Nov 23 2012

Book Blog: From the Ruins of Empire – The Revolt against the West and the Remaking of Asia

by John Jervis

Artists and curators have been quick to grasp the importance of Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire. Readable, inspiring and relatively brief at just over 300 pages, the book makes an immediate impact. Through the peripatetic lives and political philosophies of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Liang Quichao, and the equally turbulent careers of their teachers, peers, disciples and even opponents, Mishra has created a revelatory if selective portrayal of Asian reactions to European expansionism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Though al-Afghani’s and Liang’s journeys have been traced before, the striking parallels in their respective intellectual paths, from admiration of Western society to disillusion, rejection, anger and activism, are brilliantly elucidated here. Mishra has found a very human approach that acts as an effective rebuke to apologists of empire. Equally importantly, he also hints at a new balance in the era’s dominant narratives, away from Western themes of industrialization, imperialism and warfare and toward the underlying intellectual and political changes within Asia that were to prove equally influential on the course of the twentieth century.

Initial hopes, shared by al-Afghani and Liang among others, that the imitation of Western scientific achievements and political institutions would lead to rapid modernization, and thence to a mutual respect and independence, were brutally erased. Despite the example of Japan, such efforts, as in the cases of Egypt and Iran, led to cynical backdoor colonizations by Western governments and business interests.

As Mishra reveals, Western territorial demands, brutalities, cultural destruction and manifest hypocrisies eventually led to the unexpected growth of Pan-Asian and Pan-Islamic ambitions, a process given renewed impetus by the Japanese victory over Russia at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905. Yet philosophy came second to practicality in resisting imperialism. Aspirations vested in an Ottoman caliphate or Japanese-lead co-operation zone often related to their perceived likelihood of success. These visions were finally sacrificed to a Western political model—the nation state—in Asia’s desperate resistance to empire.

The last major intellectual figure to be explored at length by Mishra is Rabindranath Tagore. The account of his final years is perhaps the most poignant episode in a book full of disappointed hopes. Tagore’s attempts to communicate the virtues of Eastern civilizations to Western audiences still unwilling to admit the betrayals of the 1918 Paris Peace Conference, or to impatient Asian ones bent on anti-colonial resistance rather than rediscovering lost alternatives to Western materialism and expansionism, ended with him being harried out of China in 1924 as a reactionary from a failed nation.

At this point, however, Mishra runs out of thinkers, adopting this role himself for much of the final chapter. It becomes evident that his project is not just to trace the ìgrowth of historical and international awareness in the late 19th and early 20th century, but to position, even explain, global events since 1945 within the necessarily partial frames of reference he has established earlier in the book. The varied insights of Asian thinkers such as al-Aghani and Liang, he states, are “still transforming the world’s intellectual and political landscape and shaping individual and collective consciousness.”

This may seem reasonable in part, but Mishra then launches into a rapid, categorical narrative that encompasses Egypt under Nasser, China during the Cultural Revolution and today, the rise of Turkey, conflicts in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda, the Islamic Revolution, the politics of Pakistan and much, much more in only 60 pages. There is little hint that such topics are contested on multiple levels, and Mishra accords himself impressive perspicacity as to the aims and intentions of his protagonists. He shows signs of having been swept along by the vigor of his own creation, slipping finally into quasi-polemic when it would perhaps have been more effective to pose more subtle questions to be pursued at a later date in a publication equipped, unlike this one, with full academic apparatus.

When reading From the Ruins of Empire it is tempting to ingest Mishra’s conclusions in a state of breathless excitement, flushed by the lucidity and substance of the preceding 240 pages. Yet critical investigation and skepticism are among the main tools of those operating in the arts, and should not be easily relinquished, even when reading core texts. To explain our present through our past is a tantalizing goal, but it is also highly problematic, even for a writer as talented as Mishra. Exhilaration at his achievements should not sweep aside interrogation of the book’s flaws, particularly if the reader intends to requisition it as a jumping-off point for curatorial or artistic explorations. To merely inhale and exhale a work such as this would be a mistake.