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Eurasia in World History: Reflections on Time and Space

Peter C. Perdue
Yale University


     "The question of boundaries is the first to be encountered; from it all others flow. To draw a boundary around anything is to define, analyse, and reconstruct it, in this case select, indeed adopt, a philosophy of history." (Fernand Braudel) 1

     I welcome the invitation to contribute to this discussion of Eurasia in world history. I will offer here some reflections on how world historians can change the basic structures of time and space that we use to organize large scale historical narratives. These comments are based on my experience in writing a world history textbook, my recent book on the expansion of the Qing empire into Central Eurasia, and twenty-five years of teaching East Asian history at MIT. Most of the examples come from East Asia, especially China, but the general analysis may fit many other regions too. 2

     As an historian of China, I am committed to placing China firmly in world history, and placing world history in China. The greatest obstacle to bringing China into the world historically is the powerful impact of the Chinese imperial legacy on the formation of the modern Chinese nation-state. Chinese historians, in general, mainly endorse a narrative of continuous development of a national consciousness over several millennia, culminating in the modern People's Republic of China. Some historians, of course, especially in Taiwan, but even in the mainland, dissent from the mainstream, but this is the broad tendency found in both scholarly and popular works.

     World historians, by contrast, agree on the importance of transcending the boundaries of nation-states as unquestioned units of historical analysis. We also agree on undermining Eurocentrism, claiming that the conventional European history narrative is only one of many possible significant themes. But once we cast off these limitations, how do we define appropriate boundaries of time and space? Every narrative needs a frame to structure its themes, and these frames imply limits of temporal and geographic scope. Nationalist history creates its frames by assuming that certain geographical boundaries and periodizations are fixed, essential properties which manifest themselves in the contemporary nation-state.

     World historians cannot use these frames, for several reasons. First, giving equal treatment to a variety of cultures of the past usually means violating the assumptions of one or more national histories' conceptions of space. One nation's "natural frontiers" are the "lost territories" of its neighbor. France and Germany, for example, fought real and historiographical wars over the allegiance of Alsace and Lorraine: was the Rhine the "natural frontier" of Germany or not? South Korea today claims to derive its heritage from the Koguryo state, which occupied much of modern Northeast China from the first to seventh centuries CE, but Chinese historians view Koguryo as part of the history of the Northeastern region of China. Recent Chinese assertions that Koguryo was formerly part of a Chinese empire evoked massive anger and demonstrations in South Korea. 3 A world historian should not try to settle this boundary issue, but simply note that there are widely divergent views on these border territories, and should try to explain why they are so disputed. The interesting historical questions concern why certain border territories are so intensively disputed, and on what grounds.

     Second, most of the modern nations of Eurasia were formerly part of much larger units, or empires. None of the modern nations have inherited the territories of these empires intact. The Ottoman, Mughal/British, Russian/Soviet, and Hapsburg empires have dissolved into separate nation-states. The maximal territory formerly held by Qing China now belongs to the People's Republic, Taiwan, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Russia. A world historian should not allot the imperial heritage exclusively to a single nation-state. Usually, of course, the current nation-state with the biggest piece of the imperial pie makes the loudest claims to the imperial heritage, as do India, Russia, and the PRC today. Most mainland Chinese historians view the current boundaries of the People's Republic of China as the culmination of centuries of development, ending with the recovery of nearly all the territory formerly held by the Qing empire in the eighteenth century. The projected recovery of Taiwan will complete the nation-building project that began with the effort to recover "lost territories" in the early twentieth century.

     Sometimes the smaller units claim to be happily freed of their larger neighbor's imperial yoke, but they can also claim to be the truly legitimate heir, as rivals to their larger counterparts. The Nationalist government, when it ruled Taiwan, claimed to be the sole legitimate government of modern China. Ukrainians today lay claim to the exclusive inheritance of essential Slavic culture from the Kievan state. Again, from the world historian's point of view, no single claimant has exclusive rights to an imperial heritage, even though they may have different ways of legitimating their claim. The interesting historical question is why certain territories invoke the imperial legacy and how.

