Decolonizing Modern World History

For the last couple years, I have been struggling to figure out what I want to do with this blog. When I began posting more regularly during my sabbatical in 2015-2016, I imagined it to be a place to reflect on my ideas about world history pedagogy. For the most part, that is what the posts have been about, but I’ve struggled with maintaining momentum. I find I get distracted by random projects and being active in other online fora for discussing history education.

This past spring and summer, I spent a lot of time thinking about the recent update about the changes to the AP World History curriculum. As a former co-chair of the committee that revised the original world history curriculum and wrote the key concepts back in 2009-2010, I feel more than a little invested in keeping the longue durée approach to world history. I won’t bother to go over all the reasons for keeping the longer version of world history. You can find all the relevant articles at Save AP World and World History Teachers Blog, as well as some excellent discussion on episodes 36, 37, and 39 of On Top of the World: A History Podcast.

At the same time, I’m also less outraged than most teachers given my unique teaching situation. At Friends Seminary, we have been teaching a two year world history sequence for over thirty years. My students will continue to learn world history in a way that allows them to see the long term picture. For more than fifteen years, I have been teaching the second year of that two-year world history sequence. We split the courses at the year 1300, so I’ve long thought about how to construct a meaningful world history course covering the last 700 years. One of the main complaints about the new version of AP World History is that the new course will be “Eurocentric.” While there is some truth to the claim, I actually think most of what people have said regarding this point is problematic. Simply teaching the history of the world since 1200 is not inherently Eurocentric. Many world history teachers seem to think that Eurocentrism is simply teaching about Europe. It’s not. One of the most popular posts on the blog has been Eurocentrism and the Myth of East Asian Isolation. I argued that Eurocentrism is about failing to “view historical events and processes (e.g., industrialization, development of representative governments, secularism) in Europe as just one _regional_ pattern of historical development…[and assuming] that the European pattern is somehow a universal standard.”

I thought about this issue a lot during my three weeks this summer volunteering at Taktse International School in Gangtok, Sikkim in India. I went there to serve as a resource person for the history teachers, but I ended up teaching the high school history classes for three weeks. All of sudden I found myself having to teach the Cambridge IGCSE History 0470. Although the course is called “Modern World History,” it didn’t look like any modern world history course I’ve taught over the last fifteen years. I spent those three weeks primarily teaching about the Cold War. When I first looked at the Ben Walsh textbook that is used for this course, I was a little shocked. The Cold War is viewed entirely from an American and Soviet perspective. The section on the Korean War didn’t even talk about what the war looked like from the perspective of the Korean people. I won’t even begin to talk about the complete lack of anything on Third Worldism. (If you want to know more about Third Worldism, check out Vijay Prashad’s The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World. Cambridge’s Modern World History course is the quintessential Eurocentric world history course, and there was no way I could spend three weeks teaching that way. Instead of sticking to the resources in the textbook, I augmented the classes with primary sources and charts that helped the students see the events of the Cold War from the perspective of peoples in Korea, Cuba, and Vietnam. At the end of the three weeks, I talked with the students about their time with me teaching world history. All of them expressed how grateful they were for my approach to the material.

This experience at Taktse has been on my mind as I continue to think about the changes to the AP World History curriculum, world history in general, and the future of this blog. In the last few weeks, I’ve been fortunate to have lots of great conversations about “Decolonizing the syllabus” and “Decolonizing world history.” I now know where I want to go with the blog. More than ever, I think world history teachers need new resources to make sure they don’t treat the new version of AP World History as a Eurocentric world history course and we all need to be talking about how we decolonize world history more and more. My plan is to post once or twice a month, and each post will explore a well known topic in modern world history from a global perspective. Tomorrow I’ll be posting the first of three posts about Afroeurasia in the fifteenth century. These posts will build off ideas I previously explored in my post on Globalizing the Renaissance

The image at the beginning of this post is from Yvette DeChavez’s site. You can purchase posters or shirts with the image – support her!

P.S. I want to make it clear that I do not support the CollegeBoard’s decision to abbreviate the AP World History. A good world history course should adopt the longue durée approach. I simply want to focus on sharing my own experiences of teaching modern world from a global perspective.

Healing the Sick Man of Europe

If the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was going through a period of transformation, rather than beginning a 400 year decline, it would seem that the Empire, which collapsed in 1922, had to be declining in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. While it’s true that the Empire lost substantial territory, too much focus on the territorial loss and the collapse of the empire can blind us to the important positive developments taking place in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The Supposedly Sick Man of Europe

If we look at the map of the Ottoman Empire during the nineteenth century, talking about decline seems logical. We can easily see that the Ottomans lost control of more than half their territory. On the eve of the First World War I, the Ottoman Empire had contracted to the area around Istanbul, Anatolia, the Levant, and Mesopotamia. At some point during the middle of the nineteenth century, European diplomats, believing that the Ottoman Empire was near its end, began calling the Ottoman Empire the “Sick Man of Europe.”

