Where the East Begins

Asia in the Making of Europe, Vol. III: A Century of Advance Book 1: Trade, Missions, Literature; Book 2: South Asia; Book 3: South-east Asia; Book 4: East Asia

by Donald F. Lach, by Edwin J. Van Kley
University of Chicago Press, 2,077 four volumes pp., $300.00 the set

Between 1965 and 1977, Donald Lach published the first two volumes of his Asia in the Making of Europe, an illuminating and erudite survey of the various ways that Asia has affected scholarship, literature, and the visual arts in the West. Beginning with a survey of the first glimmers of knowledge of Asia that filtered into the Roman Empire and medieval Europe, Mr. Lach devoted most of his discussion to what he termed the “century of wonder,” the sixteenth century, when the savants of Europe began a more systematic exploration and analysis of these bewildering cultures, with their apparently endless possibilities for trade and Christian conversion.

These first two “volumes” (which consisted of five large separate books) were so meticulously researched and comprehensive that they left readers wondering if he would be able to pull off the same feat for the seventeenth century, which he announced he would turn to next. With the publication of this Volume III: A Century of Advance, Mr. Lach has made good on his promise. Once again, the scale is epic, for Volume III contains four separate books, totaling 1,917 pages of text, with 433 plates (many with lengthy, almost essay-like captions), 158 pages of bibliography, and a 112-page index. This time Mr. Lach, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, has chosen to collaborate with a younger scholar, Edwin Van Kley, a skillful bibliographer and historian of the seventeenth century in Asia. When one reflects on this entire enterprise, it becomes clear that Mr. Lach can justly lay claim to have produced the most comprehensive work on the history of Western perceptions of pre-modern Asia ever written.

The first book is devoted to the authors’ own account of European commercial and religious expansion and to a summary of the main European literature on seventeenth-century Asia whether Iberian, Italian, French, Dutch, English, Germanic, or Danish). Each of the subsequent three books is given over to a more leisurely survey of the seventeenth-century material on the three main regions of Asia, defined here as South Asia, Southeast Asia, and East Asia. The one problem here is that the amount of information is so huge, the bibliography (though patiently cross-referenced) so complex, and the amount of names so immense, that the reader’s mind is threatened at many turns by simple overload.

The main lines of the story that Lach and Van Kley have to tell can nevertheless be summarized fairly simply. In the sixteenth century, the Spanish and the Portuguese dominated the patterns of global exploration—and the commercial and religious fruits thereof. In the seventeenth century, as Spain became mired in bitter, expensive, and protracted wars in the Low Countries, and Portugal lost much of its independence of action owing to the union of the Spanish and Portuguese crowns, new Western rivals appeared on the scene who destroyed the old order. One group of rivals came from within the Catholic Church itself, from those who resented the system known as the “Padroado” in Portuguese …

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