Oxford historian’s talks about ‘age of Asia’
Oxford University history professor Peter Frankopan says historians should be brave: “Otherwise, there is no point of writing history.”
In his latest book, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, he has tried to narrate the history of the world from a different perspective — from what “kept being told of the importance of the Mediterranean as a cradle of civilization, when it seemed so obvious that this was not where civilization had really been forged”, as he writes in the preface.
“The real crucible, the ‘Mediterranean’ in its literal meaning — the center of the world — was not a sea separating Europe and North Africa, but right in the heart of Asia.”
At the end of the 672-page book, Frankopan concludes “we are seeing the signs of the world’s center of gravity shifting — back to where it lay for millennia”.
After elaborating the historical development of the Silk Roads since its birth more than 2,000 years ago from different perspectives, such as faiths, trades, wars and diseases, Frankopan writes: “It is easy to feel confused and disturbed by dislocation and violence in the Islamic world, by religious fundamentalism, by clashes between Russia and its neighbors or by China’s struggle with extremism in its western provinces. What we are witnessing, however, are the birthing pains of a region that once dominated the intellectual, cultural and economic landscape and which is now re-emerging.”
Questioned by many critics on being “overly optimistic” about the conclusion of his book, Frankopan says in an interview with China Daily: “I’m not being optimistic. I am saying that there is always part of the world that drives and is most affected by changes, and it has always been like that.”
The whole world is in the process of change, he adds, and “I could try to answer, but the key point is that the change doesn’t happen in the space of one week, one month or one year, and we’ll see what will happen”.
He attributes the change to what was happening in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, China and even the last phase of the former Soviet Union some 25 years ago.
“That was the birth of the change. We’re living in an age of Asia,” he says.
In the context of the Belt and Road Initiative, Frankopan says the greatest challenge for China is the need to constantly explain itself to the outside world.
“That’s hard,” he says.
There is already a strong belief in China, not just within government but also among people, that the Chinese are very special, Chinese culture is very rich and Chinese history is strong, he says. “There’s no need to be explaining this way.”
That can be better done by making as many friends as possible, he says.
Although it still needs time to see how the Belt and Road Initiative develops, Frankopan says, “I’m still more or less optimistic insofar as it looks to me potentially the most important investment plan for hundreds of years”.
Since he published The Silk Roads: A New History of the World in 2015, more than 1 million copies in English and other languages, including Finnish, Korean, Dutch, Danish, French Swedish, Russian, Croatian and Spanish, have been sold, making the book a best-seller around the world.
Since the Chinese translation of his book was published in September 2016, more than 500,000 copies have been sold.
Since he was 6 years old, Frankopan has been fascinated by the world map and curious about the center of the world. He says he has being working on the book for 40 years.
Happy with his work as a historian, he has spent the last 25 to 30 years working in libraries, looking for answers to his own questions, such as: Why the world today looks the way it does? Why is it that English language is so common all over the world? Why is it that China is changing today?
Everybody is trying to understand what the world is going to be tomorrow, but they are looking to the past to explain that, he says.
“Suddenly it looks that these questions that I’m asking, everybody else wants to know some answers. And I’m modest enough to know that I don’t have all the answers but at least I’ve tried to think about what these questions are and I think that’s why this book has been so successful all over the world,” he says.
The Chinese translation of Peter Frankopan’s
Peter Frankopan, British