Jiang Shigong
Original publication: mp.weixin.qq.com
Translation: Roderic Day
Editing: Sun Feiyang, Nia Frome

A History of Empire Without Empire (2021)

47 minutes | English 中文 | China

Preface to the Chinese edition of After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empire Since 1405 (2008).



The discovery of the New World by Columbus in 1492 is generally regarded as the beginning of global history. Not only because the Great Voyages discovered the entire face of the earth and connected all of humanity, but also because a modern civilization emerged from the West and conquered the rest of the planet, thus shaping this globalized world to the point where many today envision the “end of history” and the advent of a “world empire” represented by the United States.

After Tamerlane by John Darwin (b. 1948) attempts to break away from the Western-centric historical narrative of classic literature and popular textbooks by taking the reader through several unfamiliar historical events and focusing on the grand narrative of the interaction between the East and the West. His chosen historical starting point is not 1492, when Columbus discovered the New World, but 1405, the year of the little-noticed “death of Tamerlane.” That year marked the end of the Mongol dream of building a world empire in Europe and Asia, and turned over a new page in global history. The choice carries a double meaning: on the one hand it implicitly distances itself from the Western-centric historical narrative by highlighting the importance of Eurasia and Asia in global history, and on the other hand it is intended as a reminder to politicians currently working on the construction of a world empire: “The Eurasian world does not want to accept a single norm.” [1] The book was published in 2008, when the United States was using its unipolar advantage to invade the East and discipline the West, so there’s an implication that the construction of a “New Roman Empire” is bound to meet with a failure similar to the “death of Tamerlane.” Per the closing lines of the book: “If there is one continuity that we should be able to glean from a long view of the past, it is Eurasia’s resistance to a uniform system, a single great ruler, or one set of rules. In that sense, we still live in Tamerlane’s shadow — or, perhaps more precisely, in the shadow of his failure.” [2]

Perhaps the best way to read Darwin is to begin with his last chapter and work backwards to understand his choice of starting point. In his view global history is the history of imperial hegemony, and the rise of the West and its resulting imperial hegemony is essentially a continuation of Tamerlane’s ambition and pursuit of the construction of a new world empire. Why, then, does the construction of world empire fail? The theoretical approach Darwin employs to answer this question is laid out in the first chapter. Darwin clearly draws resources from the latest findings in global history studies, which emphasize that Western-centric accounts are insufficient and must be accompanied by perspectives from the East. In this way the work is part of an ongoing debate, and Darwin is advancing a particular theoretical paradigm. Understanding this paradigm is the only way to properly assess his scholarly contribution.

Western theorists from the 17th and 18th century onwards posited an essential opposition between the East and the West, and from this difference sought to explain the rise of the West and its world domination. The advent of global history brought with it new theoretical accounts that revised this Western-centric discourse. Darwin’s own original challenge to the dominant narrative finds fullest expression in Chapter 4, where the author reinterprets the “Great Divergence” between the rise of the West and the decline of the East by introducing the concept of the “Eurasian Revolution.” As a historian, however, Darwin opts to present his work as an accessible history book rather than a theoretical treatise. He strives to introduce lay audiences to some of the major theoretical issues discussed in academia, and presents his theoretical insights interwoven with historical episodes and anecdotes. As a result, though the book represents a serious academic perspective and raises important theoretical concerns, these concerns remain implicit in Darwin’s narrative and are not developed as an in-depth theoretical analysis.

Therefore, to truly understand this book, one must pay attention to the theoretical insights that the author mentions in passing but does not fully flesh out. This preface constitutes a commentary on the book on the basis of those insights. On the one hand, I hope to help interested readers appreciate the theoretical ambition of the book rather than seeing it simply as a best-seller, and on the other hand I intend to initiate a dialogue on empire, an exploration of how we should understand it, and what kind of lessons the past six hundred years of global history can teach us.


Much of our understanding of history today builds upon the social-scientific approach of 18th and 19th century theorists like Montesquieu, Adam Smith, Auguste Comte, Max Weber, and Karl Marx. In this understanding human history follows a universal historical development path: from primary to advanced, from traditional to modern, from barbarism to civilization. This law of development of human history has been summarized as the “theory of modernization,” and it has led to an almost theological belief in Western civilization as the purpose of human historical development, with globalization leading us towards an inevitable “end of history.”

