Eurocentrism and the Myth of East Asian Isolation

The idea that China and Japan from c.1450 to c.1800 were “isolated” is one of the more persistent myths in world history. Each year at the AP World History reading, I can’t even begin to count the number of times I read some variation of this argument. It even has shown up in essays that have almost nothing to do with China and Japan’s foreign relations. A quick look at Wikipedia reveals these two examples. On Japan’s isolation:

In 1603, the Tokugawa shogunate (military dictatorship) ushered in a long period of isolation from foreign influence in order to secure its power. For 250 years this policy enabled Japan to enjoy stability and a flowering of its indigenous culture. (emphasis mine)

On China’s isolation:

After Zheng He’s voyages in the 15th century, the foreign policy of the Ming dynasty in China became increasingly isolationist. The Hongwu Emperor was the first to propose the policy to ban all maritime shipping in 1371. The Qing dynasty that came after the Ming dynasty often continued the Ming dynasty’s isolationist policies. (emphasis mine)


The tendency to label this period of East Asian history as “isolationist” reflects the pervasiveness of Eurocentrism in much world history. Eurocentrism is more than simply spending more time in our classes discussing events in Europe. It is a way of viewing of the world that privileges the experience of Europe and assumes that experience is a universal one. According to Robert Marks, “Eurocentrism is a way of knowing that establishes the criteria for what its practitioners deem to be ‘the facts.’ It is thus a paradigm, a set of assumptions about how the world works.” Instead of viewing historical events and processes (e.g., industrialization, development of representative governments, secularism) in Europe as just one regional pattern of historical development, we assume that the European pattern is somehow a universal standard.

Europeans during the Early Modern period are frequently applauded for their spirit of adventure and travels around the world. We even call this period the “Age of Discovery” or the “Age of Exploration.” Following a eurocentric model, we assume that sailing around the world, searching for wealth, proselytizing for one’s religion, and seeking new trade partnerships was normal because that is what Europeans were doing in this period. In looking at China and Japan in the Early Modern period, what we see are two states that approached foreign relations in ways that differed from Europe, but that does not mean either state was isolationist.


In the case of Japan, the idea of Japanese isolation is usually traced back to the Sakoku or “Closed Country” edicts of the late 1630s. These edicts outlawed most Europeans from trading in Japan and limited Japanese from leaving the country. If we think about Europe in the late 1630s, we find multiple European states establishing colonies and trading posts around the world. It would be easy to think about the advent of the sakoku policy as a turn to isolationism, but it would also be an inaccurate oversimplification.

Between 1640 and 1853 (when United States Commodore Matthew Perry “opened” Japan), Japan actively maintained connections to the outside world, but also tightly managed these connections. Despite ending trade with most Europeans, the Japanese continued to trade with the Dutch, as well as trading with the Chinese, Koreans, and Ainu. In his article “Foreign Relations in Early Modern Japan: Exploding the Myth of National Seclusion,” Arano Yasunori argues that Japan managed its foreign relations through four portals:

Our understanding of Japan’s interaction with the rest of the world during this period has changed dramatically in the past two or three decades. Today most Japanese historians regard the Edo period as a time when Japan maintained active, if indirect, ties with the larger world through not one but four portals, under a system that allowed the nation to develop and eventually emerge as a modern state.

Yasunori shows how the Tokugawa Shogunate established four “portals” to oversee the country’s interactions with the outside world.

Using these four portals the Tokugawa shoguns were able to regulate trade relations with other states in a way that benefitted the Japanese. This “Japanocentric” system not only established the terms on which the Japanese engaged with the outside world, but it also helped contribute to a period of intense economic growth, urbanization, and social change in Japan.

