Van Sant, John E
April 17, 2019
When Asia was the World Book Review
The author of When Asia was the World is Stewart N. Gordon, an American historian, teacher, and writer. He is currently a senior research fellow of the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Michigan with specialties in history. Stories and experience of nine travelers are included in this book to narrate the history of Asia’s different culture, economy, and industry between 500 and 1500 CE. In that ara, the world’s largest continent Asia, carried the busiest economic activity and the most brilliant cultures. The merchants, diplomats, and explorers, with their goods, ideas, and passions, traveled through the long routines across the Asia continent to Eastern Hemisphere. According to the nine narratives collected in When Asia Was the World, a vivid and brilliant blueprint about the Asian countries’ society and culture at that time are exhibited to the readers.
In 1996, a sinking ship in Java sea was discovered and salvaged, which was a big news to the world. Which shock the world is that a large number of Asian manufacture products in a thousand years ago was found in the ship, indicating the massive trade networks across South Asian countries and China in 10th century. German archaeologists Systematically salvaged the ship and found that the Intan shipwreck was loaded with tin and silver ingots from Malaya, and the silver bars from China. Also, a large number of ceramics products made in China were found in the ship. This discovery indicates that several countries had established the economic relationship to each other countries and the government there encouraged their export and import to develop their domestic market and industry. There is a high possibility that the ship also carried cottons from India and silks from China, but due to the corrosion of the sea water for a thousand years, none of them are survived. The distention of the ship was probably Java, but some nature reasons made it sink. Intan Shipwreck is significant because a large number of magnificent artworks, including Chinese ceramics, metal coins, and mirrors, are found from the ship. This shipwreck is also unique. It is a locally made vessel trading between Sumatra and Java, between the powerful empire of Srivijaya and the Javanese state of Mataram, over a thousand years ago. She carried bronzes cast in Sumatra, yet showing the strong Buddhist and Hindu influences of India. She carried beautiful ceramics, bronze mirrors, and silver ingots from China, and the glass and pottery from the middle east. It is hard to conceive that so much cultural and commercial interaction between the lands of the Indian Ocean and the China Seas.
The manual products found in the shipwreck also tell us the industry and commercial trade of South Asia and Southeast Asia in 1000 CE was mature. Asian countries not only traded products domestically, but also had developed international commercial cooperation. They had also mastered the skills of making ceramics pots and plates, metal products, and silver ingots. The complex and delicate patterns on the products also tell the advanced manufacture in south Asia. Additionally, their navigation technology was also developed to support the cross-sea tradings.
Born in Samanid Empire (now Uzbekistan), Ibn Sina is regarded as one of the most significant figure in Islamic Golden age because of his great contribution in medicine, astronomy, philosophy, and literature. He traveled from Isfahan to Balkh in his early life, and he wandered around the Islamic east for twenty years, gained prolific experience and knowledge, and systematically documented the knowledge to books which help improved the theories and technology. What’s striking about Ibn Sina is that he read and understood many the Greek philosophers and put his effort on balancing the Islamic philosophy and Greek thought. For several hundred years, his writings on pharmacology became the standard text all over Islam and Christendom, and his philosophical writings were so thoughtful that Christian thinkers could accept and understand them. Inspired by his attempt, a Jewish scholar, Maimonides, attempted to reconcile Jewish theology with Greek rationalism. The significance of Ibn Sina is that he made massive contribution in medicine, astronomy, and philosophy in Islamic Golden age, and his thought had great influenced the European countries. For example, two hundred years after Ibn Sina, a Christian thinker named Thomas Aquinas tried the same thing: reconciling Christian thought with Greek rationalism., which triggered a revolution in Christian thinking, setting the European countries on the way to modern science and philosophy.
Ibn Battuta was born in Morocco, and he was one of the most famous explorers who widely traveled across the medieval world. Over thirty years, Ibn Battuta visited most of the Islamic world and many non-Muslim lands, including Central Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia and China. He set off for Mecca at a tender age but stopped in Cairo for a long period of time, learning knowledge and culture of Islamic world. He also traveled southward on the Nile, attempting to reach Aden, but unfortunately, his path was obstructed by lawless robbers and he had to return to Cairo. From there he traveled on to Mecca, and stayed a year there, learning more and more. After returning back to Morocco, he wrote his adventure as A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling, which made a great contribution to the world at that time for studying other countries. The book introduces the geographical features and cultures.
Ma Huan was a Chinese voyager and writer in Ming dynasty. In his whole life, he followed Admiral Zheng He to expedite the Western Oceans for three times and visited over twenty countries including Java, Siam, and Sumatera. During his expeditions to Western Oceans, he recorded the geography, politics, weather conditions, and environment of different countries he went to, providing us with a glimpse of everyday life in those areas. After returning to China, he systematically documented his experience and knowledge and wrote a book called Yingya Shenglan, which became an important document for Ming government to study the culture of South Asia and Western countries. Even today many historians use Ma Huan’s writing as a great reference for researching and rebuild the history, because the description of the cultures is so detailed.
Tome Pires was a Portuguese apothecary and writer from Lisbon. In his story, he spent three years in Malacca after the Portuguese conquest, at a time when Europeans were only first arriving in Southeast Asia. He was also the first official embassy to enter China from Portugal, or even the European countires. After his tough experiences in India and south Asia, he became the first official embassy from a European nation in China. From his Malay-Indonesia travels, he wrote a landmark book, the Suma Oriental que trata do Mar Roxo até aos Chins (Summa of the East, from the Red Sea up to the Chinese). It was the first and most detailed book in Europe to introduce Malaysia and east Asian countries, including history, geography, economy, and culture. The author choose to write about Pires and place him last among the travelers he writes about in When Asia Was the World because the book is regarded as one of the most conscientious first-hand resources for the study of the geography and trade of the Indies at that time, including one of the most important resources for the study of the contemporaneous Islam in Indonesia. It is a compilation of a wide variety of information including coins, weights and measures. Pires was careful to investigate the accuracy of the information collected from merchants, sailors and others with whom he had contact.
When Asia was the World is a book that narrates the culture and history in ancient Asia in about five hundred to a thousand years ago. Differ from other formal history books which focus on the politics and big events such as wars, this book collects different stories of nine explorers as examples. We are learning the cultures and stories from their eyes and experience. Most of the nine explorer are not the famous ancient figures but common people. What makes this book convincing and credible is that all the information in this book is collected from the explorers’ memoirs, biographies, and some other primary sources at that time. With their vivid and detailed narratives on the typical lives during that period, the book become more interesting. We are not just reading the ancient Asian history, but also reading the life of the nine narrators, which makes the book unique and successful.
Differ from typical history books, When Asia Was the World is not organized in timeline, but organized as nine independent stories. The advantage is that this construction can make readers compare the different cultures and countries horizontally, and makes readers to have critical thinking with the history intertwined. However, the disadvantages would be that this kind of presentation made the book less powerful than other history books. The author Stewart Gordon wants to emphasize the theme that ancient Asian continent was the center of culture and economy activity by using the life of the nine explorers. Inevitably, the nine stories have some inconsistent statements which can make readers confusing. There were some inspiring and interesting stories in the book to learn, but the summaries seems in the surface level. Generally, the book is a successful work for a student who is passionate to Asian history. The description about ancient Asian’s brilliance and unique culture makes me more interested in history. I will recommend this book to someone wanting to learn about pre-modern world history.