From the Ruins of Empire: the Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia
Allen Lane, 368pp, £20
It is now many years since western commentators routinely paid lip-service to an emerging new world, as China cements its status as a global economic power. What this might mean in terms of a secure future for the prosperity and influence of the west has been open to endless and often not very helpful speculation. In truth, what we call “the west” has always been a fragile and changing phenomenon; its apparent dominance over the past two centuries has masked how much of the rest of the world does not belong to the European-American power political axis and was forced to do so only through decades of crude imperialism because the weaker belief systems, social institutions and economic structures of the non-western world could not cope with a brief period of material and technical ascendancy.
It is nevertheless surprising how little effort has gone into trying to understand the place of those non-western cultures and societies in the evolution of a modern world in which China, Japan, India, Iran, Egypt, Turkey, Korea, Indonesia and a dozen smaller Asian states play a growing, perhaps soon a defining, part. Pankaj Mishra has set out in this intelligent and thought-provoking study to present Asia’s role in creating the now-familiar configurations of the 21st century during the long Asian winter, in which Europe and the US dominated the continent’s trade and politics and denigrated its social and ethical values.
This is a daunting intellectual task and Mishra does not pretend it can all be done in fewer than 400 pages. Instead, he focuses on a number of significant Asian intellectuals who, in his view, understood early on why western imperialism was so remorseless and who sought to arm Asian communities with the means to re-establish cultural, religious or political independence. His choice of figures serves his argument well: first the Persian political activist Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, who in the second half of the 19th century became a stern critic of western encroachment and a voice crying for Islamic reform to obstruct it, and whose message can still be discerned today in pan-Islamic politics; the Chinese political activist Liang Qichao, whose demands for reform to combat western power anticipated by half a century Mao Zedong’s eventual revolution; and the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, who in the early years of the 20th century sought novel ways to secure Asian values against the western obsession with war, money and nation.
By focusing on this trio, Mishra demonstrates that the anti-western impulse familiar from the anti-colonial conflicts after 1945 had already taken intellectual shape before the First World War and indeed was confirmed by that conflict. The latter seemed to show that all the western pretence at a monopoly of civilisation was a sham, when Europeans had spent years slaughtering each other in a contest difficult for those outside Europe to comprehend as anything other than a manifestation of barbarism. The Asian arguments against the west had already identified its representatives as barbarian (“insane in their lust, drenched in alcohol from head to foot, unclean, materialistic”, according to one 19th-century Indian critic cited here), and the contrast between Asian social ritual, spiritual harmony and civilised behaviour and the vicious westerners who disturbed it is one made often in the rich haul of quotations that Mishra has found.
Nevertheless, this is not an argument without problems. Japan, which many Asians regarded as a beacon because it avoided western demands while using western methods to modernise effectively, embarked on its own savage race war against China in the 1930s and enslaved Korea. Deep divisions among Asia’s Muslim peoples have compromised pan-Islamism and prompted violent conflict between Muslims as well as against the west. Above all, as Mishra acknowledges, Asian societies soon became keen on using western ideas and scientific know-how to create a modern state defined in national terms and to be able to develop the modern economic and military means to protect it, epitomised perhaps by the permanent division in Korea. “Asia” as a concept is as misleading as “the west”.
The path to a modern Asia is potholed by paradox. The idea that Asia represents some kind of alternative to the west is difficult to reconcile with an aggressive Asian capitalism and the vulgar global consumer culture to which it contributes. There is not enough sense here of what is still particular to Asian values and attitudes and how that might be mobilised to contest the competitive, materialist and always potentially violent legacy of the western age, or whether that is, indeed, what the Asian intellectuals of today want. As one reads this account, one applauds the effort to remind western readers that Asia was never merely a passive recipient of western trespass and at the same time reflects on what is still needed if the new east is not to become a patchwork of compromises with the old west.
Richard Overy’s most recent book is “The Third Reich: a Chronicle” (Quercus, £8.99).