In thinking about this epithet, there are two important points. The first is that European diplomats using this phrase saw the Ottoman Empire as part of Europe. From our present day perspective, we tend to think about the Ottoman Empire as being in the Middle East. World history courses treat the Ottomans as an Islamic or Middle Eastern empire. In courses about the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire tends to be the most important state. While the Ottomans were undisputedly a Middle Eastern state, since the fifteenth century, the Ottomans were also a European state. Even if European diplomats believed that the Ottoman Empire was dying, they also believed it was a European state that was dying.

The second point to consider is how this popular epithet influences our understanding of the history of the Ottoman Empire in its final two centuries. It’s easy for students to hear this epithet and become focused on why the Ottoman Empire collapsed and what came after it. As a teacher, I know that I am often asking my students to explain why particular empires collapse. The issue with this teleological focus is that it can blind us to the significance of Ottoman reform and modernization during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In his A Brief History of the Late Ottoman Empire, M. Şükrü Hanioğlu argues:

the attempt to frame late Ottoman history in a narrative of imperial collapse to the relentless drumbeat of the march of progress — usually associated with Westernization, nationalism, and secularization — prevents a clear understanding of the developments in question.

In the rest of this post, I want to shift the focus away from Ottoman decline and toward the ways in which the Ottoman state evolved and adapted. These transformations allowed it not only to survive for so long, but also to assert greater control over the territory that it continued to rule over.

The Eighteenth Century Evolutionary Ottoman State

Having acknowledged that the Ottoman Empire contracted significantly during the nineteenth century, the question becomes what was still dynamic about the Empire. If we look at the state itself, we quickly see that while the Ottomans ruled over far fewer people, the state’s ability to rule over these people had increased substantially. In her Empire of Difference: The Ottomans in Comparative Perspective, Karen Barkey argues about the important changes of the eighteenth century:

The seeds of transition from empire to a different political formation were sown in the eighteenth century. The central and local structures of the empire began to take a different shape, connecting nodes and further decreasing peripheral segmentation.

After centuries of adaptive and flexible policies that had maintained the Ottoman Empire as a relatively decentralized empire, the rulers of the state began the process of transforming the Empire into a more centralized nation-state. Barkey focuses on a few key eighteenth century developments in the Ottoman Empire: the emergence of new movements of opposition to the state that began framing “a new state-society compact,” the commercialization of the Ottoman economy, and “the widespread growth of tax farming as a significant form of revenue collection.” These transformations, according to Barkey, highlight the ways in which the Ottoman Empire continued to evolve and adapt. She also emphasizes that these adaptations should be seen as “a sign of flexibility and pragmatism, not a sign of decline.” It’s also worth noting that the methods of reform adopted by the Ottomans sometimes reflected and sometimes diverged from European methods of political and economic reform. These reflections and divergences remind us that the European model of reform was not the only model; there were multiple ways that states modernized during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The Nineteenth Century Evolutionary Ottoman State

The Ottomans’ transformation of the state continued into the nineteenth century. Beginning in 1839, Ottoman rulers implemented the Tanzimat, the a series of reforms that reshaped the nature of the Ottoman state. The Tanzimat included laws guaranteeing property rights, prohibiting bribery, replacing tax farming with a more consistent system of taxation, abolishing differential treatment of Muslims and non-Muslims and different ethnic groups, encouraging a more secular vision of the Empire, and establishing equitable universal conscription of males into the military. The Constitution of 1876 is often seen as the culmination of these reforms, since it formalized and codified nearly fourty years of legal changes. These changes not only highlight the ways in which the Ottomans were adapting elements of European states, but also indicate the increasing strength and centralization of the Ottoman state. Hanioğlu argues that the three individuals (Mustafa Reşid Pasha, Mehmed Emin Âlî Pasha, and Keçecizâde Mehmed Fu’ad Pasha.) responsible for these reforms also mark a shifting balance of power within imperial rule. Instead of competition between different factions within the state, “the bureaucratic cadres of the Sublime Porte [the name for the entrance gate to buildings housing the Ottoman bureaucracy ] oversaw the entire administration of the state, ruling the empire until 1871 with only trivial interference from the imperial palace or the ulema.” The Tanzimat also marked a reassertion of Istanbul’s power over the provinces of the Ottoman Empire. According to Hanioğlu, the leaders of the Tanzimat implemented “new regulations that would make local administration uniform throughout the empire.” After fourty years of the Tanzimat, there was a major shift in the governance of the Ottoman Empire in 1878. Sultan Abdul Hamid II seized control of the government and suspended the two-year old Constitution. While Abdul Hamid is known for suspending the Constitution of 1876 and promoting a more Islamic vision of the Empire, he also continued the centralization of the state and expanded the central government’s influence over the provinces. One way in which he combined these two trends is in his call to build the Hijaz railway. Ostensibly promoted as a way to link the major cities of the Empire to Mecca to facilitate the hajj, it was also a way to more easily move soldiers and officials across the Arab provinces. Abdul Hamid also reorganized and expanded the Ottoman bureaucracy in a way that made it increasingly dependent on him personally. Hanioğlu argues:

