A History of the World: An Asian View
typical history textbook in the Western world begins with the civilizations of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, followed by chapters on the Greeks and Romans, the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Columbus and Copernicus, Napoleon and Enlightenment, British colonialism and American independence, concluding with the two world wars. As students advance through the years, the curriculum revisits the ancient, medieval, and modern eras in more detail and with more dramatis personae: Caesar and Cleopatra, the Holy Roman Empire and Black Death, Martin Luther and Louis XIV, the slave trade and Industrial Revolution, the Congress of Vienna and Crimean War, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Josef Stalin . . . and then the baton is passed to social studies.
Generally speaking, non-Western societies are brought into the picture to the extent that they had contact with the West. After all, the Mongols did reach the gates of Vienna in 1241. But the life and times of the Buddha and Confucius, the legacies of the Mughal Empire, the oceanic ventures of China’s Ming Dynasty, and many other foundations of Asia’s heritage might draw blank stares even after a university-level history course. Europeans, because they colonized the world between the fifteenth and twentieth centuries, tend to know quite a bit more than Americans about foreign regions. But as much as colonialism enriched the West, it still doesn’t feature much in the Western teaching of the past. Asian textbooks, of course, also focus on their own national and
civilizational histories, generally at the expense of the Egyptians and Greeks. Furthermore, Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans are just as willing as Europeans are to whitewash—or omit—their subjugation of, or crimes against, one another. Because of colonialism, however, Asian history cannot wash out the West the way Western teaching does to Asia.
The deep linkages between West and East underscore the need for a more balanced account of global history. However, as Sebastian Conrad persuasively argued in his What Is Global History?
, the discipline still suffers from Eurocentrism and a nation-state centered lens, diminishing the role of non-European civilizations as well as global processes such as capitalism that sustained linkages across regions.1
The essence of global history, by contrast, is to recount the coevolution of diverse cultures and appreciate their mutual influence. Remember that both the history of today and the rules for tomorrow are written by the winners—and Asia is gaining ground. As Asia’s ascendancy continues, the biggest gap in Western historical knowledge will be filled by Asians in their own words. What does history look like from an Asian point of view?
Ancient Asia: The Dawn of Civilization
The birth of human civilization as we know it today began in West Asia. In Mesopotamia and Asia Minor (Anatolia), the advent of basic farming tools during the Neolithic Revolution enabled humans to evolve from hunter-gatherer tribes into more settled agricultural communities that domesticated animals such as horses and dogs. The Natufian people of the eastern Levantine region were hunter-gatherers who began to grind and bake wheat into bread nearly 15,000 years ago. Fortifications found in Byblos, Aleppo, and Jericho indicate settlements dating to 7000 BC, making these the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. Archaeological excavations at Göbekli Tepe and Çatalhöyük in modern-day Turkey have uncovered patterned pottery, uniform brick housing, and even religious icons. By 3800 BC, the great Sumerian city-states of Ur, Kish, and Babylon thrived near the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
Prehistoric civilizations also flourished in East Asia. Agriculture became widespread in peninsular Southeast Asia by 6000 BC, in Japan during its Jōmon period around 5000 BC, and in China around 4000 BC. By 3500 BC, during the early Bronze Age, the largest centers of the ancient world were Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus Valley (today’s Pakistan), which featured wide streets, bathing platforms, drainage, and reservoirs. The Indus peoples worshipped a range of deities, including terra-cotta statues of the female goddess Shakti. With the migration of Aryan (“noble”) peoples from Central Asia around 1800 BC, Indo-Aryan civilization expanded southward into the Ganges plain, where its pastoral traditions and social structures were captured in the Sanskrit-language hymns of the world’s oldest religious texts, the Vedas, which formed the basis of Hinduism.
During the middle Bronze Age, around 2300 BC, Sumerian city-states gave way to the powerful Akkadian Empire and its successor, the Assyrians, who ruled over ever larger expanses as they subdued their Anatolian neighbors the Hittites, who had developed iron smelting for tools and weapons. Assyrians and Babylonians (especially under King Hammurabi) developed complex legal codes governing social life and a sophisticated division of labor among the working classes. They also engaged in diplomacy and trade with Egypt, selling it olive oil, wine, cedar wood, and the resin used for mummification. By 667 BC, Assyria had vanquished Egypt, putting an end to its age of pyramids.
Asia’s civilizations spread their advances in all directions. By 1500 BC, the seafaring Phoenicians of the Levant devised an alphabet system that was documented on Egyptian papyrus and adopted by the Greeks, a major Mediterranean trading partner. Inland, in the Caspian region, the nomadic Scythians mastered mounted warfare, occupied the Central Asian steppe region, and raided settled civilizations such as the Median people (in present-day Iran) while presiding over a vast trading network linking Greeks, Persians, and Indians that flourished from the eighth century BC onward.
