China or India? India or China? Maybe Chindia? Anyone who has ever spent much time thinking about the future of Asia or any particular country or company’s relationship to it, has probably asked this question, and more than once. Several terms, such as “Asia- Pacific” or the newly-launched “Indo-Pacific”, carry this question within it.

The seductive subtitle of What India and China Once Were: The Pasts That May Shape the Global Future implies that a study – a comparative study – of these countries’ pasts can help answer this question. The authors say in the introduction:

While the past is not inevitably prologue, the present cannot come to exist or be understood without it.

The essays, discussing and comparing various aspects of early-modern China and India, from politics and the environment to gender relations, religion, art, language and literature, are themselves individually and collectively interesting. The lead essay, by Sumit Guha and Kenneth Pomeranz, places economic and social development in the context of energy usage, control and redeployment. Noting that in 1700 almost one million people were engaged in the cotton export industry in Bengal alone, some 5% of the population, “a significant part of the embodied food energy of local agriculture sailed away to other continents.”

What came back was silver; they quote “an early English visitor”:

India is rich in silver, for all the nations bring coyne and carry away commodities for same; and this coyne is buried in India and goeth out not.

So much silver that in fact:

[I]nitially India absorbed two to three times as much American silver as Ming China (which until mid 1600s was still importing a great deal of its silver from Japan). The Mughal Empire that emerged in the 1550s was able to switch its currency base from copper and copper-silver alloy to pure silver.

The chapter on “Big Science” by Benjamin Elman and Christopher Minkowski, discusses, among other things, the flow of knowledge and how, in particular, sophisticated astronomical data and the methods for collecting it, flowed from the 13th-century Nasir ud Din al-Tusi (or Nasir al-Din al-Tusi) and his observatory built under Helugu Khan. The Yuan-Ming calendar, which needed to reconcile the lunar and solar year, had a small error which, after three centuries, amounted to an entire day. “Discussions ensued”, the authors say, and while there were some personnel changes in the Astronomy Bureau, reform was put off. Plus ça change...

The straw that broke the camel’s back came in 1592 when the Ministry of Rites charged that the Astronomy Bureau had erred by a full day when predicting a lunar eclipse, which meant that the Relief Ceremony congratulating the emperor for his cosmic virtue had to be rescheduled.

Matteo Ricci was called in to help.

The essays’ wide range means that there is likely something for everyone; by the same token, some essays will probably fall outside a given reader’s expertise or interest. Those interested in the current political and economic reality of India and China might have wished for some additional subjects to have covered. One, although it might fall outside the “early modern” period the editors decided to focus on, might have been a comparison of the why, wheres and hows of the countries’ influence overseas, especially in Southeast Asia – hinted at in the introduction, but without an essay of its own.

Although the chapters come with bibliographies, they (deliberately) lack footnotes. Although most lay readers probably appreciate the editors’ decision to target the book for the “general educated reader” rather than fellow academics, there are a few claims for which references would have been useful. The chapter on science contains a reference to 13th-century Chinese mathematical treatises that “heralded a new direction for solving differential equations to several unknowns and to several powers” (emphasis added). While there is some evidence of pre-Newton/Leibniz calculus, that seems quite a claim. And in the essay on literature and language, the story for Mozart’s The Magic Flute is said to hail originally from kuravanci (kuravanji) drama in Tanjore. I have been unable to find a source for this particular provenance.

In the end, the subtitle over-promises. The essays themselves make little attempt to draw lines from two countries’ past to their present or future, leaving the reader with the question as to how in fact to use the past to inform contemporary thinking. The book notes, for example, that China has a history of expansion, while India – or least those ruling the place now known as India – tended to be constrained to what we now call South Asia. “India” in the broader sense is furthermore comprised of several countries, while “China” is more unitary. It is possible, if not attractive, to line these observations up with apparent differences in two countries’ current foreign policy, but the contributors do not in fact do so; fair enough, for it runs the risk of some post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning.

This is of course one of the pitfalls in using the past to explain the present – and in fact the editors say their use of a comparative approach is to “better grasp how contingent the present reality is – to realise, in other words, that it is the product of enduring forces that might easily have worked out differently, and that may well do so in the future.”

The impression left by most of the comparisons is that the countries’ trajectories are more different than similar. This might seem to confirm the null hypothesis, but an afterword blames Hegel for having moulded “India-and-China into a unit of thought”. Readers unfamiliar with Hegel might however start from the position that India and China are indeed as different as they superficially seem to be.

The book is nevertheless a useful counter to the tendency to project from one case to the universal (or to start sentences with “Asia is...”). Many readers, furthermore, will probably come to this book with a greater knowledge of one place than the other; the side-by-side analysis puts the lesser-known of the two countries in a more familiar context.

What India and China Once Were: The Pasts That May Shape The Global Future, Sheldon Pollock and Benjamin Elman, Penguin Random House India.

This article first appeared on Asian Review of Books.