However, this narrative is being challenged by global history studies. Global history comprises a complex spectrum of ideas, among which the most active operate within the political economy tradition of the left, e.g. Immanuel Wallerstein’s “World Systems Theory,” Samir Amin’s “Dependency Theory,” and Andre Gunder Frank’s “ReOrientation.” These theorists argue that classical accounts are in fact ahistorical, that their insight into the origins and dynamics of the path to modernity are limited by their excessive focus on European history, and that they underplay how the historical conditions for Europe’s modernization lie precisely in the plundering and exploitation of the non-European “periphery.” As a result, these theories exhibit a “Western-centric” or even “Orientalist” prejudice, treating the non-Western world as merely an external “other” and a foil to the “Western Miracle,” to such an extent that modernization theory becomes an ideological tool in service of Western imperialism and neocolonialism. Driven by this left-wing critical tradition, global history breaks away from the Western-centric paradigm and studies Western and non-Western civilizations as parts of a holistic and interactive world. As a result, global history takes an “anti-teleological” position which emphasizes the contingency of the West’s rise: its dependency on geography, access to resources, natural ecology, and so on. And it also emphasizes that, contrary to classical accounts of “Oriental Despotism” and “Asian modes of production,” the East at the time of the rise of the West was not in a state of “stagnation.” Globalization and the global system were not driven by the West’s “Age of Discovery”; a vibrant system was already in place in the East long before it (whether we describe it as one system or many), and the rise of the West was actually the process of attempting to join that system to then gradually overtake it. This is how Andre Gunder Frank’s ReORIENT (translated to Chinese as 白银资本, “Silver Capital”) proposes to re-examine global history. Along these lines, Kenneth Pomeranz further argues that the East had remained economically dominant over the West throughout the “Age of Discovery,” and that only after the Industrial Revolution in the mid- to late-18th century did the West truly overtake the East, leading to the aforementioned “Great Divergence.”

Darwin intervenes in the field of global history as a historian of empire, but one who has done his homework. The first chapter of the book, “Orientations,” is a nod to Andre Gunder Frank’s work, and expresses Darwin’s intent to examine the relationship between Europe and the rest of the world on equal footing, especially with regards to the East. Ample space is devoted to studying the dynamism of the Russian Empire, the Islamic world, India, and China before the 18th century, effectively countering the tendency of 19th century theorists to portray them as “stagnant.” Within the tradition of ReORIENT, Darwin argues that “the centre of gravity in modern world history lies in Eurasia” [3] and not, as Western-centric narratives would have it, in the Atlantic. In Chapter 4, “The Eurasian Revolution,” the title of the second subsection is taken directly from Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence, further indicating which paradigm of historical interpretation Darwin’s awareness stems from. As for the criticism of Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Max Weber, and others’ theoretical interpretations of the rise of the West in the first chapter, it is more a tribute to the aforementioned colleagues in global history than a formulation of original theoretical views.

However, since Darwin belongs to the tradition of imperial history, he also challenges the commonplaces of global history. The study of imperial history is generally traced back to The Expansion of England, authored in 1883 by J. R. Seeley, Professor of Empire at Cambridge University. As an academic tradition it both summarized the historical experience of the expansion of European colonial empires and provided theoretical justification and support for that expansion. However, imperial studies as such declined with the publication of left-wing theoretical critiques of 19th-century imperialism like Hobson’s Imperialism: A Study (1902) and Lenin’s Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917), and particularly with the demise of European colonial empires and the rise of national liberation movements after World War II. As the United States struggled for global hegemony, imperial studies shifted into “regional studies” that downplayed the imperial dimension. The 1960s were an era of cultural revolution in the West, so these “regional studies” were influenced by post-colonial theory, new social theory, cultural criticism, and other postmodern theoretical approaches. The end of the Cold War led to a marked decline in left-wing criticism of imperialist thinking, and theories of “globalization” and “the end of history” fueled a revival of imperial studies. This tradition is exemplified by Niall Ferguson, well-known in the Chinese world as one of its key representatives. [4] In the aftermath of 9/11, as the United States embarked on a series of military conquests to build a “New Roman Empire,” the theory of empire transformed once again, this time from history onto the realm of international politics.

