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8 November 2013, Gateway House

Book review: Shifting the focus of history to Asia

In ‘From the Ruins of Empire’ Pankaj Mishra challenges conventional views of world history, and examines the intellectual awakening of Asia and its response to colonisation by focussing on the work of three thinkers

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The defeat of Russia at the hands of the Japanese in May 1905 is often considered, by historians and others, as the turning point in the history of decolonisation. Japan’s victory over Russia shattered the myth of the invincibility of the West, sent shockwaves throughout the world, and drew a strong reaction from Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India (1899-1905), who is reputed to have said: “The reverberations of that victory have gone like a thunderclap through the whispering galleries of the East”.

Jubilation spread not only throughout Asia but in the United States as well, where African American leader W.E.B. Dubois spoke of a worldwide eruption of “colored pride.”  Arnold Toynbee, the well-known British historian, warned that Europe would now have to “come to terms with the existence of other civilizations.”

In his well-researched and erudite book, From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals who Remade Asia, Pankaj Mishra challenges this conventional view of the Russia-Japan war as the turning point of history. He introduces us to intellectuals and thinkers of the 19th century who, responding to the rapid colonisation of large swathes of their world, were rising to protest, understand, sometimes absorb but generally oppose, western influences. These intellectuals prefigured the events of the 20 the century and it was their sensitivities, their understanding of their own histories, and their response to the advance of western powers in the 19 the century that became formative influences on subsequent Asian thinkers, ultimately leading to decolonisation and nationalism.

Mishra shatters the commonly-held view that the two great wars of the 20th century alone defined the century. Instead, he proposes that our world is greatly influenced by the intellectual awakening of Asia and its response to colonisation. This response was driven by multiple events, such as the Indian War of Independence of 1857, the Anglo- Afghan wars which lasted from 1839-1919, the end of the Ottoman empire in 1920, the rise of Arab nationalism which began in 1919, the Russia-Japan war of 1905, and the Paris peace conference of 1919.

The process of Asian self-examination, rebellion, assimilation, and the eventual demand for independence, Mishra suggests,  was driven by the spread of western influence and the manner in which the colonial powers humiliated their Asian subjects who were once  self-assured, secure, and proud of their civilizations.

In From the Ruins of Empire, the author views this backlash against western powers through the minds of three Asian thinkers: Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani, Liang Qichao and Rabindranath Tagore. These towering figures responded, each in his own way, to the encroachment of western colonialism.

The ideas of these intellectuals crystallised broadly around three alternative ways to combat western power: the belief that Asian powers should adhere to the essence of their religious ideals; the notion that some western ideals were worthy of adoption; and the more radical approach that the old way of life should be discarded altogether. It would be incorrect to say that these thinkers adhered entirely to one alternative over another because, as the author points out, their thinking evolved as events unfolded, disillusionments set in, and new realities came into focus.

Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani (1838-1897) came from Iran, travelled across the Islamic world, and was the first to articulate the concept of pan-Islamism. Initially, he promoted reform within Islam, but as western colonial states became ever more reprehensible in their use of power, Mishra writes, Al-Afghani concluded, “Reform had run its course; the dalliance with Europe’s values was over. It was the turn of Islam to serve as a ruling ideology.” He also insisted that the “imperatives for reform and science were contained in the Koran, which was perfectly compatible with modern science, politics and economics.” His obscurity today comes as a shock to the reader, given the breadth and enduring nature of his influence.

Al-Afghani never promoted violence, although he was the first to propound the precepts of pan-Islamism. Indeed, if we are to search for words that have come to define anti-western pan-Islamic thinking, we need look no further than the magazine al-‘Urwa al wuthqa (literally ‘The Firmest Bond’), which was published from a small room near the Place de la Madeleine in Paris in 1883 by Al-Afghani. Its 18 issues dealt with the ravages of British Imperialism, the need for Muslim unity and cultural pride, and the correct interpretation of Islamic principles. For those seeking Al-Afghani as the intellectual force behind the concept of modern-day “jihad” Mishra reminds us that al-‘Urwa al wuthqa interpreted “jihad” as an “obligation to keep Muslim lands under Muslim control.”

The second figure Mishra introduces the reader to is Liang Qichao (1873-1929), the Chinese reformer and towering intellectual who formed his ideas against the destruction of his country’s old imperial structure and focused on the building of state power, an idea that fired Mao Zedong. His lasting legacy was the notion of political reform to save China. In 1898, together with his friend, Kang Youwei, he gained the support of the 26-year-old emperor, Guangxu. Together, they initiated a system of reforms, an ill-fated venture to be quashed by the Empress Dowager Cixi in a mere 100 days. But he gave some enduring thoughts to those who succeeded him – that popular opinion was not irrelevant; the state needed an educated citizenry; and, in a final word of warning, that the citizenry would always struggle for their rights.

India’s first Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), visited China at the invitation of Liang. The songs, poems, and essays of Tagore, Mishra writes, raised the consciousness of South Asia to the ravages of modern civilization in the hope that the East would become the beacon of spirituality “substituting the human heart” for the machine.

The great accomplishment of Mishra’s book of immense scope lies in demonstrating that Asia’s reaction to the West is rooted in deep intellectual thought; indeed, the central event impacting a majority of the world’s population was the awakening of Asia in the last 150 years. The intellectuals Mishra focuses on recognised the benefits and inevitability of some western ideals; many of these influences survive and toward the end of the book, Mishra briefly examines post-colonial and independent societies as they stand today. He observes that the western construct of nation states has been adopted as the “prerequisite for modernity,” but, Mishra observes, no cohesive or coherent response to western political or economic ideals has been set forth. Western values continue to be both disparaged and adopted.

Meanwhile, the monumental transition from being critical of foreign rule to establishing stable societies has not been easy. Any notion of pan-Islamism is moribund; equally, Japan’s quest of a pan-Asian consciousness was shattered by its expansionist policies.  Inequalities of wealth in the U.S., which so disgusted Liang on his visit there, are glaringly evident in India and China; all of Asia is being drawn into the materialist culture which Tagore strongly denounced.

However, Tagore’s poems and songs continue to have a strong hold; Liang’s influence on Mao shaped the last century; and al-Afghani’s vision of Islam as a renewed force still plays out in different forms across the world. Mishra’s book is a reminder of this legacy that emerged from the ruins of empire.

From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals who Remade Asia’ by Pankaj Mishra. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013

Meera Kumar is a New York-based public relations professional. She has worked with the Asian Development Bank, the State University of New York, New York University, and several Fortune 20 companies. She started her career as a journalist writing for various media outlets in Southeast Asia, including the ‘Bangkok Post’ and ‘The Nation.’

This review was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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