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  • Print publication year: 2003
  • Online publication date: September 2009

3 - The South Asian state


From the fourth century BC until today, the “traditional Asian state” has occupied a distinctive place in the western imagination. While the location of the Asian other has shifted – from Persia to China and, during the early modern period of European colonial expansion, to India – the idea of Asian polities as distinctive, opposed, and less than, the states of Europe has remained a powerful and pervasive trope for more than two millennia. Through a series of transformations, the idea of oriental tyrants common in classical Greek historical and political thought became incorporated into the political thought of Renaissance Europe, Enlightenment philosophers, and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British political economists, as well as of Marx, Engels, and their intellectual descendents' models of the “Asiatic Mode of Production.” In the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, understandings of Asian states and their perceived contrasts with those of Europe became a means through which diverse European social thinkers and philosophers, as well as Asian scholars and political activists, sought to better understand and transform their world. Understandings of the Asian state as despotic with pervasive centrally-controlled economies also made their way into the emergent discipline of archaeology, particularly in the construction of models for the Mesopotamian state (e.g., in the writings of Childe and Wittfogel, see pp. 47–49). These models in turn influenced subsequent archaeological approaches to other early states and empires, including ideas about craft production.