Globalizing the Renaissance

About ten years ago, I developed a lesson on “Placing the Renaissance in a Global Setting.” The lesson can still be found on the AP World History Teacher Community, although you need to have an account to access it. The lesson was partially a response to an earlier discussion on the now retired AP World History listserv about the merits of including the Renaissance in teaching the course.

My main contention was that if we choose to include the Renaissance, we should be emphasizing the Asian influences on Europe and the wealth that Italian city-states, such as Venice, made from trade with Muslims of the eastern Mediterranean. It was this wealth that partially made the Renaissance possible. I had recently read John Hobson’s The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation and Jerry Brotton’s The Renaissance Bazaar. Hobson argues that eurocentric interpretations of Europe’s history downplayed the significance of “eastern,” and especially Islamic, influences on Europe as being of minor importance in leading to the development of the Renaissance and Scientific Revolution. He points to the influence of Muslims in contributing to the spread of the Hindu-Arabic numeral system, Al-Khw¯arizm¯ı’s work on algebra, Islamic philosophical ideas about man as a rational agent, and Islamic ideas about astronomy. Brotton focuses more on tracing some of the specific ways in which Europeans’ encounters and exchanges with the Ottomans, Africans, and Southeast Asians influenced specific artistic productions that we now identify as “Renaissance.”

It was based on The Renaissance Bazaar that I developed the lesson about Hans Holbein’s 1533 painting The Ambassadors. This painting is often heralded as a prime example of Renaissance painting because of its use of perspective and sense of self-awareness. After having introduced the Renaissance to my class, I have students analyze the geographical origins of the objects on the table, the clothing worn by the ambassadors, and the geometric pattern on the floor. All these items originated in Asia or the Middle East. For example, the lute on the table is derived from the Turkish oud, and the silks being worn were originally produced in China. Students then discuss what the geographical origins of all these objects in a supposedly quintessential Renaissance painting suggests about the global context of the Renaissance.

Curriculum Choices and Revisiting the Renaissance

Ten years later, I’m still unconvinced that we must include the Renaissance in world history courses. I’m uncomfortable with including an event that is often presented as some uniquely European moment in a world history course. The Wikipedia page for the Renaissance describes it as “a period in Europe, from the 14th to the 17th century, considered the bridge between the Middle Ages and modern history.” There are always choices about what to include and what to exclude in world history courses. Some teachers approach this decision based on what topics they learned about in their history classes, which can sometimes end up perpetuating older, Eurocentric interpretations of world history. In making decisions about what to include, I tend to follow the global patterns (Key Concepts) in the AP World History Curriculum Framework. (For full disclosure, from 2010 to 2013 I was co-chair of the CollegeBoard committee that revised the curriculum framework for this course.) I think it’s more important to highlight global patterns rather than events in specific regions of the world. I then choose different examples from different regions of the world to illustrate those global patterns. I try to make my choices based on which examples truly highlight the global pattern, rather than on any sense of needing to cover different regions of the world. As a result, I don’t feel any need to include the Renaissance in my world history courses. To be clear, this decision doesn’t imply that I think we shouldn’t learn about the Renaissance; I just don’t feel that we need to cover it in a world history course.

During my sabbatical, I have been reconsidering many of the ways I teach world history. By chance, I came across Jerry Brotton’s recent book The Renaissance: A Very Short Introduction, which is just a slightly modified and updated version of the earlier The Renaissance Bazaar. Having enjoyed that book so much ten years ago, I found myself quickly engaged in his arguments about a “global Renaissance.” Brotton argues that we shouldn’t think of the Renaissance as a European event or celebrate it because it supposedly highlights “the achievements of European civilization to the exclusion of all others.” Instead, he argues that we should see the Renaissance as a global event, in which cultural and technological influences from other regions of Afroeurasia influenced the development of the Renaissance and in which many aspects of the Renaissance in Europe influenced artistic production in other regions of Afroeurasia.

In thinking about Brotton’s argument, I find myself imagining how I can teach about the Renaissance as an example of a number of global patterns in the Early Modern era (c.1450 — c.1750). When I think about this period in world history, the main themes are the proliferation of empires and the strengthening of states around the world, new connections being formed between Afroeurasia and the Americas, the intensification of connections between Europe and the rest of Afroeurasia, and the subsequent cultural, economic, and biological exchanges between these regions. I try to present this period as a series of encounters and mutual exchanges between peoples around the world. In the rest of this post, I’ll outline how to teach the Renaissance as an example of some of these patterns using four paintings and Brotton’s arguments.


