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Eurocentrism, Anticolonialism, Modernity, Postcolonialism

The tendency to examine the histories of Asia and Africa through the prism of "European expansion" was very common, even prevalent, in Western scholarship on these two continents in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The rise of nationalism, anticolonialism, and independence movements brought greater realization of the importance Asians and Africans had played in their own country, and hence a trend away from Eurocentrism. Scholars from Africa and Asia went to live in the West in increasing numbers for training. They brought understandings from their own countries as well as taking back ideas from the West. At the same time, the rise in influence of many former colonies brought about a shift in attitude in the West itself toward Asia's and Africa's histories and cultures.

One illustrative example is the literary movement negritude of the 1930s to the 1950s. Led by Léopold Sédar Senghor, who was elected first president of the previously French-colonized West African Republic of Senegal in 1960, this movement arose in Paris, where several major literary figures from French African colonies lived. It attacked the humiliation and contempt European colonialism had inflicted on Africa and black people. Above all, it opposed colonialism and Eurocentrism by seeking to reassert the value and dignity of African traditions.


Modernity and the question of when the modern age began are important in Eurocentrism. Until World War II, most scholars studying Asian and African peoples were content to attach modernity to European colonialism or imperialism. But this attitude came under attack in the post-war West, and even more with the Vietnam War of 1965–1973, because it ignores or underplays processes that might have been taking place in the country of concern.

Taking China as an example of a major civilization that never actually became a colony despite major attacks from imperialist powers ranging from Britain to Japan, we find that prewar Western historians of the "modern" period tended to see the beginnings of modernity in the middle of the nineteenth century, which was when the Western impact began in earnest. For example, the great American sinologist John King Fairbank (1907–1991) developed a theory of "change within tradition" before the Western impact, but "transformation" brought about by the West in the nineteenth century. Since the 1970s, more and more historians see internal dynamics within the long range of Chinese history, in which the Western impact of the nineteenth century was an important factor, but certainly not one so fundamental as to define the boundaries of "modern" China. They challenge the notion of a stagnant China awaiting deliverance from a dynamic West as Eurocentric, and either see no point in assigning the boundary of a "modern" China or choose times other than the mid-nineteenth century.

Postmodern and postcolonial studies.

Since the 1980s Eurocentrism has been more closely associated in the humanities and social sciences with ideologies such as sexism and racism. "Subaltern studies," which attack all forms of scholarship and ideology that give space to any kind of dominationism or inequality have become increasingly influential in the humanities and social sciences.

One highly significant example is the rise of gender and feminist scholarship that associates Eurocentrism, imperialism, and racism with sexism. These theories argue against the possibility of fully understanding imperialism without reference to gendered power. Colonialism was male in its interests and violent in its methods. Europe was essentially male, the colonies female.

An interesting case study of the way anti-Eurocentrism has merged with antiracism in the field of ancient history is the argument that Ancient Greek civilization derived from Asia and Africa, especially Egypt. Ancient Greece is generally regarded as one of the most important sources, or even "the cradle," of European civilization. But Martin Bernal (1987) suggests that it was nineteenth-century racism that exalted the Ancient Greeks as racially pure Aryans, even though the roots of their civilization were Semitic, Phoenician, and Egyptian.

Together with the existence of a thinker like Edward Said, these examples of alternative paradigms suggest that Eurocentrism is on the decline in the postcolonial era. But it is very far from dead.


Amin, Samir. Eurocentrism. Translated by Russell Moore. New York: Monthly Review, 1989. Major attack on Eurocentrism.

Bernal, Martin. The Fabrication of Ancient Greece, 1785–1985. Vol. 1 of Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization. London: Free Association Books, 1987. Argues that Ancient Greek civilization had its roots in Africa and Asia.

Blaut, James M. The Colonizer's Model of the World: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History. New York: Guilford, 1993.

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Preface by Jean-Paul Sartre. Translated by Constance Farrington. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1967. Classic text condemning colonialism, including its influence on the mind.

Goody, Jack. The East in the West. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Major anti-Eurocentrist theory of world history.

Inden, Ronald B. Imagining India. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.

Lach, Donald F. Asia in the Making of Europe, 3 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965–1993. In three volumes and nine books covers South Asian, East Asian, and Southeast Asian impact on Europe over three centuries.

Mackerras, Colin. Western Images of China. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989. Covers all periods.

Marx, Karl. "The British Rule in India." In Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Selected Works, in Three Volumes. Vol. 1. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1969. Classic text summing up Marx's views on environmental determinism and colonialism.

McClintock, Anne. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. New York and London: Routledge, 1995. Using mainly African examples, argues interconnections among imperialism, sexism, racism, and class.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon, 1978. Major twentieth-century theory attacking Eurocentrism.

Wittfogel, Karl A. Oriental Despotism, A Comparative Study of Total Power. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1957. Summation of Wittfogel's ideas on the "hydraulic society."

Colin Mackerras

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Ephemeris to Evolution - Historical BackgroundEurocentrism - Examples, Twentieth-century Critics Of Eurocentrism, Eurocentrism, Anticolonialism, Modernity, Postcolonialism, Bibliography