Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Old World Encounters

Book Cover

Book Title

Old World Encounters: Cross-cultural Contacts and Exchanges in the Pre-Modern Times. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993


Bentley, Jerry H.


The imperial context acts as a framework for Bentley's examination of cross-cultural contacts before 1492. The book examines cross-cultural contacts and 'social conversion', a process by which pre-modern peoples adopted or adapted foreign cultural traditions. Unlike the common method of identification of cross-cultural contacts via the experience of Christopher Columbus in 1492, where the notion of the 'barbarian' became a way of differentiating among cultures, Bentley attempts an explanation of cross-cultural exchanges as a two-way street. He explores the reasons for revival of cross-cultural interactions, which arguably depended upon the stability instilled by large imperial states. For example, Tang, Abbasid and Carolingian empires encouraged cross-cultural interaction when they pacified vast stretches of Eurasia and cooperated with nomadic peoples, who provided transportation links between settled regions beginning in the sixth century.

While diseases have ravaged both Asian and European empires, Bentley argues that Europe's technological developments and the lesser degree of diseases prevalent in European empires magnified vastly the European potential to inaugurate processes of conversion induced by political, social, economic pressures. Thus, the book identifies some common factors affecting cross-cultural conversion, such as the ability of political authorities to sustain institutions that perpetuate the particular culture, and elaborates upon three different kinds of cultural conversion depends on specific circumstances and the political or social motivations surrounding the process of cultural conversion.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The book is an attempt to conduct an in-depth examination of the features and motivations for cross-cultural conversions, which has transformed the nature of interacting societies. It promises to analyze the dynamics of cultural effects of encounters in pre-modern times and seeks to identify and understand the patterns of cross-cultural conversion, conflict, and compromise that came about when peoples of different civilizations and cultural traditions interacted over a long period of time. Bentley discusses the idea of cross-cultural conversion in terms of a process of communication of beliefs and negotiations of values across cultural boundary lines.

Bentley purposefully sets the context of his examination to the pre-modern times around 1492, so as to highlight patterns of cross-cultural encounters and their effects before modern times, particularly in making the links between the ideas exchanged along trade routes like the Silk Road and the phenomenon of religious faiths like Buddhism, Christianity and Islam attracting converts far beyond their origins.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Bentley argues that religious and cultural traditions rarely won foreign converts except when there is a powerful set of political, social or economic incentives. Cross- cultural conversion and the spread of religious and cultural traditions over long distances also depended heavily on processes of syncretism that established lines of communication and mediated differences between traditions which intersect.

Social conversion signifies a process by which pre-modern peoples adopted or adapted foreign cultural traditions and a process dependent on presupposed existence of thought on which new cultural alternatives can be built upon. Thus, the introduction of Islam into sub-Saharan Africa and its adoption by local ruling elites was attributed to the intrinsic nature of Islam, which seemed to offer a coherent set of beliefs and values widely observed in the outside world, allowing local rulers to widen their worldview.

Bentley approaches the topic of cross-cultural encounters and subsequent conversion in the imperial framework, thus addressing the largely social aspect of empires, shedding light on political element seen in cross-civilization encounters. He points out three possible motivations for cultural conversion: voluntary association, political and socio-economic pressure and assimilation; processes of conversion that reflect the broader political, social and economic contexts. For example, the degree and motivation for cultural conversion depends on the relative strengths of the parties involved in cross-cultural encounters.

Annotated by Michelle Djong