Unfabling the East: The Enlightenment's Encounter with Asia

Unfabling the East: The Enlightenment's Encounter with Asia


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How Enlightenment Europe rediscovered its identity by measuring itself against the great civilizations of Asia

During the long eighteenth century, Europe's travelers, scholars, and intellectuals looked to Asia in a spirit of puzzlement, irony, and openness. In this panoramic and colorful book, Jürgen Osterhammel tells the story of the European Enlightenment's nuanced encounter with the great civilizations of the East, from the Ottoman Empire and India to China and Japan.

Here is the acclaimed book that challenges the notion that Europe's formative engagement with the non-European world was invariably marred by an imperial gaze and presumptions of Western superiority. Osterhammel shows how major figures such as Leibniz, Voltaire, Gibbon, and Hegel took a keen interest in Asian culture and history, and introduces lesser-known scientific travelers, colonial administrators, Jesuit missionaries, and adventurers who returned home from Asia bearing manuscripts in many exotic languages, huge collections of ethnographic data, and stories that sometimes defied belief. Osterhammel brings the sights and sounds of this tumultuous age vividly to life, from the salons of Paris and the lecture halls of Edinburgh to the deserts of Arabia, the steppes of Siberia, and the sumptuous courts of Asian princes. He demonstrates how Europe discovered its own identity anew by measuring itself against its more senior continent, and how it was only toward the end of this period that cruder forms of Eurocentrism—and condescension toward Asia—prevailed.

A momentous work by one of Europe's most eminent historians, Unfabling the East takes readers on a thrilling voyage to the farthest shores, bringing back vital insights for our own multicultural age.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691172729
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 06/12/2018
Pages: 696
Sales rank: 718,499
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 2.00(d)

About the Author

Jürgen Osterhammel is professor of modern and contemporary history at the University of Konstanz. He is a recipient of the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize, Germany's most prestigious academic award. His books include The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century and, with Jan C. Jansen, Decolonization: A Short History (both Princeton). He lives in Freiburg, Germany.

Read an Excerpt



Looking to the East

The people of our western hemisphere, in all these discoveries, gave proofs of a great superiority of genius and courage over the eastern nations. We have settled ourselves amongst them, and frequently in spite of their resistance. We have learned their languages, and have taught them some of our arts; but nature hath given them one advantage which overbalances all ours; which is, that they do not want us, but we them.

— Voltaire (1694–1778), Essai sur les mœurs et l'esprit des nations et sur les principaux faits de l'histoire depuis Charlemagne jusqu'à Louis XIII

In the first quarter of the twenty-first century, the world is taking back many of the outcomes of the nineteenth. The nineteenth century witnessed the culmination of a historically unparalleled process by which Europeans came to assert their dominance over four continents. One of the consequences was an attitude of arrogant condescension towards all civilizations that had given proof of their deficiency, if not terminal debility, through the ease with which they had been militarily overpowered, economically exploited, and technologically outstripped. The "West" — the European great powers, Britain at the fore, together with a United States of America that increasingly hankered after an empire of its own — savored its triumph over Asia, in particular. It had long been taken for granted that indigenous Americans, black Africans, and the natives of Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific islands could be subdued, dispossessed, colonized, and if necessary slaughtered in great numbers. Ever since Europeans had first learned of their existence, a sense of their own superiority to these "savages" (as they had been called since ancient times) had gone almost unquestioned.

Asia, by contrast, had always been the great counterweight to Europe, a world of mighty empires and prosperous societies, glorious cultural achievements and venerable religions. For thousands of years, the Eurasian continent had formed a single interconnected field. The emergence and spread of agriculture had already been a process of pan-Eurasian diffusion. Time and again, Asiatic peoples had intervened in the history of the lands surrounding the Mediterranean and to the north of it, assimilating the vast spaces of Russia into their equestrian empires. Although Asia Minor and the Levant had been incorporated into the Imperium Romanum, the norm until well into the early modern period was for Europe to be threatened by Asia, not the other way around. Parthians, Huns, Arabs, Mongols, and Turks had all attacked the Western and Eastern Roman Empires and their various successor states, in some cases maintaining political control over previously Christianized regions for many centuries. Even Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a vigilant and sober observer of contemporary world politics, feared a renewed Mongol onslaught, perhaps recalling Crimean Tatar raids on Transylvania and Moravia between 1657 and 1666. "And if these Tatars were not constantly fighting each other," he wrote in a letter in April 1699, "they might be able to inundate large parts of the world, just as they once did under Genghis Khan."


