From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia Hardcover – Sep 4 2012
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2013 Lionel Gelber Prize Finalist
“Pankaj Mishra has produced a riveting account that makes new and illuminating connections. He follows the intellectual trail of this contested history with both intelligence and moral clarity. In the end we realise that what we are holding in our hands is not only a deeply entertaining and deeply humane book, but a balance sheet of the nature and mentality of colonisation.”
“After Edward Said’s masterpiece Orientalism, From the Ruins of Empire offers another bracing view of the history of the modern world. Pankaj Mishra, a brilliant author of wide learning, takes us through, with his skillful and captivating narration, interlinked historical events across Japan, China, Turkey, Iran, India, Egypt, and Vietnam, opening up a fresh dialogue with and between such major Asian reformers, intellectuals, and revolutionaries as Liang Qichao, Tagore, Jamal al-din al-Afghani, and Sun Yatsen." —Wang Hui, author of China's New Order and The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought and Professor of Chinese Intellectual History at Tsinghua University, Beijing
“From the Ruins of Empire jolts our historical imagination and suddenly places it on the right, though deeply repressed, axis. It is a book of vast and wondrous learning and delightful and surprising associations that will give a new meaning to a liberation geography. From close and careful readings of some mighty Asian intellectuals of the last two centuries who have rarely been placed in this creative and daring conversation with each other, Pankaj Mishra has discovered and revealed, against the grain of conventional and cliched bifurcations of 'The West and the Rest,' a continental shift in our historical consciousness that will define a whole new spectrum of critical thinking."
—Hamid Dabashi, Columbia University
“In his brilliant new book Pankaj Mishra reverses the long gaze of the West upon the East, showing modern history as it has been felt by the majority of the world's population from Turkey to China. These are the amazing stories of the grandfathers of today’s angry Asians. Excellent!"
About the Author
PANKAJ MISHRA was born in northwest India in 1969 and lives in London and Mashobra, India. He is the author of An End to Suffering and Temptations of the West, as well as a novel, The Romantics. He writes for The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, and The Guardian. The author lives in London and Mashobra, India.
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One of the ever-present scourges of expat life is arrogance. For many Westerners in Asian countries, even half a century after the collapse of colonialism, we retain a certain sense of moral superiority towards our hosts. We often feel their manners to be backwards; their habits of thought and social patterns keep them locked in a cycle of poverty; and that their own arrogance is holding them back from "truly" joining the modern (and by that we mean Western) world. Having lived nearly five years in Asia, I've often struggled to balance my own contrarian impulses, sympathy for Chinese (and other Asian) culture, and frustration with the less pleasant aspects of life here (as well as the ever-present temptation to make comparisons to my own place of origin) in the face of locals, both proud and self-hating, and other expatriates, both derisive and sympathetic. But until I read Pankaj Mishra's From the Ruins of Empire, I didn't realize just how deeply I'd failed to understand the Asian perspective on Western modernity, and just how that has skewed my entire outlook on the world.
Mishra's book isn't a piece of postcolonial critique, or an exploration of contemporary Asian thought on the role of Asia in the world today, but a gripping narrative of the life and thought of several prominent "Asian modernists" who foresaw a different path for their cultures than Westernization or traditionalism. The three characters that the book centers around- Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Liang Qichao, and Rabindranath Tagore- are held up as representatives of the possibility for the development of "parallel modernities" in the Islamic, Confucian/Sinic, and Hindu civilizations, respectively. Around these three characters, many other figures emerge, some famous- Mohandas Gandhi, Sun Yatsen, Mao Zedong- some less well-known outside of their nations, and some who are understood quite differently in their home nations than they are outside (such as Aurobindo Ghose, better known as a spiritual guru and inspiration to new-age writers than an Indian nationalist, and Sayyed Qutb, a man unfairly - in Mishra's eyes - labeled as the intellectual godfather of global jihad.
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The book starts with a somewhat puzzling reference to battle of Tsushima Bay as inciting Western awareness of Asiatic power. W.E.B. Dubois announced a world wide eruption of colored pride. That idea is not adequately explained, but doesn't detract from the book's interest. We see the Muslim viewpoint in politics of Egypt, Persia, India and Turkey through the career and philosophy of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani. Missing is the 19th century Muslim view of modern trouble spots Bosnia and Palestine. Although al-Afghani is not classified as a terrorist his influence on Bin Laden and others is evidenced and it would have been interesting to see his views on early Arab reactions in what later became Palestine.
