- The Great Empires of Asia ed. by Jim Masselos
The Great Empires of Asia introduces readers to Asian civilizations while downplaying the role of the West in premodern times. Covering 800 c.e. until 1945, editor Jim Masselos and seven scholars explain “locations and forms of power, underlying ideational structures and the profound contributions to culture and civilization . . . in the process of acquiring, and maintaining, imperial sway” (p. 7). Each chapter centers on an Asian empire by tracing the rise of the ruling family, the construction of empire through military campaigns, political consolidation, and decline, including the cultural contributions of art, architecture, and scholarship.
In the first chapter, Timothy May summarizes the rise of Chinggis Khan and the military machine that forged the Mongol empire. Stressing the multiethnic bureaucracy that helped a small Mongol population dominate a large part of the Eurasian continent, May points out the “accidental” (p. 24) nature of the empire and the Mongol desire for trade. One reason for Mongol success was that rule was “malleable” (p. 34), as they used local bureaucracies to govern, underscoring a deeper awareness of regional differences. An important chapter, as many of the proceeding empires in the book emerged in the downfall of the Mongols, May locates the seeds of Mongol demise in the days of Chinggis Khan in the insistence upon single-family rule.
The Ming dynasty, the subject of chapter 2, formed in the wake of Mongol decline. J. A. G. Roberts argues that in building their empire, Ming officials embraced inconsistencies as they rejected certain Mongol legacies while adopting others. As an empire, the Ming were interested in the world beyond their borders, as this was the time of China’s brief flirtation with maritime exploration to South Asia and the eastern horn of Africa. Military defeat by Mongols in 1449, from which they never recovered, prompted the Ming to turn inward, as they expanded the Great Wall and took a defensive position. One major reason for their decline in power, Roberts argues, is that “absolutist tendencies inhibited political development” (p. 49). Still, Roberts points out that the expansion of trade and the growth of culture during this period, including early contact with European missionaries, before the fall of the dynasty, contributed to the growth of Chinese culture.
The subject of the third chapter, the Khmer, forces readers to rethink concepts of empire. Helen Ibbitson Jessup argues that the Khmer, while not as expansive as better-known polities, constituted an empire through its projection of culture and language as well as by [End Page 186] building relations with neighboring groups through marriage alliances. Summarizing Khmer rule from 800 c.e. through the twentieth century, Jessup focuses on the periods surrounding the construction of religious sites from 944 until 1218 c.e. Angkor Wat exemplifies the ambitions of the reign of Suryavarman II, who dispatched envoys to Song China, attempted to attack neighboring states, and expanded the role of religion to legitimize his leadership. Jessup questions the accepted narrative of the fall of the Khmer in the early thirteenth century, offering instead a nuanced view that sees the Khmer moving its capital several times to take advantage of regional economic trade rather than through Thai domination.
In chapter 4, Gabor Agoston points out that “the Ottoman Empire was a crucial player in European power politics from the mid fifteenth century until its demise . . . . It was the only Islamic empire that challenged Christian Europe on its own territory” (p. 108). The empire was a “superpower of its time” (p. 116), an expansionist dynasty with formidable military might and a sophisticated and flexible administrative system, with Istanbul the London or New York City of modern times. The Persian Safavids, the subject of Sussan Babaie’s chapter, followed a similar path of other empires as leaders carved out an empire after the collapse of the Mongols. Forging a distinct Persian and Shi‘a identity was crucial for the formation of empire and territorial consolidation/unity. Shah Abbas I (r. 1587–1629) inaugurated imperial culture at its finest...