From the Ruins of Empire

Fort Zeelandia, Taiwan

OK, I have an ulterior motive for writing this… not just because it looked interesting on the Arts & Letters Daily website — which if you are not reading, you are doing yourself a tremendous disservice — but also to test out new Facebook features that I intend to use elsewhere on a different project.

…and because the Facebook “like” button broke here.

But that’s neither here nor there, because what I’d really like to talk about right now is this UK Guardian review of what appears to be a very awesome book on how Eastern intellectuals pretty much ignored the rise of the West:

In From the Ruins of Empire, Pankaj Mishra turns his attention to the other side of the story: to attempts by Asian thinkers (in Afghanistan, China, India, Iran, Turkey) to rebuild their cultural and political identities after collisions with the imperialist west. His account begins in the first half of the 19th century with the west already approaching ascendancy in east Asia, India and the Muslim world. It spans Asia’s steady disillusionment with western modernity through two world wars, then ends with the rise of China, India and global Islam, and the much-rumoured decline of the west. Too often, Mishra has argued elsewhere, these non-western voices have been mute in anglophone accounts of the east-west clash, as if intellectual dynamism and creativity had lain solely with the modern west. Asian state-builders such as Sun Yat-sen are mocked (or ignored) for their jarring juxtaposition of admiration for the west with passionate, anti-colonial patriotism. We perhaps tend to see successful Asian leaders as relevant only to their immediate contexts: to view men such as Mao Zedong or Ho Chi Minh as cunning military strategists rather than as political thinkers with bigger ideas that might traverse regions and eras. Moreover, Mishra has no time at all for big, broad-brush accounts of western success contrasted with eastern hopelessness. Instead, he is preoccupied by the tragic moral ambivalence of his tale. There is here no triumphal sense of “eastern revenge” against the 19th century’s “white disaster”, but rather one of self-doubt, inconsistency and virtuous intentions gone badly wrong.

There are a number of truly excellent books on this phenomenon, ranging from Bernard Lewis’ The Muslim Discovery of Europe to Selim Deringil’s The Well Protected Domains.  Most recently was Tonio Andrade’s Lost Colony which goes over the Chinese conquest of then-Dutch occupied Taiwan, where the Chinese general Koxinga invaded and ended 38 years of Dutch rule.

Not exactly the story of the vastly superior West against the inwardly looking East, eh?  Yet as the East continued to engage in with the West, and the West — primarily Britain in both China and India, but elsewhere as the Ottoman Empire collapsed and Africa became colonized, didn’t exactly take the engagement lying down.  China was compromised but never conquered.  Muslims continued to draw against their golden age for inspiration.  Japan rose from hidden kingdom to world power in just 50 years:

Luminous details glimmer through these swaths of political and military history: the Indian villagers who named their babies after Japanese admirals on hearing of Japan’s epochal defeat of Russia in 1905; the curious history of the fez, a deliberately reformist piece of headgear that became an international symbol of Muslim identity; the touching naivety of Ho Chi Minh, so convinced that Woodrow Wilson would make time to meet him in Paris in 1919 that he hired a morning suit for an encounter that never happened; Nehru’s fanatically anglophone father, rumoured to have sent his shirts for dry-cleaning in Europe. There are shocking reminders of the double-dealing hypocrisy of the great powers during the first world war and at the Versailles peace conference: the squalid secret treaties agreed between Britain, France, Japan and Italy, news of which Wilson tried to suppress; the exclusion of many non-European peoples from the conference; the racist jokes openly cracked by the Australian and British prime ministers. The betrayal of racial equality at Versailles opened the door to an Asian move towards communism, with all its pernicious consequences, as Comintern agents scattered across a receptive China, India, Iran and Turkey.

The article ends off with a warning that Western influences have brought more mimicry than emulation in the East, and that at their root both China and India still provide more of a simulacrum paying tribute to Western ideals of democracy and individual liberty rather than an honest adaptation and application of the same themes.

One could immediately ask whether or not Western-style democracy is truly suited for the East, as evidenced by the patronizing attempts to impose such governance in the Middle East despite hundreds of years of Islamic traditions and culture, or Western insistence that Chinese communism must yield despite China’s cultural (and historically learned) abhorrence of chaos and disorder.

The book comes to the United States in September 2012.  I’ll find time to read it, to be sure…

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