Asiatic ascent

Asiatic ascent

Mishra’s work, which examines the interaction between the East and the West, is particularly relevant at a time when Asia is considered to be on the rise, writes AVS Namboodiri.

The interaction between the East and the West at social, economic, political and intellectual levels has been explored often, and incisive minds on both sides have given a lot of insight into the processes and outcome of this engagement. These insights are vital for an understanding of the last two centuries of the world’s history. Asia’s response to the imperial and colonial domination by the West has been narrated in many ways and from different perspectives. They have ranged from the European supremacist’s contemptuous dismissal of the East and assumption of a civilising role to the strong assertion of their values by the nationalists of the East. In his book From the Ruins of Empire, Pankaj Mishra studies the Asian response to colonial subjugation and spans a great and diversified geographical, religious and intellectual territory from the Arab world, Turkey and India to China. He is a novelist, essayist, polemicist and untrained historian.

His narrative is important not only for its conclusions but also for the methodology and sources he employs.

Mishra is not in unfamiliar territory because he has in the past studied the encounters between Asian and European ideas and religious thought. In this book, he analyses how Persian, Arab, Indian, Chinese and Japanese thinkers reacted to the onslaught of the West during the rise and at the height of Western colonial power. The defeat of Russia by Japan in 1905 is a seminal point in history because it was the first time an Asian country had blown up the superiority of the West. It energised Asia’s leaders and intellectuals and gave them hope and confidence in themselves. European power declined in Asia ever since. Mishra feels the intellectual and political awakening in Asia, which he feels is the defining feature of the last century, could be traced to this event.

This awakening had its roots in the ideas of many who responded to the events and movements in Asia as representatives of their societies. Mishra does not dwell on the work and perspectives of obvious leaders like Gandhi and Mao Zedong. He goes further into the past and analyses the life and ideas of little known and unrecognised personalities who laid the foundations of the East’s engagement with the West.

He identifies two important thinkers and activists whose views shaped Asian ways of looking at the West. One was Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-97), a Persian Shia who passed himself as an Afghan Sunni, and travelled all over Persia, Afghanistan, Ottoman territories, Egypt and Russia, talking, writing and interpreting tradition and Islam in a contemporary idiom. The other was Liang Qichao (1873-1929), who was also a wanderer and a writer, and tried to reinterpret Confucianism and was disillusioned with western democracy. He was an influence on Mao and was also a political activist. Others like Rabindranath Tagore and Ho Chi Minh also come up for discussion.

Mishra argues that the ideas of these thinkers, especially al-Afghani’s and Liang’s, became important forces of change in their societies. He sees them as early modern Asians who stood “at the beginning of the process whereby ordinary resentment against the West and Western dominance, along with anxiety about internal weakness and decay, was transformed into mass nationalist and liberation movements and ambitious state-building programmes across Asia.” He feels that the choice of lesser-known figures for the study has helped him to understand and to present better the political and intellectual tendencies of India, China and the Muslim world in a crucial period of world.

The histories that we learn are nationalist discourses. The ideas of the first generation of thinkers, though sometimes confused, make it easier to understand what happened later.

Mishra’s work is intelligent, scholarly and painstakingly written. It is particularly relevant at a time when Asia is considered to be ascending. It also helps to understand some contemporary phenomena like the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the nature of the Chinese political system. Mishra is intensely aware of the diversity and complexity of Asian societies and of their responses to the western intrusion into their lives. But he finds common threads and consistency and synthesises many individual lines of thought into a coherent argument.

In spite of the decline of the West’s economic, political and moral power, many of our attitudes are shaped by western ideas. Some of our perceptions are guided, perhaps without our knowing, by western interests. Historical understanding, based on our experience and needs, is necessary to shape our present and future. A better sense of how the East responded to the West in the past will help to respond to it better in the future. A view across centuries and across the entire continent eliminates the risk of taking limited views rooted in the nature of particular societies at particular points of time. This book helps to get a comprehensive view.

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