The story of Asia’s awakening and response to Western imperialism is well-trodden ground, but Pankaj Mishra masterfully retells this story by focusing on the unlikely convergences between some lesser known intellectuals, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-97) of Persia and Liang Qichao (1873-1929) of China.
These influential political thinkers and tinkerers helped create “the vocabulary in which many Asians would phrase their aspirations and frustrations for the next century.”
Mishra explains how and why “the central event of the last century for the majority of the world’s population was the intellectual and political awakening of Asia.” In his view, Asia is “continuing to be remade not so much in the image of the West as in accordance with the aspirations and longings of former subject peoples.” Perhaps, but as Mishra well knows, most of the marginalized and pauperized Asians would disagree.
In charting how Asians responded to Western challenges, Mishra introduces readers to a host of intellectuals, including Indian giants Iqbal, Tagore and Gandhi, while zigzagging across continents and decades. It is a tribute to Mishra’s skills as a writer that this demanding book has won widespread (and deserved) accolades. In lesser hands, this material could have easily descended into a jumble of names, dates and thumbnail sketches, but here the narrative is lucid and doesn’t groan beneath the prodigious research.
Understanding 21st-century Asia is impossible without knowing how the resentments and sense of humiliation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were transformed into mass nationalist movements leading to independence. This is what “From the Ruins of Empire” delivers so powerfully. The story is less convincing toward the end of the book where Mishra tries to connect the pre-World War II intellectual currents with the postwar aftermath.
The gathering encroachment of Western empire, “inevitably sparked a drastic churning — usually for the worse” in “lumberingly inept” Asian societies. The traumas of political, cultural and economic domination caused a scarring of the Asian psyche that sparked desperate efforts to understand and overcome the evident backwardness.
There was no uniform response, but a shared goal of regenerating Asia.
This awakening was a gradual process, one that involved generating a new set of values while respecting time-honored traditions. Al-Afghani is portrayed as the progenitor of modern political Islam, calling for Pan-Islamic unity, assimilation of Western ideas and a revolutionary rethinking of Muslim traditions. Toward the end he understood that he erred in relying too much on despots who were more interested in power than reform.
In China, Liang initially believed that renovation could flower from a reworking of Confucianism. He was a protege of Kang Youwei, the Martin Luther of Confucianism, but eventually parted ways. We learn that Liang became “utterly compromised by expedient associations with corrupt and violent warlords,” forcing his ignominious retreat from politics. Suggesting contemporary relevance, Mishra observes that Liang believed democracy was unsuitable to China due to the risk of instability and weak governance, explaining his advocacy of enlightened despotism.
In the early 20th century, Tokyo was a thriving center for emigre Asian intellectuals and activists, Liang among them, serving as a hothouse for nationalism and anti-Western Pan-Asianism. Japan inspired Asia by its rapid modernization and defeat of Russia in 1905. The rhetoric of Asian fraternity and liberation from the yoke of Western imperialism had a strong appeal, but Mishra notes how this clashed with the imperatives of imperial expansion that Tokyo prioritized.
Sun Yat-sen understood that in seeking to beat the West at its own game, Japan lost its way and chose might over right. Or as Rabindranath Tagore wrote, “She is hungry — she is munching on Korea, she has fastened her teeth upon China and it will be an evil day for India when Japan will have her opportunity.” Since the, “virus of European imperialism” had infected Japan, Tagore concluded that its ambitions of creating an Asia for Asia would be “raised on a tower of skulls.”
While Japan’s brutal rampage in Asia (1931-45) proved Tagore right, the initial defeat of Western armies in 1941-42 was a powerful and humiliating reversal of fortunes. Japan’s successes were short-lived, but “Pan-Asianism was important not in what it did for Japan but in what it allowed others to do, and in the unintended consequences that flowed from Japan’s actions.” One of the more important unintended consequences was a decolonization of Asian minds in ways that undermined in fundamental ways the moral and political authority of the West.
Mishra despairs about the state of contemporary Asia, yet in thrall to the West, deracinated from indigenous traditions and suffering from widespread materialism, corruption and inequality. Asia remains scarred by the devastation of revolutions gone astray, ranging from Iran where he says Khomeini out-tortured the Shah, to China where “Mao unleashed one disaster after another.” Mishra is especially disappointed that Asians have failed to posit some “convincingly universalist response to Western ideas of politics and economy.”
So what starts as a triumphal celebration of awakening and liberation, fades into the tragedy of failures, lost opportunities and nationalistic hubris.
Although the Western international order still prevails, Mishra predicts the end is at hand. Yes, China. He writes that a “modernizing China … poses a formidable challenge to the West, and a much greater one than that presented by radical Islamists who mostly embody the rage of permanent losers.” But in contemporary China, those espousing universal ideas are harassed, imprisoned or exiled while the state engages in a pragmatic syncretism epitomized in the concept of capitalism with Chinese characteristics.
And Asia’s other rising star? Mishra laments that “India displays even more garishly than China the odd discontinuities induced by economic globalization.” In his damning assessment, the world’s largest democracy is discredited by gross disparities and crass materialism while “the biggest beneficiaries of globalization find shelter in such aggressive ideologies as Hindu nationalism.”
This fascinating and magisterial tome ominously concludes that Asia’s longed for revenge against the West may prove chimerical, “and all its victories truly Pyrrhic.”
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan campus.