Asia’s Return to Preeminence



Book review: ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age. By Andre Gunder Frank. University of California Press, 1998. 450 pages. R$ 54.39 (

Why do we call the European peninsula a "continent", while the much more numerous Indians have but a "subcontinent", and the Chinese at best a "country"? It is these somewhat unusual -- some would say quirky -- questions that mark ReOrient, one of Andre Gunder Frank's most important contributions to the discussion about the reemergence of Asia.

Rejecting mainstream history as overly eurocentric, Frank insists that we must take a broader view and recognize that the rise of the West is but a short chapter of a far more diverse and complex history that dates further back. Frank is most critical of Weber and Marx, both of whom were convinced that the rest of the world had to embrace Western ideas to emulate its success. Frank writes

Europe did not pull itself up by its own economic bootstraps, and certainly not thanks to any kind of Eu­ropean "exceptionalism" of rationality, institutions, entrepreneurship, technology and geniality (...).

According to Frank, eurocentric historians who believe the early "modern" age began with the "Age of Discoveries" fail to recognize many modern elements prior to Europe's rise. He points out that North Africa was more urbanized than Europe in 1500: Paris had 125,000 inhabitants around 1500, whereas Cairo had 450,000 inhabitants and Fez had already declined from 250,000. Moreover, Calicut in India had 500,000 and even Pegu in Burma and Angkor in Cambodia had already declined from 80,000 and 150,000 inhabitants respectively.

The same is true regarding economics, Frank says. Turning commonly accepted history that Europe "incorporated" Asia economically on its head, the author argues that Europe belatedly joined, or at least cemented its previously looser ties with, an already existing world economy and system. Rather than the West overpowering a static East, Asia actually entered, for several centuries prior to 1800, in a temporary decline which allowed the West to initiate two centuries of dominance. Keeping this in mind would make the "rise of China" seem far more natural, the book suggests.

Frank also believes the period of actual Western dominance was far shorter than generally assumed:

The so-called European hegemony in the modem world system was very late in developing and was quite incomplete and never unipolar. In reality, during the period 1400-1800, sometimes regarded as one of "European expansion" and "primitive accumulation" leading to full capitalism, the world economy was still very predominantly un­der Asian influences. 


Europe's economic rise, it seems, led European thinkers to adopt an increasingly distorted view of the rest of the world. Europeans changed from regarding China as "an example and model" to calling the Chinese "a people of eternal standstill." Indeed, the coming of the industrial revolution and the beginnings of European colonialism in Asia seemed to create a narrative so irresistible that even intellectuals fell for the notion that the West had found a universal truth and a moral obligation to guide the rest of the world -- thus developed an "exaggerated sense of uniqueness."

Without previous developments in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, Frank writes, Europe's rise would not have been possible. In the same way, China's ongoing return to the top occurs partly thanks to the many advances generated in the West in the past two centuries. In both cases, not endogenous, supposedly "pure" factors led to each region's rise, but sustained interaction.

Frank has a lot of important things to say, but sadly the book's structure is rather unorganized, repetitive and far too long. A stern editor could have cut 150 pages without losing any of the key points. The author spends too many pages telling readers that he will return to this or that argument in some other chapter. Frank thus contributes to the notion that his unconventional views can only be expressed in rather unorganized way -- thus providing a disservice for the views he sought to promote. In addition, Frank's entire argument rests on secondary sources, and a more thorough analysis will be necessary to defend his claims -- part of that work has been successfully undertaken by John Hobson's "The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics: Western International Theory, 1760-2010" (reviewed here) and "The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation" (reviewed here). Despite these shortcomings, many of the ideas presented in ReOrient are bound to receive lots of attention as Asia returns to the economic center of the world.

Read also:

How the East Learned to Live with the West

A Contest for Supremacy in Asia?

China and the Rise of Competing Modernities

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