Books and Arts; Book Review;
From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia. By Pankaj Mishra.
Rarely has the prestige of the West fallen lower in Asian eyes. Seemingly endless wars and the attendant abuses, financial crisis and economic malaise have made Europe and America look less like models to aspire to than dire examples to be shunned. In response, Asian elites are searching their own cultures and intellectual histories for inspiration.
As Pankaj Mishra, a prolific Indian writer, shows in this subtle, erudite and entertaining account of Asian intellectuals’ responses to the West, much the same was true over a century ago. He defines Asia broadly, as bordering with Europe at the Aegean Sea and Africa at the River Nile. A century ago, what he calls “an irreversible process of intellectual…decolonisation” was under way across this huge region. For Mr Mishra, and many Asians, the 20th century’s central events were the “intellectual and political awakening of Asia and its emergence from the ruins of both Asian and European empires”. China and India have shaken off foreign predators and become global powers. Japan has risen, fallen and risen again. It is commonplace to describe the current century as Asia’s.
Mr Mishra tells the story of this resurgence through the lives of a number of pivotal figures, as they grappled with the dilemma of how to replicate the West’s power while retaining their Asian “essence”. He pays most attention to two, both little known in the West. One, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, was like most of them “neither an unthinking Westerniser, nor a devout traditionalist”. Despite his name, and despite a tomb in Kabul restored at America’s expense, al-Afghani was born in Persia in 1838. An itinerant Islamist activist, he also spent time in Egypt, India, Turkey and Russia, railing against the feebleness and injustices of Oriental despotisms and the immorality of Western imperialism, and trying to forge a Pan-Islamic movement. He had the ear of sultans and shahs.
The other main character is Liang Qichao, a leading Chinese intellectual in the twilight of the last imperial dynasty, the Qing, and the chaotic early years after it fell in 1911. Steeped in the old Confucian traditions and aghast at the weak new republic, he came to the conclusion that “the Chinese people must for now accept authoritarian rule; they cannot enjoy freedom”. Writing in 1903, however, he saw this as a temporary phenomenon. He would have been surprised to find China’s rulers today arguing much the same.
Two other developments would also have surprised these men. The first is how disastrously some of the syntheses of West and East worked out: from Mao’s and Pol Pot’s millenarian communism, to al-Qaeda’s brand of Islamist fundamentalism and Japan’s replication of the worst traits of Western imperialism.
Japan’s later aggression helps explain the other surprise: that in many ways the links between Asian thinkers look more tenuous now than they did a century ago. Then, men such as Liang, or Rabindranath Tagore (pictured) from Bengal, would travel to Tokyo. They would dream of a pan-Asian response to the West, inspired by Japan’s example. China is now the coming Asian power, but it is not an intellectual hub of pan-Asianism, either in Communist orthodoxy or in efforts to revive Confucianism. And the Islam of al-Afghani’s ideological heirs has made little headway in non-Muslim countries.
There is one contemporary Asian phenomenon that, Mr Mishra notes, would seem far less surprising to the author’s subjects than to many present-day Westerners. That is the depth of anti-Western feeling. Millions, he writes, “derive profound gratification from the prospect of humiliating their former masters and overlords.” That prospect, however, masks what Mr Mishra concedes is an “immense intellectual failure”, because “no convincingly universalist response exists today to Western ideas of politics and economy”.
The ways of the West may not be working. Yet the alarming truth, Mr Mishra concludes, is that the East is on course to make many of the same mistakes that the West has made in its time.