The tendency to label this period of Japanese history as isolationist seems to be derived from the significantly different approach to foreign relations that the Japanese adopted compared to contemporary Europeans. Whereas the Europeans traveled around the world seeking out any possible trade connection, the Japanese remained mostly within Japan and strictly regulated how they engaged with the rest of the world.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the Tokugawa Shogunate abandoned the sakoku policy. Within a few years, the government was overthrown and the Meiji Restoration began. Within a few decades, the Japanese had developed a modern economy and began challenging the industrialized powers of the world. Maybe another part of the tendency to label the Tokugawa as “isolationist” is to highlight the connection between the arrival of the West and Japan’s rapid modernization. In this way, it was only by abandoning its “isolation” from the West that the Japanese were able to modernize. If we stop thinking of the Tokugawa period as one of isolation, we need to begin considering how much Japan’s rapid modernization in the late nineteenth century was also due to the success of policies and trends in the Tokugawa period.


Whereas as the tendency to label the Japanese as isolationist seems to hinge on a single decision, there are a number of moments in the history of China between 1400 and 1800 where historians might be tempted to label China as isolationist. In looking closely at three of these key moments, we again see that the label reflects a eurocentric approach to history.

In the early fifteenth century, the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) sponsored a series of seven voyages under the leadership of Zheng He that are discussed in almost every world history textbook. The last voyage was completed in 1433, and the Chinese government chose not to send out any further voyages. It would be easy to see this decision as isolationist or seeing China as choosing to shut itself off from the world. At this same moment, the Portuguese were beginning to sail down the western coast of Africa, and Columbus would shortly later sail across the Atlantic Ocean. But just because Europeans were pushing themselves to establish new connections doesn’t mean that the Chinese government’s decision to stop sponsoring voyages was isolationist.

Much has been written about the voyages, but I like the short article by Kenneth Pomeranz “Woods, Winds, Shipbuilding, and Shipping: Why China Didn’t Rule the Waves” in The World that Trade Created. He argues that there are a number of factors to consider in making sense of the Chinese decision to end the voyages. Over time the goals of the voyages had been achieved. There had been changes in government, and the influence of the eunuchs at court was no longer as great as they had been. Deforestation in China drove up the cost of the timber and made the cost of the voyages prohibitive. Chinese traders increasingly relied on building ships in Southeast Asian shipyards owned by Chinese emigrants and allowing overseas based Chinese traders to rely more on shorter maritime routes within the existing Indian Ocean system. We quickly see that there was no turn to isolation in deciding to stop sending out the voyages under Zheng He; there was simply a decision not to engage with the outside world through large, state-sponsored voyages.

The second supposedly isolationist event is China’s establishment of the Canton System beginning in 1757. Some historians have viewed the decision to channel all overseas trade through the single port at Guangzhou (Canton) as an isolationist policy designed to limit growing European power and evidence of China’s opposition to free trade. Madeleine Zelin suggests that another way of thinking about the establishment of the Canton System was as a mutual decision:

Canton was the only port that really could provide the kind of facilities that foreign traders needed. Canton had a sufficient number of merchants, sufficient capital to be able to bring goods from the interior in sufficient amounts to make it worthwhile for foreigners to come all the way from England to China. The trip from England to China during this time was indeed very long, and ships only came once a year. The merchants bought everything they could to fill up the ships and soon set sail again.

In his The Canton Trade: Life and Enterprise on the China Coast, 1700–1845, Paul Van Dyke expands on Zelin’s arguments by looking at the Canton trade from a bottom-up approach. For many years, the Canton System was actually set up in a way that benefitted trade rather than being an isolationist institution.

The third supposed example of Chinese isolationism is the Chinese government’s response to the British Macartney Embassy in 1793. Wanting to renegotiate the arrangement of the Canton System, the British sent Lord George Macartney to the Chinese court. The British asked the Chinese emperor to expand the number of ports at which authorized trade could take place, to gain British control over a small Chinese coastal island, and to establish a permanent British embassy in Beijing. Part of the reason for Macartney’s mission was that the current trade arrangement between the British and the Chinese was more lucrative for the Chinese. Britain’s growing demand for Chinese tea had resulted in a significant trade imbalance, which required the British to transfer large sums of silver to the Chinese.

