East of the West

by Ioana Paul

Data is beautiful. But in its beauty, it portrays a staggering dissonance. Although Europe and North America together only account for about 16% of the world’s population, it seems as if the Western worldview were the only perspective to be found. At least this is the false but common perception in the general Western discourse. The lack of pluralism is problematic in our interactions, especially in an extremely interconnected, globalized world.  Therefore, for curious readers, I would like to propose three books that redefine the Eurocentric world map with which we are all too familiar.

The first “The Silk Roads-A New History of the World” was published in 2015 by historian Peter Frankopan. It reassesses world history and reshapes one’s perspective on major events that painted our past. Reading the book feels like travelling along the Silk Roads through various centuries. The reader witnesses how the trade of goods and movement of people led to cultural development as the Western world adopted Eastern luxuries, not the other way around.  With details regarding the Persian and the Mongol Empire, Frankopan’s narration certainly fills one’s knowledge gaps. The underlying causes of the current conflicts happening in the Middle East as well as the dark consequences of imperialism are also described in a comprehensible and captivating manner. I found the analysis of the events following the First World War up to the late ‘90s particularly interesting. I read those chapters in one sitting, fascinated by the not so distant past and the visible scars it has left on our present. As the book described the two World Wars with the Eastern civilizations as actors on the main stage, I found my existing knowledge challenged. As much as we want history to be a single story, it isn’t. In fact, I am not even sure we want it to be a single story, for some of us love the convolutions of time. One thing is for certain: while reading “The Silk Roads” you will definitely stumble upon some new ideas and see the past from new angles. 

Published in 2018 by the same author, “The New Silk Roads” is a perfect follow-up to the aforementioned book. Its main focus lies in the depiction of the geopolitical strategies and socio-economic hardships that shape our current times. In light of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, (a program that aims to boost the infrastructure of emerging economies from Asia, Africa and Latin America) the author states that the new silk roads are starting to form. As a result, the economic center of gravity will shift (or is already shifting) a little bit more to the East. As a fairly recent book, it also covers the tensions between US and China and their effects on the world stage. The fragility of foreign policy is portrayed in a gripping analysis of US’s withdrawal from the Iran Deal. The book perfectly sums up Trump’s legacy, particularly in Asia.  It also goes as far as to discuss military actions in the East and the testing of weapons at the cost of innocent human lives. Some parts of the book mirror the deeply rooted greed and self-interest that seem to dictate the world of politics because The New Silk Roads describes the world as it is, not as it should be.

Lastly, I would also recommend “How the World Thinks: A Global History of Philosophy” by Julian Baggini. Published towards the end of 2019, this book pleads for a more pluralistic approach to philosophy. It condemns the limits imposed on the academic syllabus and on the general public discourse by only analyzing Western ideas. The world is complex. If we want to understand ourselves, we first have to understand how others think, according to the author. Interestingly, reading the book will make one question one’s own beliefs and biases, as well as the way one’s social and cultural context have shaped the way we think. The book explores the philosophies of China, India, Japan and the Muslim World, emphasizing how ancient ideas have outlined different attitudes and moral values. Baggini also perfectly captures the differences between Western and Eastern philosophical ideas with a well-documented analysis of the concepts “relational self” (which mostly characterizes the Asian schools of thought, and emphasizes the way in which we all coexist, in relation to one another) and “individual self” (a view specific for Europe and North America).

These three books try to address the Western ignorance by giving voice to the countries located along the Silk Roads. However, they merely provide a short insight into the fascinating history and cultural values of Eastern civilizations. Nevertheless, they are a good starting point for exploring new ideas.

Due to current mobility restrictions, maybe the best and safest way to travel is with your mind. It is also cheap and, thus perfect if you are on a budget. So why not pack your backpack of knowledge and explore the new and old Silk Roads? The trip will definitely get you out of your comfort zone.