The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation 1st Paperback Edition
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"John Hobson's work is thoroughly researched, enormously wide ranging and well written. It does not merely provide a thoughtful response to recent Eurocentric world histories. It is also certain to play a central role in the new wave of studies demonstrating the substantial contributions to modern 'civilisation' made by so many non-European peoples. The work is a worthy successor to the classic study of 'imperialism' written by the author's great grandfather John Atkinson Hobson." Martin Bernal, author of Black Athena
"This provocative book aims to change the way historians think about the 'rise of the West."
The International History Review
"This is an important book of comparative and historical sociology. It is both a punchy polemic against Eurocentrism and an impressive gathering of evidence on the historical development of Europe and Asia. Hobson argues that the many inventions which supposedly enabled Europe to dominate the world were actually diffused to Europe from Asia (usually from China) and that Asia/China remained as developed as Europe until the 19th century--and mostly he convinces." Michael Mann, author of Sources of Social Power (2 volumes)
"Evidence that Asia's primacy was crucial to the Rise of the West has been accumulating for twenty years. Dr. Hobson has now pulled the pieces together in a compellingly written and most challenging scheme. His grand conception will open a whole new order of debate." Eric Jones, author of The European Miracle and Growth Recurring
"The true value of The Eastern Origins of Western Civilization resides in its capacity to reveal the manner in which politically expedient mythology has distorted Western understanding of both history and culture. There will be a need for many more such exploratory books..." - Reg Little
"It provides a nwe set of comparisons of economic and political developments in the East and Europe; and it offers a strong version of the Orient first thesis which it advances on points." - Jam Nederveen Pieterse, University of Illinois
- Publisher : Cambridge University Press; 1st Paperback Edition (June 3, 2004)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 394 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0521547245
- ISBN-13 : 978-0521547246
- Item Weight : 1.19 pounds
- Dimensions : 5.99 x 0.89 x 9.02 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #980,711 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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Author Hobson's choice to try to convince the reader that "the East" (by which he primarily means China) was technologically superior to "the West" through to about the year 1800 was not a good one. He is unpersuasive. He is on stronger ground, however, when showing how much Western writing and historiography a) gives too little credit to Eastern innovations and past superiority, and b) gives too little insight into how often Western innovations were actually built upon or after Eastern ones.
The book is written in a lively but academic style so while it is not "popular" enough for the lay reader to easily enjoy, it is readily readable for readers engaged on the topic, or students/academics required to read it for class or research.
Problems include the author's tendency to repeatedly set out long quotations that are merely other historians who agree with his point of the moment. Instead, he should be citing powerful primary sources confirming his arguments. Another key problem is his citing of earlier inventions of a same type as evidence that Chinese or Indians had already invented something. But the Western inventor of the product in question was actually genuinely improving upon it in a new and significant way and deserving the key credit for its latest innovative stage. The mere fact that China had a fleet of massive ships in 1300-1400s, for example, doesn't mean much if a century or two later Dutch and Portugese ships and settlements are trading and exacting tolls and protection fees in the Indian Ocean using their own designed and built vessels.
Further, Hobson overrates the extent of the "Occidentalist" view he criticizes -- Occidentalism being the term he uses to designate that outlook in the West which assumes an innate Western civilizational superiority. While he is right to the extent there is indeed an excess sense of western superiority (and there certainly is very much of one), it is nevertheless general knowledge among interested Westerners that many valuable things did indeed originate elsewhere. Examples are gunpowder in China and, also from China, paper and porcelain. Credit is indeed widely given (we even call porcelain . . . "China"!).
Nevertheless in the West, we probably do exaggerate the historic closedness of China and Japan, and Hobson effectively calls that perception into question, though he may overdo it. And it is especially important to see how far the Chinese and Indians and Muslims had advanced ahead of the West for a long time in many areas, and even directly preceded and influenced the Agricultural and Industrial revolutions of the West.
Hobson should have stopped there with all that and not tried to advance the notion of Western backwardness up through the 19th century or assert a lack of Western independent development. The fact remains that Chinese and Indian armies and vessels were not swarming for trade and conquest all over Southampton and Amsterdam and Brest in the 1700s, while Western ships and invaders were in India and Canton in the centuries preceding 1800 and buzzing about there successfully like both worker and killer bees.
