Friday, April 21, 2017

From the Ruins of Empire

From the Ruins of EmpireFrom the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia by Pankaj Mishra, 310 pages

In From the Ruins of Empire Pankaj Mishra examines the careers of three prominent Asian intellectuals from the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, all of whom struggled with the cultural, economic, and military dominance of the West - not only as such power was deliberately, oftentimes violently, exercised, but also as the uncritical embrace of the mechanistic, utilitarian Western worldview by modernizing elites in their homelands.  Each of the three represents a third of non-Russian Asia - itinerant journalist Jamal al-Din al-Afghani for the Islamosphere, scholar and activist Liang Qichao for the Sinosphere, and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore for the Subcontinent.  Each sought freedom for his people, but also a form of modernity that preserved the values of his own culture.

It is possible to go on at great length about the problems of perspective in this book, problems that are only somewhat excused on the grounds that the perspective is that of the subjects.  Understandably, in writing about anti-colonialists Mishra concentrates on the negative impact of colonialism on Asian nations and cultures, but at times he oversimplifies to the point that he falsifies - even a casual reading of Finkel's Osman's Dream (which Mishra cites in his bibliography) demonstrates that the problems of the Ottoman Empire were not only - or even primarily - the result of Western imperialism.  That the reality was somewhat more complicated than Mishra's default narrative of Asians fighting for liberty from Western injustice is implied in the fact that both al-Afghani and Liang were persecuted by their native governments, and both took refuge in the oppressive, racist West - the only one of the three who was consistently safe in his homeland was Tagore, who lived under British rule (and was celebrated in the West, lecturing to packed halls and winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913).

It is possible, again, to go on at great length about the problems of perspective in From the Ruins of Empire, but to do so would obscure the very real value of the book.  Beginning in the eighteenth century, the great civilizations of Asia were confronted with the reality that they were not, after all, the center of the world or of history.  How they adapted not only helps explain the world of today, it also has lessons to teach the West as it begins to discover the same truth.

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