These overland routes of commerce and culture reached as far as China, which by the first millennium BC had consolidated its administrative power in the Yangtze River valley. The procession of the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties expanded the area of Chinese civilization through alliances and conquest, assimilating the Rong barbarians on their western frontier. At the same time, the Zhou engaged in sporadic trade with the various nomadic peoples of southern Siberia and the more sedentary peoples of Bactria, who made wide use of single-axle chariots. This Western Zhou Dynasty first articulated the notion of a Zhongguo
(“Middle Kingdom”) to differentiate their imperial state from those of their vassals and the powerful fiefdoms of the northern plains. The Zhou also produced the cosmological I Ching
, a text that sought to align human behavior with the cyclical patterns of nature.2
Three thousand years ago, the forces of commerce, conflict, and culture ebbed and flowed across the vast expanse from the Mediterranean to China in increasingly intense patterns of exchange. Around 550 BC, the nomadic Achaemenid people pushed aside the Scythians as they settled in the Persian region and built an empire that stretched from the Balkans to the Indus valley, the largest empire of the ancient world. Cyrus the Great’s Royal Road stretched 1,700 miles from Susa to Saris in western Anatolia, with horse-mounted couriers covering the distance in only seven days, making them the fastest postal service of antiquity. Cyrus and Darius I established opulent cities such as Persepolis, their administrative authority becoming the envy of Mediterranean peoples. (For the Greek historian Herodotus, Persia represented most of what was known of Asia.) The Achaemenids shared a linguistic kinship with the Sanskrit speakers of South Asia as well as a social stratification of priests, rulers, warriors, and farmers. Their faith, known as Zoroastrianism, was a philosophical monotheism that influenced local religions such as that of the Judaic peoples located on the eastern Mediterranean shores between Mesopotamia and the Nile River.
During the mid–6th century BC, India was the epicenter of new religious awakenings. In the eastern Ganges region (today’s Bihar province,
as well as southern Nepal and western Bangladesh), ancient kingdoms flourished that differed from the Indo-Aryan strongholds to the north. In the Magadha Kingdom, Prince Siddhartha Gautama broke away from the prevailing Vedic Hindu dharma
(eternal order or law), becoming an ascetic sage who attained enlightenment at Bodh Gaya and gave his first sermon at Sarnath. The first Buddhist council, convened soon after the Buddha’s death, was held in Magadha’s capital, Rajgir.3
To the north, in China, the Zhou Dynasty’s transition from bronze to iron made it a pioneer of farming plows, while hydrological technologies such as dams, dikes, and canals enabled it to harness the upper Yangtze River for irrigation. Other Zhou inventions included the decimal system in mathematics and the efficient weaving of silk. Even as the Zhou Dynasty’s stability gave way to the Warring States period (481–206 BC), “a hundred schools of thought” flourished. The military theorist Sun Tzu compiled his treatise The Art of War, which revealed strategies in espionage and battlefield tactics. Great sages such as Mozi, Mengzi (Mencius), and Confucius produced deep philosophical reflections on social values. Naturalistic philosophies such as Daoism also emerged, proposing the duality of yin and yang as seemingly opposing forces that actually belong to the same Oneness.
By 221 BC, the Qin Dynasty had risen and restored stability. Its first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, unified China’s language, units of measurement, currency, tax system, and census. To ward off the nomadic Xiongnu in the west, the Qin began the construction of the Great Wall. Meanwhile, as the Qin crushed their rivals to the east and south, many Chinese migrated across the Yalu River, overrunning the Gojoseon Kingdom on the Korean Peninsula. Both Chinese and Koreans also migrated across the Tsushima Strait onto the Kyushu Islands of Japan, which during its Yayoi period had developed distinctive pottery, bronze bells, and Shinto and animist belief systems. The mainland migrants brought with them Chinese script and characters, which became foundational to Japanese and other East Asian languages. Han people from central China also shifted in large
numbers to northern Vietnam, where the Chinese commander Zhao Tuo established the Nanyue Kingdom, which spanned the Chinese provinces of Yunnan, Guangxi, and Guangdong.
The Qin quickly collapsed with the death of Qin Shi Huang’s son in 207 BC and, after another period of unrest, were supplanted by the even more powerful Han Dynasty, which promoted Confucianism both as a national religion and as a curriculum for the imperial bureaucracy. Particularly under the half-century-long reign of Emperor Wu-di (140–87 BC), the Han united disparate kingdoms into a vast empire, including subduing the Nanyue to the south. Their strength also allowed them to incorporate the territory of the nettlesome Xiongnu into a tributary region and to push through the fertile Gansu corridor into the Tarim basin toward the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia. The Han also forged connections over land and sea with India, Ceylon, Egypt, and Rome, together forming the first trans-Asian trading networks.