     It is tempting to use empires as the structuring spatial principle for world history, since they cover large spaces, embrace diversity, and last a long time. Empires do provide useful frameworks for many purposes, including textbooks and large-scale monographic accounts. But these boundaries, too, are not permanent. Empires rise and fall, and each successive dynasty included a different configuration of borders, territories, and peoples. For China, embracing empire as the only structuring principle leads too easily into the well-known, but flawed "dynastic cycle" model, in which a sequence of dynasties from the third century BCE Qin empire to the end of the Qing in 1911 covers the bulk of the span of Chinese history. Classical Chinese scholars developed a model of legitimate dynastic succession to put these successive regimes in order, expressed in the orthodox number of twenty-five standard "dynastic histories." But the principle of "orthodox transmission" [daotong] of legitimacy is not the concern of modern historians. John Fairbank noted nearly fifty years ago that "the concept of the dynastic cycle . . . has been a major block to the understanding of the fundamental dynamics of Chinese history."4 We should not be judging which Chinese dynasties are legitimate and which are not, and we should not try to shoehorn problematic regimes into a Chinese straitjacket. Orthodox Chinese historians had particular trouble with the Mongol ruled regimes from Chinggis Khan to the end of the Yuan dynasty in 1368, so much so that there are two separate Yuan dynastic histories. Mongol rule extended far beyond the boundaries of any Chinese cultural realm, and even the Yuan dynasty centered in part of Han China from 1279 to 1368 had many "unorthodox" features. The dynastic imperial framework has such advantages for bringing coherence to Chinese history over the long term that no textbook account can free itself from it, but we also need to recognize its limits.

But are there alternative structures for framing world history narratives, once we no longer take for granted the persistence of nation or empire? I will mention here two possible alternatives and the productive opportunities they offer: regional units, and networks and webs.

The Regional Alternative

     The regional units I have in mind are larger than single states, and usually are larger than empires. They are defined not by political and administrative structures, but by concentrations of populations, commercial links, and cultural transactions. They do not exclude each other: unlike nation-states, regions do not necessarily carve up the world into exclusive boundaries. It should be perfectly possible for any culture or state to belong to more than one region. Debates often rage over, for example, whether or not Vietnam is part of East Asia or Southeast Asia, but this kind of argument rests on the invalid assumption that regions are like nation-states, whose citizens are either in them or outside. Why not both? is the simplest answer to questions about which region you belong to. Similar arguments often swirl around other "border" nations and cultures that straddle regional divides like Afghanistan, Mongolia, or Tibet. Many textbook authors and global analysts argue for replacing invalid principles of metageography like "continents" or "civilizations" with more carefully defined regional units.5 Lewis and Wigen, in their important critique entitled The Myth of Continents, endorse a modified regional division of the world and argue convincingly for the contingent character of all spatial divisions. But the map in their volume, with its sharp black lines, still implies that each area must belong to one and only one region. World historians should free themselves from this constraining assumption.

     If we ask, "where is the East Asian Region?" at first this question appears to have an easy answer: It is the set of states that now or formerly adopted the Chinese writing system and received substantial cultural influence from the core culture of the Chinese heartland, including Confucian teachings, examination systems, and bureaucratic administration. Often East Asia is taken to mean those states which followed most consistently the rules of the "Chinese world order" expressed in the "tribute system." Conventional textbooks on East Asia nearly always include China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam. But scholars know that this conception of East Asia is highly problematic. Many scholars of Vietnam would question the overemphasis on Chinese bureaucratic culture as a historical component of Vietnam, and focus on other elements, like gender relations, Buddhism, or Southeast Asian trade, as equally formative. Japan, according to many scholars, never genuinely enrolled in China's tribute system, and adopted Confucian values quite late and never wholeheartedly.6 Korea, the most loyal of Chinese tributaries, rejected the legitimacy of the Manchu conquerors of the Qing, regarding them as oppressive barbarians, and clung to Ming dynasty rituals, while still conforming to Qing tributary practice on the surface.7 The Central Eurasian territories conquered by the Qing in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had until then long been quite separate from rule by any Chinese dynasty. They adopted "East Asian" features only selectively and in quite modified form. Debates over whether Mongols, Manchus, Turkic peoples, and Tibetans belong to a Chinese "Inner Asian" sphere or a "Central Asian" region parallel debates for other borderland regions. Hard and fast conclusions are impossible.

