Below is a review of: Andre Gunder Frank. ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1998. Pp. Xxix, 416, $27.80 paperback, $17.25 Kindle edition. This review was written for my Theory and Methodology II class, which discusses and analyzes historiography in world history.
Andre Gunder Frank sets his 1998 monograph, ReOrient, against just about every work of world history since Karl Marx. He traces Eurocentric bias in world history from the nineteenth century to the present. It would appear that Gunder Frank only has three scholarly allies in his struggle against Eurocentrism: the late Islamicist Marshall Hodgson, the China specialist Kenneth Pomeranz, and the economic geographer J.M. Blaut. His opponents range from nineteenth century intellectuals Karl Marx and Max Weber to the founders of world history, including Arnold Toynbee, Oswald Spengler, and William McNeill. Gunder Frank even takes on Immanuel Wallerstein and his contemporaries—including Gunder Frank’s early scholarly self—who proposed world systems analysis as an approach to studying world history. That being said, this is an impressive work not only for its in depth analysis of existing world, economic, and social histories, but also for its challenge to scholars to write outside of a European bias. To Gunder Frank, the global economy from A.D. 1400 to 1800 was not marked by European hegemony, but instead was centered in Chinese trade, goods, and marketplaces. Existing scholarship has failed to recognize this because of a Eurocentric bias that prevented scholars from taking a purely holistic, global approach. American colonial money did not contribute to European economic hegemony, as some argue. Rather, Gunder Frank argues that it granted Europeans access to East Asian markets, from which they were able to rise from China’s shoulders in the nineteenth century during a period of cyclical East Asian economic decline.
This book is divided into a short preface and seven chapters. It follows a logical progression from analyses of trade and money exchanges to larger macro-historical implications. Chapter 1 traces Eurocentric historiography and stresses the importance of a holistic approach to global history. Gunder Frank masterfully situates his holistic, economic approach within the context of the existing corpus of scholarly works and even predicts and responds to possible criticisms. It is in this part that Gunder Frank makes it clear that he views the global economy as the primary factor behind historic developments and change. Chapters 2 and 3 look at the global flows of trade and money respectively. Chapter 4 tries to take a look at worldwide and regional dimensions of population, production, trade, consumption, and rates of growth. Gunder Frank’s purpose here is to show that Asia, particularly China, was not only more important in the global economy than Europe, but that it actually grew and expanded faster than Europe until at least A.D. 1750. Chapter 5 explores “horizontally integrative macro history” which assumes that simultaneous worldwide events are not coincidences, nor are they a sole product of internal circumstances. In this section he also considers the cyclical nature of economic prosperity and decline. Chapter 6 attempts to explain why then, if China was dominant from A.D. 1400 to 1800, Europe rose to prominence in the nineteenth century. Gunder Frank also suggests that European hegemony was only a temporary phenomenon, and the global economy may have already started shifting back East. Chapter 7 reasserts Gunder Frank’s holistic approach, summarizes his findings concerning Chinese economic supremacy from A.D. 1400 to 1800, and suggests how historians should approach world history in the future.
But should we take Gunder Frank’s advice and ReOrient ourselves historiographically? He certainly crafts a compelling case against Eurocentrism and does a good job combating Wallerstein’s five hundred year model of European hegemony. However, do we really need to ReOrient, or can we just reorient our thinking? It is certainly an intoxicatingly clever phrase, but can we counter Eurocentric bias without falling into another? Does Gunder Frank just supplant three to four hundred years of European dominance of the world economy with a Chinese hegemonic model? Does he try so hard to not be Eurocentric that he falls into Sinocentrism?
In his introduction, Gunder Frank states that his goals are to reveal a tradition of Eurocentric bias in social science theory and historiography, and to demonstrate the East Asian dominance of the world economy through a holistic approach to global history. He succeeds in the first part. He brilliantly traces Eurocentric bias from Marx and Weber to Spengler and Toynbee, and even considers Wallerstein and his own work in the 1970s. As for the second part, it seems apparent that between A.D. 1400 and 1800, the world economy was heavily influenced and reliant upon Chinese industry, agriculture, transport, and trade; however, even after over four hundred pages of text, this reader remains unconvinced that China was clearly the leading figure in the world economy during this time period. Certainly it was an important part, but was it, as Gunder Frank suggests, the most important?
This remains unclear partly because of Gunder Frank’s holistic methodology. He mentions that his son inscribed a history book to him that read “from one who studies the trees to one who studies the forest” (33). A few pages later, Gunder Frank responds to criticism that he does not consult sufficient primary sources. This may be effective in tracing the historiography of Eurocentrism, but when it comes to supplanting 150 years of historiography in asserting Chinese dominance in the world economy, should there not be some primary evidence to support it? To expand upon the forest and tree analogy Gunder Frank’s son used, should not the historian of the forest also be concerned with the condition of its leaves?