restricted access Beyond Binary Histories: Re-imagining Eurasia to c. 1830 (review)
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Journal of World History 13.1 (2002) 192-195



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Book Review

Beyond Binary Histories:
Re-imagining Eurasia to c. 1830


Beyond Binary Histories: Re-imagining Eurasia to c. 1830. Edited by VICTOR LIEBERMAN. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999 . Pp. 325 . $21 .95 (paper).

Victor Lieberman's book of nine essays undertakes a study of Eurasia between c. 1450 and 1830 , giving special consideration to Japan, France, Russia, Vietnam, Burma, and Thailand. In the first essay, "Transcending East-West Dichotomies," Lieberman presents his rationale to examine and to compare these "six ostensibly disparate areas" during the early modern period, and to look for broad Eurasian patterns and commonalities. According to Lieberman, previous comparisons of Europe and Asia have struggled to explain European success and Asian failure, and have focused on the question: "Why was Asia different?" (p. 19 ). Scholars searched to identify the characteristics that produced modernization in the West, and then searched to find similar characteristics [End Page 192] elsewhere in Asia. These Eurocentric studies on Europe and Asia employed standards of comparison that concentrated on specific European features such as feudalism and capitalism, and "phenomena whose definitions were, at bottom, culture specific" (p. 21 ). Thus, when Asia appeared to lack special European traits, there emerged an image of Eastern deficiency and Western superiority. Lieberman promises that he will employ a different approach (more neutral, capacious, and revealing), in order to discover basic patterns that transcended the East-West divide.

According to Lieberman, one such Eurasian pattern occurred between c. 1450 and 1830 , when politically, culturally, and commercially, "localized societies in widely separated regions coalesced into larger units" (p. 24 ). Lieberman admits to strong local variations in the Eurasian patterns he seeks to identify, but he insists that general parallels prevail in the big picture. All six regions emerged as stronger and larger national units during the early modern period, expanding and developing episodically, with periods of collapse and renewed expansion, but with sustained movement towards political and administrative integration of previously fragmented, localized units. Southeast Asia, for example, had some twenty-two independent states in 1350 , but only three in 1825 . All six areas experienced increased administrative centralization, social regulation, state power over religious groups, and control over the economy, as government procedures became more professional and impersonal. Cultural integration was leading to a deeper conceptualization of and a broader identification with the state, and a "growing, if highly imperfect and uneven, uniformity of religious, ethnic, and other cultural symbols" (p. 37 ). Economic growth occurred in all regions, promoted by Eurasian patterns such as population growth, benign climate and disease patterns, international exchange, and military competition.

What caused this greatly increased cohesion by 1830 ? Why did some areas experience greater success than other areas? Why did some states continue to modernize, while others failed? In the initial 25 pages of "Transcending East-West Dichotomies," Lieberman appears to be critical of the concept of European superiority. But this is not the case. Lieberman claims "no desire to minimize" European exceptionalism, which is "arguably the central feature" of the period under review. Of the six areas under study, France maintained essential distinctions from the other five, and only France showed signs of moving toward modernization. France by 1830 had developed a modern growth economy, and of the remaining six areas under study, only Russia, "which benefited from West European technical and intellectual inputs," showed [End Page 193] signs of significant modern growth (p. 54 ). Indeed, East Asian economic growth occurred in part because of the spread of European technology and New World crops, and the demands of the European market for Asian products. Although similar patterns of economic growth, state consolidation, and cultural integration occurred in all six areas, France still emerges as the only state under study that developed critical components leading toward modernization. "How then do we explain Western Europe's unique vigor?" asks Lieberman (p. 55 ). His answer: "One suspects that an extraordinarily complex, poorly understood synergy was at work" but that a plausible explanation would be "cultural and institutional patterns" leading to such...


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