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The making of the modern world

As a high school student enthralled with history, I chose to focus on America’s past. It wasn’t that world history didn’t interest me. It was simply that I was more intrigued by what I could see (there’s that preservationist focus on place), and our family didn’t travel overseas when I was young. That changed as I grew older, as I came to travel more widely and at the same time grow in my appreciation of the scholarship that is opening doors for understanding the broader world, especially in these uncertain times.

Take China, for instance. In my younger days, China was a mystery to me. That fit with some of the prevailing scholarship at the time, coupled with narratives around Chinese insularity. The Great Wall only seemed to drive that point home.

But in a new book entitled 1368: China and the Making of the Modern World (2022), global historian and Professor of Asian Studies at Bates College Ali Humayun Akhtar sets out to prove that narrative of insularity false. Akhtar makes a compelling case that China’s “first modern global age” began in 1368 with the establishment of the Ming dynasty and lasted until the abdication of the last Qing emperor in 1912. That history has much to tell us about China’s current global aspirations.

In Akhtar’s capable hands, we learn of the series of diplomatic missions that went out from the Ming rulers to various parts of the world. These expeditions, undertaken by the Muslim admiral Zheng He to ports in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, established contact and economic links with the rulers of Melaka, Brunei, Pasai and others located around the Spice Islands. Ashtar writes that, “It was in this Sinocentric world that the Iberian powers built their first global commodities portfolios in the 1500s.” And perhaps surprisingly, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and English traders maintained an unusually peaceful relationship with China until the 19th century. There was good reason for this: money could be made. “Finished textiles flowed from Safavid Persia and South Asia to Japan; silver bullion from Japan to China; and tea, ceramics and silk from China to Europe.”

The Chinese were strong militarily, but Akhtar notes that they did not bully their neighbors. Instead, they invited cultural and commercial connections.

There are fascinating chapters on the ways that Jesuit scientist-theologians were instrumental — often defying Rome in the process — in the westward transfer of objects and innovations. And then there is tea. Oh my, did I ever learn a great deal about tea from 1368!

Maxwell Carter summarizes tea’s critical role in this story in his Wall Street Journal review.

From the 1550s, in Mr. Akhtar’s words, tea evolved “from Portuguese oddity to British monopoly.” European consumers prized Chinese black tea and blue-and-white porcelain, the attraction of the latter owing to its specialized manufacturing process — imitated, with mixed results, in the Middle East and Delft — and restrictions on its export. Late 18th-century industrialization, chiefly Josiah Wedgwood’s division of labor and advanced modes of transportation, created efficiencies in porcelain-making in Staffordshire, Meissen, Sevres and Chelsea. The English East India Co. would, in parallel, co-opt China’s tea trade through mass cultivation in Darjeeling and other South Asian outposts, and by dismantling the Canton System in the Treaty of Nanjing, which marked the end of the First Opium War. The upshot was the Company’s market supremacy, lowered prices and the emergence of England as “Europe’s premier tea-drinking nation.”

The Opium Wars, where Britain and later France brutally defended their right to import opium into China, signaled the ending of China’s first great global era. Both China and Japan were humbled by Western military superiority of the 19th century, and reformers in both countries, beginning in Japan, pushed for a western-style industrialized empire. That they succeeded has generated a new set of problems, but enduring questions for the west. As Professor Akhtar teaches us, Americans can seek to follow the Portuguese model from the 17th century and “through careful diplomacy, profit from economic partnerships with a productive China as it has since the 1970s.” Or it could choose to embrace the British empire’s zero-sum assumptions, as some on the right have suggested, that brought on military conflict and clear winners and losers.

Those are important questions for the 21st century, but questions that have a context that stretches back centuries.

Recommended.

More to come…

DJB

Image of the Great Wall by Joe from Pixabay

by

I am David J. Brown (hence the DJB) and I originally created this personal blog more than ten years ago as a way to capture photos and memories from a family vacation. After the trip was over I simply continued writing. Over the years the blog has changed to have a more definite focus aligned with my interest in places that matter, reading well, roots music, and more. My professional background is as a national nonprofit leader with a four-decade record of growing and strengthening organizations at local, state, and national levels. This work has been driven by my passion for connecting people in thriving, sustainable, and vibrant communities.

2 Comments

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