02.158DH Kings, monks, and merchants: A history of Asia before 1750

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This course is a connected and comparative history of Asia before 1750 that introduces students to the region’s major political, economic, and intellectual contours prior to British colonisation.

The course focuses, in particular, on tracing the history of premodern Asia through three types of transregional cultural formation: large empires, trading zones, and religious ecumene. We will explore and discuss how these formations unfolded across Central and Eastern Asia and South and Southeast Asia, and use them as a lens for thinking critically about the scope of ‘Asia’ as a geographical, political, economic, and cultural category in premodern history.

Learning Objectives

  1. Students will identify and describe some of Asia’s major empires, trading zones, and religious
    formations before British colonisation.
  2. Students will analyse the changing nature of Asian regionality based on Asia’s connected
    political, economic and religious history in premodernity.
  3. Students will be able to compare different transregional formations across premodern Asia
    and formulate general, comparative theories about their historical development.

Measureable Outcomes

  1. Students will be able to recollect key historical facts about Asian history during weekly quizzes.
  2. Students will create digital, annotated maps of the transregional political, economic, and
    religious formations learned about in the course.
  3. Students will write a final essay comparing two different empires, trading zones or religious
    formations covered in the course.

Course Requirement

Assessment Percentage
WEC – Class Participation 19
WEC – Weekly Quizzes 19
WEC – Mid-term GIC Assignment 31
WEC – Final Written Exam 31

Weekly Schedule


Week 1: Introduction – Course Overview

– Conceptualising ‘Asia’ and ‘Premodernity’

Week 2: Early Empires in India and China – The Mauryas and Guptas

– The Qin and Han

Week 3: Early Religious Formations – Asia’s Axial Age

– The Spread of Buddhism to Northern Asia

Week 4: The Silk Road – Establishing the Silk Road

– Buddhism, Kushana Empire and Trade

Class Trip to the Asian Civilisations Museum


Week 5: The Maritime Silk Road – The Tang, Shrivijaya and Chola triangle

– Buddhist and Islamic networks

Week 6: Introduction to GIS; Mid-Term Assignment Consultations

Week 7: Recess Week

Week 8: The Mongol Exchange – The emergence of the Mongols

– The Mongol exchange

Week 9: Sanskrit Cosmopolis and Theravada Ecumene


Week 10: Post-Mongol Empires – The Mughals

– The Late Ming and Qing empires

Week 11: Early European Colonialism – Portuguese in Asia

– Dutch in Asia

Week 12: The Expansion of Islam and Christianity

Week 13: Final Assignment Consultations

Alastair Gornall