Central asia's continuing role in the world economy to 1800

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University of Toronto

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Asia's rightful and historically documented place has been denied by the dominance of excessively Eurocentric perspectives on early modern and recent world economic history - and social science! As the master [European/ist] historian Fernand Braudel (1979:134) astutely observed "Europe invented historians and then made good use of them." It is time to help right these Euro-[or Western-] centric mis-interpretations by historians, social scientists and the general public by offering an interpretation of modern and economic world history, which again allots Asia its due. Contributing thereto is the goal of the author's ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age (Frank 1997).
The present essay offers some indications of where and how Central Asia fit - that is, continued to fit - into the mostly Asian scheme of things. I say "continued" to fit, for two main reasons: The first reason is that I have already argued for The Centrality of Central Asia (Frank 1992) in Afro-eurasian history for several thousand years, at least for over a millennium and a half before, and still after, the beginning of the Christian era. The second reason is that this centrality, and even the relevance, of Inner and Central Asia has not only been overly neglected but is even denied outright. Consider for instance the following glaring example in which the history of largely Islamic Central Asia during this period is largely dismissed by the Cambridge History of Islam:
Central Asia was thus isolated from the early sixteenth century ... and therefore led an existence at the margin of world history.... The discovery of the sea-route to East Asia rendered the Silk Road increasingly superfluous.... From the threshold of modern times Central Asian history becomes provincial history. This justifies us in giving no more than a rapid sketch of the following centuries (Holt, Lambton, Lewis 1970:471,483).

This dismissal is unacceptable, both in principle and on factual grounds. Admittedly, evidence is hard to come by; but the archaeological maxim applies: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
In his discussion of the supposed "decline" [his quotation marks] of the Central Asian caravan trade, Rossabi (1990:352) stresses "the paucity of precise information about this commerce." Nonetheless, he makes several observations, some more and others less acceptable. To begin with, Rossabi observes that Chinese records from the Ming dynasty suggest that this commerce did not decline after 1400, but continued into the sixteenth century, and indeed even into the early seventeenth century. Moreover, like Steensgard (1972) also, he observes that trans-continental caravan trade was not replaced by circum-Asian maritime trade. The latter had already estimated that European consumption of Asian goods coming by caravan was still double that brought around the Cape by ship (Steensgard 1972:168). Both authors do observe declining trans-Central Asian trade in the seventeenth century. We will examine below the extent to which and why, insofar as there was any decline, it was primarily cyclical and how the eighteenth century witnessed a renewed recovery. But first, it is well to place both this kind of Eurocentric ideological dismissal and the real Central Asian economic record in the broader world political-economic and cultural history of which it was and remains an important part.
The above-cited Eurocentric distortion of the real historical record has its roots in Adam Smith and Karl Marx. Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations in 1776:
The discovery of America, and that of the passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, are the two greatest events recorded in the history of mankind (Smith 1776/1937:557).
Marx and Engels followed in their Communist Manifesto in 1848:

The discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape, opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie. The East-Indian and Chinese markets, the colonization of America, trade with the colonies, the increase in the means of exchange and in commodities generally, gave to commerce, to navigation, to industry, an impulse never before known, and thereby to the revolutionary element in the tottering feudal society, a rapid development.... (Marx and Engels 1848).

Alas however, Smith - writing still before the industrial revolution in Europe - was the last major [Western] social scientist to appreciate that Europe was a johnny come lately in the development of the wealth of nations. Smith still recognized Asia as being economically far more advanced and richer than anything in Europe. "The improvements in agriculture and manufactures seem likewise to have been of very great antiquity in the provinces of Bengal in the East Indies, and in some of the eastern provinces of China.... Even those three countries [China, Egypt and Indostan], the wealthiest, according to all accounts, that ever were in the world, are chiefly renowned for their superiority in agriculture and manufactures.... [Now in 1776] China is a much richer country than any part of Europe" (Smith 1937: 20,348,169).
However already by the mid-nineteenth century, Marx saw things from a new [European] perspective: England was allegedly showing India the mirror of its future and the United States was bringing progress to Mexico thanks to its 1846 war against that country. But whats more, Marx alleged that the "transition from feudalism to capitalism" and the "rising bourgeoisie" in Europe had transformed the world, supposedly since the genesis of capital [if not capitalism] in the sixteenth century - also in Europe! Then with the spread of European colonialism in the second half of the thy century, world history was re-written wholesale - and social science was [new] born, not only as a European, but as a Eurocentric invention. Other social "scientists" may have risen to dispute against Marx [and supposedly to agree with Smith], but they all agreed with each other and with Marx not only that 1492 and 1498 were the two greatest events in the history of mankind, but that ever since that history had been marked by the alleged uniqueness of [West] Europeans, which supposedly generated "The Rise of the West" and gave rise to "the development and spread of capitalism" in the world.
Foremost among these fathers [whatever happened to the mothers?] of modern social "science" was of course Max Weber. He alleged that the European "Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism" made "General Economic History," and he assiduously studied "The Religions" of various parts of Asia to show that - and supposedly why! - the poor Asians were incapable of doing as well. Weber even wrote a book to deny that the Chinese had, or were capable of managing, real cities; even though Song China had already had cities of several million population, while [Western] Europe's largest city had barely 100,000 in Venice - and Europe's really largest city was Constantinople/Istanbul in the east, which was not "western" or even very "European" [rational?]! Marx's invention of a supposed "Asiatic Mode of Production," and later Wittfogel's [anti-Marxist] ideas about Asian "hydraulic/ bureaucratic" societies were all fashioned to this same Eurocentric end. Tawney turned Weber on his head [as Marx had done to Hegel] and argued that in fact capitalism came first, and then its spirit. No matter, for both agreed on the fundamentals with each other and with Marx:the Rise of Capitalism in Europe due to European exceptionalism. And so of course, did Sombart who stressed European rationalism in the rise of capitalism,as well as Hilferding, and you name him! [all German white men?].

Thus, for the past century and a half, modern world and economic history has been [mis]read and social science theory has been written from the vantage point of the ascendance of the West. That in turn has also been interpreted in almost exclusively Eurocentric terms. This Western-centric bias in modern and economic world history is so well nigh universal as to make its documentation hardly necessary or even possible. At least since the nineteenth century, almost all modern and economic world history has been written as though it began in Europe around 1500 and then spread out from there to "incorporate" and "modernize" first the Americas and then Africa and "traditional" Asia. This view has recently been termed The Colonizer's Model of the World: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History by Jim Blaut (1993). Moreover, the ancient roots of this "modernizing" process of recent "capitalist" economic development and "enlightened" cultural/civilizational progress are also sought first within [Western] Europe itself and earlier on in Rome and Greece. The "orientalising" influence of Egypt and Mesopotamia upon Greece and Rome is too often ignored, as Bernal (1987) has argued in Black Athena. Even their ancient history is "Europeanized" as a supposed direct descendant of modern European developments. They drop out of sight and out of mind again after their momentary "contributions" to

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