What did Asia’s thinkers make of western colonialism, asks Julia Lovell
Debates about the rise of the modern west (and corresponding decline of the east) remain a fertile source of historical polemic. Such oppositional historiography – the idea of a head-on clash of civilisations, with a clear winner and loser – seems to hold a perennial appeal in terms of both its simplicity and its drama of antagonism. Last year, Niall Ferguson – in his pugnaciously titled Civilization: The Six Ways the West Beat the Rest – brought the subject back into sharp media focus. “The rise of the west,” he argued, “is the pre-eminent historical phenomenon of the second half of the second millennium after Christ. It is the story at the very heart of modern history. It is perhaps the most challenging riddle historians have to solve.
To condense two extremes of a now venerable argument, the old school contended that somewhere in the early modern period a progressive and free-trading Europe surged ahead through innate superiority of character and government, while ancient superpowers such as China turned complacently in on themselves. A newer, postcolonial school places the “great divergence” rather later, arguing that until 1800, the Chinese empire largely kept up with Britain, the most prosperous and vigorous of the European economies. Early in the 19th century, however, Britain began to nose ahead, through sheer good fortune. Easy access to coal and Caribbean sugar fuelled the steam-power and workforces of the industrial revolution. New World calories, timber and silver (paying for tea, coffee, textiles) in turn liberated millions of European arable acres for other productive purposes, permitting the industrial revolution to generate firepower that, by the 1840s, was trouncing the great non-European conquest empires.
In From the Ruins of Empire, Pankaj Mishra turns his attention to the other side of the story: to attempts by Asian thinkers (in Afghanistan, China, India, Iran, Turkey) to rebuild their cultural and political identities after collisions with the imperialist west. His account begins in the first half of the 19th century with the west already approaching ascendancy in east Asia, India and the Muslim world. It spans Asia’s steady disillusionment with western modernity through two world wars, then ends with the rise of China, India and global Islam, and the much-rumoured decline of the west. Too often, Mishra has argued elsewhere, these non-western voices have been mute in anglophone accounts of the east-west clash, as if intellectual dynamism and creativity had lain solely with the modern west. Asian state-builders such as Sun Yat-sen are mocked (or ignored) for their jarring juxtaposition of admiration for the west with passionate, anti-colonial patriotism. We perhaps tend to see successful Asian leaders as relevant only to their immediate contexts: to view men such as Mao Zedong or Ho Chi Minh as cunning military strategists rather than as political thinkers with bigger ideas that might traverse regions and eras. Moreover, Mishra has no time at all for big, broad-brush accounts of western success contrasted with eastern hopelessness. Instead, he is preoccupied by the tragic moral ambivalence of his tale. There is here no triumphal sense of “eastern revenge” against the 19th century’s “white disaster”, but rather one of self-doubt, inconsistency and virtuous intentions gone badly wrong.
Mishra sets the scene for western hegemony with Napoleon’s 1799 invasion of Egypt. From here, he moves swiftly through the “slow battering of India and China” with trade wars and opium. Europe’s dramatic scramble for control of the non-western world prompted Alexis de Tocqueville to wonder at how “a few million men, who a few centuries ago, lived nearly shelterless in the forests and in the marshes of Europe will, within a hundred years, have transformed the globe and dominated the other races”.
The trauma of this collision exposed some of Asia’s most educated, thoughtful men – Persia’s Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, China’s Liang Qichao, India’s Rabindranath Tagore – to an unprecedented crisis of intellectual, moral and spiritual confidence. This was a conquest “which left its victims resentful but also envious of their conquerors and, ultimately, eager to be initiated into the mysteries of their seemingly near-magical power”.From the Ruins of Empire gives eloquent voice to their curious, complex intellectual odysseys as they struggled to respond to the western challenge. All were forced to look far beyond home-grown traditions: Liang Qichao attacked Chinese antiquity as an internal cancer and wrote paeans to Washington and Napoleon; al-Afghani was one of the first Muslim thinkers to realise that “history was working independently of the God of the Koran”; Tagore became internationally renowned for his English-language poetry (he was awarded the Nobel prize in 1913 for his “beautiful verse, by which … he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English works, a part of the literature of the west”).
Yet all three of them, in turn, were disappointed by “western civilisation” and turned back to native resources. Al-Afghani, though only superficially devout, reinvented himself as a religious zealot to forge a potent blend of nationalism and pan-Islamism, advocating violent struggle against the west. To the end, however, he remained capable of searing criticism of his fellow Muslims, and conscious of the perils of Asian tyranny and fanaticism: “The entire oriental world,” he once remarked, “is so entirely rotten and incapable of hearing the truth … that I should wish for a flood or an earthquake to devour and bury it.” Buried in an unmarked grave in 1897, he was reclaimed as a great Muslim patriot by Iranians and Afghans after the second world war. Liang Qichao’s youthful worship of the west’s parliaments and newspapers faded in middle age into melancholy observation of the “gratuitous western vandalism” that climaxed (in his own lifetime) in the first world war. Tagore, who developed a certain tendency towards eastern mysticism in later years, was at the same time well-attuned to feelings of colonial humiliation; in 1919 he relinquished his British knighthood in protest at the imperial administration’s massacre of protesters in north India.
Luminous details glimmer through these swaths of political and military history: the Indian villagers who named their babies after Japanese admirals on hearing of Japan’s epochal defeat of Russia in 1905; the curious history of the fez, a deliberately reformist piece of headgear that became an international symbol of Muslim identity; the touching naivety of Ho Chi Minh, so convinced that Woodrow Wilson would make time to meet him in Paris in 1919 that he hired a morning suit for an encounter that never happened; Nehru’s fanatically anglophone father, rumoured to have sent his shirts for dry-cleaning in Europe. There are shocking reminders of the double-dealing hypocrisy of the great powers during the first world war and at the Versailles peace conference: the squalid secret treaties agreed between Britain, France, Japan and Italy, news of which Wilson tried to suppress; the exclusion of many non-European peoples from the conference; the racist jokes openly cracked by the Australian and British prime ministers. The betrayal of racial equality at Versailles opened the door to an Asian move towards communism, with all its pernicious consequences, as Comintern agents scattered across a receptive China, India, Iran and Turkey.
The book concludes by tracing the painful legacies of Asia’s responses to the west: Japan’s near-genocidal pan-Asian revenge for earlier imperial slights; Maoism’s disastrous pursuit of a post-imperial modernity; the violent anti-westernism of global Islam. Despite widespread western admiration for the contemporary Asian miracle, Mishra sees in China a country in which some “stand up, while most others are forced to stand down, and the privileged Chinese minority aspire for nothing higher than the conveniences and gadgets of their western consumer counterparts”. He hails India as a democracy in which “numbers of the disenchanted and the frustrated” are growing, along with a huge sense of hopelessness among landless peasants. And to those who read China’s and India’s embrace of capitalism as a comforting sign of their reconciliation with western ways, he offers a warning. Environmental apocalypse, he anticipates, will be the final consequence of these centuries-old collisions between Europe and America, and Asia: “the bitter outcome of the universal triumph of western modernity, which turns the revenge of the east into something darkly ambiguous, and all its victories truly Pyrrhic”.