Who’ll rule: China, India or the West?
As China takes its place as the world’s second largest economy, Ian Morris’s new book seems even more insightful
One of the greatest non-fiction books, no make that he greatest book, written in recent times is out: Why the West Rules — for Now: The Patterns of
History, and What They Reveal About the Future by Ian
Morris of Stanford University.
If Jared Diamond’s classic, Guns, Germs and Steel, was
daring in ambition, breathtaking in the breadth of erudition, magisterial in execution, and provocatively parsimonious in explanation, Morris, save on the latter dimension,
Morris, like Diamond, seeks to answer a variant of
arguably the most important question in the social sciences: Why are some countries, regions, and peoples poor
while others are rich? And the reader will be richly rewarded for not seeking the short cuts that I or others might have
Diamond started the tape of humanity at about 13,000
BC. Morris pushes us back to about a million years BCE
(and one feels cheated that we don’t get his take on the
period leading up to the Big Bang and even previous Big
Diamond was reticent about the future. Morris fearlessly
wades into the future and possible multiple futures, including some requiring fantastical imagining (or perhaps imaginative fantasying) of the Issac Asimov variety.
Diamond did not shy away from using and presenting key
numbers and data. Morris not only returns the favor, but
does so by creating a series on social development, going all
the way back to 14,000 BCE with some inventive tapping of
sources, heroic assumption-making, and creative data-mining.
Diamond drew upon most of the sciences and social sciences to answer the big and basic question. Morris is deficient on ornithology compared to Diamond, but makes up
odd even to someone with only a superficial knowledge of
Indian history related to Morris’ discussion of the so-called
This term, used by the German philosopher Karl Jaspers,
describes the centuries around 500 BCE, when a new and
revolutionary view of man arose. This view advocated that
men turn within, focusing on themselves rather than on
gods or despotic rulers (which was distinctive of the preceding times) as the means to salvation.
Now, Morris’s list of the key contributions of this Axial
Age includes Confucian and Daoist texts from China,
Greek Philosophy, the Hebrew Bible, and Buddhism and
Jainism from India.
The only real export from India that is said to have wider
impact, according to Morris, is Buddhism. The obvious
omission here seems to be some of the older Upanishads —
theBrihadaranyaka and Chandogya — which are thought
to be clearly pre-Buddhist in origin and which represent no
less radical a break with the past than those that feature on
Is Morris’ inattention to these texts justified? And was
India’s economic development commensurate with such
intellectual achievement at that point in time? Again, these
are questions worthy of inputs from Indian scholars.
Why the West Rules will give pause for India in one
important respect. There is a cottage industry of writings
on the will-it-be-China-or-India question and I do not
want to rehearse well-trodden arguments.
But if Morris’s view that China was consistently ahead of
India in the past is correct, it carries the implication that
the economic future is better for China.
The reason relates to two historical correlations noted by
him: Regions that were relatively more developed in the
past tend to industrialize and develop faster than those that
were less developed; and countries that avoided European
colonization also tended to industrialize faster than the colonized.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, left, and Indian Prime Minister
Manmohan Singh in New Delhi, December 16, 2010. In the economic
sphere, India’s prospects may be bright, but China’s are brighter still,
says Arvind Subramanian
by taking the reader on excursions into the worlds of archeology, science fiction and literature.
In this era of specialization and compartmentalization of
knowledge, Morris’ book is a throw-back to the era of, and
resounding victory for, encompassing erudition. And
whereas Diamond gave us one explanation for everything,
Morris has to rely on three times as many.
This book should both provoke the curiosity of Indians
and give reason for pause. Surprisingly, India hardly gets
attention in the book. In the comparison between the West
and the East that is its central focus, the only
country/region to represent the East is China. Rather the
East, for Morris, is China (and to some extent Japan).
The reason, I think, seems to be Morris’ underlying view
that throughout the last 15 millennia, China has always had
higher levels of development than India.
Did Chandra Gupta Maurya rule over a poorer kingdom
than the later rulers of the Zhou dynasty? Was Mughal
India not comparable to Ming China? I am no historian
and do not know the answers to these questions, but it
would be great if Indian scholars could engage in these
questions, and take on Morris’ conclusions where appropriate.
The one neglect of India and Indian history that did seem
Japan was developed in the past (before 1800 or so) and
not colonized; China was highly developed in the past and
only partly and intermittently colonized; and India was
both less developed and colonized. Looking ahead, there-
fore, India’s prospects may be bright but China’s are
Arvind Subramanian is senior fellow, Peterson Institute
for International Economics and Center for Global
By arrangement with Business Standard