This review first appeared in the South China Morning Post on 2 September 2012
From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia
by Pankaj Mishra
Manreet Sodhi Someshwar
Pankaj Mishra was in the news the previous year for a literary spat with British historian Niall Ferguson that threatened, momentarily, to overshadow the literary feud between Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa – one that had featured a bloody punch. Mishra and Ferguson, however, were content to swipe at each other in literary magazines, the ink increasingly acerbic with each installment. The gripe?
In his insalubrious review of Niall Ferguson’s latest book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, for the London Review of Books, Mishra had labeled the historian a “homo atlanticus redux” who was a “retailer of emollient tales about the glorious past”. Subsequently, Ferguson replied accusing Mishra of character assassination and calling him a racist. The sparring had the literary world agog, even drawing attention from the non-literary types at the distinctly non-wuss nature of the exchange.
Expectedly, therefore, Pankaj Mishra’s new book, From the Ruins of Empire, which examines the response of the colonized Eastern people to Western hegemony, the beginning of which he traces to Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, has been drawing its share of criticism.
The book challenges the Western narrative of Victorian period as a time of self-confident progress and presents a contrapuntal account, that ranges from the Ottomans to late Qing China, from Egypt to Middle Kingdom via India, of how the Muslim world, India and China are remaking themselves in their own image.
Pankaj Mishra has examined postcolonialism before in his travelogue, Temptations of the West, a document of the tussle between Western-style modernity and traditional cultures of South Asia. For An End to Suffering he traveled among Islamists in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan attempting to understand the relevance of Buddha today in the region where he was born and first preached his philosophy. Travelogue seems to be a favoured style with Mishra who, in fact, started his writing career with documenting his travels in small-town India in Butter Chicken in Ludhiana, which showcased an India in transition, frothy with globalization’s heady offerings.
His latest, From the Ruins of Empire, builds upon the Asian cultures he has grappled with previously, and examines how their current socio-economic selves have resulted as a response to years of subjugation by the West. The narrative opens in 1905 with the Battle of Tsushima in which a small Japanese fleet “annihilated much of the Russian navy, which had sailed half-way round the world to reach the Far East. Described by the German Kaiser as the most important naval battle since Trafalgar a century earlier, and by President Theodore Roosevelt as ‘the greatest phenomenon the world has ever seen’, the Battle of Tsushima effectively terminated a war that had been rumbling on since February 1904.”
Mishra opines that this was the moment when the contemporary world first began to assume its decisive shape because for the first time since the Middle Ages, “a non-European country had vanquished a European power in a major war; and the news careened around a world that Western imperialists – and the invention of the telegraph – had closely knit together.”
The reverberations of that victory rippled through the British empire in India where its viceroy Lord Curzon compared them to “a thunderclap through the whispering galleries of the East”; in far away South Africa where an unknown lawyer Mohandas Gandhi, later the Mahatama of India’s freedom struggle, predicted “so far and wide have the roots of the Japanese victory spread that we cannot now visualize all the fruit it will put forth”; and in Damascus, Mustafa Kemal, a young Ottoman soldier later known as Ataturk, who had, like many Turks taken Japan as a model, now felt vindicated.
“It mattered little to which class or race they belonged; the subordinate peoples of the world keenly absorbed the deeper implications – moral and psychological – of Japan’s triumph… white men, conquerors of the world, were no longer invincible.”
But how did Japan achieve this seeming miracle? Bullied by the Western powers and observing firsthand those powers’ rough treatment of China, Japan had set itself an ambitious task of internal modernization from 1868, prime features of which were the formation of a unified nation-state and creation of a Western-style economy of high production and consumption.
In less than two decades after Russia’s defeat, Asian people infused with what Sun Yat-sen said was a “new hope” had initiated independence movements in Egypt, Turkey, Persian, India, Afghanistan and China. Societies that were declared “sick” and “moribund” in the nineteenth century by imperialists in turn assimilated “modern ideas, techniques and institutions – the ‘secrets’ of Western power” and turned those against the West itself.
Who remade this modern Asia? Who were the intellectuals who fashioned the robust present shape of Asia where Europe is a peripheral presence? Mishra tells this story through three main protagonists: Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, a Muslim journalist, orator and theorist; Liang Qichao, perhaps China’s foremost modern intellectual; and Rabindranath Tagore, Nobel laureate and part of a new Indian intelligentsia.
Al-Afghani, who was Persian by birth, was intent on remaking Islam for the modern world as he traveled the swathe of Middle East advocating his pan-Islamist vision, which manifested as Hindu-Muslim unity in India. His influence was wide-ranging, as were his followers who included the Egyptian nationalist Saad Zaghlul, the Jewish playwright James Sanua and Rashid Rida, the man behind the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt.
Liang Qichao, in a similar manner, realized the need to reinvent Confucianism. In his mentor Kang’s reading of the Confucian classics, “emancipation of women, mass education and popular elections came to appear central concerns of the sixth-century BC sage”. Enamoured by the success of the Meiji restoration and the exalting of Shintoism as a state religion in Japan, they saw Confucianism, albeit tempered with the imperatives of a modern age, as a bulwark against the political, cultural and religious challenge posed by the West.
However, Japan’s growing imperialist tendencies, which saw it at war with its neighbours, “ended the dream of a regenerated Asian spiritual civilization”. Nearing the end of his life, Tagore, the seeker of Eastern mysticism said, “The days of staring at Japan are over”. Addressing a full house in Carnegie Hall in New York in1930, Rabindranath Tagore claimed that Americans ignored Britain’s domination of India and worried about Japan only because the latter “was able to prove she would make herself as obnoxious as you can”.
The “sting in the tail” of Western hegemony and its Asian response is the violent Jihadist Islam of today and the subsequent war on terror, the economic powerhouse of China where “some stand up while most others are forced to stand down”, and a wholesale embrace of capitalism in the region which is at odds with sustainable development.
From the Ruins of Empire is an important counterpoint to a narrative of the ‘West versus the Rest’. However, Mishra, who rejects the clash-of-civilizations theory to explain political and economic conflicts as simplistic, falls into that binary trap when he concludes that the “bitter outcome of the universal triumph of modernity, which turns the revenge of the East into something darkly ambiguous, and all its victories truly Pyrrhic”.