At the end of his career, al-Afghani expressed regret that he had appealed largely to royalty, like Abdulhamid II, for support of his ideas, rather than to the common people.
Liang Qichao was, arguably, the most interesting political philosopher in the book. Liang moved away from revising Confucianism. His took influence from the West in the form of Social Darwinism. Liang and his mentor Kang Yowei were instrumental in the formulation Chinese political discourse leading to the overthrow of the Qing dynasty, to replaced by the republic under Sun Yat-sen and later, the PRC. Empress Cixi exiled Kang and Liang then instituted reforms, too late to save her dynasty. Along with exile in Japan, politically and militarily emerging after the Meiji reformation, Liang visited America, making prescient observations like a later day Tocqueville. Liang influenced both communist Mao and his rival Chiang Kai-shek, who espoused a revised Confucianism.
Al-Afghani's legacy was carried on in Egypt by Saad Zaghoul, PM who initiated the Wafd Party and Sayyeed Qutb and by Muhammad Iqbal and others in India. In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood is seen as a reaction to Zionism a modern symbol of Western dominance of Asians. We see the futility of Wilson's Fourteen Points along with snubbing of he Asian nations at the Paris Peace Conference. Later leaders Gandhi, Nehru, Sukarno, Lee Kwan Yew and others, as well as terrorists Osama Bin Laden, were greatly influenced by the Asiatic philosophers of the previous century. Kim Il Jong is not mentioned. Among modern intellectuals, it seems that philosophers Edward Said or Noam Chomsky should be included.
Mishra shows impressive knowledge of a wide variety of Eastern philosophy. Although the extent of influence of Mishra's candidates is not made entirely clear, there is much of interest in his book. The book concludes with the rise of many Asian nations, predicting that Western dominance is a short lived historical phenomenon. Mishra states his modern interpretations in an epilogue. He says that the war on terrorism is misguided, as it should be related to the condition of the world's poor. The idea that globalization will enable the billions in China and India to enjoy an American life style is an absurd and dangerous fantasy. It's a realistic deviation from populists like Jeffry Sachs who think that a few billion dollars can eliminate world poverty.
This book is all the better because it depicts a history relatively unknown in the West, featuring protagonists that I was not familiar with. For myself, Pan Islamic and Pan Asiatic philosophy is a bit much to assimilate from a single book.
My priamry critique is that Mishra is in awe of centers and rather neglectful of peripheries. He's making a valid argument that a response to colonialism was the construction for the homogeneous, centralized, nation-states that could hold their own ground. I'm not yet finished with the book, but I'm hoping that he'll come back to a defense of an intellectual tradition of pre-modern Asian statecraft that had far less interest in direct-rule and interference in peripheries (Ottoman millet system; China's tributary system; 'padi states'). So far, there are no Uighurs, Tibetans, Visayans, Tanka, Hmong/Miao or anyone else that didn't lay the intellectual foundations for the modern Asian nation state power that eventually arose. It's a history of rising power told, I believe incorrectly, as a history of the subaltern. We are supposed to watch with awe as Chinese emperor's capture the steppes people and Japan beats Russia in colonizing Korea.
Mishra is right that the West-centric story of Asian modernity is insufficient. But Mishra is writing the intellectual history of the Ayatollah's, Mao's, Xi Jinping's, Aquino's, and Modi's. If we look a little harder, we'd also find a neglected local body of intellectual development that prizes diversity, autonomy, and political-cultural pluralism that could serve as an intellectual foundation for the politically frustrated youth and scholars in Hong Kong. Without this history, they're largely turning to 'Western' ideas, history, and scholarship to express their desires. So far, an American Yale professor who tends sheep between writing books and teaching classes in is one of the only scholars giving voice to this tradition.
I was surprised that the Japanese defeat of Russia at the Battle of Tsushima Straits in 1905 electrified the East. I was also surprised that Japan became a center for disaffected Eastern intellectuals to congregate after 1905 seeking ways to respond to European colonialism. I had never thought of Japan as terribly receptive to foreigners so this was a useful insight.