Darwin does not share Ferguson’s nostalgia for Whig historiography and the glory days of the British Empire, nor his stance in favor of American dominance. Although he was born in 1948 to a family of British Empire officials, he spent his adolescence in South Africa bearing witness to anti-colonial struggle, and studied at Oxford University at a time of changing academic thinking. The post-colonial and postmodern theories that were emerging at the time had a profound impact on his studies. This “new imperial history” had sociological, anthropological, and environmental dimensions; it focused on environmental change, migration, religion, commerce, ideology, and both the resistance and cooperation of colonized people. In 1953 Darwin’s mentors John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson published their famous paper The Imperialism of Free Trade, an altogether new interpretation of the history of the British Empire. This had a huge impact on Darwin’s understanding of empire. We could argue that his later publications Unfinished Empire (2012) and The Empire Project (2009) — important works — were in fact further elaborations of the ideas of his mentors.

It is from within this “new imperial history” tradition that Darwin argues that the “Great Divergence” of the West over the East in the 18th century was the result of historical contingencies. In this view, the total expansion of European empire was made possible not only by the destruction of Eastern empires through the “industrial imperialism” emphasized by classical social theory, but also, and more importantly, by the development of a “civilized” “imperial liberalism.” This idea of “civilization” was so appreciated and supported by Eastern elites that European empires were able to expand not only through violent conquest, but also through the active collaboration of colonial subjects. It could be said that this “new imperial history” no longer places the onus of colonial expansion on the European powers, but instead on the various economic, social, and cultural interactions between Europe and the colonies. In this way, though “new imperial history” seems to deconstruct Western-centrism and the notion that Western imperial dominance was the product of rational planning, it also deconstructs political economy as the basis of imperial expansion, and in doing so undermines critiques of the Western order as distinctly “imperialist.”

To this end Darwin emphasizes the need to separate the concept of “empire” from the theoretical critique of “imperialism,” sees “empire” as “the default mode of political organization throughout most of history,” [5] and argues that “the history of the world, it is tempting to say, is an imperial history, a history of empires.” [6] Darwin balks at portrayals of the West’s rise and conquest of the East as “the brutal saga of predatory imperialism,” while also advising against glorifying it as “the long march to modernity, with the West as a guide, and using its template.” [7] He tries to provide nuance to the history of global empire with an objective and dispassionate view, unclouded by emotional judgment. Having turned “empire” into a neutral concept, “imperialism” becomes “the attempt to impose one state’s predominance over other societies by assimilating them to its political, cultural and economic system” so that “it was not just a European phenomenon, although Europeans had tended to carry it furthest.” [8] In his book, he not only sees the expansion of Tsarist Russia in Central Asia as “inland imperialism,” but even calls the expansion of Ottoman Turkey “imperialism.” “Imperialism” is no longer a historical phenomenon particular to “the highest stage of capitalism,” as Lenin theorized, but simply the expansive drive of empires throughout human history. This “new imperial history” effectively sterilizes left-wing critiques of “imperialism” from the 19th century onward, and allows Darwin to write a history of European imperial expansion unburdened by guilt.

This sanitization of “imperialism” also leads the concept of “empire” to lose its specific historical connotation, becoming very broad. Surprisingly — given the subject matter — Darwin does not theoretically define the concept of “empire,” and does not emphasize any differences between ancient and modern empires. He simply describes them as “the accumulation of power on an extensive scale” [9] and “systems of influence or rule in which ethnic, cultural or ecological boundaries were overlapped or ignored.” [10] In his descriptions he limits himself to adding modifiers to account for external characteristics, and so we have “commercial empire,” “military empire,” “undeclared empire,” “unlimited empire,” and so on. Although in the last chapter he discusses three forms of empire — “classical,” “colonial,” and “informal” [11] — he does not emphasize any distinctions between them, instead focusing on the commonality that all three faced challenges to their rule. They do not form part of his analysis of the “Eurasian Revolution.” To truly understand the causes and consequences of the “Eurasian Revolution” or the “Great Divergence,” however, we must account for different types of empires, and the ancient and modern worlds which contained them.


Darwin’s work plays global history studies and imperial studies against each other. He criticizes the left-wing tradition in global history from Immanuel Wallerstein to Andre Gunder Frank from a “new imperial history” perspective, and then deconstructs Hobson and Lenin’s critique of imperialism by considering empire as a universal historical phenomenon from a “global history” perspective. The resulting “global imperial history” dovetails with Halford Mackinder’s geopolitics. Mackinder’s work from the outset suggested that Eurasian relations should not be analyzed in isolation, and his geopolitics were in service of European imperialist expansion into the “Eurasian continent” that has Darwin’s attention, albeit under a different lens. Darwin argues that Eurasian empires were evenly matched for centuries, and that European empires rise to overwhelming dominance only after the 18th century. What were the factors that led to this “Great Divergence”? According to Darwin, the “Eurasian Revolution.” This revolution in turn comprises three intertwined revolutions: geopolitical, economic (industrial), and cultural (“civilizational”). Given that economic and cultural factors were already emphasized by classical theories, Darwin’s greatest contribution is then the introduction of the geopolitical one (“A Geopolitical Revolution” is the first subheading of Ch. 4).