I would begin the lesson by showing students the Crash Course episode on the Renaissance. It helps to introduce the Renaissance, and some of the academic debate about it, to students and sets them up to consider why the Renaissance was a global event. As students are watching the video, they can take notes about what the Renaissance was, when did it happen, where did it occur, why did it happen, what was the role of the Muslim world, and why is it possible to argue that the Renaissance was not an actual event. John Green argues that the Muslim world helped start the Renaissance in multipple ways.

Having watched the video, I would next show students The Ambassadors. I would begin with a discussion of why this painting is considered a Renaissance painting. Brotton’s answer to this question is:

The Ambassadors portrays two elegantly dressed men, surrounded by the paraphernalia of 16th-century life. Holbein’s lovingly detailed, precise depiction of the world of these Renaissance men, who stare back at the viewer with a confident, but also questioning self-awareness, is an image that has arguably not been seen before in painting. Medieval art looks much more alien, as it lacks this powerfully self-conscious creation of individuality. Even if it is difficult to grasp the motivation for the range of emotions expressed in paintings like Holbein’s, it is still possible to identify with these emotions as recognizably ‘modern’. In other words, when we look at paintings like The Ambassadors, we are seeing the emergence of modern identity and individuality.

I would then use the earlier questions about the geographical origins of the objects on the table, the clothing worn by the ambassadors, and the geometric pattern on the floor. After helping students to locate where these items originated, ask them how these items, which all originated in Asia or the Middle East, relate to the arguments in the Crash Course video. Students will hopefully see that the Muslim world didn’t just help to cause the Renaissance, but it also shaped the items that wealthy and prosperous Europeans at the time associated with the cultural trends of their day.

The second painting to show the students is Gentile and Giovanni Bellini’s Saint Mark Preaching in Alexandria (1504–1507). I would begin to ask the students to look closely at the painting and tell me what they see. It shows Saint Mark, the founder of the Christian Church in Alexandria in the middle of the first century and the patron saint of Venice, on the left in a pulpit, and he is preaching to the people of Alexandria. I would explain a few key things about the people in the painting. The men behind Mark are a group of Venetian noblemen. In front of him are a group of women dressed in white and wearing white veils across their faces. Around the women are men of various backgrounds talking to each other. Some of these men are Europeans, while others are Egyptian Mamluks, North African “Moors,” Ottomans, Persians, Ethiopians, and Tartars. It’s possible to identify these different ethnicities by the use of standard European iconographic practices involving headgear, clothing, and skin color. In the background is the city of Alexandria. We can see the basilica, which mixes features of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and the Church of San Marco in Venice. There are Egyptian style buildings, with wooden grilles and rugs hanging from the windows. In the background are a number of minarets, an ancient Egyptian obelisk, and camels and giraffes.

Although Saint Mark preached in the first century, the Bellinis have placed him in a late fifteenth century context. This practice was common to many Renaissance era paintings. Having identified what is in the painting, I would ask students why these things have been included in a fifteenth century painting that is depicting an event over a thousand years earlier. One reason is that humans frequently depict past events in present day ways to make the past easier to understand. Students will be familiar with many movies about the ancient and medieval world that use present day English as the spoken language or fudge some of the historical details. Another question to ask the students is to remember what John Green argued about the causes of the Renaissance. He highlighted the connections between the Venetians the different Muslim peoples of the eastern Mediterranean as an important cause of the Renaissance. The painting doesn’t just link the late fifteenth century Venetians back to their first century patron saint, it also depicts those same fifteenth century Venetian traders surrounded by fifteenth century Muslim peoples with whom the Venetians regularly traded and in one of the main commercial centers of the eastern Mediterranean. The wealth derived from trade with the Muslim world wasn’t just a cause of the Renaissance; the Bellini’s painting reflects how the Renaissance was an ongoing process of adoption and adaptation of ideas and materials from the Muslim world by Europeans (or at least Italians).