Much of the book consisted of a litany of abuses by the British, French, Dutch, Germans, and towards the end of the period that he examines, the United States, on the Mideast, China and India. This also satisfied one of my goals of expanding my worldview although, after a while, the refrain of humiliation and despair became repetitive. The author, for instance, notes that the Mughal empire in India was overthrown by the British, but does not examine that the Mughals, an Islamic dynasty, overthrew pre-existing non-Islamic rulers, and ruled over a largely non-Islamic populace. Whether, for instance, there were any native Indian socioeconomic groups who found British rule not worthy of rebellion remains unexamined. Likewise, in China, the rulers were Manchu who had achieved their position through conquest. This reminded me of the Spaniards. though few in number, were able to conquer the Aztecs because the Aztecs had antagonized so many of the various tribes and peoples that the Aztecs ruled. Whether anything like that occurred in India and China was not examined.
But China and India were principally subordinated to the author's examination of al-Afghani and the Islamic experience. A substantial portion of the book is an apologetic for Islam. If this is something you seek, I believe that you will find it here. Much of this occurs through al-Afghani who seemed to me to be a conflicted figure in his philosophical musings. He seemed to spend much of his life traveling from place to place seeking patrons who provided for his daily needs. I would have preferred a greater focus on China and India, but that wasn't what the book provided.
My copy of the book has 310 pages. It wasn't until the last 50 or so pages that the author began to examine the history of China, India and the Mideast sometime after the 1930s. In my opinion, his examination was superficial. If you hope to read about Ghandi, Mao, Nehru, and Nasser, you won't get much. Interestingly, but consistent with the author's focus on Islam. you will get some analysis of Kemal Ataturk and his approach to the challenge of the West.
Some of the Eastern criticisms of the West are valid. I share some of the same criticisms. He ends (and by ends I mean pages 309-310) the book with the observation "...that billions of consumers in India and China will one day will enjoy the lifestyles of Europeans and Americans-is as absurd and dangerous a fantasy as anything dreamt up by al-Qaeda." Perhaps the author's next book will examine this thought.
I gave the book 3 stars because I thought it limited itself to the 19th and early 20th centuries with no real examination of the post-colonial era. I also give it 3 stars because it did not examine the impact of major world figures such as Ghandi, Mao, Nehru, Nasser and, to some extent, even Ataturk on their own peoples and the world at large. The book seeks an audience that wishes to dwell in colonialism.
Opening with the story of the first non-European country to vanquish a European power since the Middle Ages (the 1905 Japanese victory over the Russian navy) the awakening and reverberations of which provided the theme of this book.
An introductory quote of a world famous philosopher serves as a front piece warning of a dated but arrogant grand Western historical speculation: wherein Hegel declared China and India of no concern to world history.
Reflecting changes in world perspective, this books focus is on this very area -- Asia. Since that part of the globe was once the object of Western Imperial adventures, the author, through the thoughts and comments of various Asian intellectuals, expands his interest as he probes the political, economic, thoughts and ideologies, underlying Western colonial attitudes.
It is here, that one witnesses the working out through adaptation and copying of the Western concept of "modernity:" the arrogant and racist bias of the occupiers and the concomitant resentment, envy and quiescent arrogance of the colonized The result is the social, political conflict and confusion emerging from decolonization and the rise of independent nation states.
The main protagonists in this book are two itinerant thinkers and activists: Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1873-97) a Muslim whose writings prepared the way for Ataturk, Nasser, Ayatollah Khomeini, and still animates the politics of Islamic societies. The other is Liang Qichao (1873-1929) perhaps China's foremost modern intellectual who bequeathed his obsessions with building state power to Mao Zedong Both of these men became major forces for change. Of particular note is the observation that the prevailing concern with Islam as a religion is not perhaps as significant as an apparent societal propensity for "fanaticism and despotism." By opening up new perspective Mishra hopes that we may be convinced that the "assumptions of Western power -- increasingly untenable-- are no longer a reliable vantage point and may even be dangerously misleading."
The book is full of astounding quotes from various Asian writers, some of which demonstrate a high degree of discernment and prescience, as well as an accurate and succinct summary of the historical situation.
The author closes with a very important assessment and warning, namely that in the future we may experience even bloodier conflicts generated by the need for precious resources as we strive towards world wide modernization. He categorically states that for China and India to enjoy the lifestyles of Europeans and Americans - "is as absurd and dangerous a fantasy as anything dreamt of by Al-Qaeda." Most sobering is the thought provoking conclusion: "the universal triumph of Western modernity which turns the revenge of the East into something darkly ambiguous, and all its victories truly Pyrrhic."
Harry L. Stille