Abdülhamid II in fact envisioned efficient administration of the empire by a modern bureaucracy headed by a cadre of technocrats. Accordingly, bureaucratic reform picked up perceptible speed during his reign. At the sultan’s behest, a host of new bureaucratic schools were established, including the Royal Academy of Administration, which became a college.

Over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Ottoman Empire continued its long-standing practice of evolving and adapting its systems and practices for ruling over its vast territory. Whereas the early history of the Empire was characterized more by flexibility and localized practices, the last two centuries of the Empire increasingly became characterized by centralization and standardization.

The Effects of Centralization

This increased centralization, not surprisingly, was often resisted by peoples around the Empire. Hanioğlu shows how a wide range of peoples pushed back against the Ottoman imperial officials. Whether it was Christians in the Balkans, bedouins among the Arab nomadic populations, or Arabs in Mount Lebanon, there was an empire wide trend of resistance by formerly loosely-ruled peoples to the new, more invasive practices of the Ottoman government. In some regions of the empire, this resistance was successful. During the late nineteenth century, Christians in the Balkans successfully led nationalist independence movements in Bulgaria and Serbia.

At the same time, the Ottomans also managed to reassert control over other parts of the Empire. In 1870, the Ottomans sent forces to Yemen and reestablished nominal control over much of the country. Also during the 1870s, the Ottomans reestablished control over Transjordan. They set up Salt as a regional capital, stationed soldiers in the region, and asserted control over the formerly independent Bedouin tribes. The Ottomans even began to encourage migration of Ciracassians and Palestinians to the region and linked Transjordan to the rest of the Arab provinces through the Hijaz railway.

What happened in Transjordan and Yemen also happened across much of Anatolia, the Levant, and Mesopotamia. Even as the Ottomans lost control of territory in the Balkans and North Africa, their ability to govern their remaining provinces increased.

The Ottomans as an Imperial Power

Another way to think about the increased power of the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century is to consider its ability to project its influence beyond its borders. In an interview on the Ottoman History Podcast, Mostafa Minawi discuss “The Ottoman Scramble for Africa.” Chris Gratien, who interviewed Minawi, expands on his ideas in an article of the same name. As Europeans powers sought to expand their power into Africa, they also viewed the Ottomans as needing to be included in discussions at the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885. According to Gratien, the Ottomans participated in these meetings by:

closely following the legal terms of the conference in order to claim parts of Sub-Saharan Africa as the “hinterland” of their remaining North Africa provinces. Likewise, they tried to hold their European competitors in Africa, such as France and Britain, to these terms in order to stop the contraction of their empire. In this way, they used these new agreements to assert their sovereign position on the world stage.

Gratien also explains how:

Ottoman activities in Africa went beyond formal claims. They sought to establish telegraph lines and other political and cultural connections with the local Sanusi order in order to lay claim to a tangible presence on the ground. Here, Minawi notes the potential dangers of labeling the Ottomans as another colonial power, because their strategies differed markedly from those of some of their European contemporaries. Rather than asserting themselves as the rightful and hegemonic rules of a borderlands region, they represented themselves to their local interlocutors as alternative allies to the otherwise impeding arrival of European colonial rule.

Based on both their participation at the Berlin Conference and actions they took on their own, the characterization of the Ottomans as the “sick man” obscures our ability to see the ways in which the Empire was still a surprisingly strong state able to project its power into Africa right up until the end of the nineteenth century.


Over the course of this post and the previous post on the Ottomans, I have suggested that the tendency to view the Ottoman Empire after the death of Süleyman in 1566 as a long history of decline is problematic. Not only did the Empire last for nearly 450 years more, but in many ways the political power of the Empire was surprisingly quite strong. The Ottoman government developed multiple strategies over the years to rule over a large amount of territory. At times these strategies mirrored ones adopted by Europeans, but at other times the Ottomans adopted unique strategies. So often the challenge in world history is to escape the Eurocentric assumptions that shape our narratives. If we can use a few detours along the less traveled narrative roads of world history, hopefully our students will be better able to figure out how to navigate the world of world history on their own rather than continuing to rely on outdated Eurocentric maps.

Originally published at on March 18, 2016.

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.