A continent awakens: the political and economic rise of Asia


(A review of Pankaj Mishra’s “Ruins of Empire.” Published in The National, 15 September 2012)

In 1988, Chinese premier Deng Xiaoping promised his Indian counterpart Rajiv Gandhi that the next century would be the “Asian century”. The claim may have seemed risible to many in the West but subsequent decades of economic transformation in China and India have turned the narrative in Deng’s favour. Asia, we are told, is very much on the rise. With the endorsement of barrages of statistics, business punditry and insistent animal metaphors (tigers and pandas, elephants and dragons), Asia’s giants lumber onto the international stage. The phrase “Asian century” is now a feature of Sino-Indian bilateral relations, underlining not so much an aspiration but a description of the world both countries believe they are in the process of making.

But have we already lived through an “Asian century”? According to the Indian essayist and author Pankaj Mishra, the past has been misunderstood. “For most people in Europe and America,” Mishra writes, “the history of the 20th century is still largely defined by the two world wars and the long nuclear stand-off with Soviet communism. But it is now clearer that the central event of the last century … was the intellectual and political awakening of Asia.”

This awakening is the fluid, breathless subject of his new book, From theRuins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia. Facing the challenge posed by western imperialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, intellectuals from Egypt to Japan engaged in frenetic debates about the past and future of their societies. Their responses to the West would pave the way for Asia’s eventual decolonisation and independence. Many of these innumerable thinkers and writers are largely unknown in the West but Mishra sees the necessity for this intellectual history in such ignorance. To understand the “rise of Asia” in the present age, we must turn to its first fumbling struggles with European imperialism.

Asia’s grappling with the West is not a new topic for Mishra. An earlier book, Temptations of the West, offered several glimpses of life in contemporary South Asia that loosely attempted to answer the question: “How do people with traditions extending back several millennia modernise themselves?” He roams small, dusty Indian towns, flirts with Bollywood actresses, skulks in the gloom of an Afghan village and commiserates with frustrated Tibetan activists. In the case of the Afghan peasant, the West may be something concrete: the strafing Soviet helicopters, the tide of US weapons that fuelled the anti-Soviet mujahideen and the more recent silent menace of American drones. In other situations, the West represents something altogether more amorphous. It is not so much a geographic place or a cluster of governments but a series of phenomena: the hardening of once-nimble religious traditions into ideologies like political Islam and Hindu nationalism, the spiralling inequality caused by economic liberalisation and the implacability of robust nation-states. Mishra sees all these examples of “modernity” as indicative of the indelible effect of the West on the lives of South Asians.

In Ruins, Mishra takes the opposite approach to the same question while broadening its scope. Where Temptations sketched the lives of everyday people, Mishra’s latest effort remains very much in the realm of rarefied ideas. It is history, not reportage. It eschews intimate conversation and description for sweeping summary and synthesis. And it takes as its period not the small glimmering of a single life but the broad arch of centuries.


The West’s era of dominance in Asia began in earnest in the mid-18th century, with the inroads of the British East India Company into Mughal India. By the time of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, the British had considerably strengthened their hold over swathes of India, while other European powers nibbled around the edges of the continent. The 19th century witnessed the implacable advance of industrialised western might, with China brought to its knees by commercial and legal concessions, Japan forcefully opened up to the world by American gunships, the Dutch in Indonesia, South Asia ruled in its near entirety by the British, the French in South East Asia, Central Asia swallowed by Russia and the lands of the withered Ottoman Empire either under formal or de facto European control.

The coming of the West shattered many of the certainties that sustained political life across the continent. Local observers watched as sprawling, complex polities like the Ottoman, Mughal and Qing empires were cowed by much smaller, but more muscular, European nations. The inability to resist the encroaching West plunged Asian thinkers into introspection. They critiqued not only foreigners and colonial agents but the local rulers who had allowed Asian societies to slide into relative weakness.

One significant response to western power came from militarist reformists who sought to match the organisational and technological superiority of European states. Western modernity presented itself in this regard, not in cultural terms but, rather, as a question of technical capacity: the ability to mobilise resources, energy and collective will to bolster the strength of the nation. Writing about the failed Indian Revolt of 1857, the Urdu writer Abdul Halim Sharar claimed that British victory was inevitable. “The world had assumed a new pattern of industrialised civilisation and this was crying aloud to every nation. No one in India heard this proclamation and all were destroyed.”

