East Asia at the Center: Four Thousand Years of Engagement with the World

East Asia at the Center: Four Thousand Years of Engagement with the World

East Asia at the Center: Four Thousand Years of Engagement with the World

East Asia at the Center: Four Thousand Years of Engagement with the World


A common misconception holds that Marco Polo "opened up" a closed and recalcitrant "Orient" to the West. However, this sweeping history covering 4,000 years of international relations from the perspective of China, Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia shows that the region's extensive involvement in world affairs began thousands of years ago.

In a time when the writing of history is increasingly specialized, Warren I. Cohen has made a bold move against the grain. In broad but revealing brushstrokes, he paints a huge canvas of East Asia's place in world affairs throughout four millennia. Just as Cohen thinks broadly across time, so too, he defines the boundaries of East Asia liberally, looking beyond China, Japan, and Korea to include Southeast Asia. In addition, Cohen stretches the scope of international relations beyond its usual limitations to consider the vital role of cultural and economic exchanges.

Within this vast framework, Cohen explores the system of Chinese domination in the ancient world, the exchanges between East Asia and the Islamic world from the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries, and the emergence of a European-defined international system in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The book covers the new imperialism of the 1890s, the Manchurian crisis of the early 1930s, the ascendancy of Japan, the trials of World War II, the drama of the Cold War, and the fleeting "Asian Century" from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s.

East Asia at the Center is replete with often-overlooked or little-known facts, such as:

• A record of persistent Chinese imperialism in the region

• Tibet's status as a major power from the 7th to the 9th centuries C. E., when it frequently invaded China and decimated Chinese armies

• Japan's profound dependence on Korea for its early cultural development

• The enormous influence of Indian cuisine on that of China

• Egyptian and Ottoman military aid to their Muslim brethren in India and Sumatra against European powers

• Extensive Chinese sea voyages to Arabia and East Africa -- long before such famous Westerners as Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus took to the seas

East Asia at the Center 's expansive historical view puts the trials and advances of the past four millennia into perspective, showing that East Asia has often been preeminent on the world stage -- and conjecturing that it might be so again in the not-so-distant future.


I was on my way to Kenya several years ago when a friend, the late Paul Kreisberg, urged me to read Philip Snow's Star Raft. Snow tells the tale of the Chinese eunuch Zheng He's extraordinary voyages early in the 15th century, many years before those of Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus. Crossing the Indian Ocean, Zheng He's fleet called at ports in East Africa, where, it appeared, the Chinese had been trading for centuries. On my own voyage, wandering north from Mombassa along the coast of Kenya, I came across the remains of a 13th century Swahili village where, to my astonishment, I found Chinese coins and shards of Chinese pottery recently uncovered by archeologists. As a historian of 20th century American foreign policy whose most daring previous feats had been forays into 18th and 19th century Chinese-American relations and the world of art historians, I realized it was time to broaden my education. With the encouragement of my editor, Kate Wittenberg, I decided to study the international relations of East Asia since they began. What follows is a taste of what I've learned, traveling through the history of that region.

Some readers may be as surprised as I was to find that Shang dynasty rulers, c. 1500 BCE, maintained a zoo containing exotic animals—a rhinoceros, for example— obtained from other parts of Asia. Most will be intrigued by evidence of the changes in “Chinese” identity, the changes in what it meant to be Chinese, as the original “Chinese” conquered or were conquered by their neighbors—and enlarged their gene pool.

I discovered that by the 7th century BCE, during the Zhou dynasty, the Chinese had already developed a sophisticated collective security system and that contacts between Han China and the West, seaborne as well as across the famed Silk Road, began approximately 2,000 years ago. Perhaps most striking for students of China will be the persistent record of Chinese imperialism, of Chinese efforts to expand and to dominate their neighbors whenever they had sufficient power—and sometimes when they didn't.

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