     The fruitfulness of describing an East Asian region lies not in arriving at a fixed definition, but in using the classification to investigate complex processes of cultural identity formation. The "East Asian" societies did not necessarily share any one common set of values or institutional structures, but they all engaged in a process of exchange, resistance, and debate with each other. An East Asian regional history should focus primarily on these cross cutting avenues of social interaction.

     The discussion of regions leads into thinking about our second organizing principle: networks and webs. Networks form when humans exchange words, goods, symbols, with each other repeatedly over extended periods of time.8 These networks span large spaces that cross national, imperial, regional, and civilizational boundaries. The Silk Routes are the classic example. Histories and travel guides to the Silk Routes often take their starting point at Xi'an in northwest China and follow the travelers, commodities, horsemen, and pilgrims sometimes as far as the shores of the Mediterranean.9 Networks may expand and contract dramatically depending on political, climatic, or cultural shifts. They may follow land or sea or, since the twentieth century, air and virtual routes. Networks are what makes globalization happen. But networks do not make the globe a single flat place. Strong inequalities persist, as different places have very different degrees of access to globe-spanning webs.

     Network analysis does not have to concern itself so incessantly with the question of who is or is not part of the network. Unlike spatial divisions, these network nodes can easily come and go, or spawn new nodes quickly. Networks of different goods, symbols, or cultures easily overlap. The real challenge is how to map them conceptually and empirically. Has there really been a single Eurasian network since Paleolithic times, which after many ebbs and flows extended itself to the entire globe? The more interactions between peoples we discover even in the ancient past, the more compelling this idea becomes.10 Do all the networks of different goods and symbols more or less map onto the same routes, ultimately determined by costs of transport and communication, or do they diverge in significant ways because of cultural choices? One could argue that competitive merchants must seek the low-cost solution, and therefore mainly concentrate on seacoasts and rivers, but routes of religious pilgrimage determined by sacred geography need not obey such materialist rules. If only access to the sea mattered, Lhasa, for example, would never have become a core sacred city. Once pilgrims flock to a sacred site, merchants will set up shop to serve them. Religion can drive commerce, not the other way around. Military and political considerations also strongly shaped city placement. Beijing is where it is, away from the coast, because of imperial concerns since the 10th century CE about defense against Mongols in Central Eurasia. Network and regional perspectives thus raise different questions about societal interactions from the standard focus on nations and empires.

Temporal Boundaries

     Can we also find alternative temporal solutions to the conventional ones determined by the dates of nations and empires? Boundaries of time have inherited conventions which limit the scope of our imaginations. Usually, once again, national histories determine these temporal divisions by enforcing orthodox periodizations. For historians of China, two key canonical dates are 221 BCE, the foundation of the Qin empire, and 1842 CE, the end of the Opium Wars and the beginning of "modern China." The first date takes as its key determining principle the formation of a unified bureaucratic state, the second makes it defeat by one Western power. These are certainly important phenomena in Chinese history, but are they the only possible ones? Even a view of China periodized according to the acceptance of Confucian principles as orthodoxy would have to begin only in the Han dynasty, but it would not reach fruition until the Song dynasty and not end until at least 1911. Similarly, a Buddhist view of Chinese periodization would start only in the Han dynasty and end, perhaps, with the Communist invasion of Tibet in 1952. Again, the world historian's stance is not to vote in favor of one periodization, but to show that multiple scales and perspectives of time lie across each other.11

     One date, around 1500, stands out in nearly all world histories as a key point of division. Nearly all two-volume world history textbooks divide at this point, as do many world history courses. This period, the time of the first European trans-Atlantic voyages to the New World continents did link the Eurasian-Africa land masses with the American land masses continuously for the first time since the earliest human migrations. But does it deserve pride of place as the critical division in world history? One new world history textbook breaks precedent by dividing its volumes at the Mongol empire.12 One could certainly plausibly argue that the pax Mongolica created by Chinggis and his successors linked together regions of Eurasia more tightly and continuously than any previous imperial expansion. The post-Mongol period featured the rise of the "maritime Silk Roads" as rival and later dominant routes. And it was, after all, the European drive to get access to the wealth of Southeast Asia by the maritime route, circumventing the Muslim empires created in the wake of the Mongol collapse, that ended up in generating the trans-Atlantic route to the New world continents and the Pacific.