The Han westward push forced Yuezhi nomads from Xinjiang to the other side of the Karakoram and Pamir mountains, where they established the Kushan Empire with its center at Peshawar. The Yuezhi assimilated Buddhist culture from the Ganges valley lying to their south and disseminated it northward into Central Asia, where the Sogdian people, who occupied lands between the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, were laying the foundations of the great Silk Road cities Samarkand and Bukhara (in today’s Uzbekistan). Meanwhile, from the other direction, the Achaemenid continued their push eastward into this strategic terrain, absorbing Sogdiana as a surrogate province.
The Achaemenid, however, faced a greater challenge from their western frontier as the armies of Alexander III of Macedon (“Alexander the Great”) penetrated eastward as far as the Indus River. Alexander defeated Emperor Darius III but maintained the efficient Achaemenid administrative and tax structures. The eastern Achaemenid stronghold of Gandhara remained a rich mélange of Persian Zoroastrian, Indian Hindu, and Ganges Buddhist cultures with capitals shifting between great cities such as Charsadda and Taxila. The
Mauryan Empire, which emerged from the eastern Ganges Magadha region, conquered northward toward Taxila, with King Chandragupta advised by the great strategist Chanakya (also known as Kautilya). As the Mauryans secured their base at Taxila, Chandragupta’s grandson Ashoka adorned Gandhara with Buddhist stupas. The Mauryan Empire weakened with Ashoka’s death in 232 BC, opening the door for King Demetrius of Bactria, a successor to Alexander of Macedon, to capture Gandhara by around 200 BC. Subsequently, King Menander, born at Bagram (north of Kabul), propagated the Grand Trunk Road, which stretched from Central Asia through the fertile Punjab all the way to the mouth of the Ganges.
By that time, the Parthians, heirs to the Achaemenid civilization, had arisen from their stronghold just east of the Caspian Sea to dominate as far west as Anatolia and across the Euphrates River valley and Persia to the fringes of China in the east. Even as they skirmished with the Romans (who had succeeded the Greeks in regional power) in the Mediterranean basin and Caucasus region, the Parthians and their Sogdian middlemen fostered the Silk Road of trade in Indian spices and Chinese tea and silk bought by Romans and Roman glass, silver, ivory, and gold bought by the Chinese, who sent diplomatic envoys such as Zhang Qian on extensive westward tours to build ties with the Parthians.
Despite the region’s vast geographic and cultural diversity, Buddhism was the glue that held numerous Asian civilizations together. Bamiyan became a major center of Buddhist learning where monks nurtured a distinctive artistic style developed fusing Iranian, Indian, and Gandharan forms. Dunhuang in the Tarim basin, the site of stunning Buddhist grottoes chiseled into mountainsides, was the crossroads of several trade routes linking Mongolia and Tibet to Parthia and the Levant. As Han monks and merchants traveled the Silk Road in search of inspiration, they brought back Buddhist texts translated by Sogdians. Buddhism thus extended its reach through the Han Empire in a pincerlike movement from the west and south from India and Southeast Asia. By AD 155, the Han emperor Huan introduced Buddhist ceremonies into the
imperial curriculum to complement Confucian teachings. In East Asia, then, Confucianism came to provide the rules of social organization premised on righteousness and benevolence, while Buddhism, Chinese Daoism, and Japanese Shintoism enabled people’s spiritual aspirations.
The maritime routes linking components of the ancient Asian system were even more significant than those over land. By the first century BC, up to 120 Greek ships per year sailed through the Red Sea and captured the monsoon winds to arrive at Indian ports, returning with jade, beads, and spices brought from Southeast Asian island kingdoms such as Sumatra and Java. Robust trade with the Indian subcontinent accelerated Southeast Asia’s Indianization, especially in the Kingdom of Funan in the lower Mekong Delta and the Khmer people, with whom Indian merchants intermarried, bringing Hinduism and Indian scripts to the Burmese, Javanese, and Thai languages. Indian knowledge of medicine also flowed along this route, finding its way into Chinese pharmacological texts. Funan’s successor, the Srivijayan Kingdom, was a famous Buddhist crossroads. King Songtsen Gampo of the mighty Tibetan Kingdom also adopted Buddhism due to the influence of his Nepali and Chinese wives.
This Indian-Chinese, Buddhist-Confucian exchange spanning India and China via Central and Southeast Asia made ancient Asia a rich cultural zone, lasting well beyond the disintegration of the Han Empire in the second century. The decline of the Han and subsequent Six Dynasties period of chaos empowered the Goguryeo Kingdom of Korea to liberate itself from the Han yoke, creating the largest independent state of the Korean Peninsula; it spanned the Yalu River and the Liaodong Peninsula. Another Korean kingdom, the Baekje, also held its own in territory and trade with China. The Baekje welcomed monks from Gandhara who brought Buddhism to the kingdom in the fourth century, and subsequently many more Indian monks who initiated the construction of monasteries and temples. The princess of Ayodhya in India even married into Korean royalty.
As in Korea, disparate Japanese kingdoms awakened, with the Yamato coalescing into a formidable regime that governed from AD 250 to
710. Under the reign of Prince Shōtoku (AD 593–622) in the Asuka period, Buddhism flourished in Japanese society while Confucianism took hold in the bureaucracy. The Yamato adopted the Chinese calendar and sent Japanese students to China to study both Buddhism and Confucianism. At the same time, Japan sought equality with the Chinese emperor and refused to accept a subordinate status. Even as China, Korea, and Japan contested territory, constant migration brought them together into a common East Asian system of commerce and cross-cultural learning.
South Asia, too, continued with its intellectual and cultural advances. The Kushan Empire, led by Emperor Kanishka, strengthened in the wake of the Mauryans’ demise but continued Ashoka and Menander’s nurturing of Buddhism. By the year AD 150, Kanishka came to rule over a vast realm spanning the Bactrian regions of the Tarim basin (today’s Xinjiang) all the way to the Ganges. The Gupta Empire, which subsequently dominated the Ganges region after 320, marked a golden age of cultural and scientific accomplishment with the completion of the epic tale Mahabharata and the invention of the mathematical zero and the game of chess. The great university of Nalanda attracted students from as far as Central Asia and Korea and hosted the reputable late-seventh-century Chinese monks Xuanzang and Yijing, who translated dozens of Buddhist texts from Sanskrit into Chinese. The Guptas also expanded eastward through Bengal and built strong trade ties with the Srivijaya Kingdom, which over a period of nearly a century constructed the world’s largest Buddhist temple at Borobudur on the island of Java. The Guptas exported textiles and perfumes to Rome—until both the Guptas and the Romans succumbed in the fifth century to Hun invaders from the Altai region east of the Caspian Sea (today’s Kazakhstan).
Still, Asia’s continental connectivity continued to thrive. Paper, silk, gunpowder, and luxury goods traversed the Silk Roads in all directions, as did philosophical ideas and religious doctrines. New faiths also emerged from West Asia. In Roman Palestine, followers of the preacher Jesus Christ began to spread his message across the Levant and
Caucasus; early missionaries such as St. Thomas the Apostle baptized Christians as far away as Kerala in southern India. Meanwhile, the Nestorian Church of Byzantium, splitting from that of Rome, anchored itself at Constantinople in Anatolia and grew its following in the Sassanian Empire, through which it spread eastward across Central Asia and as far as China. Ancient Asia was a richly diverse milieu of civilizations engaging through the forces of commerce, conflict, and culture.
Asia’s Imperial Expansions
Byzantium was not the only religious empire that surged eastward in the centuries following the sacking of Rome. In Arabia, long home to a polytheistic mix of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Nestorianism, and numerous indigenous faiths, the revelations of the prophet Muhammad in Mecca in AD 610 CE inspired Arabs across the land. After his death in 632, Muslim tribes unified under the Rashidun Caliphate, which launched conquests across Egypt and North Africa and overran the Sassanians and Persians to the east. This early Islamic unity, however, gave way to disputes over succession, causing a rift within the ruling Umayyad Caliphate between rival Sunni and Shi’a sects. Already by the early eighth century, Islam had advanced to reach both the Iberian Peninsula of Europe and the fringes of India.
The Umayyad’s successors, the Abbasids, converted the powerful Turkic tribes of the Ferghana valley (in today’s Uzbekistan) and allied with them—as well as the powerful Tibetan Empire, which ruled a vast expanse covering the Tarim basin, the Himalayas, Bengal, and Yunnan—together defeating the Tang Dynasty’s armies (led in part by the Goguryeo Korean commander Gao Xianzhi) at the momentous Battle of Talas near the Tian Shan Mountains in present-day Kyrgyzstan, in 751. Despite its victory over the Tang, the Abbasid Dynasty came in 755 to aid the Tang to put down a rebellion launched by its own half-Sogdian, half-Turk general An Lushan.
While the Arab-Turkic-Tibetan alliance expelled China’s garrisons from Central Asia, its armies and merchants (including those of the
nomadic Uighur people) took westward China’s sophisticated knowledge of papermaking. The Abbasids’ second caliph, Al-Mansur, established a new capital city, Baghdad, on the banks of the Tigris River (just north of the former Sassanid capital city of Ctesiphon). Subsequently, Caliph Harun al-Rashid (r. 786–809) built a House of Wisdom that gathered scholars such as the Persian mathematician and astronomer Muhammad al-Khwarizmi, who pioneered algebra (al-jabr
) and the study of Indian numerals, and Hunayn ibn Ishaq, a Nestorian Christian polymath who translated more than one hundred works of the Greek ...