The impulse to borrow from the West sprung from this sense of Asia’s acute organisational deficit. “European forms of political and military mobilisation, financial innovations and information-rich public cultures of enquiry and debate,” Mishra writes, “fed upon each other to create a formidable and decisive advantage.”

Encouraged by a new generation of reformist thinkers, both the Ottomans and imperial Japan pursued agendas of reform in the mid-19th century, known respectively as the Tanzimat and the Meiji Renewal, to bring their societies in closer step with the capabilities of the West. More slowly, China established military academies where European trainers schooled a new generation of officers and revamped the Chinese army. Under British colonial rule, India developed some of the trappings of the modern European state, including railways, a regimented administrative bureaucracy, universities and a large and noisy print culture.

Within the space of half a century, Japan transformed itself from a closed feudal state to an industrialised, expansive force able to compete with Europe. Its victory in the Russo-Japanese war in 1905 shocked the world and stirred the imaginations of Asian anti-imperialists everywhere.

Mishra begins his narrative with this seminal event, cataloguing the various giddy reactions to Japan’s triumph around the continent. “We are dispelling the myth of the inferiority of the non-white races,” the Japanese essayist Tokutomi Soho wrote. “With our power we are forcing our acceptance as a member in the ranks of the world’s greatest powers.”

Various young thinkers and leaders, from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk – eventually the founder of modern Turkey – to Sun Yat-sen and Mao Zedong, to Mohandas Gandhi and a teenage Jawaharlal Nehru – India’s first prime minister – all found great promise in the Japanese success. It suggested to Nehru the prospect of “Indian and Asiatic freedom from the thraldom of Europe”.

The Japanese way offered one vision of how to fend off the West. By adopting European military, bureaucratic and financial structures, and consolidating the power of the state, Japan had emerged as the only Asian country capable of competing with Europe. Political exiles flocked to Tokyo. Their publications dreamed of an Asia born anew, galvanised by Japan’s rise.

The Russian-born “itinerant cosmopolitan” Abdurreshid Ibrahim is representative of the eclectic and broad-ranging political affinities forged in Tokyo at that time. He came to Japan in 1909 after preaching the oneness of Asia while travelling through Muslim communities from Arabia to Siberia. It was the “opposition among Asian peoples” in his view that allowed “western powers to invade the East”. “Bringing about the union of Asian countries to stand up to Europe,” he argued, “is our legitimate means of self-defence.”

Japan inspired other realisations in those who found refuge there. The Chinese reformer Liang Qichao – one of the more prominent figures in the book – fled to Japan and attracted a circle of devotees. He saw great advantages in Japanese authoritarianism. Qichao was convinced that his compatriots were not yet ready for political freedoms. “The Chinese people must now accept authoritarian rule,” he wrote. “Those born in the thundering tempests of today, forged and moulded by iron and fire, they will be my citizens, 20 or 30, 50 years from hence. Then we will give them Rousseau to read, and speak to them of Washington.” A century later, Chinese officials still defer the chaotic freedoms of a more democratic system.

At that time, authoritarianism was also the defining feature of many European states. The perception of “westernisation” in Asia rarely had anything to do with liberal political freedoms. There was no necessary link between the West’s hard power – its industrial and military muscle – and its avowed, soft Enlightenment virtues.

After all, colonised peoples from Egypt to the Philippines were treated to much of the former and precious little of the latter. Many Asian reformers hoped to replicate the West’s strong, efficient state institutions, while disregarding its cultural claims, the sanctimonious paeans of its “mission civilisatrice”.

Other thinkers rejected the offerings of western modernity in their entirety. The Muslim philosopher, polemicist and agitator Jamal al-Din Al Afghani – another of Mishra’s major characters – argued that the supposed gifts of European technology and sophistication were actually calculated to leave Asian societies weaker. Born in Iran and educated in India, Al Afghani was another of the period’s worldly, peripatetic intellectuals. He would spend much of the latter half of the 19th century living across the Muslim world – Afghanistan, Iran, Egypt and Turkey – and even a stint in Paris.

