Book Review: From The Ruins of Empire - The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia by Pankaj Mishra

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By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Up Front

The book intrigues due to its non-conformism, which the author conveys honestly in his analysis of contemporary Asian political history. 

"Brilliant..shows modern history as it has been felt by the majority of the world's population," Orhan Pamuk said, about the book.

Pankaj Mishra has mentioned numerous names of intellectuals and places in the book. But the book explicitly mentions the contributions of Persian born Jamal ud Din Afghani, Chinese leader Liang Qichao and Indian patriot and poet, Rabindranath Tagore.

The author mentions views of Battle of Tsushima as 'one of the greatest phenomenon world had ever seen' which was fought mainly between Japan and Russia, to control the mainland of Korea and Manchuria.

The defeat of Russia in the war made Japan in the 1890's, as one of the world's greatest powers, which brought new legacies and ideals into existence and provoked the leadership in the west. It had also engrained the spirit of respect among Chinese and Indian patriots who now looked upon Japan as a guardian of traditionalism from the east.

Jamal- al-Afghani, as a historical character, has remained very important for Mishra. Called a freemason in Egypt, and a 'father of revolution' in Iran, the author conceptualises his beliefs as being 'neither a traditionalist nor a westerniser, and a figure revered both by Sunnis and Shiites. Al-Afghani remained a strong believer in intellectual ferment being the key to Islam's current reformism. 

Expounding Muslims of the subcontinent as biggest losers due to Britain's imperial ambitions, the author believes lack of unity in the community and distrust was the main reason for partition in the subcontinent. 

Pankaj Mishra ascertains Ottoman Empire under the military control of Mamluk soldiers behind Islam's glory years. About Turkey, Mishra has also extensively written about youth reforms in Ottoman history, citing Young Turks of 1860's being passionate for reform for the dire state of pluralism for their country, ravaged by socio-religious disputes, while the author also mentions the political times in Egypt when it was in an urgency for a revolution based on their identity and high civilisation, after the invasion by Napoleon in 1798.

Ideals and belief systems are so geo-political according to Mishra, who has tried to differentiate culture, races and ideologies based on The West and The East. As Gandhi had predicted in 1905, ' the people of the east will finally wake up to their lethargy.' It had come as a truthful prophecy, as Mishra writes, ' by 1950 with India and China already sovereign states, Europe would be reduced to a peripheral presence in Asia, shored up only by the newest western power, the United States constituted by military bases, economic pressures and political coups.'

The perils of overzealous traditionalism, mainly Confucianism in China, had to be reinvented in order for emancipation, according to Mishra. These notions were written by Liang, inspired by many ideologues, and were received with acclaim in the Chinese public.  

The Japanese too were inspired by many western ideas, since the Meiji Restoration. Words like 'democracy', 'revolution', 'capitalism' and 'communism' came to China through Japanese. Mao Zedong read about French revolution avidly to learn about the Chinese degradation from the west, while on the other hand, Liang invoked social Darwinism and believed that Marxism was the solution for disorder in China and the crises in the west.

Magazines like New Youth had given the Chinese a new voice. Therefore, as a learner, one thinks that political motivations and accommodation of thoughts and beliefs had become very important for pan Asianism against Western imperialism.

For Pankaj Mishra, Rabindranath Tagore was the man behind the cultural reshaping of India and was one of the 'clearest observers and strongest critics of Indian Europeanisation.' 

Like many Asian intellectuals, he had felt happy on the victory of Japan over Russia and saw no reason why only European type of civilisation should be the only goal for the man and had fervently praised the eastern civilisation, thus even inviting rebuke from many such as the Chinese.

 All revolutions demand tenacity and Pankaj Mishra has successfully obtained his objectives by reflecting on these matters.  

He sums the dilemma of history and its interpretation with precision: "It took much private and public tumult, and great physical and intellectual journeys, to bring these thinkers to the point where they could make sense of themselves and their environments, and then the knowledge they achieved after so much toil was often full of pain and did not offer hope. They often seem to change their minds and contradict themselves," Mishra claims.


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