Opium’s role in the history of East Asia has been well-documented, most notably perhaps in Julia Lovell’s definitive 2011 book The Opium War. This, and others like it, deal with the issue mostly from the perspective of the consuming countries, in particular China; Thomas Manuel’s Opium Inc. is noteworthy in focusing just as much on the producer: India.
We think we know the history of China’s opening to the outside world. Maoist China was closed off, until Deng Xiaoping decided to reform the economy and open up to international trade, leading to the economic powerhouse we see today.
Anthony Barbieri-Low starts his book comparing ancient Egypt and early China by saying it was a somewhat off-the-wall thing to do.
As Azeri drones pounded Armenian defenders of Stepanakert in the September 2020 war, “Armenian and Azerbaijani politicians and historians continue to discuss whether the Nagorno-Karabagh region [was] only annexed to Albania after the division of Armenia in 387 BC”, writes Christoph Baumer in his new History of the Caucasus. In this part of the world, the past is never dead, it isn’t even past. That persistence of the past is what lends the Caucasus its fascination while it creates many challenges for its modern citizens. To dwell in the shadow of fortresses repurposed since the Bronze Age by Persians, Romans and Arabs, is both an enriching legacy and a burden.
Traveling in rural Bengal in 1963, the 23 year-old Wendy Doniger spied the bas-relief of a horse carved into a simple mud and thatch hut. “Resembling the T’ang horses at a gallop … in style something like Picasso bulls, [it was] altogether one of most beautiful things I have ever seen.” The Bengali villagers did not own horses, and seldom ever saw them. Her insight contrasting the profusion of Indian horse imagery with the animal’s actual rarity in India germinated, 58 years later, into Doniger’s latest book, Winged Stallions and Wicked Mares.
The eastern archipelagos stretch from Mindanao and Sulu in the north to Bali in the southwest and New Guinea in the southeast. Many of their inhabitants are regarded as “people without history”, while colonial borders cut across shared underlying patterns. Yet many of these societies were linked to trans-oceanic trading systems for millennia. Indeed, some of the world’s most prized commodities once came from territories which were either “stateless” or under the very tenuous control of loosely structured polities. Although individual regimes sought to control traffic, exchange between trans-regional or even trans-oceanic shippers and local communities was often direct, without mediation by overarching authorities.
Russia’s position between Europe and Asia has led to differing conceptions of “what Russia is” to its leaders. Russia’s vast holdings east of the Urals have often inspired those who led Russia to look eastward for national glory, whether through trade, soft power, or outright force. Yet these Russian “pivots to Asia” often ended soon after they began, with outcomes far more limited than what those who launched them hoped to achieve.