After receiving Macartney’s embassy, the Emperor Qianlong sent a letter to Britain’s King George III explaining his reasons for rejecting the British requests. Qianlong made clear his opposition to changing trade relations:

Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders. There is therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce.

It would be easy to read the arrogance in Qianlong’s response as a sign of Chinese isolationism. Another way to consider this issue is following the lead of James L. Hevia in Cherishing Men from Afar: Qing Guest Ritual and the Macartney Embassy of 1793. Instead of assuming that the British requests for “free trade” or mutual embassies are normal, we could also view the incident as a meeting of two different conceptualizations of sovereignty, foreign relations, and trade. It’s not that the Chinese were isolationist because of their refusal to follow the British vision of trade and diplomacy; they simply understood these things in different terms.


In thinking about the ways in which China and Japan have sometimes been labeled isolationist, it’s easy to see why this label was used a generation or two ago. The choices made by the Chinese and Japanese governments reflected concerns and world-views entirely different from those ideas that are now more common in the West. We often talk about the value of “free trade,” or we did until quite recently. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century the British definitely talked a lot about free trade, especially when they were asking the Chinese to change long-established patterns. In looking at the current debate among candidates for the United States presidency about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, we quickly get the sense that maybe free trade isn’t such a universal ideal anymore. Maybe we can learn from these competing views about free trade and the Trans-Pacific Partnership and apply the same thinking to looking at the past. World history should encourage us to escape the limits of eurocentric thinking and see the world from a global perspective.

Originally published at on January 26, 2016.

The Sound of History

In the spirit of Paperless History, I want to share a few of my favorite podcasts about history. I frequently find myself listening to a variety of podcasts (some about history, many about other topics). Historical podcasts are great for covering new research in history or going over a more traditional topic. Some of them even focus on how we apply these topics to our classroom teaching.

Given my interest in Middle Eastern history, the Ottoman History Podcast is easily my favorite. There are frequent issues with a wide range of scholars who specialize in the Middle East. The topics stretch back to the early Islamic Middle East right up to the present day. 
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Another favorite is 15 Minute History from the University of Texas at Austin. The podcasters cover every historical topic you can imagine and interview a wide range of scholars. Each episode is just 15 minutes, but I always feel like I have walked away learning so much. 
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The recently launched On Top of the World: A World History Podcast is quickly becoming another favorite. Dave Eaton, a professor of World History at Grand Valley State University and Matt Drwenski, a former AP World History teacher turned graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, have engaging conversations about a wide variety of world historical topics. They cover both the new research side as well as the application of these topics in the classroom. 
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Another relatively new addition to the world of history podcasts is Liz Covart’s Ben Franklin’s World: A Podcast about Early American History. Despite the seemingly American-centric focus of the title, I’m impressed by how widely Covart casts her historical nets. There are a number of episodes that decenter the traditional narrative about early American history. 
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My last favorite is Backstory with the American History Guys on NPR. They address some topic in the news right now and consider its historical roots going back to the eighteenth century. I love how they are able to provide rich historical context for the events unfolding around us today. 
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Here’s a quick (nonexhaustive) list of some other history podcasts:

The easiest way to listen regularly to these podcasts is to use the Podcasts app built into iOS. If you have an iPhone or iPad, you already have the app. Or you can subscribe via iTunes on your Mac. 
 If you want something a little more powerful, I recommend checking out Overcast. You can download it on the iOS App Store.

Originally published at on January 17, 2016.