Although The Ambassadors and Saint Mark Preaching in Alexandria show us the extent to which the Muslim world influenced Europeans, we can also begin to see how the Renaissance was an ongoing, two-way exchange between Europeans and Middle Easterners. During the two centuries, the fifteenth and sixteenth, associated with the Renaissance, the Ottoman Empire was also expanding. At the same time the Ottomans were fighting the Venetians and the Habsburgs, there was also significant cultural exchange between Ottomans and Europeans. In 1453, the Sultan Mehmet II conquered Constantinople. He restored the church of Hagia Sophia and transformed it into a mosque. He also hired Italian architects to assist in the construction of Topkapi Saray, a new imperial palace. Brotton makes clear how Topkapi came to symbolize the Renaissance:

The new international architectural idiom, drawing on classical, Islamic, and contemporary Italian styles, aimed to produce what one Ottoman commentator called ‘a palace that would outshine all and be more marvellous than all preceding palaces in looks, size, cost and gracefulness’. This international Renaissance style would also be recognizable to both Muslims and Christians alike, as confirmed by the Venetian ambassador, who praised the Topkapi as ‘the most beautiful, the most convenient, and most miraculous [palace] in the world’. Like so many Renaissance buildings and artefacts, the Topkapi was both an original creative act and a highly political object. The two impulses were inseparable — a defining feature of the Renaissance.

The third painting to show students is Costanzo da Moysis’ Seated Scribe from the late fifteenth century. (There is still some debate about the painter. Some art historians argue that Gentile Bellini painted it.) I would begin by asking the students what they notice about the painting. They may identify the man’s headdress or the Persian incscription in the upper right corner. I would then ask the students to make a guess about the background of the painter. Both Costanzo and Bellini were fifteenth century Italian painters who spent time at the Ottoman court. I would also tell the students that the painting’s design and detail reflect Chinese, Persian, and Ottoman artistic styles that were frequently found in miniature paintings that were common at this time in the Muslim world.

The final painting is Bihzâd’s Portrait of a Painter in Turkish Costume also from the late fifteenth century. I would show this painting next to Costanzo’s Seated Scribe. The similarities between the two paintings should be obvious to the students. I would ask them to guess about the painter. Students may assume that this painting was another painting produced by an Italian artist reflecting the influence of the Muslim world, but it was painted by a famous fifteenth century Persian painter who also spent time at the Ottoman court after Constanzo. I would then ask students to think about what this painting suggests about the exchange of ideas and artistic styles during the Renaissance. Hopefully they will be able to see how Bihzâd’s painting (as well as the Topkapi Saray) shows how European culture was also influencing the Muslim world in the fifteenth century. The aesthetic innovations of the Muslim world influenced Europeans, and the aesthetic innovations of Europe influenced Turks and Persians.


In thinking about these four paintings and Topkapi Saray, talking about the “West” or the “East” seems difficult. The idea of the Renaissance as some seminal European or Western event that marks the beginning of European modernity seems too narrow and too Eurocentric an interpretation. Going back to my original reluctance ten years ago to include the Renaissance in my world history course, I felt that way because the Renaissance was (and often continues to be) presented as an important European event. In reframing the Renaissance as a more global event which reflects the increasing exchange going on around the world in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and the increasing global support of art and architecture by the elites, the inclusion of the Renaissance in a world history course makes far more sense.

Originally published at on February 11, 2016.

When the End of Growth is not the Beginning of Decline

If the myth of isolation is one of the main consequences of Eurocentrism for how we think about the history of East Asia, Eurocentric approaches to the history of the Ottoman Empire have encouraged us to begin to see its actual end in 1922 long before it occurred. A quick look at the Wikipedia page for the Ottoman Empire reveals:

The stagnation and decline, Stephen Lee argues, was relentless after 1566, interrupted by a few short revivals or reform and recovery.

At least Stephen Lee acknowledges there were a few bright spots over the last 450 years of the Ottoman Empire. Looking at maps of “Ottoman Decline” on Google Images reveals hundreds of visualizations of when the Ottomans lost different portions of their territory. My personal favorite is this map:

Somehow the Ottoman Empire, which began in 1299, was declining before it even existed! It’s also mildly amusing that in 650 years of history, the Ottomans only lost that small green-colored territory. The funny thing about this obsession with Ottoman decline is that we’re talking about a period of 450 years. I suspect that many states in the world (maybe the less than 250 year old United States!) would be happy to be “declining” for over four centuries.

In many ways the myth of Ottoman decline is as pervasive in world history as the myth of East Asian isolation also because of Eurocentrism. As discussed in my earlier post, Eurocentrism is a way of viewing the historical events in Europe as a norm for global developments. We then take that Eurocentric norm and use it to analyze events in another part of the world. Any divergence from the European trajectory becomes the reason why something is not correct or something went wrong in that other region. It should be said that Ottoman historians have been problematizing the idea of Ottoman decline, but this reinterpretation hasn’t seem to influence world history. Instead of using Europe as our benchmark, I will look at Ottoman history in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries from a global perspective.

