Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Expansion and Reaction

Book Cover

Book Title

Expansion and Reaction: Essays on European Expansion and Reactions in Asia and Africa. Leiden: Leiden University Press, 1978


Wesseling, H.L. (ed.)


The book proposes that the reactions in Asia to European expansion in their second phase could be more accurately defined as 'effects', side-effects mostly of widely different types. If some expansion did occur, then it was for the most part unintentional, undesired and uncontrolled. The important question in this book is concerned with the idea of European expansion ever having existed. In the post-colonial world, the strikingly negative and skeptical evaluation of the contribution of European expansionism expressed by European historians imply a certain pessimism, a doubt about the actual and future position and significance of Europe. The autonomous role of the East that is emerging from the perceived notions of European expansion may have led to the interpretation of history in which there is little or even no place for a European role in the past.

The transformation of the world as it has occurred under the impetus of European expansion has followed paths entirely different from those that were foreseen by this expansion, in either political, intellectual or scholarly forms. But it has not simply brought about a resurgence of old traditions. Rather, it has created an entirely new reality in which varying civilizations incorporate new symbols and realities, reconstructing themselves by a blending of new forces on them, their own traditional forces and their role in this new system.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The papers address several issues using the context of imperial rule in colonies in Indonesia, India, as well as the European encounters in China and her expansion in Africa. Some of the articles examine the nature of the reaction of the Asian countries, but also the differences in the nature of European rule. The differences in the expansion and reaction in different parts of Asia are clearly expressed in the analyses of the authors and in the points they chose to stress.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Wesseling uses the methodology of "expansion and reaction", but he highlights that one should recognize that expansion and reaction sometimes occurred on different levels; with complex reactions and could be construed as a question of reactions to reactions rather than reaction to expansion. In addition, he stressed that there was no preconception about the initiators, the hierarchy of the participants and the direction of the process. The expansion are not always a European initiative and instead in some cases was itself a reaction, forced or voluntary, to local crises and requests for intervention.

Thus, Wesseling proposed that these processes were certainly not always directed or dominated by the Europeans. The words "expansion" and "reaction" is widened to include connotations such as variability and interaction. The history of expansion could also be assessed as the history of the encounters between diverse systems of civilization, their intermingling influence and gradual development toward a global, universal system of civilization. European imperialism in Asia is viewed essentially ass a process of consolidation and formalization; of internal expansion. The key to understanding this process lies in the relationships between colony and colonizer and not only in the rivalry between the colonial power themselves.

The local context of the territory would also have determined the type of European rule imposed. Expansion in India, where the state was taken over, was quite different from that in China, where the state was maintained but society was influenced. There was also an essential difference between colonial ambitions and positions of major powers such as England and France, and those of the Netherlands, a colonial giant but a political dwarf.

In addition, the characteristics of internal rule before the pre-colonial period reveals that the internal policy of centralization may at times be more theory than the practical reality. Zurcher, for example, sketches a picture of the precarious balance which existed in pre-modern China between universalism and particularism. On the one hand, there was a cellular society comprising of small units and mainly dominated by the gentry as well as the dependent merchant class. On the other hand there was a universalistic and bureaucratic state machinery of the Mandarins, who exercised the imperial power, theoretically absolute, but in practice significantly limited. The essential role played by Western expansion was that it had enhanced the existing tensions such that this unstable balance was upset and China experienced a permanent crisis. Western expansion acted as a catalyst in a largely endogenous process of change and modernization. Thus, China did not die of the virus of expansion but of the antidotes which it developed in its fight against the expansion.

Wesseling argues that the most important consequence of expansion was that there was a continuation of the type of contact between a European industrial-technical mass society with its more or less egalitarian and democratic values, and the predominantly agrarian, possessing feudal and autocratic values on the other, even after the colonial period. Finally, he reiterates his argument that the process was not directed by a Western hand, the results not foreseen by a Western eye.

Annotated by Michelle Djong