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The rise of the new east against the backdrop of the old west

From the Ruins of Empire: the Revolt Aga - review.

From the Ruins of Empire: the Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia
Pankaj Mishra
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).

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the political cartoon?

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis