harrytheheir (harrytheheir) wrote,

After Tamerlane by John Darwin (2008)

(Basically this is a copy of my Goodreads review, which I'm archiving here because the Goodreads interface is not great for finding old reviews. I think I'm going to start copying all of my reviews--which aren't many--here in case I want to find them again, and also so that I can link to them on Facebook without putting every stupid Goodreads update on my Facebook page.)

I found AFTER TAMERLANE to be an endlessly fascinating book, but I have to confess that its scope and ambition have left me a little unsure whether I'm qualified to review it. That is, at least on such minor matters as Darwin's command of the relevant academic literature, and whether he fairly characterizes opposing viewpoints, I'm a little at a loss.

(I can say that when it comes to Darwin's treatment of American history, which I do know a little bit about, I thought his judgments were concise and even surprising. American history, particularly pre-20th century, tends to be written as if America existed in a vacuum, with occasional exceptions when America is conquering Mexico or something. Placing American expansion into a global context shines new light on how America development was dependent on European diplomacy and high finance in a way that was often invisible to the American political establishment.)

Darwin is primarily interested in placing the rise of Western imperialism in a broader context. He argues that even as late as 1750 it was hardly inevitable: the Ottoman Empire had stabilized its borders; Qing China was reaching new heights of power, prestige and prosperity; even isolationist Japan was prospering from the development of the internal economy. Europe had been plagued by repeated religious and dynastic wars, which meant that Britain was more interested in checking France (and vice versa) than either was in exploiting the wealth of Asia. Meanwhile, European powers did not have anything that Asian consumers were terribly interested in buying, which restricted trade to a trickle.

That all this would change was hardly inevitable. One could hardly have imagined that the revolutionary fervor that killed Louis XVI and the military genius of Napoleon would lead to a more-or-less stable alliance of conservative European powers, permitting powers like Britain, America and Russia to expand without worrying overmuch about another general European war. Similarly, China's Jiangnan region was as prosperous, productive and densely populated as Western Europe, and yet Britain's economy sparked an industrial revolution and China's did not.

Darwin further argues that the successes of European imperialism were less thorough-going than they appeared at the time or since. For example, China suffered repeated humiliations, invasions and internal rebellions from the 19th century on, but the territorial gains that Qing emperors made during the 18th century were largely intact by the time that Mao took over mainland China in 1949.

AFTER TAMERLANE is not always an easy read; it is densely written and requires a lot of attention, and his argument is hard to summarize (I've only just scratched the surface of it above). But at the same time if the educated layman is willing to put in the effort the book is filled with insights, and I often found myself reading about, say, Russian expansion into Asia and wishing that I could read a whole book about that topic alone. And there's something that often's breathtaking about the connections he draws between seemingly disparate regions. (One paragraph, on the rejection of Western ideas following the First World War, ties together Japanese militarists, the Chinese New Life Movement, Mahatma Ghandi and Jomo Kenyatta.) I really enjoyed reading this book, and I expect to dipping back into it again and again as the years go by.

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