Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Asia in the Making of Europe, Vol. 1: The Century of Discovery

Book Cover

Book Title

Asia in the Making of Europe, Volume 1: The Century of Discovery. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965


Lach, Donald F.


In "The Century of Discovery", European images of India, Southeast Asia, Japan and China in the sixteenth century are based almost entirely on extant printed sources. By surveying the whole sweep of the literature - from Latin, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, German and English sources over the course of an entire century, Lach demonstrated that Europe's view of Asia was not one that remained unchanged through the ages but one that grew piecemeal and unevenly. The numerous volumes that are to follow would be a dedicated project to prepare a study of the impact of Asia upon the West.

Book One had begun with the earliest encounter of Europe with Asia, in the form of the assessment of India in the Greek tradition from 600-100 B.C. Then, Lach moves to discuss the period of renaissance before the age of great discoveries of Vasco da Gama and the subsequent development of new channels of information on Asia to the European public. By 1600, dimensions of depth and increased realism were added to European impressions of Asia by the regular appearance of Asian merchants, emissaries, and goods in the commercial, administrative, religious and intellectual centers of Europe. With the Portuguese perspective becoming the focus, one sees that India remains the foothold upon which the Portuguese began making observations regarding Asia in general.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The volume includes original sources (as it is written in their respective languages) which broaches the issues regarded by Europeans when they first started using the written form of communication to share their impressions of the new civilization that they were encountering. In addition, the materials seen in this volume reflects several perspectives of those who had a role in the period of early European-Asian interaction.

In the preceding four chapters of the book, where European published sources were examined in terms of the images of the individual countries of Asia, the author deemed it as failing to portray how Asia as a whole looked like to sixteenth-century Europe. Hence, the chapters that followed was a representation of Asia in its more general aspects as it emerges from reviewing their more detailed surveys of the individual countries.

Southeast Asia is defined here as an area divides into two vast geographical groupings: the continental peninsulas east of Bengal and south of China, and the insular world which lies within a cast triangle that has Sumatra, the Philippines, and New Guinea. It was noted that there was no account of the East Indies by responsible Portuguese authors in print before 1550; because the Portuguese jealously guarded every scrap of information which could have led potential competitors to the sources of the spice trade.

In trying to understand what the European public might have known about the East, the author believes that some limitations exist in the approach taken in this volume. While Lach desires to portray the perspectives of Europeans who had different occupations and socio-economic background, he intentionally limits the examination to materials actually published in the sixteenth century. Hence, the authors refrained from detailed analysis of certain types of news, such as Portuguese official resources, because the reports of overseas administrators, soldiers and sailors were not readily available to the public during this period. Authors examine the history of Christian mission, more international in its imposition than the Portuguese political establishment, in order to purvey information about non-commercial and non-political aspects of life in Asia.

Thus, the discussion is deliberately limited to three major channels of new information: the operation of the spice trade and Europe's general involvement in it; the growth of widespread interest in the printed routiers, chapbooks, letterbooks, maps, travel accounts, and compilations, and the histories of the discoveries in Asia; and the Christian mission in Asia with the diffusion in Europe.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Lach's writing possesses the ability to evoke the particular concept of intermingling influences between Europeans and Asians. He said in his epilogue "The fantasies of one age are often the facts of another; contrariwise, the facts of one age sometimes become the myths of another" Nowhere is the truth of these aphorisms more clearly illustrated than in the increasing revelation of Asia to Europe. The India conquered by Alexander was transmuted into a medieval myth which was itself then accepted in the eleventh century as a concrete depiction of the scene of the Macedonian's exploits. The colorful stories associated with the Alexander myth (of India) became a part of Islamic tradition, were circulated in Asia by the Muslim spice merchants, were incorporated into Asian folklore and traditional history, and then found its way to Europe in the reports of Portuguese merchants and Jesuit missionaries.

The heritage of interrelated fact and myth from the pre-discovery era colored Europe's vision of the East throughout the sixteenth century, the effects of Portuguese government regulating the spice trade, information and the missionary enterprise were evident in Europe's delay in looking at a newer and more realistic Asia. It was the spice trade, and the general involvement of Europeans in it, which first dominated Europe's vision. This meant that Europeans before 1550 generally centered their attention upon the Spiceries and the international marts of South Asia and India.

During this age of discoveries, there were already commentators sounding alarm bells for the overextension of empire, particularly about the insecurity of strategic outposts. Even with their best intentions, the administrative heads of the Portuguese empire could do little to direct and control people in the field. Hence, from its beginnings the Portuguese overseas enterprise was under attack by powerful enemies in Europe. The bad reputation of the Portuguese was deemed to put huge stones in the path of empire. Unfortunately in this case, Lach makes the false assumption that Europeans had desired to build an empire the first time they reached Asia.

China's encompassing bureaucratic organization wins great admiration, and the Middle Kingdom is placed in a class entirely by itself for achievements in government. Yet, the relationship between trade and tribute was never closely understood, as symbolized by how the Asiatic system of international relations based on the tribute system of China does not win sympathetic understanding or approval from the Europeans. Perhaps a more understated and subtle impact of the European encounter of political and cultural institutions in Asia is the dawning realization in the West that not all truth and virtue were contained within its own cultural and religious traditions. Thus, the period prior to the sixteenth century can be observed as the date from which Westerners began self-consciously to question their own cultural premises, to weigh them in balance against the presuppositions and accomplishments of other high cultures, and to initiate fundamental revisions in their own views of the world, man and the future.

Annotated by Michelle Djong