The best books about East Asia in the age of empire

Cees Heere Author Of Empire Ascendant: The British World, Race, and the Rise of Japan, 1894-1914
By Cees Heere

The Books I Picked & Why

The Company and the Shogun: The Dutch Encounter with Tokugawa Japan

By Adam Clulow

The Company and the Shogun: The Dutch Encounter with Tokugawa Japan

Why this book?

Histories of Japan’s encounter with the West typically start from the premise that prior to its “opening” by the American Commodore Perry in 1853, Japan was a “closed” society that shunned contact with the outside world. This book, which explores the relationship between the Tokugawa shogunate and the Dutch East India Company (the VOC), presents a radically different story: one in which one of the world’s most ruthless commercial operators was forced to humble itself before the shogun. It’s an essential corrective to anyone who equates “world history” with the rise of the West.


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The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China

By Julia Lovell

The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China

Why this book?

To many in China today, the outbreak of the first Opium War in 1839 marks the beginning of China’s “century of humiliation”. As such, the subject remains highly charged. In this book, Julia Lovell offers a lively and very readable account of the war that would set the terms of the Qing empire’s relationship with the European powers. Crucially, she does this by focusing on the Chinese as well as the British side. The book is also very good on the ways that the opium wars passed into collective memory, both in Victorian Britain (when opium smoking became shorthand for China’s supposed degeneracy) and modern China.


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From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia

By Pankaj Mishra

From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia

Why this book?

This is a different kind of history. Rather than retelling the story of colonial conquest and incursion, Pankaj Mishra focuses instead on how colonised societies processed the political and cultural trauma of their encounter with imperialism. Asian thinkers are at the centre of this book, and their attempts to explain, and answer, the rise of the West from the perspectives of their own societies – India, China, or Japan – forms its central axis. This could be an obscure study, but Mishra’s style, sharp and incisive, ensures that it’s not.


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The Making of Japanese Manchuria, 1904-1932

By Yoshihisa Tak Matsusaka

The Making of Japanese Manchuria, 1904-1932

Why this book?

At the turn of the twentieth century, Japan joined the scramble for Asia as a colonial power in its own right: it conquered Taiwan, annexed Korea, and staked out a sphere of influence in the Chinese region of Manchuria. Over the ensuing decades, the latter became a kind of social laboratory in which Japan developed its own ideas and practices of colonial rule. This is probably the most specialist (I don’t like the word “obscure”) book on this list, but it is an eye-opening study of why and how Japan, which had found itself on the receiving end of European expansion in the nineteenth century, came to join the imperial game.


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War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War

By John W. Dower

War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War

Why this book?

Widely praised when it came out in 1986, War without Mercy is still a classic. Dower offers a comprehensive account of the ways in which ideas and stereotypes – constructed by Americans towards the Japanese, and vice versa – shaped the Pacific theatre of the Second World War. The research is exhaustive (and the succession of quotations and images depicting the other as inferior and despicable may, in fact, exhaust some readers after a while), but the central point about the dehumanising power of racism, especially in the context of geopolitical confrontation, is one that continues to be relevant today.


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