Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Welcome to Empire in Asia

About Empire in Asia

Despite the vital importance of this topic across the humanities and social sciences, the study of imperialism as a historical phenomenon is overwhelmingly equated with a narrow slice of the Western experience. This emphasis is not surprising, especially given the global reach and transformative power of Western, especially British imperialism during the nineteenth century. In practical terms, this tendency is furthered by the fact that the majority of Western scholars are confined to the use of European-language sources, and that the literal terminology of imperium is itself Western in origin and thus only applies in a strict sense to those Western empires that referred to themselves as such.

However, a narrative that places European imperialism at center stage does nevertheless present a skewed view of world history. This problem is particularly evident in the context of Asia, where the polities we may retroactively identify as “empires” (such as Qing China or Mughal India) were both militarily and institutionally powerful long before the Europeans arrived. Even at the peak of their influence, the European imperialist powers were never able to displace Asian political, economic and cultural systems in the way they had those in Africa or the Americas.

Yet the overarching historical narrative remains fixed on the idea that the global reach of European imperialism goaded premodern Asian polities into joining a fundamentally Western-derived world system. Indigenous systems of governance are thus either ignored completely, or treated as passive victims of historical trends. The relatively small number of works that take indigenous actors such as the Mongols, Chinese or Ottomans seriously as empire-builders reveals the extent to which pre-modern Asia was in fact composed of many overlapping systems of rule, culture and commerce, each in its own way global.

Yet even the more insightful of these broad-reaching works are in many cases written by scholars who lack specific expertise in Asian history or languages, leaving open the question of whether the view of pre-modern Asia is still paradigmatically based on a European experience of empire, or at least what new insights primary language scholarship might bring to the table. Few Asian specialists have been willing to take on the big questions of global history, but those who have done so have produced works of profound importance ( Lieberman 2003, Pomerantz 2000 ).

This grant will fund the first complete history of empire and imperialism in modern Asia. As explained below, this project departs from existing scholarly literature by combining the work of numerous specialists to create a more balanced and sophisticated analysis than any one scholar could do alone. The goal of placing Asia at the fore is thus not simply a matter of demonstrating that Asian empires were of a similar size and sophistication as their later European counterparts. Rather, it is to provide an expert view of these extended systems of rule, culture and commerce, showing the development of patterns and trends that long predated the arrival of the Europeans. It is only from this perspective that we may truly understand the real impact of European power as Asia joined a truly global order.