Explanations, Conjunctures, and Teaching about the Islamic State

“Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.” — H.L. Mencken in “The Divine Afflatus” in New York Evening Mail (16 November 1917)

Recently it’s been almost impossible to look at a newspaper, watch a cable news show, or look at a news website and not find a story about ISIS (or the Islamic State) and why its adherents are attacking the West. I first noticed this trend right after the attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015, which is not exactly surprising. At the same time, I’ve been surprised (and a bit frustrated) by how frequently these articles and stories reduce the phenomenon of the Islamic State and the “logic” for its horrifying practices to a single explanation. Monocausal explanations are frequently found in popular media, which are trying to simplify the story for a larger audience. The ever entertaining Karl Remarks on Twitter poked fun at this tendency to simplify the Islamic State to a single sentence explanation.

The problem is that these simple explanations, with the notable exception of Karl Remarks’, are rarely adequate for fully understanding the reasons for why events happened, and they may even be misleading. In the classroom, we want to strive for more complexity and nuance.

Before we can even begin to think about how we might teach about the Islamic State, there’s the basic question of what to call it! Do we opt for the Islamic State or ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) or ISIL (the Islamic State in the Levant) or Daesh (the Arabic acronym for the group’s full name)? There are reasons for using each name. The names we choose to use are loaded with meaning about how we think about the organization. Regardless of what we choose to call the Islamic State, we need to focus even more on understanding why it developed in the first place.

Instead of relying on the monocausal, or single sentence, explanation, we need to embrace a conjunctural or polycausal explanation of the Islamic State. Historical events, like almost everything in our lives, never occur because of a single reason. There are always multiple reasons for why things happen in the world. Human actions cannot be easily explained like mathematical equations. In trying to present a more comprehensive, conjunctural explanation for the Islamic State, I want to look at some examples of monocausal explanations.

Some of the earliest discussions of the Islamic State focused on the Islam part. In a frequently cited article “What ISIS Really Wants” in The Atlantic, Graeme Wood explains ISIS almost solely on the basis of its understanding and interpretation of Islam:

It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse.

His singular focus on the role of Islam in analyzing the Islamic State and how it chooses to justify its actions almost makes sense given its name. It is the Islamic State, after all. A similar approach was often used in the wake of 9/11 to understand al-Qaeda. In both a journal article and subsequent book called “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim,” the Columbia University political scientist Mahmood Mamdani has discussed the tendency to oversimplify and distort these complex issues with “culture talk.” By focusing exclusively on the Islamic nature of the Islamic State, Wood presents a nice, simple explanation related to the cultural background of the organization. This explanation, while neatly packaged, also obscures the complex political and economic historical context of the actions of the Islamic State. The other significant problem with Wood’s approach is the question of the validity of his arguments. He basically accepts the claims of the Islamic State that its beliefs and practices are actually Islamic. In a response to the Wood article “What Is “Islamic”? A Muslim Response To Isis And The Atlantic”, Daniel Haqiqatjou and Yasir Qadhi argue that Wood mistakenly accepts the Islamic State’s beliefs and practices as truly Islamic. This presentation also contributes to a context in mainstream American society in which blaming all Muslims becomes easier.

Getting beyond the tendency to fall back on cultural talk, we need to explore the economic and political historical context for the development of the Islamic State. The only problem is that it should be the contexts, rather than the context. Multiple factors matter.

One popular explanation is to reduce the development of the Islamic State (and many other problems in the Middle East) to the legacy of Sykes-Picot. For those not familiar with early twentieth century European diplomatic arrangements, the Sykes-Picot Agreement was a 1916 secret agreement between the British and French, with Russian knowledge, made during World War I about how to partition Ottoman territories. After the war ended, the Ottoman Empire was broken up in ways that reflect some aspects of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. This argument has been picked up by a wide range of commentators. In a post on his own blog, Richard Falk, a former Princeton professor, presents the actions of the Islamic State as a backlash to the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Michael Williams, a former British and United Nations diplomat, also blames the Sykes-Picot Agreement for creating the ethnic and sectarian divisions in the region that have given rise to the Islamic State. While there is a certain pleasure in blaming all the problems of the Middle East on a couple of scheming European diplomats a century ago, it’s not a complete explanation. James Gelvin, professor of History at UCLA, points out that despite Glenn Beck, Noam Chomsky, Bashar al-Assad, and the Islamic State all pointing the finger at the Sykes-Picot Agreement, there have simply been too many other factors since 1916. He attributed the widespread popularity of this explanation to the fact that:

