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Book Review


Gunn, Geoffrey C., First Globalization: The Eurasian Exchange, 1500-1800 (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003). 352 pp, $29.95.

      Those of us who are interested in cultural history and the exchange of ideas on a global scale will welcome this book as a helpful, if not definitive, addition to the subject.  For too long world history has been viewed as economic and social structural history writ large, with little emphasis on the ideological exchange that came with the movement of peoples and objects.  It is a tendency that Geoffrey C. Gunn has noticed in First Globalization: The Eurasian Exchange, 1500-1800, and he admirably attempts to change the parameters of discussions about the "Eurasian Exchange" to interject the dynamic of culture and ideology.  Gunn is not a regular contributor to world historiography.  He is primarily a Southeast Asia specialist who teaches international relations in the economics faculty of Nagasaki University.  He has been prolific, producing more than ten books (six in the last eight years) about various Southeast Asian countries and cities. His specialty has been East Timor, the former Portuguese colony, where he worked on political and economic missions for the United Nations.  Indeed, First Globalization is dedicated to the people of East Timor, and reflects Gunn’s extensive knowledge of the maritime zone of Southeast Asia and the Portuguese colonial presence in that area in the early modern period. 1
      The opening historiographical essay of the book is well worth reading for those world history educators who want a clear expression of the role of culture in the study of world history. Confining himself to the exchange of ideas between East and Southeast Asia and Europe in the years 1500-1800, Gunn asks some good questions.  How did ideas travel east and west?  Who were the agents of dissemination?  Why were some cultures and civilizations more receptive than others?  This last question is critical, as his research reveals that Europeans were more interested in Asian "others" than vice versa. This imbalance, he argues, was reflected in the large volume of European writings about Asia and the dearth of such writings about Europeans in Asia. The most obvious reason for such an imbalance was that more Europeans traveled to Asia than the other way around. Once there, they entered existing Asian cultural and trade networks and were quite frequently amazed and astonished by what they saw.  On the other hand, the sight of a few scruffy Europeans in some pretty good ships was hardly inspiration for volumes of Asian literature.  2
      Gunn also makes the important point that Asian literature was generally moralistic and did not admit the genre of travelogues that demonstrated the marvels, astonishment and wonderment that was typical of European publications in the early modern period, and which in turn induced further discovery and travel.  The European precondition for this "precocity" was the knowledge revolution of the Renaissance in Europe. Gunn notes, as world historians Andre Gunter Frank, Ken Pomeranz, and R. Bin Wong have similarly argued, that the early modern Chinese economy was strong and dynamic, and was only overtaken by the emergence of European science and technology in the early nineteenth century.  The author also makes the point, however, that European curiosity about other ideas and their receptivity to "intellectual contestation and exchange" represented a distinct advantage, since Europeans often pragmatically put what they learned to work for them.  While Gunn also finds a number of Asian cultures that were receptive to European ideas, he argues that intellectual openness in Asia could sometimes be sporadic and varied.  It is important to remember in Gunn’s argument that European imperialism in the Americas was far more effective compared to their efforts in Asia, where durable, populous (and not disease-prone) cultures and civilizations were able to limit European hegemony. 3
      After a good, provocative opening, however, the body of Gunn’s work in the book turns a bit timid.  Each chapter tackles one type of source – travelogues, maps and cosmographies, grammars, histories and essays – and dissects them for evidence of Eurasian Exchange.  In cultural history, this is the safe approach.  One does not want to get too far out on a limb, speculating about intents and consequences; thus staying close to the sources is a legitimate organization for this study.  But, after the opening chapter, one hankers a bit for a better illustration of the intellectual mindsets of the Europeans who go to Asia and of the Asians who are figuring out how to employ the Europeans and read them once they are there. This would have required Gunn to backtrack before 1500, to lay the intellectual ground for the "unequal intellectual exchange" that he describes in each chapter of the book – that is, the Europeans getting more ideas and useful information from the Asians.  Also, he might have organized the book around geographic zones rather than sources, to highlight the answer to his question about how ideas traveled, who were the agents, and why were some more receptive. 4
      Nevertheless, the book is exhaustively researched and is useful to those who want to establish bearings on cultural globalization in the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries.  Educators will find many examples of primary sources that would be effective exemplars of Eurasian exchange in the forty-page bibliography.  In addition, the opening chapter is a reminder to world history educators that there is still a good deal more work to do to educate students about the cultural exchange component of globalization.  When I travel in Europe, friends and acquaintances constantly refer to trends, ideas and cultural ways as "American."  I scoff at the idea of America having a "culture" distinct from Europe; the innovations are sort of a generic modernism-capitalism, I respond.  But I am both right and wrong.  A powerful absorbing and exchanging society as that of the United States is intertwined with and defining of the powerful juggernaut of modernism-capitalism.  Gunn helps us to understand the ideological aspects of the irresistible forces of globalization in the first phase of direct European and Asian maritime interaction. 5
Patricia Lopes Don
San Jose State University

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