It can be difficult to remember today, but before 1978—the beginning of the reform era—famines struck China with depressing regularity. Many (or perhaps most) of them were human-induced. That certainly goes for the terrible famine of 1959-1961, which resulted from Mao Zedong’s so-called “Great Leap Forward” economic development program. A key element of this murderous social experiment was the forced collectivization of farmers into enormous People’s Communes consisting of thousands of households. Intended to bring about food security and income levels approaching those of the United Kingdom (the Soviet Union wanted to surpass the US, so Mao targeted the UK), it led instead to the starvation of some 20-50 million people. No one knows the true number.

The Earth may be divided among many countries, but since there is only one Heaven, there can be but one tianxia, or “all-under-heaven”. The Chinese concept tianxia might be literally translated into English as “sky-beneath”, and it has been variously rendered as “enlightened realm”, “world-system”, or simply “the world”. To keep Chinese scholars happy, just don’t translate it as “empire”. The West had empires. China had tianxia.

China’s Second Heavy Machinery Group in southwestern China’s Sichuan Province is the proud owner of “the world’s biggest closed-dye hydraulic press forge”, at 22,000 tons a piece of very heavy machinery indeed. The forge is able to exert 100,000 tons of force on a piece of metal, powerful enough to warp the hardened alloys used in aircraft engines and mining drill bits into shape. More than twice enough. The most powerful forge in the United States has only half the capacity, but seems to do just fine.

Americans have been present in the Pacific since the dawn of the Republic. At the time of George Washington’s inauguration in 1789, the country consisted of just 13 states huddled along the Atlantic seaboard, but in the geography of sail navigation Boston and New York were just as close to China as were London, Liverpool, and other European ports. More importantly, the United States was by far the largest whaling country in the world, and with the Atlantic increasingly “fished” out, the whales were in the Pacific. The “Canton trade” with China and the whaling grounds of the northern Pacific made the nascent United States the second most important trading country in Asia (after England).

The rise and fall of Brazil, Russia, India, and China, the so-called BRIC nations, is the great geo-economic story of the twenty-first century. In the early 2000s, these countries were tipped to redraw the economic map of the world. With a combined population of nearly 3 billion, they constituted roughly 40 percent of the world’s people. Throughout the first decade of the new millennium, they were among the fastest-growing countries in the world, sailing through the 2008-2009 global financial crisis in a way that made them the envy of the world. When the long-standing G-7 group of developed countries proved unable to meet the challenges posed by the crisis, the wider G-20—including all four BRICs economies—rose to the occasion. At a time when developed countries were talking austerity, the BRICs countries opened the taps on government spending. The crisis did not turn into the second Great Depression (though it looked as though it might in early 2009). For this, surely some of the credit goes to the swift action taken by the BRICs to stimulate domestic demand.

The Opium Wars are probably the only actual shooting wars in history that are named after a drug. They may be the only major wars between countries that are named after a commodity of any kind. Britain and Iceland had their cod war, but that hardly counts. The United States had a Whiskey Rebellion and Australia had a Rum Rebellion. France and Mexico fought a desultory Pastry War in 1838 that cost Santa Anna his left leg and catapulted the rest of him to dictatorship. But the Opium Wars set the trajectory of the East Asian interstate system for 100 years and resonate in historical memory to this day.