This article by Julia Lovell is taken from Post Magazine¡¦s edition of the 26th August 2012
The original article was taken from the Guardian¡¦s News & Media section
Debates about the rise of the modern West (and the corresponding decline of the East) remain a fertile source of historical polemic. Such appositional historiography - the idea of a head-on clash of civilisations, with a clear winner and loser - seems to hold a perennial appeal in terms of both its simplicity and its drama of antagonism. Last year, historian Niall Ferguson - in his book titled Civilisation: The West and the Rest - brought the subject back into sharp media focus. ¡§The rise of the West,¡¨ he argued, ¡§is the pre-eminent historical phenomenon of the second half of the second millennium after Christ. It is the story at the very heart of modern history. It is perhaps the most challenging riddle historians have to solve.¡¨
The old school contended that somewhere in the early modern
period a progressive and free-trading Europe surged ahead through innate
superiority of character and government, while ancient superpowers such as
In From the Ruins of
Empire, Pankaj Mishra
turns his attention to the other side of the story: to attempts by Asian
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. Successful Asian leaders tend to be seen as relevant only to their immediate contexts: men such as Mao Zedong or Ho Chi Minh viewed 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 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.
Mishra sets the scene for Western hegemony with Napoleon's 1799
The trauma of this collision exposed some of Asia's most
educated, thoughtful men -
Yet all three of them, in turn, were disappointed by ¡§Western civilisation¡¨ and turned back to native resources. AI-Afghani reinvented himself as a religious zealot to forge a potent blend of nationalism and pan-Islamism, advocating violent struggle against the West. To the end, however, he remained capable of searing criticism of fellow Muslims and conscious of the perils of Asian tyranny and fanaticism: ¡§The entire oriental world,¡¨ he once said, ¡§is so entirely rotten and incapable of hearing the truth ... that I should wish for a flood or an earthquake to devour and bury it.¡¨
Buried in an unmarked grave in 1897, he was reclaimed as a great Muslim patriot by Iranians and Afghans after the Second World War. Liang's youthful worship of the West's parliaments and newspapers faded in middle age into melancholy observation of the ¡§gratuitous Western vandalism¡¨ that climaxed (in his own lifetime) in the First World War.
Tagore, who developed a tendency towards Eastern mysticism
in later years, was at the same time well attuned to feelings of colonial
humiliation; in 1919 he relinquished his British knighthood in protest at the
imperial administration's massacre of protesters in north
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 Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh, so convinced that American president Woodrow Wilson would make time to meet him in Paris in 1919 that he hired a morning suit for an encounter that never happened; Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru's 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
The book concludes by tracing the painful legacies of Asia's
responses to the West: