From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia, Review: Casting Wide the Net

Updated on March 22, 2019

Asia is the largest, the most populated, and arguably the most diverse continent in the world. This makes attempting to write a general history of the intellectual, political, social, economic, and cultural developments which have transformed this great mass of land which stretches from the cold waters of the Bering Straits to the sun-dappled shore within sight of the ancient spires of Istanbul, from the sweaty and humid jungles of Vietnam which crawl with life, water, and green, to the arid, dry, dead desserts of Afghanistan and Central Asia, and across the host of nations which fall between these extremes across this world-unto-herself, nearly impossible to conceptualize. And yet it is with this ambition that Pankaj Mishra set about to write a book about the intellectual response of the thinkers, elites, and writers, who lived in Asia throughout the 19th and 20th century, to the encroachment of European and later broadly general Western imperialism into this land, and what the legacies were of this intellectual mobilization in the form of the structures, institutions, and history unlocked by the pens, words, and theories of a vast caste of historical figures who dreamed, hypothesized, and schemed about how to reshape Asia - or whether it was even necessary to do so at all. In doing so, Mishra does inevitably run up into the limitations of trying to cover such a vast continent, and a certain degree of lightness from the social milieu that he descends from, as well as his own areas of blindness - but he produces nevertheless a text that provides for a good framework to understand this era, time, and the intellectual thoughts which he analyzes.

What is the precise subject that is covered in From the Ruins of Empire? In effect, the goal of the book is to examine those intellectual figures who were responsible for creating the Asian intellectual response to European imperialism. This brings him to a variety of key thinkers, the most important of whom are Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, a phenomenally flexible and ultimately highly influential, Persian-born, Shiite, thinker, who managed to himself like a chameleon go through a wide variety of both identities, alternatively changing from Sunni to Shiite in his public presentation, and from Persian to Afghani, to be able to present his message to the world - this too, a changing one, which shifted over time from a liberal, constitutionalist, outlook, to one which increasingly grew to stress pan-Islamic unity and a defense of Islam against the West. This seems to have been a common theme among many first generation Asian thinkers responding to the West, as the book itself declares and continues with its examination of other figures such as Tokutomi Soho, a Japanese writer who similarly evolved from a liberal into a fervent defender of Japanese militarism and pan-Asianism, or Liang Qichao who changed from a staunch Confucianist to a vigorous modernizer and then back again, or most famously Gandhi, the impeccable British lawyer who rejected the West for India instead, creating a new tradition and a virulent comndemnation of Western civilization's materialism and harm upon the world. These were no isolated figures, but rather a systemic and general development to the Western world's encroachments, with initial hopes for acceptance then dashed and replaced with a belief in the need for organic cultural revival and resistance. The Indians in particular, as mentioned with Gandhi but also perhaps even more notably with Rabindranath Tagore, an Indian who was fiercely critical of Western civilization and advanced instead the moral superiority of Indian civilization and Eastern thought in general. This intellectual development is one which is marked and well analyzed in the examination of intellectual trends during the Interwar period, when the response to the excesses of European civilization, its violence, death, and bloodletting, led to a general revulsion with the European "civilized" order and a renewal of Eastern tradition instead.

Winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, Tangore belonged to an influential stream of Indian thought which hailed the virtues of Indian spirituality and decried the excesses of Western materialism.
Winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, Tangore belonged to an influential stream of Indian thought which hailed the virtues of Indian spirituality and decried the excesses of Western materialism.

Other advantages present themselves to the reader. The book is one which is resplendent with quotes, in impressive serried ranks. It convincingly links the intellectual arguments marshaled by the writers within with the times in which they lived, and their biographies enjoy being peppered with events which both serve to illustrate their lives and to make it a more readable text: Chinese intellectuals in Egypt being swarmed by Arabs to congratulate the people they thought to be Japanese upon the decisive victory of Japan over Russia, or Jamal al-Din al-Afghani's attempts to attract the attention of the Russian tsar by prayer in one of Moscow's theaters, the events of the British attempt to enact a monopoly on tobacco in Persia: the book is one which due to its scope is a sweeping one, but thanks to the inclusion of moments like this, it enables one to more authentically connect to the works and stories therein portrayed. And finally, it also connects it well to today: analyzing what really did come about from this intellectual ferment from the time period, and how they effect us today, done particularly well in the case of the Islamic world but not ignored for either the Indian or Chinese ones.

There are a number of drawbacks which descend from the work of Mishra. It is resoundingly elitist (and masculine as well) in its focus: in effect it only examines a small segment of society, a few intellectuals, and their intellectual horizons. Certainly, he broadens the topic beyond the simply most famous intellectuals known for their anti-colonial agitation, such as Mao, or Gandhi, choosing figures which, despite their importance, have been neglected - at least in the West that is. But the degree of popular agitation, and how that was expressed and felt by the masses of India, China, Japan, is not much touched upon - their degree of anti-Western sentiment is mentioned with regularity, but how exactly they conceived and formulated their response to the Western order is much less so. There has been fascinating work which has been done concerning millennial movements which used magic, the feel of end times, and other "superstitious" practices as part of their arsenal of resistance to Western encroachment - the most famous example perhaps, being the Boxer rebellion, where the revolutionaries believed that through the aid of certain magical prescriptions they would be immune to bullets, immune to all of the scientific weapons found in the burgeoning arsenals of the West. It is an irony perhaps, for the author on multiple occasions draws attention to his own subject's distance and alienation from the common folk and the great masses which were the real strength of anti-Western sentiment, yet he himself is quite divorced from them and gives little analysis to their efforts, ideology, and logic.

Unfortunately for the Boxers, Western bullets would not be stopped by their charms.
Unfortunately for the Boxers, Western bullets would not be stopped by their charms.

The reference to Asia is furthermore, one which stresses three, and perhaps for if one is willing to allow for a generous interpretation, nations, or civilizations. These are the Muslim world, focusing upon Egypt in particular (from whence starts the book, with its description of Napoleon's invasion of this land, postulated as the first time that the West had arrived with its mission civilisatrice in the lands of the Orient), India, and China, with a more limited focus upon Japan. Much of the rest of Asia is ignored to some extent - Central Asia, other than Afghanistan, the peripheries of China, South-East Asian, much of the Arab world. The Asian world was the periphery of the European system, but in examining it, Mishra's gaze hews to its own metropoles, its own centers, to examine them. This is to some extent necessary if one does not wish for the book to bloat, and most can generally agree, or so I would imagine, that it was from these founts of ideas and ideology that emerges the principle strains of thought that would so condition the Oriental response to Western encroachment. But at the same time it leaves certain limitations and problems, focusing as it does on those who stemmed from high culture, from those peoples, those civilizations, which could claim thousands of y ears of access and enshrinement as the heart of their world system, rather than those on the exterior, those who were not only marginalized by Western intrusion, but so too marginalized by the world order which had existed before the men of Europe arrived.

It is perhaps a mild quibble on my part, but whenever a book begins to break out the language of casual modernity and globalization, comparing the movement of people around the Islamic world in the period of the Islamic golden age to the easy movement of Harvard PHD holders, I cannot but feel a slight bit of unease at such writing and such casually made links and comparisons between times when assuredly there were many more differences than the book alludes to. But thankfully, these pop up rather rarely. More serious is the vague sense of playing to the sympathies of his liberal readers in the Guardian: thus the Ottomans for example, despite their many crimes, atrocities, and horrors, are portrayed quite favorably, and the book can often be rather flat and uninspired, feeling blinkered and almost insipid: there is no attempt to expand its intellectual grounds beyond what plays well among the readers of the newspaper for which he writes for.

Any book seeking to cover as continent as vast as Asia must place itself into some compromises, for it cannot hope to entirely slake the interest of the reader for the diverse and varied responses from land to land. This book is no different, and it in of itself is inevitably, not enough to provide for the full understanding of the subject which is necessary. But as far as providing for a general framework, a list and a brief overview of the most important of the thinkers, and of their contributions, to place them into perspective, the book is one which is very useful enable a general grounding in the ideas and the thoughts of this era. For this reason, it is one which forms a good part of any library devoted to understanding Asian responses to European incursion and how the world was shaped by it, and one which brings further ground and terrain open to reader to continue their own research into the diverse topics that beckon to his attention upon completing the pages of from the Ruins of Empire.

3 stars for From the Ruins of Empire

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