From a geopolitical point of view, Darwin emphasizes how the discovery of the New World transformed the concept of Europe, with European colonies in Russia and the Americas and Oceania coming to be considered part of a “Greater Europe,” and how the silver of the Americas allowed Europeans “marginally to attach themselves to the Asian economic train.” [12] Meanwhile, and perhaps more importantly, the collapse of Napoleon’s empire in the early 19th century broke the geopolitical balance of power among the empires within Europe, leading to the expansion of the Russian Empire towards the heart of the continent and the British Empire towards the seas, attacking Eurasia from the north and south, encroaching on the geopolitical space of Eastern empires. It was during the century-long “Great Game” between the British Empire and Tsarist Russia that the British occupied and colonized India, thus acquiring a springboard from which to conquer East Asia. From then on, Britain dominated the maritime world, prompting the rise of global free trade. The “Industrial Revolution” furnished the good quality and low cost products with which Britain would subdue the last Eastern empire: China would be overcome through trade. The project of “Greater Europe” thus gave impetus to geopolitical revolution and economic revolution, and the ensuing developmental gap led to a cultural revolution where Europeans would portray themselves as bringing “civilization” to people suffering from backwards “barbarism,” premised on the myth of Eastern “stagnation.” These three intertwined revolutions pushed Europe to finally overtake Asia on the Eurasian continent, and sealed the fate of Asia’s decline.

This geopolitical account of the “Great Divergence” is very insightful, but Darwin overlooks two fundamental questions regarding the history of global empire. One is the “Zheng He Mystery.” That is, Ming Dynasty China was fully capable of global maritime navigation, and fleet admiral Zheng He had already discovered the continent we now know as Africa, so why did China not seize the opportunity to dominate the world back then, as Europeans would later do? The second is the “Mystery of the Great Voyage.” That is, why did Europeans risk so much on such an expedition? Truly understanding the geopolitical basis of the “Great Divergence” requires us to consider these two questions together.

Although Darwin draws heavily from Mackinder, he overlooks the far-reaching implications of Mackinder’s division of the globe into a continental heartland, a continental periphery (the Inner Crescent), and an oceanic island zone (the Outer Crescent). The pressure exerted by the continental heartland on the continental periphery meant that China, located on the continental periphery, had to prioritize its interactions with the nomadic peoples of the north. As a result, China’s geostrategy always focused on competing with the continental heartland for the “Inner Subcontinent.” [13] Thus, Zheng He’s voyages to the West were never intended to develop commercial maritime trade, and even the discovery of the New World would have held little significance for an already-rich China. On the other hand, and more importantly, during the long struggle with the less civilized nomads in the north, northern minorities poured into the Middle Kingdom and underwent cultural sinicization, thus strengthening the Chinese civilization’s self-confidence to the point they came to see themselves as the center of the world. This cultural self-confidence developed into hubris and clouded Chinese perception of outside change, to the point that throughout the 16th and 17th centuries they paid little interest to scientific knowledge emerging in the West. The European empire entered its heyday just as the Chinese dynasty was in decline, and this historical “coincidence” accelerated the “Eurasian Revolution.” In this sense, China’s historical power as a continental empire, as well as its lack of maritime awareness, cultural isolation, and arrogance toward the West, all were the result of a long-term geopolitical interaction with the continental heartland. Likewise, the rise of the West resulted not only from the Mediterranean lifestyle but, more importantly, from its accidental discovery of the New World. Truly a “fateful coincidence.”

To understand why Europeans undertook the “Voyages of Discovery,” then, we must analyze the Mediterranean from a geopolitical perspective. European civilization always has revolved around the struggle for the Mediterranean, and in this sense commercial trade and navigation are to Europeans what agriculture and horseback riding are to the Chinese: a cultural gene adapted to geography. More importantly, European civilization repeatedly experienced defeat at hands of Eastern civilization. Greek civilization was destroyed by Eastern empires, the Roman Empire rose and was subdued by Eastern Christianity, and Christian Europe was almost destroyed by the Mongols (giving rise to the “Yellow Peril”). For Europe the immediate significance of the “death of Tamerlane” is that they prevailed, but the more long-term impact is that the disintegration of the Mongol Empire led to the discontinuation of the “Silk Road” which connected the East and the West, and Ottoman Turkey rose to monopolize trade between the Mediterranean and the East, and this pressured Europeans into the small living space of Western Europe. Christianity had no cultural advantage over Islam, and the “Crusades” were just a desperate Western European effort which ended in failure.