Al Afghani’s experiences in India, in particular, sharpened his critique of western hypocrisies. According to Mishra, he argued “that the British improved transport and communication in order to drain India’s wealth to England and facilitate trade for British merchants. Western-style schools … were meant merely to turn Indians into English-speaking cogs of British administration”. Anti-imperial critics baulked at the notion that Asians should be grateful for railways and colleges. These were only further links in the chains that bound them to the acquisitive aims of western power.

Mishra credits Al Afghani with encouraging generations of Muslim thinkers to re-imagine the legacy and future possibilities of Islam. Al Afghani was hardly a dogmatic traditionalist. He was deeply critical of what he perceived as stagnation in many Asian societies. But he dismissed the notion that imitation of the West would reinvigorate the Muslim world. The task at hand, he argued, was to remember the dynamism inherent to Islamic history and tradition, and marshal it in grappling with the modern world. His renovation of Islam was part of a wider trend; across Asia, intellectuals reinvented their Confucian, Buddhist and Hindu traditions as alternatives to European civilisation.

Asian thinkers saw the desolation at the heart of some of the West’s most cherished ideas. Liang Qichao’s mentor Yan Fu, once a proponent of liberal individualism, lamented that “western progress in the last 300 [years] has only led to selfishness, slaughter, corruption and shamelessness”. Sun Yat-sen dismissed European civilisation as “nothing but the rule of might … such a civilisation, when applied to society, will mean the cult of force, with aeroplanes, bombs and cannons as its outstanding features”.

Moved by the horrors of the First World War, the Bengali thinker Bhudev Mukhopadhyay argued in Mishra’s paraphrasing that “the innate human capacity for love had stopped, in Europe, at the door of the nation-state – it was the end point of Europe’s history and its endless conflicts”. What offended Mukhopadhyay even more was the West’s ability to mask its material ambitions in morality. “Whatever is to their interest, they find consistent with their sense of what is right at all times, failing to understand how their happiness cannot be the source of universal bliss.”

Where reformers believed Asian societies needed to adopt European-style state structures, more strident critics saw the European nation-state as the evil troubling Asia. The nation-state lay at the root of all ills: the bloodbath of the First World War, the rapacious, mechanised pursuit of financial profit, the stirring of race-consciousness and bigotry. Resisting the West, and escaping its bloody fate, required thinking beyond its categories.

This was obviously easier said than done. Asian intellectuals developed two large, complex and, at times, muddled ideologies to address the problem – “pan-Islamism” and “pan-Asianism”. The former remains relevant today. Al Afghani and many of his acolytes saw Islam as an antidote to the destructiveness at the heart of Europe. Religion provided a logic of connection to a wider community that was not based on language or race.

“Pan-Islamism” took various forms in the interwar period, from the Khilafatist movement that sought to preserve the Ottoman sultan as caliph to the eventual agitation by Indian Muslims for a separate homeland that would become Pakistan. The descendants of Al Afghani’s circle developed political Islam in numerous directions. One hears the echoes of their intellectual ferment in the Iranian revolution that toppled the Shah, in the moderate politics of Turkey’s current Islamist ruling party and in the cosmic fire and brimstone of jihadists like Osama bin Laden.


“Pan-Asianism” seems today like an altogether absurd enterprise; what could feasibly bind a continent of the immense size and diversity of Asia? But in the first half of the 20th century, the notion of an Asia united in some form or the other occurred to many. Sitting in a British prison in 1940, Nehru dreamed of a strongly allied continent. “My own picture of the future is a federation which includes China and India, Burma and Ceylon, Afghanistan and possibly other countries.” He was no doubt inspired by the broad connections of sympathy and support that bound Asians together in their anti-imperial struggles.

As an ideology, however, pan-Asianism had dubious uses. In previous decades, rebel intellectuals from across Asia gathered in Japan to discuss how to end western hegemony. They knowingly and unknowingly ended up implicated in the Japanese imperial project. Pan-Asianism became the moral cloth that veiled the harder thrust of Japan’s ambitions. Its armies swept through parts of East Asia, committing numerous atrocities, but often defending their actions by invoking the Asian cause. In 1943, “the liberation of Asia” became the official goal of Japanese involvement in the Second World War.