     But from the "early modern" perspective, the year 1500 or thereabouts has its own indigenous legitimacy as a periodizing principle of East Asian history. Scholars of both China and Japan can argue that the sixteenth century was a time of unusual flourishing of commercial trade, urban culture, cosmopolitan interaction, and global exchange. First of all, as the late Andre Gunder Frank argued so forcefully, one great silver flow tied the world trade routes together, from the mines of Potosi and Japan to the interior of China and the bourse in Amsterdam.13 Second, dividing world history at the sixteenth century is not necessarily a Eurocentric vision if we can show that parallel developments across Eurasia united the world regardless of the impact of the Atlantic and Pacific voyages. This is the great achievement of Victor Lieberman's argument for extensive and progressive integration of major imperial powers in Eurasia. Lieberman begins his story of "strange parallels" in the tenth century with the formation of "charter polities" in six states of Southeast Asia, Japan, and Europe that laid the groundwork for increasing political, economic, and cultural centrality. The sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, interrupted by disruptions in the seventeenth century, mark a time of rapidly growing state, commercial, and cultural power for all of them.14 We can begin the second half of our world history around 1500 without committing ourselves to a Eurocentric perspective. The voyages and their consequences were only one part of a broader movement toward global integration.

     Lieberman does not discuss China in detail in his published first volume, but he will address China in the forthcoming second volume of Strange Parallels. Many aspects of imperial China's development fit well into his framework. In tracing the expansion of the Qing dynasty into Central Eurasia in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, I found it helpful to begin the story in the sixteenth century. This was the time when Russia began its Siberian expansion eastward, while Mongol Khans formed confederations to raid the Ming dynasty, and the Ming ultimately responded with the building of the unified, continuous Great Wall. The Ming's defensive solution to nomadic raids, however, cost a great deal of money. The silver flow of the New World, entering China through the south coast, moved in a great stream northward, with up to four million taels of silver per year ending up on the northwest frontier. The northwest and southeast frontiers were linked together in the sixteenth century and shared a number of parallel developments.

     In this sense, a world historian's periodization of these three centuries would not differ very much from the conventional one. All we need to change is the name. For lack of a better term, we still tend to call the period 1500-1800 "early modern." The name itself carries the regrettable connotations that these three centuries merely prepared the way for the later time of "modernity," led by the French and Industrial revolutions and culminating in European imperialism. We could try to keep the periodization under a different name. Jack Goldstone, for example, has proposed "organic society" as a description that removes the teleological implications while stressing the pre-industrial character of the period. 15 But "organic" is much too broad a term, and "pre-industrial" holds the same implicit teleology. No others have really won wide acceptance.


     What's in a name? Not too much, if we can change the implications of old ones. Like Lieberman, we can keep the "early modern" terminology while investing it with new, non-Eurocentric meanings. We can also still use "East Asia" as a regional structuring category, while insisting that membership in one region does not exclude membership in another. Of course, we cannot control single-handedly the meanings of any category. Other readers and writers will take these terms in different ways. But by clarifying how and why we categorize time and space from a world history perspective, we can help open the minds of other historians and interested readers to new ways of thinking.


Bonavia, Judy. The Silk Road: From Xi'an to Kashgar. 5th ed. Hong Kong: Odyssey Publications, Ltd., 2002.

Braudel, Fernand. The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. Translated by Sian Reynolds. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.

Coatsworth, John, Juan Cole, Michael Hanagan, Charles Tilly, Louise Tilly, and Peter C. Perdue. Global Connections: A World History: Cambridge UP, 2008.

Fairbank, John K., and Edwin O. Reischauer. East Asia: The Great Tradition. Vol. 1. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960.

Franck, Brownsto, Irene M., Peter. The Silk Road: Facts on File, 1986.

Goldstone, Jack A. "Neither late imperial nor early modern: Efflorescences and the Qing Formation in World History." In The Qing Formation in World-Historical Time, edited by Lynn A. Struve, 242-302. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Asia Center, 2004.

———. "The problem of the early modern world." Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 41, no. 3 (1998): 250-83.

Haboush, JaHyun Kim. "Contesting Chinese Time, nationalizing Temporal space: Temporal Inscription in Late Choson Korea." In Time, temporality, and imperial transition : East Asia from Ming to Qing, edited by Lynn A. Struve, 115-141. Honolulu: Association for Asian Studies and University of Hawai'i Press, 2005.