In this geopolitical environment, the “Great Voyage” can be seen as the expression of a European survival instinct. In addition to searching for the King John of Christian legend to organize an alliance against Ottoman Turkey, it was important for Europeans to establish alternative maritime trade routes to India and China, for not only were they a center of wealth, but also of knowledge, values, and ways of life. In addition to the “Four Great Inventions” [compass, gunpowder, paper, and print] considered instrumental to the rise of Europe, recent studies reveal that astronomy, cartography, and navigation also originated in the East, as well as other inventions such as cotton processing, tea cultivation, and engineering technology. In modern terms, this industrial intellectual property was transferred from Asia to Europe without compensation. And in the field of thought and culture, India’s Buddhism and China’s Confucianism both boomed in Europe throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, playing a recognizable role in the Enlightenment. Darwin’s book desribes how the West spread knowledge to the East, but not once does it mention how the West first acquired knowledge from the East. The term “Four Great Inventions” does not even appear at all. Rather than overcome Western-centrism, Darwin’s “new imperial history” obscures it.


Whether we look at the post-industrial “Great Divergence” or the earlier “Mystery of Zheng He,” differences between Chinese and Western civilizations are obvious. The reason for these differences, however, is a matter of enduring debate, from 18th and 19th century European classical social theory to contemporary global history studies. The lens of “empire” suggests that different civilizational traditions would lead to different imperial forms. Unfortunately, in this work Darwin does not focus on the differences between Eastern and Western imperial formations and the impact of this difference on the “Eurasian Revolution.” Another of Darwin’s works recounts the history of the British Empire, and its title The Empire Project is drawn from Adam Smith, so let us examine Adam Smith’s explanation of the “Great Divergence” in the 18th century.

Darwin invokes Mark Elvin’s concept of the “high-level equilibrium trap” to explain why China failed to follow the path of the Industrial Revolution, and this is a problem that was first elaborated by Adam Smith. Smith astutely observed that in human history we observe two paths towards industrialization. One is the “natural” path of modernization typified by China, where agriculture leads to manufacturing, then commerce and trade. The other is the “anti-natural” or “regressive” modernization path typified by Europe, i.e., the path from commerce to manufacturing to agriculture. The European feudal system imposed limits on the improvement and development of agriculture, so the destruction of the feudal system pioneered by Italian commercial republics was focused on commerce in the Mediterranean, which oriented discovery towards the goal of trading small but high-value goods. Europe’s early luxury trade later evolved into trade of manufactured goods, thus driving Europe to take the lead in the Industrial Revolution.

Adam Smith not only identified an economic basis for the “Great Divergence,” he also identified how “anti-natural,” commerce-driven development in Europe shaped the modern structure of the “military-financial state.” The profitability of commodity trade depended on sales markets, and in order to open up markets European countries were constantly waging wars. The wars contributed to the rise of finance, and the issuance of bonds allowed European states to significantly scale up their capacity to wage war. The vast markets opened up by the wars in turn stimulated the development of manufacturing industries to provide more cheap goods. Thus, the four factors of trade, war, finance, and industry — all mutually reinforcing in this “anti-natural” path of modernization — led to the formation of an unprecedented political organization: the “military-financial state.” The rise of Europe was not only the globalization and industrialization of commerce and trade, but also the globalization of finance and war machines. This new political organization of the “military-financial state” unleashed the most barbaric forces of human nature, fundamentally reverting many of the achievements of civilization. This is how Darwin understands “modernity”: the unified mobilization of “human” and “material” forces, the organization of economic, political, and cultural factors into a “magnetic force.” [14]

