- Asiatische Revolutionen: Europa und der Aufstieg und Fall asiatischer Imperien (1600–1830) / Asian Revolutions: Europe and the Rise and Fall of Asian Empires (1600–1830) by Sven Trakulhun
A book of the magnitude and scope of Sven Trakulhun's Asiatische Revolutionen is only published every few decades. A similar work appeared precisely twenty years ago: Jürgen Osterhammel's Die Entzauberung Asiens.1 After the success of Osterhammel's The Transformation of the World, the Entzauberung was republished first in German (Beck, 2010) and a translation was published by Princeton University last year.2 That two such books can coexist is again best demonstrated by Osterhammel: his 2009 Transformation of the World was published only five years after Chris Bayly's equally ambitious The Birth of the Modern World.3 Just as Bayly and Osterhammel complement each other in their wide-ranging histories of the global nineteenth century, so Trakulhun and Osterhammel match in their accounts of European perceptions of Asia over the long eighteenth century: both Trakulhun and Bayly provide an argument-driven counterpart to Osterhammel's more panoramic approach.
There is an obvious connection to Osterhammel in Trakulhun's work. Submitted in an earlier version as a habilitation at Osterhammel's own institution, the University of Konstanz, Trakulhun's book openly acknowledges this debt. For Trakulhun shares Osterhammel's main findings: before the nineteenth-century's derogatory view of a static, backward, and despotic Asia, and after a long period of uncomprehending marvel at a distant fabled Orient, eighteenth-century Europe saw a brief period of genuine interest in Asia on terms of equality or at least commensurability, that far exceeded a simple depiction of Asia as a projection screen for otherness. Both Trakulhun and Osterhammel underline the pan-European nature of this phenomenon, stressing the importance of Enlightenment cosmopolitanism. Osterhammel's findings, however, serve as Trakulhun's starting point. His guiding question is: [End Page 414] how did Asia morph in European eyes from a particularly dynamic, revolution-prone region, fascinating to European audiences who closely followed events such as the fall of the Ming dynasty or the Siamese Revolution of 1688, into the land of unchanging and a-historical backwardness in need of European impetus that one finds for instance with Hegel, in whose view of Asian temporality Trakulhun sees an 'authentic expression of a general temporal consciousness in the first decades of the nineteenth century'? (p. 333).
In answer Trakulhun develops a fascinating and nuanced argument about the nature of European understandings of the term 'revolution'. Borrowing both from the Cambridge School approach in intellectual history and the German Begriffsgeschichte, in particular Koselleck's work on the temporal dimension of revolution terminology, he demonstrates how the changing conceptual understanding of revolutionary and other political change in Europe co-developed with a changing European understanding of Asia.4 In the early modern period the term revolution, originally denoting the circular movement of planets and stars, came to be associated also with political change, and particularly with events in Asia. Until the French Revolution, the term still encompassed all violent political change and upheaval, which could thereby be analyzed through a world-historical comparative lens, popular with seventeenth and eighteenth-century European writers. As K. M. Baker and Koselleck amongst others have already demonstrated however, the French Revolution brought with it a fundamental semantic change through which 'Revolution' became a universal political program, part of a teleological narrative of civilizational development towards liberal republicanism.5 This redefinition changed Asia from a dynamic revolutionary space into a static region caught in a pre-revolutionary temporality that ipso facto placed it onto an inferior [End Page 415] civilizational and evolutionary position with regard to Europe and the United States.
Tracing the evolution of this vision of Asia, Trakulhun posits three models of world-historical conceptualizations over his chosen period 1600–1830. These also form the tripartite structure of the book. The first part and model, the...