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The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation
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  • 1 map 9 tables
  • Page extent: 394 pages
  • Size: 228 x 152 mm
  • Weight: 0.54 kg


 (ISBN-13: 9780521547246 | ISBN-10: 0521547245)

The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation

John Hobson challenges the ethnocentric bias of mainstream accounts of the rise of the West. It is often assumed that since Ancient Greek times Europeans have pioneered their own development, and that the East has been a passive bystander in the story of progressive world history. Hobson argues that there were two processes that enabled the rise of the ‘oriental West’. First, each major developmental turning point in Europe was informed in large part by the assimilation of Eastern inventions (e.g. ideas, technologies and institutions) which through oriental globalisation diffused from the more advanced East across the Eastern-led global economy between 500 and 1800. Second, the construction of European identity after 1453 led to imperialism, through which Europeans appropriated many Eastern resources (land, labour and markets). Hobson’s book thus propels the hitherto marginalised Eastern peoples to the forefront of the story of progress in world history.

JOHN M. HOBSON is Reader in Politics and International Relations at the University of Sheffield. He is the co-editor (with Steve Hobden) of Historical Sociology of International Relations (2002), author of The State and International Relations (2000), The Wealth of States: a Comparative Sociology of International Economic and Political Change (1997) and co-author (with Linda Weiss) of States and Economic Development: a Comparative Historical Analysis (1995).

The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation


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© John M. Hobson 2004

This book is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception
and to the provisions of relevant collective licensing agreements,
no reproduction of any part may take place without
the written permission of Cambridge University Press.

First published 2004

Printed in the United Kingdom at the University Press, Cambridge

Typefaces Trump Mediaeval 9.5/15 pt. and Officina Sans   System LATEX 2e   [TB]

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Library of Congress Cataloguing in Publication data
Hobson, John M.
The Eastern origins of Western civilization / John M. Hobson.
   p.   cm.
ISBN 0-521-83835-5 – ISBN 0-521-54724-5 (pbk.)
1. East and West.   2. Civilization, Western – History.   I. Title.
CB251.H63   2004
909′.09821 – dc22   2003063549

ISBN 0 521 83835 5 hardback
ISBN 0 521 54724 5 paperback

To the indirect influence of my great-grandfather,
John Atkinson Hobson,
whose ‘heretical’ writings have permeated much of
how I explain the world.
I thank you.
Your lone twilight will never fade away.
To the direct influence of my beloved Cecelia
and to my family,
Evangeline, Michael and Gabriella,
whose loving and empathic actions have permeated much
of what I know, feel and understand of the world.
I thank all of you.
Your bright dawn alone warms me every single day.


List of tables page ix
Preface and acknowledgements xi
Map: Hobo-Dyer projection of the world xiv
   1 Countering the Eurocentric myth of the pristine West: discovering the oriental West 1
   I The East as an early developer: the East discovers and leads the world through oriental globalisation, 500–1800
   2 Islamic and African pioneers: building the Bridge of the World and the global economy in the Afro-Asian age of discovery, 500–1500 29
   3 Chinese pioneers: the first industrial miracle and the myth of Chinese isolationism, c. 1000–1800 50
   4 The East remains dominant: the twin myths of oriental despotism and isolationism in India, South-east Asia and Japan, 1400–1800 74
  II The West was last: oriental globalisation and the invention of Christendom, 500–1498
   5 Inventing Christendom and the Eastern origins of European feudalism, c. 500–1000 99
   6 The myth of the Italian pioneer, 1000–1492 116
   7 The myth of the Vasco da Gama epoch, 1498–c. 1800 134
III The West as a late developer and the advantages of backwardness: oriental globalisation and the reconstruction of Western Europe as the advanced West, 1492–1850
   8 The myth of 1492 and the impossibility of America: the Afro-Asian contribution to the catch up of the West, 1492–c. 1700 161
   9 The Chinese origins of British industrialisation: Britain as a derivative late developer, 1700–1846 190
10 Constructing European racist identity and the invention of the world, 1700–1850: the imperial civilising mission as a moral vocation 219
11 The dark side of British industrialisation and the myth of laissez-faire: war, racist imperialism and the Afro-Asian origins of industrialisation 243
IV Conclusion: the oriental West versus the Eurocentric myth of the West
12 The twin myths of the rational Western liberal-democratic state and the great divide between East and West, 1500–1900 283
13 The rise of the oriental West: identity/agency, global structure and contingency 294
Notes 323
Index 369


  1.1 The Orientalist and patriarchal construction of the ‘West versus the East’ page 8
  1.2 Max Weber’s Orientalist view of the ‘East’ and ‘West’: the great ‘rationality’ divide 16
10.1 The British discourse of imperialism: the civilisational league table and the racist invention of the world 225
11.1 Real British government expenditures (spending expressed as a proportion of national income) 246
11.2 Comparative (real) defence burdens of the major European powers during their respective industrialisation phases 247
11.3 Average tariff rates in the industrialisation phase of selected European countries 249
12.1 The introduction of political citizenship rights in the major Western states 291
13.1 The construction and consequences of Western identity 310
13.2 Two visions of the key world-historical moments c. 500–1900 318