If “civilization” means the restraint of the savage animal nature of humanity, then “modernity” means its release, and what Darwin called the “cultural revolution” was a struggle to redefine “civilization” so as to make the savage power unleashed by desire and liberty its benchmark: science and technology, industrial and commercial capitalism, sovereign states based upon liberal democracy, and — in what was finally revealed to the highest principle of “modernity” — the violence of war. Thus, the fundamental driving force of the “Eurasian Revolution” and “Great Divergence” is that China’s “natural” path to modernization and Confucian ethics led it to insist on restraints on violence with appeals to morality, whereas Europe, in order to join the world system of the East, took an “anti-natural” path to modernization which involved a revolutionary turn from “tradition” to “modernity,” resulting in a new and unprecedented imperial form. Thus, the history of global empire is also the history of the rise of “civilized barbarians,” the history of the transformation of classical Eastern empires into modern European empires, the history of the rise of European sovereign states and colonization, the history of the slave trade and capitalist exploitation, and the history of never-ending imperialist wars. Darwin’s intentional or unintentional erasure of the differences between ancient and modern imperial forms has the precise effect of downplaying the extraordinary barbarism of the modern imperial form brought about by the rise of Europe. We still live in the barbaric world it created, and racist Social Darwinism is its underlying ideology. Globalization aggravates geopolitical inequality while trade wars, technology wars, financial wars, and cyber wars become the norm.

The rise of Europe also introduced a new imperial structure. The European empire has a modern sovereign state at its core; a small entity with internal cohesion and strong organizational mobilization that we usually call the “military-financial state,” “constitutional state,” or “nation-state.” This imperial core is the engine of a new kind of empire. It was by relying on the special capabilities of the imperial core that tiny sovereign states in Europe could conquer the vast empires of Asia and the New World, and thus build huge colonial empires. The categories of “colonial empire” and “colonialism” refer to the economic exploitation, violent domination, and military conquest of colonies by European sovereigns. However, in “new imperial history” narratives it is common to emphasize that European colonial empires were not planned nor purposefully built by governments, but rather the haphazard result of the advent of global commercial trade following the Great Voyages of Discovery. In particular, Dutch and British overseas colonies were established as private companies by merchants and adventurers who obtained charters from their governments. Thus, “new imperial history” places special emphasis on the fragmented and diverse modes of governance established by merchants, missionaries, adventurers, and settlers — all based on the interests of commercial trade, all nominally loyal to the British king but in fact operating as “highly autonomous” forms of government. These new empires, unlike classical empires built on territorial conquest, combined the method of violence with compromise and cooperation in the interest of commerce, resulting in what Darwin refers to as “empires of free trade” or “informal empires.” On this basis Darwin prefers to think of the British Empire as a “world-system.”

However, whereas Wallerstein used the concept of “world-system” to emphasize the economic exploitation of the periphery by the central regions of Europe, Darwin’s view of the British Empire as a “world-system” is instead a response to the critique of European “colonial empires” or “imperialism.” Although the two concepts are used interchangeably, the concept of “colonialism” is more politically and even militarily associated with imperial territorial appropriation and violent conquest. The development of capitalism allowed the extraction of economic resources through trade and investment. Thus, in contrast to the “colonial empire” of naked conquest and plunder, “imperialism” is actually an advanced form (the highest stage of capitalism, per Lenin), an unequal redistribution of economic wealth enabled by seemingly mutually-beneficial commercial transactions and investments, imperial domination by more covert and superficially civilized means. In this sense, we can say that the “formal empire” associated with colonialism retained some aspects of the traditional “tribute empire” (Samir Amin) of the ancient agrarian era and is an intermediate form between classical and modern empire, whereas the “informal empire” or “world-system” of “imperialism” is fully modern and the product of the capitalist mode of production, where economic power plays a decisive role and political power is subordinate.

If we place these two forms of empire in the context of Darwin’s “Eurasian Revolution,” Portugal and Spain’s early direct plunder exemplifies more the classical “colonialist” form, while the subsequent Dutch and British colonization of North America and the East Indies exemplifies the “imperialist” form, with gradual development based on trade and investment overshadowing the “colonialist” element. However, the formal empire of “colonialism” and the informal empire of “imperialism” must not be seen as two different stages of historical development, but rather as two different ways of constructing empires. In fact, the rise of European empires exhibited both “colonialist” and “imperialist” traits from the very beginning, as they have always been intertwined, taking different forms at different times and in different regions. In the case of the early Spanish and Portuguese empires, they engaged in “colonial” direct plunder in Africa and the Americas, but operated more on the basis of trade upon entering the Eastern world. Analogously, the British Empire, despite its Victorian-era promotion of “free trade,” resorted to gunboats in order to force open the doors of trade to China. In the history of European empires, maritime trade has always been closely linked to naval development, and free trade policies have always been linked to gunboat policies. While Britain was more “imperialist” in the period of global free trade, it intensified its “colonialist” policy in India, reverting from an “informal empire” into a “formal empire” with colonial rule.