Compared with Leibniz's sincere concerns, which admittedly were grossly exaggerated even at the time, the warnings of late nineteenth-century authors about an alleged "yellow peril" were little more than fearmongering propaganda. By then, Asia's political power seemed to have been broken once and for all, its cultural prestige reduced to a shadow of its former glory. Around 1900, at the zenith of high imperialism, most of Asia was under European colonial rule. Only the boldest of prophets would have predicted an end to this dispensation. Although semicolonial states like China, Siam (later Thailand), or the Ottoman Empire had managed to preserve their territorial integrity, their sovereignty had been drastically curtailed. Only Japan had succeeded through a tremendous effort of will, and under the most favorable external conditions imaginable, in transforming itself from a victim of the European powers and the USA into their junior partner, modernizing at breakneck speed. Everywhere else in Asia, the economic forms of European capitalism had triumphed, predominantly under the aegis of foreigners; only in rare cases had they been appropriated by native forces. All Asia seemed to have lost the historical initiative and been left far behind in the race to modernize. It was no zealous advocate of imperialism but the levelheaded Austrian economist Friedricht von Wieser, who in 1909 gave voice to the general European verdict:

Asia, the cradle of the human race, is buried under the rubble of enfeebled, degraded nations, which are no longer capable of grasping the opportunities for growth offered them by the technical advances of the age.

In short, history seemed to have passed by Asia and the Asians.

Hardly anyone in Europe would have dared or cared to contest this verdict in the years leading up to the First World War, and few did so in the following decades. A first sign of renewed vitality at Europe's gates was Kemal Atatürk's energetic and successful modernization policy in Turkey, initiated in 1923. Yet it was not until the 1940s that Asia was able to wrest back its historical agency in the eyes of the world: with the Japanese attack on the American Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the surrender of the supposedly impregnable British fortress of Singapore barely two months later, with the Vietnamese revolution in 1945 and the Chinese in 1949, and with the independence of the Philippines, India, Pakistan, Ceylon, Burma, and Indonesia between 1946 and 1949.

During the second half of the twentieth century, particularly in its final quarter, the causes and occasions for European arrogance towards Asia vanished in the face of the extraordinarily dynamic economic growth experienced by several of the continent's regions. For all those millions elsewhere who continued to languish in poverty, a majority of citizens of those economic powerhouses were now able to enjoy decent standards of living. The last rearguard argument used to defend European exceptionalism — Asians were capable merely of imitating the achievements of others, not of creative achievement in their own right — forfeited whatever credibility it might once have possessed. On the Asian side, there emerged an indigenous cultural nationalism that self-consciously rejected Western tutelage, asserted its own "Asian values," repudiated all forms of "cultural imperialism," and even turned on its head the old European cliché of Asia's terminal decadence by prophesying a decline of the West. After the Iranian revolution of 1979, this ideological campaign became a factor of global political importance. In the early 1990s, and in more subdued tones following the great Asian economic crisis of 1997, voices from Japan and China, from Malaysia, Singapore, and South Korea could be heard proclaiming the superiority of their own cultural values and social institutions over those of the West. Western warnings about Islamist aggression and a "new yellow peril" were seen to be confirmed, and alarmist visions of an imminent "clash of civilizations" were not lacking.