Lankov, Andrei. "The Legacy of Long-Gone States: China, Korea and the Koguryo Wars." Japan Focus (2006?).

Lewis, Martin W., and Karen Wigen. The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Lieberman, Victor B. Strange parallels : Southeast Asia in global context, c. 800-1830. Volume 1: Integration on the Mainland. 2 vols. Vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

———. Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context c. 800-1830

Vol. 2: Mainland Mirrors: Europe, Japan, China, South Asia, and the Islands, forthcoming.

Mair, Victor H., and University of Pennsylvania. Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Contact and exchange in the ancient world, Perspectives on the global past. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2006.

McNeill, John Robert, and William Hardy McNeill. The human web : a bird's-eye view of world history. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003.

Ooms, Herman. Tokugawa Ideology:Early Constructs,1570-1680: Princeton, 1985.

Perdue, Peter C. "China in the Early Modern World: Shortcuts, Myths, and Realities." Education about Asia 4, no. 1 (1999): 21-26.

———. China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005.

———. "Strange Parallels Across Eurasia." Social Science History 32, no. 2 (2008).

Struve, Lynn A., ed. The Qing Formation in World-Historical Time. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Asia Center, 2004.

Toby, Ronald P. State and Diplomacy in Early Modern Japan: Princeton, 1984.

Tucker, Jonathan. The Silk Road: Art and History. Chicago: Art Media Resources, 2003.



1 Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Sian Reynolds trans. (New York, 1972), 18.

2 John Coatsworth, Juan Cole, Michael Hanagan, Charles Tilly, Louise Tilly, Peter C. Perdue, Global Connections: A World History (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming), Peter C. Perdue, China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia (Cambridge, Mass., 2005).

3 Andrei Lankov, "The Legacy of Long-Gone States: China, Korea and the Koguryo Wars," Japan Focus ,

4 John K. Fairbank and Edwin O. Reischauer, East Asia: The Great Tradition, vol. 1 (Boston, 1960), 115.

5 Martin W. Lewis and Karen Wigen, The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography (Berkeley, 1997), Peter C. Perdue, "China in the Early Modern World: Shortcuts, Myths, and Realities," Education about Asia 4 (Spring, 1999).

6 Herman Ooms, Tokugawa Ideology:Early Constructs,1570-1680 (1985), Ronald P. Toby, State and Diplomacy in Early Modern Japan (1984).

7 JaHyun Kim Haboush, "Contesting Chinese Time, nationalizing Temporal space: Temporal Inscription in Late Choson Korea," in Time, temporality, and imperial transition : East Asia from Ming to Qing, ed. Lynn A. Struve (Honolulu, 2005).

8 John Robert McNeill and William Hardy McNeill, The human web : a bird's-eye view of world history, 1st ed. (New York, 2003).

9 Judy Bonavia, The Silk Road: From Xi'an to Kashgar, 5th? ed. (Hong Kong, 2002), Irene M. Franck, Peter Brownstone, The Silk Road (1986), Jonathan Tucker, The Silk Road: Art and History ( Chicago, 2003). Susan Whitfield, Life along the Silk Road (Berkeley, 2001).

10 Victor H. Mair and University of Pennsylvania. Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology., Contact and exchange in the ancient world, (Honolulu, 2006).

11 Lynn A. Struve, ed., The Qing Formation in World-Historical Time (Cambridge, Mass., 2004).

12 Robert L. Tignor, Worlds together, worlds apart : a history of the modern world from the Mongol Empire to the present. (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2002.)

13 Frank, Andre Gunder. ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age. (Berkeley, 1998).

14 Victor B. Lieberman, Strange parallels : Southeast Asia in global context, c. 800-1830. Volume 1: Integration on the Mainland, 2 vols., (Cambridge, 2003). Vol. 2: Mainland Mirrors: Europe, Japan, China, South Asia, and the Islands (forthcoming), Peter C. Perdue, "Strange Parallels Across Eurasia," Social Science History 32 (Summer, 2008).

15 Jack A. Goldstone, "Neither late imperial nor early modern: Efflorescences and the Qing Formation in World History," in The Qing Formation in World-Historical Time, ed. Lynn A. Struve (Cambridge, Mass., 2004), Jack A. Goldstone, "The problem of the early modern world," Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 41 (1998).

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