As one can see, modern empire has a richer arsenal than the ancient agricultural “tribute empire.” Complex combinations of military, religious, commercial, financial, and cultural influence generate a varied and dynamic imperial landscape. Fierce competition among European empires in the 18th century led to a more colonialist monopoly of mercantilist strategies, but in the 19th century the dissolution of Napoleon’s empire meant that Britain was no longer kept in check by France, its archrival in Europe, and with this decisive advantage it ushered in an era of global commercial trade and the promotion of “free-trade imperialism.” The rise of Europe thus resulted in a complex web of sovereign states, colonial empires, and “informal empires.”

If we place this imperial model in the spatial-historical context of the “Eurasian Revolution” we will see that such empires form a triangle in geographic space between a “Greater Europe” comprised of sovereign states (the Westphalian system); the vast “colonial empire” built on the margins of the Americas, Africa, and Eurasia; and the “informal empire” (the One World System) that is built up globally through trade and investment. This is both a triangle of organizational structures within the modern imperial system and a triangle of historical spaces created by global geopolitics. If we place this triangle in the context of geopolitical transformation we will find that, no matter how much we criticize the so-called “Euro-centrism” in the “discourse,” we can never deny that in actual practice the fundamental driving force of Europe’s construction was properly European, i.e. Europe did not surrender or yield to geopolitical pressure, but instead waged an indomitable struggle to the death in the face of “challenges.” This resilience in the face of “challenges” became the savage spirit of “freedom” that Europeans came to cherish, and resistance to pressure and the impetus for world domination were elevated to the position of dominant philosophical ethos. In this context, the domestication of barbarism in Confucian civilization was seen by Westerners as stifling of this spirit of “freedom,” and unethical. Montesquieu often characterized Oriental Despotism as “rule by the stick,” especially in reference to the absolute authority of the father in the family. Therefore, whether in the case of voyages throughout the world to find alternative routes to the East, or in life-and-death struggles within European countries, material conditions drove Europe towards a “modernity” that sought control by force.

What links the tiny sovereign imperial core to vast colonial holdings and “informal empires” all over the world is this “magnetic force” exerted by “modernity.” Science and technology replace religious superstition, unlimited growth of objective knowledge replaces folkloric traditions, large-scale division of labor replaces self-sufficiency, industrial products replace natural products, abstract currency replaces visible wealth, law (the rule of law) replaces morality (the rule of man), citizens replace subjects, democracy replaces monarchy. It is by virtue of the enormous energy unleashed by “modernity” that tiny European countries were able to deal a “staggering” blow to huge traditional Eastern empires. Thus, “modernity” is not a simple development based on tradition, but a revolutionary leap in a different dimension. The small British Isles constructed an unprecedented form of empire. Not by conquering global territories with military power, as Tamerlane did, but by using trade and finance to draw a constant stream of resources and profits into London. Whereas traditional empires demanded a finite amount of money and tribute, the British Empire extorted a virtually unlimited amount of wealth. The British Empire replaced the iron horses of the Mongols with the pound sterling and industrial goods, and thus fulfilled Tamerlane’s dream of a new world empire.


Darwin, a specialist in the history of empire, delivers “a history of empire without empire.” Although the book is about “empire,” the concept itself is not given systematic consideration. It can be said that Darwin’s concept of “empire” does not extend beyond the old empires of Eurasia based on territorial occupation, and so the Mongolian steppe empire that the “death of Tamerlane” left behind is seen as a “world empire,” but the British Empire is not. When he tries to distinguish between traditional “empire” and “world-system” he ends up mired in contradiction, and so the British Empire is both an “unfinished empire” and also not an empire at all, merely a “world-system” in flux. He claims that Eurasia will not accept a single unified world empire, but fails to see that Eurasia already conforms to a world empire constituted as a “world-system” by the Internet, the dollar, and global commerce. This new type of world empire is no longer British, but American.