it assigns culpability to individuals rather than complicated historical events or faceless apparatchiks meeting behind closed doors. For Middle Easterners, “Sykes-Picot” became code long ago for imperialist arrogance and the illegitimacy of the contemporary state system, whatever the agreement’s actual historical significance.

If we can’t blame scheming European diplomats, it seems that the next most preferred target is Saudi Arabia. Since the late eighteenth century, the Saud family has cooperated with imams that have supported the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, an ultraconservative interpretation of Islam based on the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd-al- (1703–1792). In exchange for backing the Saud’s family rule over much of the Arabian Peninsula, the Saudi government has supported Wahhabi imams and promoted Wahhabi interpretations of Islam around the world. According to Alastair Crooke, the failure to maintain the expansionary and jihadist thrust of Wahhabism, while still globally promoting the message of Wahhabism, opened the door for the Islamic State. The Islamic State sees itself as completing a mission to spread true Islam that had begun in the eighteenth century. Karen Armstrong also blames the Saudis for facilitating the development of the Islamic State. Like Crooke, she argues that the Islamic State sees itself as fulfilling the mission first set out for the Wahhabis, but she also argues that Saudi Arabia also brought about the cultural conditions that have shaped the Islamic State:

A whole generation of Muslims, therefore, has grown up with a maverick form of Islam that has given them a negative view of other faiths and an intolerantly sectarian understanding of their own. While not extremist per se, this is an outlook in which radicalism can develop.

Despite the role of Saudi Arabia, other scholars and journalists have looked elsewhere in the Middle East to identify the historical context for the development of the Islamic State. The authoritarian states which have dominated the Middle East since the end of World War II have also been seen as the source of the Islamic State. After the British and the French relinquished control of their mandates and protectorates (which was simply a nice way of saying colonies) in the Middle East and North Africa in the late 1940s to 1960s, indigenous Arab rulers took control of states across the region. These rulers were frequently secular, military elites who styled themselves as presidents of republics, but were essentially dictators. In an article in al-Monitor, Professor Madawi al-Rasheed, a specialist in Saudi Arabian history, acknowledges the influence of Islam and the policies of Saudi Arabia, but relegates them to a minor role compared to the policies of authoritarian states and their collapse since the beginning of the Arab Uprisings in late 2010:

It is simplistic to consider this recent wave of terrorism merely a reflection of indoctrination that glorifies violence in the name of Islam or a direct endorsement of bigoted preachers of hate, most of whom are affiliated in one way or another to the Wahhabi-Salafi religious discourse dominant in Saudi Arabia. The main reason for the violence is the progressive collapse of the old Arab authoritarian political order, in which dictators ruled with an iron fist. The order began to crumble with the 2010–2011 Arab uprisings. It was naive to think that the moment these dictators were deposed, a new era of democratic transitions would prevail across the region. Those dictators had already suffocated civil society and eliminated any force that might have endorsed democracy. They encouraged a nasty alternative of regulating and controlling people’s social and religious behavior.

Thanassis Cambanis, in an article that originally appeared in the Boston Globe also blames the authoritarian states for the development of the Islamic State:

An entire rotten cast of Middle East governments has spawned a lost era through misrule and repression. Rotten rulers are the root cause not just of the Islamic State but of hundreds of thousands of other deaths. A partial list of villains includes theocracies like Saudi Arabia and Iran, and secular nationalist states like Egypt and Syria.