By this time, the intellectual content of pan-Asianism had evaporated. Its original proponents, like the Japanese artist Kakuzo Okakura, had imagined Asia as united by harmonious, spiritual traditions antithetical to the brute violence of the West. “Asia is one,” he wrote in 1903. “Arab chivalry, Persian poetry, Chinese ethics and Indian thought, all speak of a single Asiatic peace, in which there grew up a common life, bearing in different regions different characteristic blossoms, but nowhere capable of a hard and fast dividing line.” Europe, on the other hand, was splintered by “hard and fast” dividing lines, its numerous antagonistic nationalisms. The Indian Nobel laureate and writer Rabindranath Tagore, a friend of Okakura’s, likewise believed in the warm unity of Asia’s various traditions of compassion and wisdom. They were anathema to the nation-state, which was “a machinery of commerce and politics turn[ing] out neatly compressed bales of humanity”. “When the idea of the Nation, which has met with universal acceptance in the present day, tries to pass off the cult of selfishness as a moral duty … it not only commits depredations but attacks the very vitals of humanity.”

Tagore was inevitably depressed by the rise of nationalism after the First World War in his native India, China and elsewhere. Though an unstinting critic of western imperialism, Tagore never believed that national ideologies would redeem Asian societies. He blamed Japan’s embrace of the trappings and deeds of western power for the nationalist trend. “The New Japan is only an imitation of the west,” he said disparagingly in Tokyo. He later wrote: “I have seen in Japan the voluntary submission of the whole people to the trimming of their minds and clipping of their freedoms by their governments … the people accept this all-pervading mental slavery with cheerfulness and pride because of their nervous desire to turn themselves into a machine of power, called the Nation.”

But Tagore cut a lonely figure. When he toured China and Japan in the 1920s, he was famously met with derision, scorned as the voice of a defeated country, as a babbler of spiritual mumbo-jumbo, as a threat to the rejuvenation of Asian nations. He returned to India embittered and fearful that in Asia, the nation-state had irrevocably won.

Various robust nationalisms guided Asia out from the yoke of western power. Those beliefs continue to fuel motivations and aspirations in the continent. Mishra notes that “Asian countries appear more outward-looking, confident and optimistic” compared to their western counterparts. “The rise of Asia,” he writes, “and the assertiveness of Asian peoples, consummates their revolt against the West that began more than a century ago; it is in many ways the revenge of the East.”

That revenge was at least partially the gift of the West. The nation-state remains the chief legacy of that period. It is the indelible imprint of Europe on a continent where the nation-state and all its associated structures and ideologies were previously unknown.

What has been lost? One of the many feats of Ruins is to reveal the astonishing and busy world of connections that linked the continent before the Second World War. As mentioned, Tokyo was home to writers and activists from all corners of Asia. After their failed 1857 revolt, Indian Sufi rebels fled to Egypt, where they continued to stir opposition to the British. Japanese idealists sowed anti-imperial rebellion in the Philippines. Journals published in the Middle East were read in East Asia and vice versa, while one of the first rhetorical broadsides of Iran’s 1906 constitutional revolution was fired from a journal in Calcutta. Thinkers across Asia maintained an intimate familiarity with the events and debates of other places. They saw themselves in contexts far larger in scope than those of their respective societies.

There are few contemporary equivalents of this trans-Asian intellectual life. If you spend time within a country such as India, it’s striking to see how confined most conversations and debates are. The technologies of globalisation – satellite television, telecommunications, a booming print culture – have conspired to create insular, self-sustaining national cultures, amplifying the clutter of the country while narrowing the frame of reference. Globalisation can throw up as many barriers as it flattens.

Tagore and other pan-Asianists did not succeed in mounting a real challenge to the advance of the nation-state model. Pan-Islamist ideas often congealed to buttress particular national identities. The revival of Confucian, Buddhist and Shinto traditions in East Asia has in the long run strengthened affinity to the nation, rather than transcended it. Asian thinkers could not produce any broad alternative to a world fragmented by European-style nation-states.

This, in Mishra’s view, constituted “an immense intellectual failure” that had “profound ramifications for the world today”. He argues that “no convincingly universalist response exists to western ideas of politics and economy”. When Indian and Chinese leaders next meet their delegations of military officials, technocrats and businessmen, they will no doubt invoke the collaborative aim of an “Asian century”. Mishra would have us consider if such an “Asian century” is possible at all.


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