The End of Expansion and the Obsession with Growth

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a number of European states were beginning to emerge as important powers in the world. Spain was establishing a global empire linking scattered territories in Europe under Habsburg rule to colonies in the Americas and the Philippines. Portugal established its extensive network of trading posts around the Indian Ocean and Brazil. In the seventeenth century, the Dutch, English, and French joined in this process of global maritime expansion. Robert Marks, in The Origins of the Modern World: A Global and Environmental Narrative from the Fifteenth to the Twenty-First Century, argues that England (later Britain) and France combined this territorial expansion with internal political changes to develop centralized nation-states that were effective at harnessing resources for economic and political growth. Based on this quick outline, the story of Europe in these centuries is one of growth, dynamism, centralization, and the origins of modern nation-states.

Meanwhile, the Ottoman Empire also went through a series of changes in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Since its foundation in 1299, the Ottomans had been able to expand the Empire until the middle of the sixteenth century. After the death of the Emperor Süleyman in 1566, expansion slowed down. Only a small amount of territory was added to the empire over the course of the next century. Historians, seemingly influenced by comparisons to Europe, have pointed to a number of moments during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as to when Ottoman decline began. The quotation at the beginning of this post suggests 1566, which was the death of Emperor Süleyman, as the first date. Some historians have pointed to the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. Roger Crowley, in a recent popular history, goes as far to suggest the decisive nature of the European victory at Lepanto in tipping the balance of power between Europe and the Ottoman Empire. Other historians have pointed to the Ottoman failure to capture Vienna in 1683 as the tipping point. Andrew Wheatcroft, in The Enemy at the Gate: Habsburgs, Ottomans, and the Battle for Europe views the failed siege not only as a turning point for the Ottomans, but for Europe as a whole. In addition to these potential political tipping points, beginning in the late sixteenth century, Northern European merchants from Britain, France, and the Netherlands began to sign trade agreements with the Ottoman Empire that made it far easier for these European traders to operate within the Ottoman Empire than it had been two centuries earlier.

Given all these changes, it shouldn’t seem surprising that many historians have viewed these centuries as a period of decline. The Ottoman Empire had stopped expanding, it was no longer winning as many military encounters against Europeans as it had previously, and its economic relationship with Europe was changing. Instead of viewing these changes as the onset of decline, I encourage us to present them in our classes as more of a transformation of the Ottoman Empire.

The Ottoman Empire was always a far larger state than any of its European rivals. It was also more ethnically and religiously diverse. Given these realities, it was unlikely that the Ottomans could have adopted the same centralizing policies that were being implemented in Britain and France, even if they had wanted. In his The Ottoman Empire and early modern Europe, Daniel Goffman analyzes the first few centuries of the Ottoman Empire in relationship to Europe. He frequently mentions the Empire’s “flexibility” and “adaptability.” He argues that it was “Ottoman elasticity” that allowed the Ottomans to overcome their military setbacks and become an established part of “the European world of the sixteenth and seventeenth century” (231). He goes further to suggest that unlike the contemporary centralizing trend of Western Europe, “in the late sixteenth century, the Ottoman state simultaneously became more bureaucratized and less centralized.”

If we consider this Ottoman tendency to decentralization in light of European states’ tendency to centralization, it would be easy to see why this period looks to be one of Ottoman decline. The seventeenth century in Europe is marked by rulers such as France’s Louis XIV and his policies of centralization. But if we consider the changes in Ottoman governance from the perspective of the Ottomans themselves, a different image emerges. In his article, “Decline of A ‘Myth’: Perspectives on the Ottoman ‘Decline,’” M. Faith Çalişir examines the idea of decline in Ottoman historiography. He interprets this decision not to centralize as an active choice designed to maintain a degree of Ottoman rule over a large territory and reflecting previously established Ottoman traditions. He argues:

the Ottoman rulers did not impose ideological pressure or implement a strict rule in these particular territories [the Ottoman frontiers]. To maintain the sultan’s rule, the Ottoman capital used whatever means available including a wide use of of the local elites, maintaining the pre-Ottoman local customs and regulations. According to this practice, which is known as istimalet (lit. “to lean” or “incline in the direction of”) a classical Ottoman policy that aimed to gain the support of people through reconciliation and protection, the Ottomans paid significant attention to seek non-military and long-lasting solutions to disturbances in the newly conquered places. Thanks to this policy, the Ottomans, from the beginning of their empire, could establish centuries-long rule in non-Turkish and non-Muslim lands.

