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.