The reason why I emphasize here that this is a new type of “world empire,” instead of accepting Darwin’s “world-system” designation or the usual “liberal international order” from international political theory, is that the theory of sovereign states obscures the imperial essence of Western hegemony. This “new imperial history” narrative, based on postmodern theory, diminishes the political dimension of imperialism. The framing of “U.S.-China relations” or “U.S.-China competition” that is so commonplace today, premised on the concept of sovereign states, is actually deceptive and misleading. It is deceptive and misleading to portray China and the United States as two equal sovereign states, ignoring the three faces of modern Western imperialism, and the fact that the imperial system of the United States is even more complex than the British Empire’s ever was. The United States operates an imperial arrangement within its continental territory, followed by a second imperial core in the form of the Five Eyes alliance, followed by a system of vassal states in the guise of allies such as the military domination systems of Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East, operates Latin America as a “backyard,” and, of course, it also has control over other supplementary “world-systems” such as the Internet, finance, and trade. Thus, the U.S.-China relationship is better characterized as China, a rising sovereign state, facing the U.S.-dominated world empire or world system. It’s not a question of managing a relationship between two sovereign states, but a question of how China faces the U.S.-dominated world empire. The “U.S.-China decoupling” that has been the focus of public discussion in recent years would be better understood as an effort on the part of the U.S. to expel China from the “world imperial system.” Therefore, the U.S.-China struggle is not only about the fate of the two countries, but also about the future of the world order itself, i.e., is the whole world subservient to the U.S.-dominated world empire, or will it establish truly equal international relations between sovereign states? When the U.S. and Soviet superpowers were trying to build two different types of world empires, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) that emerged in countries like India and China intended to create a more fair and rational international order. Today’s U.S.-China rivalry represents a struggle over these two world visions and the shared destiny of humanity.

From the geopolitical point of view, the geographical advantage of the continental heartland is gradually being lost. First with the rise of modern oceanic empires and now especially with aerospace and the Internet, it is impossible to build a world empire via territorial annexation. After Tamerlane, from the Napoleonic Empire, through the German Empire, to the Soviet Empire, each time a continental empire threatened to follow the course of the Mongol Empire, it resulted in their defeat at hands of the maritime empire. A principal reason for the failure of continental empires was the constant repetition of Tamerlane’s mistakes, where attempts at territorial annexation led continental states to ally with the maritime empire out of fear. The Soviet Union was the closest thing to a success, but its territorial expansion pushed Western Europe into the U.S. system of world empire, and China also parted ways, to the extent that many consider Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 the beginning of the end of the Cold War.

In this sense, the book After Tamerlane, although written in a Britain which eventually left the European Union, should become a desk book for all politicians in Eurasia, who should draw lessons from the tragedy of imperial worldbuilding after Tamerlane. That is, the countries of Eurasia must abandon the old road of territorial annexation, and take a new road of mutual exchange and win-win cooperation, the road promoted by China’s “Belt and Road Initiative.” Only in this way will the center of gravity of world history shift back to Eurasia and to the Eastern world. For China the most important lesson is that it must abandon its traditional strategic positioning as a continental country and all of its resulting cultural perceptions, and continue to embrace the world by facing the seas. Having both continental and maritime geopolitical characteristics, and therefore two distinct political and cultural identities, necessarily requires China to promote a feedback cycle in order to maintain a balance between them, thus contributing to the construction of a new global order.

However, the “Eurasian Revolution” was not only a product of geopolitics, but also a product of human history moving from tradition to modernity, a product of the interplay of technological, economic, legal, political, military, ideological, and cultural revolutions, which ultimately propelled humanity to grasp the universe, the world, and itself through knowledge. The fact that humanity has transitioned from scattered regional empires to a world empire means that we have the knowledge and ability to organize and manage a whole world, and this continuous growth will also push humanity to navigate an even broader universe in the future. The world empire dominated by Britain and the United States was enabled by centuries of knowledge, experience, and wisdom that accumulated in the West, and we still live in the world that they created. Continuously learning from the wealth of knowledge generated by the West in the modern era has undoubtedly benefited China. The upcoming world order will only be truly new if we are able to grasp such knowledge with self-awareness and a sense of purpose, maintaining an open mind towards all of human civilization, and promoting continuous intellectual innovation. In this sense, Darwin’s work, which summarizes the history of the rise and fall of the Eurasian empires, undoubtedly gives us all something to think about.

[1] A line from the English edition which also became last subheading of the Chinese edition of the book upon translation. 

[2] Ch. 9. 

[3] Ch. 1. 

[4] CITIC Publishing Group has translated and published a series of Ferguson books. 

[5] Ch. 1. 

[6] Ch. 9. 

[7] Ch. 9. 

[8] Ch. 7. 

[9] Ch. 1. 

[10] Ch. 9. 

[11] Ch. 9. 

[12] Frank, ReORIENT

[13] Owen Lattimore’s term. 

[14] Ch. 9.