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What did Asia’s thinkers make of western colonialism, asks Julia Lovell

Debates about the rise of the modern west (and corresponding decline of the east) remain a fertile source of historical polemic. Such oppositional historiography – the idea of a head-on clash of civilisations, with a clear winner and loser – seems to hold a perennial appeal in terms of both its simplicity and its drama of antagonism. Last year, Niall Ferguson – in his pugnaciously titled Civilization: The Six Ways the West Beat the Rest – brought the subject back into sharp media focus. “The rise of the west,” he argued, “is the pre-eminent historical phenomenon of the second half of the second millennium after Christ. It is the story at the very heart of modern history. It is perhaps the most challenging riddle historians have to solve.

To condense two extremes of a now venerable argument, the…

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