A brilliantly tendentious account of how Asia shrugged off the West’s shadow.
From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia
by Pankaj Mishra
Allen Lane, 368pp, £20
You know what you think about empire, so let’s get that out of the way first: either a brutish, racist conspiracy against the world, or a nurturing force that brought medicine, railways, schools and machines to the underprivileged of the planet. What you don’t think about empire, because most likely you don’t even know it, is the matter of Pankaj Mishra’s book.
He’s interested mostly in two unfamiliar and perfectly fascinating characters: Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, itinerant troublemaker for half the 19th century, bothering Istanbul and Cairo and Mumbai; and Liang Quichao, a formidable intellectual at the turn of the 20th century who helped dismantle the old imperial centre of China and create something new. They undermined the very idea of an empire and, even more remarkably, they anticipated the engines of the geopolitics we’re still trying to survive.
Al-Afghani saw the universalising, globalising force of Islam, but he wanted an Islamic world which was not afraid of western science, not closed away in caves of fundamentalism, and he thought the western notion of a nation-state would solve some of that; but he was a nationalist without a nation, sometimes an Islamist who didn’t seem orthodox to anyone and a man who valued the kind of progress the West was making without wanting simply to imitate it. He raised issues which Taliban and al-Qaeda, the voters of Egypt and Turkey are all still trying to work out.
Liang Quichao helped put away an Empress, but he never stopped believing in autocracy for China; democracy would just lead to endless wars, rich against poor, army and people, province against province. A nation needed to be centralised; under threat, he said, even the United States valued union more than its component states.
There had to be dedication to some common good, but socialism wouldn’t do because it had nothing to do with Chinese experience, so he said; something home-grown was needed – capitalism but run by the state to stop class war and exploitation. “Encouragement of capital is the foremost consideration,” he wrote, sounding exactly like some theorist of the modern Communist Party in Beijing.
Both men failed in their time; they were intellectual exiles, not practical leaders. Al-Afghani called himself an “insignificant man, who has no high rank and who has not achieved exalted office”. But his name mattered more than his deeds, which is true nowadays even for a man like Osama bin-Laden; the reputation, the ideas associated with the name are what matters. A name can do murder. A name can also be co-opted; in the past decade the American ambassador paid to restore Al-Afghani’s tomb in Kabul (he was Persian, but the Afghans don’t want to think so) as though he was the right kind of Muslim, the kind the Americans could so business with.
The ambassador missed the point. Both Liang and Al-Afghani succeeded in doing the unimaginable. They put into question, and then they put into play, the certainties of the white world. That’s why Mishra seems to start his 19th-century story very late: in 1905 when the Japanese wrecked the Russian navy, which had sailed half-way round the world to put them in their place. Never mind the open question of whether Russia should be filed under Europe or Asia, the Japanese victories fractured a fixed and very powerful kind of magic: the myth that Europe always wins, that everyone else is obviously inferior to the minds and guns of whites.
Japan suddenly looked like a great power. Indian schoolchildren staged victory marches. The black philosopher WEB DuBois in America announced a wave of “coloured pride”. Even Mao Zedong in the years when Japan was ravishing as much of China as it could reach would remember the time he “knew and felt the beauty of Japan”.
And since empire depended so much on magic, the shared assumption, rulers and ruled, that it was somehow right and proper for the West to dominate the world, a process had begun: decolonisation or, if you like, a kind of freedom.
Al-Afghani found Egypt all tangled up in the nets set by bankers, and the remains of the Ottoman Empire being pushed about by westerners; Liang lived through times when the West simply shot its way to free trade by insisting on privileges in China wherever its armies could reach. Nobody trusted empires, whose railways seemed to drain wealth out of the country where they were built, whose schools seemed designed to train collaborators; resistance was necessary. It now seemed entirely possible as well.
There was nothing simple or easy about the process. There was lots of talk about the evils of Darwin and competition, but competition between nations was what drove reform ahead; and competition between East and West was taken for granted. When Aurobindo Ghose announced that “vaunting, aggressive, dominant Europe” was under “sentence of death”, “awaiting annihilation”, Europe hadn’t had its First World War, and its eastern empires stayed intact for another 40 years. Tagore came out of Bengal to preach that the East should “fight with our faith in the moral and spiritual power of men”, but somehow spirituality didn’t work one half as well as guns and warships, cheap labour in new factories and sheer economic muscle. Nor did Japan turn out to be a decent, moral eastern invader when she turned on China.
Now Mishra is a lovely writer, both clear and passionate even when his material is dense as porage; and this is a rewarding book, telling a story we ought to know. But it has curious undertones.
There’s a sense in much of Mishra’s polemical writing that he is simply infuriated that the world isn’t as it should be; he misses a sense of the correct order. Coming from a dispossessed Brahmin family might do that to anyone, I suppose, and having to put up with condescending nonsense at best about the various civilisations of Indian history, but he can seem ungenerous when he’s most in the right.
He’s against the white boys who have been recently trumpeting their litany of reasons why it is inevitable and harmless that the West rules; he doesn’t have to waste space saying so because his whole book is a challenge to that wilfully Eurocentric view of the world. But the quarrel is always present, like a cat hissing at someone who isn’t in the room.
We get a few quotes about the“white peril” which jar as much as talk of the “yellow peril.” We’re reminded that Europe was a backwater until the time of high empire in the 19th century, but this isn’t the whole story – think of the Book of Kells or the St Andrews sarcophagus. What’s more, Mishra knows very well that at least two of his prophets wanted to be the Martin Luther of Asia, which shows a surprising respect for the distant past of a backwater culture.
There’s a sense that he resents the fact that a story of resistance, and the new Asia it helped to build, also makes the West matter very much; the great imperial machines of the West are what drive his story.
They certainly influence his research, and there will be few people who know enough to know if they also skew his research. He spends pages quoting westerners talking about westerners as well as Asian situations, which is what we know. The unfamiliar thinking, from unfamiliar thinkers, depends on a careful reading of Arabic, Turkish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Bengali, Hindi and Urdu at the very least; but I couldn’t find a footnote to any source that wasn’t in English. He is working at second-hand. His account of Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani, thoughts and all, would be pretty much unthinkable without Nikki Keddie’s 1972 biography which may not – who knows? – still be the last word.
He can also be oddly inexact at times, so on one page (135, since you ask) he says “China came into contact with the West only at the port of Canton” and on the next page he remembers that “China was being bullied and humiliated on a vast scale.” That sounds like contact to me.
These difficult moments do something unexpected: they make the book even more interesting. Mishra has done something both fresh and immensely difficult – I’m in awe of the way he manages the truckloads of background information needed to make sense of his heroes and their ideas – but I’m left with a curious thought: that the notion of resistance, the anger with empire, is not the real story.
For while contact was often brutal and imperial, a matter of arson and massacre and ruin, it was contact with rather subtler things – ideas of science and education and progress and the citification of cultures – that proved the real challenge. You can always win the next battle, you can get revenge for a crime, you can throw out the oppressor; but how do you live with the knowledge that someone else has changed your whole world for ever?
• Pankaj Mishra is at the Edinburgh book festival on 26 August
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