Preface and acknowledgements

To reassure my potential reader who thinks anxiously, ‘not another typical book on the rise of the West’, let me say this is not one such book. For unlike almost all the books on this topic this one does not recount all the familiar themes according to the standard European, ethnocentric frame of reference. In place of the usual story, I produce one that brings the East into the limelight. Accordingly, though my purpose differs in certain respects to that of Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s Millennium, nevertheless I, like him, take delight in surprising the reader. I focus on the many Eastern discoveries, peoples and places that enabled the rise of the West, all of which are ignored in the conventional accounts. If I may be permitted I would like to draw on the phraseology found in the prologue to Millennium to convey a sense of what my book is and is not about.

   In this book the reader will find nothing about the Investiture Conflict, the Thirty Years War or the Treaty of Westphalia. While the Italian merchant communes are discussed, they are at all times revealed as derivative of the wider innovative developments pioneered in the Eastern-led global economy. The European Renaissance and scientific revolution are considered more from the perspective of the Islamic Middle East and North Africa than Tuscany.1 Da Vinci, Ficino and Copernicus kneel before the likes of al-Shātir, al-Khwārizmī and al-Tūsī. Vasco da Gama fades into the marginalised shadows cast by the brilliance of Asia. This is the only mention of Elizabeth I, Oliver Cromwell and Queen Victoria. Louis ⅩⅣ and Frederick the Great appear only to beg to be excused. For the majority of the period discussed in this book, Madrid, Lisbon, London and Venice are all provincial backwaters of Baghdad, Cairo, Canton and Calicut. London’s Great Exhibition turns out to be hubris, given that Britain’s industrialisation is but the final stage of the transmission of the much earlier inventions pioneered in China. And the processes of state-led, militarised industrialisation and protectionism are discussed and applied, but in the context of Britain rather than Meiji Japan. Last but by no means least, in place of Germany’s ‘late industrialisation’ the reader will be treated to a discussion of Tokugawa Japan’s ‘early development’. In general the reader will learn much more about the East – especially the Islamic Middle East, North Africa, India, South-east Asia, Japan and above all China – though in so doing will learn new things about the West and its origins.

   Accordingly the reader who expects to be treated to all the specific details of Western development cast only in a European light, will necessarily be disappointed. Nevertheless my intention is precisely to disappoint such a reader, though simultaneously treat him or her with the lost story of how the East enabled the rise of the modern West. Whether the reader is entirely convinced by this book’s particular arguments in a sense concerns me less than whether they are perceived to be fresh, interesting and insightful. And I am more interested in the larger questions and issues that this book’s arguments pose than the particular answers that it provides. Thus I can reassure my anxious potential reader that there is indeed not a place for yet another typical book on the rise of the Western world. I, therefore, hope that the intrepid reader who does read on will enjoy this book’s counter-intuitive journey into the hitherto dark world of the largely forgotten.

   Let me now turn to thank a number of people who have in various ways enabled me to chart these waters more effectively than I might otherwise have done. I thank the following who offered helpful advice: Robert Aldrich, Brett Bowden, Jeff Groom, Steve Hobden, David Mathieson, Leanne Piggott, Tim Rowse, Ahmad Shboul and Richard White. I thank too the following people who read and commented on substantial parts of the manuscript: Amitav Acharya, Ha-Joon Chang, M. Ramesh, Lily Rahim, Leonard Seabrooke and Vanita Seth. Double thanks to Ha-Joon for inviting me to present my ideas in the Department of Development Studies at the University of Cambridge. Ben Tipton very kindly read the whole manuscript and offered characteristically pertinent advice. I thank Michael Mann from whom I have learned a great deal about world history and remain deeply grateful for his generous support ever since I had the luck to take his Masters sociological theory class at the LSE in 1986. Linda Weiss has been equally as supportive in the last decade. And special thanks too go to Eric Jones, who has also helped me learn so much about world history both through his writings (especially Growth Recurring) and our personal conversations over the years.

   Thanks to John Haslam at CUP, whose patience and sensitive editorial advice is, as always, much appreciated. I also thank my indexer, Trevor Matthews, for his heroic efforts as well as Hilary Scannell for her copy-editing. And special thanks too must go to the three anonymous reviewers, all of whom offered many positive comments as well as constructive criticisms, and proposed the most substantial revision that I have yet undertaken in my career. In particular, I thank them for enabling me to write a better book; certainly one that I am much happier with. And, of course, the familiar rider stands: that I remain responsible for any errors.

   Finally, I want to express my love and deepest gratitude to my fiancée, Cecelia Thomas, who guided, anchored and sacrificed for, me in so many ways in three of the most tumultuous years of life-changing events that I have yet experienced. Her humane strengths of sacrifice, sensitivity and empathy represent the best of all that is good on this troubled planet and shed light and warmth upon my place in it. Here the less familiar rider stands: that I remain responsible for any personal errors.

Map 1 Hobo-Dyer projection of the world

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