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

Who am I?

I am a historian of empire and international relations, and have worked at universities in Britain and the Netherlands (where I was born). I’m fascinated by the ways in which empires have shaped – and continue to shape – the world we live in. Empire Ascendant was my first book, and I am currently working on a global history of the Dutch colonial empire.  


I wrote...

Empire Ascendant: The British World, Race, and the Rise of Japan, 1894-1914

By Cees Heere,

Book cover of Empire Ascendant: The British World, Race, and the Rise of Japan, 1894-1914

What is my book about?

The victory of Japan in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5) was, in many respects, a transformative event in world history. It redrew the map of East Asia and established Japan as a major world power. Most strikingly, it dealt a blow to European claims to racial and cultural superiority. Contemporaries struggled with what to make of this ‘new’ Japan. Many admired its rapid modernisation, while its rise also prompted new fears, or hopes, of a broader revolt against European imperialism.

My book explores how the British Empire, formally Japan’s ally after 1902, wrestled with these issues. The book weaves together studies of diplomacy, strategy, and imperial relations to pose searching questions about how Japan's entry into the 'family of civilised nations' shaped, and was shaped by, ideologies of race.

The books I picked & why

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

By Adam Clulow,

Book cover of 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.

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

By Adam Clulow,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Company and the Shogun as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Dutch East India Company was a hybrid organization combining the characteristics of both corporation and state that attempted to thrust itself aggressively into an Asian political order in which it possessed no obvious place and was transformed in the process. This study focuses on the company's clashes with Tokugawa Japan over diplomacy, violence, and sovereignty. In each encounter the Dutch were forced to retreat, compelled to abandon their claims to sovereign powers, and to refashion themselves again and again-from subjects of a fictive king to loyal vassals of the shogun, from aggressive pirates to meek merchants, and from insistent…


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

By Julia Lovell,

Book cover of 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.

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

By Julia Lovell,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Opium War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A gripping read as well as an important one.' Rana Mitter, Guardian

In October 1839, Britain entered the first Opium War with China. Its brutality notwithstanding, the conflict was also threaded with tragicomedy: with Victorian hypocrisy, bureaucratic fumblings, military missteps, political opportunism and collaboration. Yet over the past hundred and seventy years, this strange tale of misunderstanding, incompetence and compromise has become the founding episode of modern Chinese nationalism.

Starting from this first conflict, The Opium War explores how China's national myths mould its interactions with the outside world, how public memory is spun to serve the present, and how…


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

By Pankaj Mishra,

Book cover of 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.

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

By Pankaj Mishra,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked From the Ruins of Empire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A Financial Times and The Economist Best Book of the Year and a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice

A SURPRISING, GRIPPING NARRATIVE DEPICTING THE THINKERS WHOSE IDEAS SHAPED CONTEMPORARY CHINA, INDIA, AND THE MUSLIM WORLD

A little more than a century ago, independent thinkers across Asia sought to frame a distinct intellectual tradition that would inspire the continent's rise to dominance. Yet this did not come to pass, and today those thinkers―Tagore, Gandhi, and later Nehru in India; Liang Qichao and Sun Yat-sen in China; Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Abdurreshi al Ibrahim of the Ottoman Empire―are seen as…


The Making of Japanese Manchuria, 1904-1932

By Yoshihisa Tak Matsusaka,

Book cover of 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.

The Making of Japanese Manchuria, 1904-1932

By Yoshihisa Tak Matsusaka,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Making of Japanese Manchuria, 1904-1932 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this history of Japanese involvement in northeast China, the author argues that Japan's military seizure of Manchuria in September 1931 was founded on three decades of infiltration of the area. This incremental empire-building and its effect on Japan are the focuses of this book.

The principal agency in the piecemeal growth of Japanese colonization was the South Manchurian Railway Company, and by the mid-1920s Japan had a deeply entrenched presence in Manchuria and exercised a dominant economic and political influence over the area. Japanese colonial expansion in Manchuria also loomed large in Japanese politics, military policy, economic development, and…


War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War

By John W. Dower,

Book cover of 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.

War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War

By John W. Dower,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked War Without Mercy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WINNER OF THE NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD • AN AMERICAN BOOK AWARD FINALIST • A monumental history that has been hailed by The New York Times as “one of the most original and important books to be written about the war between Japan and the United States.”

In this monumental history, Professor John Dower reveals a hidden, explosive dimension of the Pacific War—race—while writing what John Toland has called “a landmark book ... a powerful, moving, and evenhanded history that is sorely needed in both America and Japan.”
 
Drawing on American and Japanese songs, slogans, cartoons, propaganda films, secret…


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