In the early twenty-first century, precious little thus remains of fin de siècle European hubris. Today it is impossible for Europe to recover its global supremacy, its unchallenged control over processes of economic globalization, and its pretensions to cultural superiority. If the nineteenth century belonged to Europe and the twentieth to the USA, many pundits of today are heralding the twenty-first as the Asian century. The time is ripe for historians to inquire into the origins of European exceptionalism, a vision of the world that for so long, and with such powerful repercussions, asserted European primacy over all other civilizations. This vision drew on ancient and Christian antecedents before crystallizing, in the Age of Enlightenment, into a secular worldview that dispensed with the religious belief in divine election. In the nineteenth century, increasingly discolored by racism, it dictated how Europeans presented themselves abroad before subsiding, in the era of decolonization, into an attitude of smug intellectual condescension.

Returning to the era of its formation, the eighteenth century, does not just mean trawling through the archives to illustrate an argument about the rise and fall of a historical discourse — in this case, that of European exceptionalism — and thus adding to the sometimes overdrawn, denunciatory critiques of European hypocrisies, illusions, and officially sanctioned delusions that have flourished ever since the publication in 1978 of Edward W. Said's highly influential polemic, Orientalism. It also means exploring a cultural world that no single thesis can exhaust: the world of European interest in Asia in the Age of Enlightenment.


The European intellectual climate in the Age of Enlightenment was cosmopolitan in outlook, even when individual writers did not explicitly subscribe to a cosmopolitan agenda or philosophy. National borders played a less important role than in earlier and, especially, later periods. The eighteenth-century republic of letters was multilingual. Latin was no longer predominant yet was still widely understood. Densely woven networks of communication, maintained through correspondence, visits, and foreign employment, connected savants in Paris and Edinburgh, London and Saint Petersburg, Uppsala and Göttingen, Leiden and Turin. Leibniz and Voltaire sought out like-minded contacts in far-off civilizations who could help them in their great project of adding to the store of knowledge about the world. For a time the Chinese mandarins, a meritocratic elite, seemed ideal interlocutors. Enlightenment was conceived as a universal enterprise.

It has become clearer today than even a few decades ago that this enterprise was equally a polycentric one. The peripheries of Europe did not just reflect the light beamed out from Paris and a handful of other metropolises; "epicenters of reason" were scattered throughout the continent. The British colonies in North America assume central importance in a global view of Enlightenment. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison were among the key philosophes of the age. Impulses emanating from Europe were taken up and creatively reworked in Lima, Calcutta, Batavia, and Cape Town. In the 1780s the Asiatick Society of Bengal, steered by the brilliant jurist, linguist, and homme de lettres Sir William Jones, formed one of the most dynamic clusters of transcultural scholarship found anywhere in the world at the time. The Jesuit missionaries at the imperial court of China, some of whom stayed on after the suppression of their order in Europe in the 1760s, remained what their predecessors had already been in Leibniz's day: valued epistolary partners for the leading European intellectuals.

Through such channels, which in many respects anticipate the dense networks of our own time, knowledge about political and social conditions, mores, customs, and religions in the non-European world was imported into Europe. Like other forms of knowledge, it underwent the procedures identified by Peter Burke: professing, establishing, locating, classifying, controlling, selling, acquiring, trusting, distrusting. In Europe, knowledge about Asia was classified, evaluated, and archived; foreign objects were itemized, catalogued, and put on display. Botany and zoology benefited from the specimens yielded by expeditions and colonial collections. The variety of species in nature was literally and figuratively first brought home to Europeans with increasing knowledge of the tropics; indigenous taxonomies flowed into many of the systems that European scientists now set about developing. Eighteenth-century intellectuals and scholars processed a constant flow of data from all around the world. Knowledge cultures cross-fertilized over vast distances. The European Enlightenment opened outwards to the rest of the world and in turn had an impact far beyond the boundaries of continental Europe.