During the second half of the seventeenth century, the Köprülü family were the Grand Viziers of the Ottoman Empire. Following the established istimalet policy, they implemented a series of reforms (lowering tax rates and use of local languages) to the Ottoman bureaucracy and military that strengthened the Ottoman state. Çalişir argues:

the political, economic, and military achievements of the grand viziers from Köprülü family in the second half of the seventeenth century stand out as a significant gap in the unsatisfactory narrative of the “Ottomans’ inevitable decline.”

Despite no longer expanding territorially and even losing some battles, the Ottomans were not beginning to decline in the seventeenth century. Instead the Ottomans were focused on transforming their government based on established traditions. They sought to maintain control over their extensive empire through a flexible system of governance that was nothing like what Louis XIV was doing in France. It would seem that historians looking at these centuries as the onset of Ottoman decline have not only been influenced by Eurocentrism, but also by present-day market analysts who see anything other than economic growth as a sign of decline. Our obsession with growth leads us to think that if a country’s GDP is not increasing or a company’s profits are not growing, there is something wrong. Analysts worry that because the United States’ GDP is not growing as fast as China’s, we must be starting to decline. The Ottoman Empire was one of the world’s largest empires in 1600. It was no longer growing, but it also wasn’t declining.

The Ottomans and Other Muslim Empires

Another way to see the success of these more flexible and less centralized Ottoman policies is to compare the Ottomans to the two other Muslim empires that existed at the same time. By 1700, three large Muslim empires ruled most of the territory from the western end of North Africa to the east of India. The Safavids ruled over Persia, while the Mughals ruled over greater India. All three Muslim empires had gone through long periods of expansion, but only the Ottomans were able to survive and adapt after that expansion ended.

By 1800, the map of the Muslim world looked quite different. The Safavids no longer existed, and the Mughals existed in name only. The Safavid Empire had collapsed in 1722. For much of the eighteenth century, Persia was governed by competing warlords, until the Qajar Dynasty took over nominal control of Persia at the end of century. In India, the Mughals were first challenged by a number of local dynasties, and then the British began establishing control over parts of India in the middle of the eighteenth century. Meanwhile, the Ottomans, despite being in “decline,” somehow managed to maintain control over most of their territory.

When Trade is not just about Economics

The Ottoman Empire’s changing economic relationship with Europe is another way in which the Empire is sometimes seen as being in decline. During the Ottoman Empire’s formative years, it used its powerful navy to confront the Venetians and establish the Ottoman state as the major power of the eastern Mediterranean. Despite going to war on a few occasions, the Ottomans also signed commercial agreements with the Venetians that gave them access to Ottoman ports and regulated tariffs.

In the second half of the sixteenth century, commercial arrangements between the Ottomans and Europeans began to change. The Ottomans signed new treaties with Northern European states, such as England, France, and the Netherlands. These new treaties are frequently referred to as capitulations. Northern European states had gained access to Ottoman markets and gained certain protections for their merchants in the Ottoman Empire. From a European perspective, these treaties seem to suggest a weakening Ottoman state that was ceding a share of international commerce to potential European rivals. The treaties are seen only from the economic perspective of how Europeans viewed trade. For them, trade was a sort of zero-sum game in which any expansion of European involvement in international commerce meant that some other region was losing out.

Instead of viewing these treaties from a Eurocentric perspective, Goffman suggests that the Ottomans signed these treaties for political reasons. They were less concerned with maintaining a certain share of global commerce and more concerned with gaining increased access to strategically important items that Europeans traded. In other words, the Ottomans wanted to regulate access to English silver and gunpowder and were willing to give the English greater trading rights in exchange. Given that the Ottoman Empire would continue to exist for another 300 years, this bargain seems like a good deal!


By looking at the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries from the perspective of its earlier history and in comparison to contemporary Muslim states, a surprisingly different image of the Ottoman Empire emerges. The Empire in the seventeenth century was no longer the powerful military machine that had conquered parts of the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe during the thirteenth through mid-sixteenth centuries. At the same time, it was not losing territory. It was transforming from a state based on conquest to one focused on maintaining power and control over a large region through a series of flexible policies. Maybe a closer examination of the Ottomans’ transformation and subsequent success at preserving the state will help some Americans to worry a little less about the United States losing out to China and encourage us to think more about how our economy is simply transforming.

Stay tuned for the second half of this post on the Ottomans, decline, and the nineteenth century: “Healing the Sick Man of Europe.”

Originally published at on February 4, 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.