and essential.

Apart from the contextual framework of seeing Asian history proposed by Cotterell, critical examination of historic milestones in Asian history highlights different historical divisions in Asia. In ancient West Asia, Sumerian clay token is first examined by the author as the very original invention of writing systems, when compared to several cultural residues amongst Chinese, Indian and Mesopotamian civilisations. In addition, two initial intentions of writing – in order to expand economy and to archive communication – have been pinpointed by the author in the discussion. Next, one of the oldest written laws – the code of Hammurabi (Babylonian law code) – is addressed in the discussion through the introduction of the very well-known Semitic custom “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. As a piece of Asian historiography, this book puts the attention on the details of narrative, i.e. the development of Asian history’s methodology and practices and a specific body of writing Asian history are highlighted by the author through his explicit depiction and examination. However, criticism – a philosophical vision of this history – is rather deficient in the work. For instance, although the idea that religion was originally derived from myth is exemplified by the author by depicting Sumerian’s question of fate, the Jewish interrelation amongst nationality, ethnicity and religion, and the later religious struggle between Europe and Asia during the period of Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire’s encounter with Constantine the Great’s acknowledgement of Christianity and its contest with the Sasanian king Khusrau ll, the relationship between myth and religion is still pending at the end.

In ancient South Asia, Cotterell starts from one of the oldest civilisations – Indus Valley – and ends his examination with a synthetic review of ancient north India before and after the time when Asoka ruled the Mauryan Empire, an age of invasion amongst the Bactrians, the Huns and the Chinese is therefore outlined.  Here, the most attractive parts would be the examinations of the Aryan invasion and the rise of Buddhism. In Asian history, the emergence of Indo-European languages (Greek and Indian languages, for instance) and the spread of Buddhism are surely two essential elements which cannot miss.

In ancient East Asia, shared Chinese civilisation is an inevitable part. The author starts the discussion from Yin Shang, the earliest period in which written records were kept, and concentrates on the development of Confucianism and its trajectories in China and in other relevant East Asian cultures such as Confucius residues in Korea and in Vietnam. Here, two complex issues are mentioned. First, Cotterell describes the idea of “the multitudes” as the core of Confucian philosophy and indicates it as a “democratic theory” in ancient China, which reveals a paradox when compared to Confucianism’s later influence in East Asia. Confucianism is rather considered as a mutated form of ancient Chinese feudalism (a system involving strong social stratification) before the making of centralisation in China – the Qin dynasty. Confucianism is never a democratic idea as it still claims the necessity of dividing classes. When compared to ancient Chinese feudalism, Confucianism, at most, can only be regarded as a re-definition of feudalism along with a nationalist ideology. Although the Qin Shi Huangdi later criticised Confucian scholars, it does not mean that Confucianism is relatively “democratic”. A best example is testified in the second complex issue discussed later in the book – the examination systems in ancient China. There are two main examination systems can be regarded in ancient China, the first one was strongly influenced by Confucianism – the so-called “imperial examination” – developed from the Han dynasty against the administrative recruitment system in the Qin dynasty following the order of succession – and the second was an improvement of the imperial examination developed from the Sui dynasty and peaked in the Tang dynasty – the so-called “elective examination”, a system mainly relied on official recommendation and the examination process was only to assist the outcome generated from the recommendation. Confucian philosophy claims the legitimacy of meritocracy which is the core spirit of the imperial examination system. Confucianism, hence, is hardly to be connected to democracy – a platonic idea based on the public – but an ideological thinking of nationalism – a disciplined idea based on a group of people who are talented.

Following the focus on nomads in ancient Central Asia, the second part of this book looks at the time period described by the author as a “medieval” period. However, apart from issues of Islamic and Christian development in Asia: the Turks, the Crusades, Persian history and European colonisation in the Asia-Pacific, the rest issues are rather awkward to be associated with the very European “medieval” period. Issues such as Buddhism in South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific, Imperial China, Korean history, Feudal Japan and the development of Southeast Asian countries are particular.

The discussion of Christianity in Asia through colonisation is one explicit part in this discussion, but the author’s assertion that the significant progress of Christianity in Asia of the time was only in the Philippines as a result of Spanish colonialism is probably arbitrary. One exception example is the Christian implantation in Austronesian Taiwan. Taiwan’s Austronesian-based aborigines are highly Christianised as a result of Dutch and Spanish colonialism during the sixteenth and the seventeenth century. Apart from Christianity, the flourishing age of Imperial China and its degeneration are another part which is spectacularly described here. The cultural development of the Tang dynasty and Imperial China’s economic-cultural peak age in the Song dynasty are discussed first and followed by a nation-based analysis of this shared Chinese culture’s influence in Korea and Japan. A Confucian and Buddhist impact on the Korean peninsula from the Tang dynasty and Silla’s acceptance of Tang’s support to the first unification of the peninsula are essential when one studies Korean history. As far as another nation, which is highly connected to this shared Chinese culture, is Japan. Feudal Japan was comprised of three classified levels: the military dictator (Shogun), the regional families (Daimyo) and the de jure emperor. This feudal system was the dominant social hierarchy in Japan before its westernisation and modernisation in the Meiji Restoration in the nineteenth century. By concluding the story of “medieval” Asia, Imperial China’s degeneration is described by the author through the Manchu Ching Empire’s interaction with European forces and transformed into China’s modern history: started from the founding of the Republic and highlighted presently by its communist dictatorship along with an economic open policy.

Modern Asia is the last part of the book and the spotlight here focuses on the two World Wars. Geographically, the Middle East and Southeast Asia have emerged as parts of the narratives in Modern Asia. In the Middle East, the Arabian Peninsula and the involvement of the British force kicked off the modern development of the peninsula from the independence of Iraq, followed by the foundings of Israel, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, and stopped on the discussion of the inscribing Iran-Iraq War and the two Gulf Wars. Through Cotterell’s description, the focus of Asian history is transferred from an imperial and colonial context onto a post-colonial discourse. In this decolonisation discourse, the rise of South and Southeast countries in Asia is started from the story of Great Souled – Gandhi – and Indian Nationalism, and summarised through the emergence of the independent Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore. As part of the historical context, the Russian’s involvement and Imperial Japan’s Great East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere are also crucial in Modern Asia. Lastly, China’s political transformation from the end of its imperialism, to the spring up of the Republic, and to the take-over of the totalitarian communist regime is another focus here. Interestingly, the author mentions Taiwan and its significant role as one “Asian Tiger” in modern Asia without talking about its developing relationship with China, such as the historic Treaty of Shimonoseki, but only mentioning briefly the relocation of the Nationalist Government from China to Taiwan after 1949 and commenting Taiwan’s “smallness” and “eventual reunion” as forms of today’s global “China Treat”, which, to a certain extent, is a pity of this work (not to mention, Cotterell uses a fake photo of Sun Yatsen and Chiang Kai-shek (p. 374), which originally included Ho Ying-chin and Wang Bo-ling, without a detailed textual research).

As a concluding point made by the author, the future development of China, India, Indonesia and Turkey is pinpointed as the most significant historical direction in Asian history based on their growing economy, but the question that whether the economy is sufficient to draw a conclusion in a historical observation is surely debatable. However, as a book which is organised in context and in content, this work shall be appreciated by those who are interested in Asia’s historic trajectories along with critical eyes, i.e. the proper readers of this book should put down to those who have already had basic understanding of Asian history, both historically and theoretically.

Suggested citation:

Chia-Hui Francis Lin. Review of “Asia: A Concise History” by Arthur Cotterell, East Asia Integration Studies,