- Europe Encounters Asia
In the past twenty years, scholars have crossed into new frontiers regarding the impact of contacts between Europe and Asia on the development of European identity, culture, and politics. Edward Said's 1978 book Orientalism had offered a strong lens for specialists to view East–West interactions, especially those who examined the postcolonial period. However, historians of the early modern period faced a challenge: how should they interpret exchanges between Asia and Europe prior to European imperialism? In the 1990's, scholars such as Sanjay Subrahmanyam, began to explore different methodologies to analyze early modern encounters outside the model of Orientalism.1 Since that time, a burgeoning scholarship on the exchanges between Asia and Europe has highlighted Asia's priority in the early modern era and revealed how Europe learned, borrowed, and adapted from Asian [End Page 785] countries in a myriad of areas from science, literature, religion, diplomacy, court culture, and everyday commodities.2 Such research has made clear that early modern interactions between Asia and Europe had marked differences with those in the nineteenth-century world dominated by European colonialism.
The three monographs under discussion here by Jürgen Osterhammel, Michael Carhart, and Geoffrey Gunn explore the Enlightenment, scientific discoveries, and explorations of the globe from the Middle Ages through the eighteenth centuries reversing our conception of these achievements as exclusively European but instead showing them to be influenced by Asian thought. Indeed, early modern Europeans did not necessarily share the Orientalist outlook that their nineteenth-century successors would embrace. Instead, they struggled to learn more about Asia and how Asia compared to their own countries. Additionally, these authors are thoughtful to trace the emergence of later colonial attitudes as they unravel early Asian and European connections, ensuring the relevance of their research to historians of the modern world.
Jürgen Osterhammel, one of the leading historians in the field of global history, has authored numerous texts on colonization and globalization, such as The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (2014).3 Princeton University Press has brought a translation of his Die Entzauberung Asiens: Europa und die asiatischen Reiche im 18. Jahrhundert, first published in German in 1998 and reprinted in 2010, to an English-speaking audience in an exquisite edition and translation by Robert Savage titled Unfabling the East: The Enlightenment's Encounter with Asia. This new version of Osterhammal's book brings his early challenges to Edward Said's Orientalism to the attention of a new generation of historians and English speakers interested in East/West relations. Despite the aging of the book's central objective of contesting aspects of Orientalism, it still remains significant to anyone interested in exploring new models to analyze the [End Page 786] precolonial period. Osterhammel's work follows in the vein of those who have shown Asia and Europe to have been more or less equal players in the early modern world, such as Sanjay Subrahmanyam, whom he cites, alongside Karl S. Grunde (p. xii). The central argument's call to distinguish eighteenth-century Europeans from their nineteenth-century imperial successors, along with his emphasis on the seriousness with which elite and educated Europeans considered Asia, resonates with the latest scholarship. Osterhammel reaffirms that Enlightenment writers did not inevitably see themselves as superior to their Asian contemporaries. He further suggests that the age of Western imperialism or "the aggressive colonialism and sense of superiority so prevalent in the nineteenth century," which he refers to as a "mental 'great divergence'," has only recently come to pass (p. x). He seems to tie the early eighteenth century to today's world...