(A review of Pankaj Mishra’s new book. Cross-posted on 3 Quarks Daily, where it has received many comments.)
A few hundred years ago, a powerful cultural force arose in Western Europe that would later spread out and overwhelm much of the world. Fueled by a new spirit of individualism, inquiry, and innovation, it furthered personal ambition, a materialistic outlook, and competitive self-interest. This cultural force produced—and was in turn amplified by—scientific progress, the nation-state, advances in military and maritime technology, an escalating hunger for profit and raw materials, and secular institutions in education, governance, and finance, such as the joint-stock corporation.
In the ensuing centuries, European adventurers would subject many older, tradition-bound, and self-absorbed civilizations in Asia to the ravages of this aggressive and disruptive cultural force—and incidentally, to its refinements. Indeed by 1900, a minority of white Europeans had colonized much of Asia, controlling not just its political and economic life but also its cultural life in shaping the natives’ idea of themselves. The road to this widely resented domination—which the colonizers justified at home with theories of racial and cultural hierarchies, the white man’s burden, and plain old lies—was paved with countless imperial intrigues, extortionate treaties and taxation, skirmishes, plundering, drug dealing, massacres, and crushed mutinies. As Joseph Conrad wrote in 1902, ‘The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.’
In his engaging new work, From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia, Pankaj Mishra chronicles ‘how some of the most intelligent and sensitive people in the East responded to the encroachments of the West (both physical and intellectual) on their societies.’ What did they see as the threats and the temptations of the West? What modes of resistance and internal reforms did they propose to meet this challenge? Mishra’s remarkable story, mostly untold in Western historiography, opens up important new vistas on the colonial West and the trajectories of Asians, whether in imperial Japan, nationalist and communist China, India, or Muslim countries from Turkey to Pakistan.