While a number of individuals have pointed to policies and cultural traditions within the Middle East to explain the rise of the Islamic State, there is another group of scholars and journalists who look outside the Middle East, primarily to the policies of the French and American governments. During the nineteenth century France began colonizing Algeria, and expanded its imperial control into other parts of North Africa and the Middle East during the early twentieth century. Even after France withdrew from these colonies after World War II, the French have maintained close relations with their former colonies. Another approach to understanding the Islamic State is to highlight these policies, along with the French view of their nation as a bastion of secularism and republicanism, as the reasons for why the Islamic State attacked Paris in November. Ian Coller, a professor of History at University of California, Irvine, points to both the colonial legacy of France and France’s continued marginalization of Muslims living within France as the key reasons for the Islamic State’s attacks. He claims that while the French ruled over Muslims in multiple colonies for over a century, they never incorporated them into the French nation in the way that other religious groups were:

For 130 years, France carved out an empire in the Muslim world. France’s India, Canada, Australia were Morocco, Syria, Lebanon. Yet Islam was never recognized as a French religion in the way that Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism were.

Even after relinquishing control of their Muslim colonies, the French continued their policies of marginalizing Muslims as they migrated into and settled in France since the 1960s:

In Paris, above all, the bulk of the second and third generations of Muslims remain in a kind of colonial shanty-town on the outskirts of the wealthy, vibrant city where I was lucky enough to rent an apartment. This is the Arab Paris of today, a Paris that most tourists never see. It is a place of vibrant markets, hardworking families and close-knit neighbourhoods. It is also a place that breeds unemployment, crime, despair and radicalization.

Frank Gertis, in a post on Africa is a Country, pursues an argument similar to Coller. While acknowledging the specific colonial actions of the French or continued marginalization of Muslims within France, he focuses more on how the evolving French conception of themselves as a nation has left little room for competing interpretations of identity, especially the Islamic identity encouraged by the Islamic State:

At the same time, however, we should not dismiss the feelings of Frenchmen and Europeans who see the values of democracy and the open society violently attacked by men who feel excluded from those societies. Most observer points out with great subtlety that Daesh perverts the values of Islam as it is being practiced today. At the same time there is little attention for the recent history of French Republicanism and the values that have sustained the European integration process.

Another approach to understanding the Islamic State is to highlight the policies of the United States in the region. Since the 1991 Gulf War, the United States has maintained a regular military presence in the region. With the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the United States overthrew the Baathist government of Saddam Hussein and began remaking the entire Iraqi state. According to Time’s Mark Thompson, it was the American policy of dismantling the existing Iraqi army that benefited the Islamic State. He argues that:

History shows that the U.S., beyond providing ISIS with war machines, also made a fateful decision that gave ISIS some of its best commanders and fighters.

A different way of looking at American policy is advocated by Toby Mathisen, a research fellow at Oxford. He points to decisions made by the American government during the 1980s to work closely with the Saudi government to fight the Soviet Union during the final decade of the Cold War. While acknowledging the influence of Saudi policies, Mathisen also makes clear that it was the involvement of the United States, and specifically its decision to work with the Saudis, that led to the development of the Islamic State:

The spread of extremist Islamist ideology is then as much a result of Western foreign policy as of Saudi machinations.

Mathisen’s argument is a good place to bring this survey of articles about the Islamic State to a close. Instead of focusing on a single issue in explaining the rise of the Islamic State and its decision to attack France in November, he links two governments’ policies: the United States and Saudi Arabia. If we want to understand fully the reasons for the development of the Islamic State, we need to broaden our horizons even further. With the possible exception of Graeme Wood’s argument about Islam and the Islamic State, these arguments all highlight an important cause of the Islamic State. The key is to recognize that we need to encourage students to integrate all these various singular explanations into a broader polycausal or conjunctural explanation. It may not be a pretty or “neat” explanation (according to Mencken), but at least it won’t be wrong. In this way, we not only help students have a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the Islamic State, but we also give them the analytical tools needed to make sense of a complex and integrated world.

Originally published at on January 7, 2016.