The interest of an educated public in reports from Asia, America, the Pacific, and Africa was stronger than ever before. It was met by a veritable flood of travel literature. The standard travel works of the time crowded the shelves of almost every scholarly library and princely collection. Thanks to the Jesuits, some even made it as far as China. Towards the end of the era, the enormous private library of the Berlin geographer Carl Ritter contained almost the complete European-language literature on the world beyond Europe's borders. Public interest in events in the Ottoman Empire, for example, was so great that in 1789 the geographer Johann Traugott Plant brought out a weighty lexicon on Turkey for the edification of information-hungry newspaper readers. The horizon of the generation that began to write and publish in the mid-eighteenth century spanned the entire globe. This was without precedent in European intellectual history. In 1777 the parliamentarian, political philosopher, and — as we will see — morally concerned commentator on India, Edmund Burke, wrote to William Robinson to convey his grateful "pleasure" on reading his History of America, one of the historiographical masterpieces of the epoch:

The part which I read with the greatest pleasure is the discussion of the Manners and character of the Inhabitants of that new World. I have always thought with you, that we possess at this time very great advantages towards the knowledge of human Nature. We need no longer to go to History to trace it in all its stages and periods. ... But now the Great Map of Mankind is unrolld at once; and there is no state or Gradation of barbarism, and no mode of refinement which we have not at the same instant under our View. The very different Civility of Europe and of China; The barbarism of Persia and Abyssinia. The erratick manners of Tartary, and of Arabia. The Savage State of North America, and of New Zealand.

Writing at the same time in a similar vein, Jean-Nicolas Démeunier formulated the following Rousseauian sentence in the introduction to his superb ethnographic encyclopedia, a work that systematically collated knowledge about the customs and rites of every nation scattered on the face of the Earth: "We know nearly all the nations, civilized [policées] and savage; now the time has come to compare them." And the Scottish social philosopher Adam Ferguson was able to draw on material from all epochs and cultures when preparing his treatise on universal sociology, first published in 1767. "Late discoveries," he declared even before he could profit from Captain Cook's voyages in the Pacific, "have brought us to the knowledge of almost every situation in which mankind are placed."

At the time he wrote this, the East had long been present in more than just images and texts. Europeans could hardly bear to go without spices from the "East Indies"; they clothed themselves in Indian cotton and Chinese silk; they drank Arabian coffee and sipped Chinese tea. Opium from Turkey and India stimulated the artificial paradises of romantic literature and became, at least in England, a mass-market drug. In the eighteenth century Asia was a tangible, consumable presence in European everyday life. We have all seen porcelain from China, the author of a popular history of Asia addressed his readers in 1735, so why should we not study the country's history as well? At the same time, the potential for the high-performing economies of the East to threaten their Western rivals did not go unheeded. Around 1700, competition from China was already giving French producers headaches.

Between around 1750 and 1820 it seemed far more self-evident than at any time before, and indeed at any time since, that the scholarly and educated public in France and Great Britain, Germany and Italy should keep abreast of conditions and developments overseas. It was not primarily on account of its entertainment value that news from foreign lands was consumed so avidly. Along with the classics of the ancient world and the Bible (commonly read as a work of history), it served as raw material for an empirical science of humankind. This science de l'homme was supranational, transcultural, and — as Burke and Démeunier indicated — comparative in scope; authors from the most diverse scientific disciplines and from all over Europe contributed to it. Pierre Bayle, the first Enlightenment author of genuinely European stature, had already sought out examples of human behavior from all four corners of the Earth. Countless others followed in his footsteps.


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Table of Contents

Preface, ix,
I. Introduction: Looking to the East, 1,
II. Asia and Europe: Borders, Hierarchies, Equilibria, 37,
III. Changing Perspectives, 66,
IV. Traveling, 95,
V. Encounters, 139,
VI. Eyewitnesses–Earwitnesses: Experiencing Asia, 170,
VII. Reporting, Editing, Reading: From Lived Experience to Printed Text, 210,
VIII. The Raw Forces of History: Apocalyptic Horsemen, Conquerors, Usurpers, 257,
IX. Savages and Barbarians, 288,
X. Real and Unreal Despots, 334,
XI. Societies, 384,
XII. Women, 446,
XIII. Into a New Age: The Rise of Eurocentrism, 480,
Notes, 519,
Bibliography, 599,
Index, 663,

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