Focusing largely on China, Japan, and Egypt, Pankaj Mishra outlines the forms of economic control through which European powers dominated countries in the 19th and early 20th centuries: harsh and unfair loans, curbs on local manufacturing, demands for legal immunity for foreigners, protected enclaves, and a host of other concessions and restrictions on sovereignty imposed on Asian rulers by gunboat diplomacy.
The narrative centres on three key figures who tried to find ideological and cultural ways to resist western power without rejecting modernity: Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, a Shia Muslim from Iran (despite his name) whose writings influenced Ayatollah Khomeini; Liang Qichao, a Chinese journalist, politician and intellectual who spent much time in exile in Japan; and Rabindranath Tagore, a Bengali who became truly pan‑Asian in terms both of his travel and his intellectual following.
In a fascinating chapter Mishra shows how many young nationalists, like the future Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, who came to Paris for the 1919 peace conference expecting support for their anti-imperial demands, were betrayed. Most were not even allowed to attend the conference sessions in the face of the British and French insistence that their empires in India, Indochina and the Middle East were untouchable.
Now the wheel is turning, and Mishra puts aside the long-established western-centric view of the 20th century. ‘It is now clearer that the central event of the last century for the majority of the world’s population was the intellectual and political awakening of Asia,’ he writes.
The thesis is provocative and arresting, not least because globalisation and Chinese expansion has made everyone aware of China’s presence on the world stage. But to lump this largely economy-driven phenomenon together with other trends, such as the Muslim world’s search for an authentic alternative to western materialism, and describe the amalgam as a single notion – ‘the revenge of the East’ – is risky.
The great value of Mishra’s study is that he goes with a fine tooth-comb through the peripatetic dreams and schemes of some of Asia’s most interesting characters, showing how the same man and his followers switched from reform to revolution and back again, dabbling now in fundamentalist primitivism, now in village socialism, now in capitalist modernisation as long as it has an Asian face. From the Ruins of Empire provides a masterly overview of Asian responses to western control of Asia.