Common sense and history also argue strongly against the author's simplistic notion that colonialism alone brought down those places, and did so only after 1800. Rather it seems the non-Western countries had fallen down themselves for internal reasons, and the European colonialists merely showed up during their own technological upswing to keep the "East" down, or to lower them further still. Imperialism is indeed barbarism, but it is the barbarism of the better advanced.
Nonetheless, this book is a recommended, even highly recommended, read for the overall subject, as well as for Hobson's passion, and for his assembling of useful facts which support the more defensive and defensible notion that "the East" was a vital -- and often pioneering -- presence in global human trade, innovation, and development throughout history.
The author's decision to organize the book around a series of arguments he sought to defeat, his pedantic writing style, and the lack of balance in his language combine to make the book a difficult read. The term "vainglorious" is used so often to describe opposing views, that it deserves a long rest. Hobson cites an endless list of secondary resources of unknown quality which could interpreted as evidence of either thorough research or cherry picking; the book's lack of balance leads one to suspect the latter.
Top reviews from other countries
It would be impossible in such a short review to do justice to all the points that Mr. Hobson makes. Three facts should suffice to provide an idea of the book's contents: the Arabs had crossed the Cape of Good Hope before Vasco da Gama and Henry the Navigator; many of the crucial inventions related to Britain's industrial revolution - such as the steam engine and the blast furnace, had been pioneered in China; and as late as the early 19th century, India produced higher quality steel than Britain, - more cheaply as well. In an age where the economic importance of China, India, Japan and OPEC is being increasingly appreciated worldwide, Hobson's work provides us with a timely reminder that this phenomenon is by no means an aberration. Rather it was the earlier European ascendance which was the anomaly.
On this subject however, Hobson's book provides only a partial explanation. Whilst deriding and deflating Eurocentric notions of superior occidental institutions, culture and political systems, he emphasizes the role of imperialism and the slave trade. Such a view is strikingly Anglocentric: Scandinavia did not possess either an empire or a significant share of the slave market - yet it developed. To a lesser extent, the same could be said of Germany and Italy. Whilst Hobson is aware of the role of mercantilist and protectionist policies in the development of the British economy, he does not place much emphasis on their role in the wider rise of the West. This is most unfortunate as they would reduce the role of 'luck' and contingency factors in explaining the ascendance of Western Europe.
It is also regrettable that a book titled 'The Eastern Origins of Western Civilization' should contain virtually nothing on the contribution of the Byzantine Empire and of the Orthodox civilization that stretched from Greece to Russia. Hobson seems to ignore this vibrant culture in favour of Islam when discussing the Orient - a serious lapse which his critics may exploit. Certainly, if this Christian, non-Western civilization was included in Hobson's analysis, the Eastern contribution would be even greater.
Whilst discussing European imperialism in the New World, Hobson avoids a tantalizing question: to what extent did Eastern 'resource portfolios' provide the Oriental West with an edge over the civilizations of the Occidental West - i.e. the Mexican (Aztec) and Peruvian (Inca)? Also circumvented is the role of Christianity in fuelling Western imperialism, given that the pagan Nordic navigators who discovered the 'New World' (Leif Ericsson et al.) centuries before Columbus, did not indulge in genocide or empire-building, unlike the Iberian conquistadors. However, such criticisms are only a tribute to the sheer scope of this timely book.
All in all, Hobson's tome is well worth reading alongside Ha-Joon-Chang's 'Kicking Away the Ladder', as radical critiques of liberal misconceptions of world history and economic history respectively. And far from embarrassing Europeans, Hobson's book should inculcate them with pride in the knowledge that their ancestors were able to thrive and prosper in a multipolar world by learning and collaborating with a wide variety of different cultures. They set an example that their descendants would do well to follow.
Hodson lays out his ideas very clearly. Unfortunately I have heard of very few of the authors he cites,so am unable to assess quite how well-based his ideas are. But this book has made me look at the world afresh