In an age of microchips, information and cyber warfare, precision-guided ballistic missiles, satellite communications, advanced robotics and artificial intelligence, does a book about the historical struggles between insular sea powers and continental land powers have any relevance? Is there any practical benefit—other than an interest in history—to read about how the Athenians, Carthaginians, Venetians, Dutch, and British constructed and utilized sea power? Does the sea or land-oriented “culture” of a country really matter in 21st century geopolitics? 

One of the sloppier—and disturbingly frequent—critical lapses on either end of the ideological spectrum is to confuse modernization with Westernization. Some 20 years ago, Leo Ou-fan Lee’s Shanghai Modern sweepingly linked Eileen Chang’s novels, Ruan Lingyu’s films, jazz music in the dance halls, and graphic design in advertising and popular magazines not as local knock-offs of Paris and New York but rather a distinctly cohesive expression of an unprecedented cosmopolitan Chinese sensibility.

The amount of ink spilled on the 12th-century temple complex Angkor Wat might not fill Tonlé Sap Lake, but it sometimes feels like it might. This Khmer Empire monument dedicated to Vishnu is a UNESCO world cultural site, a global must-see on tourists’ bucket lists—and is the only archaeological monument featured on a national flag. Yet Michael Falser still finds a lot to say.

In the 19th century, long before Barack Obama’s election as the President of the United States in the face of jokes about the possibility of a black man living in the White House, the British mocked another “black man” who dared to stand in elections to be elected to the House of Commons in England. Dinyar Patel’s Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism is a biography of that “black man”. Straightforward in style, and well-detailed in approaches to a life as it intersected with multiple, complex movements, places, ideologies, Naoroji addresses the vacuum in the pre-Gandhian political history of modern India. It is a much-needed intervention in acknowledgment of the contribution of Indian freedom fighters before there were Indian freedom fighters.

A common saying in China is: “The Sichuanese are not afraid of hot chiles; no degree of heat will frighten off the people of Guizhou; but those Hunanese are terrified of food that isn’t hot!” From this old saw, one might be forgiven for thinking chiles native to China. In The Chile Pepper in China, historian Brian Dott seeks to show how “foreign” chiles were introduced and explores how vital they became to these regions’ identity, with spiciness linked to the energy of “revolutionary men and passionate women”.

“For sothe he was a worthy man withalle.” Thus Chaucer, perhaps somewhat ironically (when Chaucer says “worthy”, there’s often a catch) describing the Merchant in the “General Prologue” to his Canterbury Tales. This brief description, minus any irony, would certainly fit Shinohara Chūemon (1809-1891), the merchant who is one lynch-pin of Simon Partner’s enjoyable, beautifully-researched and fascinating account of Japan a few years after what Western writers are pleased to call its “opening” in 1853.