From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia

by Pankaj Mishra

Hardcover, 2012

Call number




Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2012), Edition: F First Edition, 368 pages


Provides an overview of the great thinkers and philosophical leaders from across Asia who helped change and shape the modern continent, including Tagore and Gandhi in India, Liang Qichao in China and Abdurreshi al Ibrahim in the Ottoman Empire.

Media reviews

Ce dernier a l’incontestable mérite de lever le voile sur un courant de pensée peu (ou mal) connu et qui est aujourd’hui de grande actualité. From the Ruins of Empire remplit en outre sa mission en proposant un développement chronologique des plus stimulants, qui s’encastre dans une mise
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en récit de l’histoire du grand continent asiatique. Il réussit en outre à éviter nombre de travers des grandes synthèses de ce genre, comme lorsqu’il renonce à trouver absolument une cohérence intellectuelle entre divers propos d’Al-Afghani : la restitution de leur cadre d’énonciation lui permet plutôt d’en souligner la dimension stratégique. Étant donnée la posture d’entre-deux qui était celle de son personnage, Mishra montre qu’il pouvait défendre une position et son contraire en fonction de son interlocuteur. S’il s’agissait d’un mollah intransigeant, il se faisait alors défenseur des sciences et critique d’une interprétation littérale du Coran. S’il s’agissait d’un Indien en faveur d’une pleine coopération avec la Grande-Bretagne, il se drapait dans la tradition bengali pour condamner ses idées.
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When he reaches the interwar period, Mishra shifts gear, away from intellectual biography towards historical essay. He gives an excellent outline of the different paths to modernity taken by the main Asian countries, managing to keep thematic control of increasingly divergent narratives, though he
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does stud the text with too many names that are unfamiliar to the western reader. Just when it seems that Mishra will end in full triumphalist mode, he concludes in a final twist that, while Asian societies have by and large got their revenge for their past humiliations, they have in the process lost many of the values which once distinguished them. Both India and China now have the inequalities of wealth that so disturbed visitors to the west a hundred years ago. As his hatchet job on Niall Ferguson in the London Review of Books last year showed, Mishra is no mean polemicist, but he is also an intellectual historian who can skilfully paint in background, simplify boldly to open up broad perspectives on the past, and popularise without condescension. Of course, a book of this scope has to be selective – one major omission is the impact of oil on modern Islamic society – but overall it gives a voice to characters often ignored by western historians and makes an eloquent contribution to the "west versus the rest" debate.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member RobertP
A well-written and readable book, in English, giving the view of colonialism from the other side of the telescope. It is a brutally objective look from the Asian perspective at Western colonialism and the resulting intellectual struggles against that colonialism. Mishra uses the narrative theme of
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following several significant Asian thinkers, plotting their intellectual trajectories and their results or lack therof in defining the various struggles to throw off the Western yoke.
I leave this book with a vastly deeper sense of the impact that the age of imperialism had on the subject nations.
However, I also leave this book with a vast sense of irony. The various intellectual threads that Mishra describes all lead to one place - the adoption of the basics of various Western technologies and ideas. Nationalism runs rampant throughout the world, even in the Islamic polities which by Mishra's rights should be united more by religion than divided by borders. Western technology of course reigns supreme, and in fact is mostly manufactured in Asia, and by now is really World technology, for more and more innovation comes direct from various Asian states. Liberal democracy, the enemy throughout much of the book, seems to be an aspiration of virtually everyone. Probably because it speaks for the very individualism which was so opposed by the intellectuals described in the book.
Possibly, Mishra's description of thesis and antithesis between West and Asia is really in the end the prelude to the synthesis of various intellectual streams. Maybe Mishra started off pace Huntington and ended up pace Fukayama.
Anyway, what is Asia? It works geographically, although Europe is not a continent, but a peninsula. It doesn't work as a definition. It is too broad. The West as a definition is bad enough, but Asia?
After all this harping on the book, it was a good read, and one which I can say has altered my thinking.
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LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
This is a history, through biography, of the first origins of nationalism and post-colonial resurgence. The author chooses the figures of Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, a pan-Islamic reform, Liang Qichao, a Chinese 'Strengthen the Nation' intellectual, and Rabindranath Tagore, a Bengali poet. From these
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biographies, he aims to sort out the ideas which later became rooted into more modern and powerful figures and thoughts in the modern world today, and how a reaction against Western thought continues there.

The big idea is that nationalist movements today arose as a reaction to imperialism and colonial exploitation in the 19th century. "Why do they hate us?" asked Mr. Bush. Not solely because of our freedoms, but because of our power, and how it was built through exploitation and betrayal. The Versailles Treaty at 1919 was a particular failure due to Wilson's inability to express the principles of national self-determination, and instead permitting the preservation of a colonial system.

There is one further omission. Self-contained empires to colonies and then into modern states without an intermediate stage of democratic nation-building. Let the people themselves express themselves, and not another tyrant who claims to liberate, and then destroys instead. See the Imperial Japanese, once a light for Pan-Asian liberation, and then becoming tyrants and exploiters just like the rest before their fiery defeat.

A solid look at a part of history which has been ignored for too long by too many.
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LibraryThing member Michael.Bradham
Got me thinking differently about Japan's role in the history of Asia. Contains powerful excerpts from 3 powerful men. Thank you.
LibraryThing member mausergem
This is a non fiction work focussing on rise and fall of imperialism in the Asian continent right from Egypt to Japan. It focuses on the process of awakening of the people and the leaders behind them throughout Asia. Some countries in Asia were European colonies and some were just heavily
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influenced in policy matters by the European powers. The two world wars contributed to the decline of the European powers and the Asian people awakened to their rights.

This is a excellent book which gives us the background information like the rulers, religion and the beliefs of the different nations and how each country chose the different path to freedom. It also gives us various new and unheard philosophers who directly or indirectly influenced the uprisings of people.
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LibraryThing member William345
An interesting history of anti-colonial intellectual life in the East during the greatest days of Imperialism. Mishra's new book is one much needed by Western readers. It's a necessary corrective. It's loaded with information about intellectuals in the Muslim world, China and India most of whom I
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have never heard of before. Each of these men--Jamal al din al-Afghani, Liang Qichao, Rabindranath Tagore and others--possessed insights into the true nature of Western nations' motivations in Asia. They saw the dependence by Eastern states on the West and knew nothing good would come of it. They saw that their own states were weak and predisposed to this manipulation because of aspects in their own cultures, say, favoring authoritarianism or the blandishments of religion. Theirs were not democracies. The populace did not take a personal interest in government, which was opaque and insular. The Enlightenment had caused western states to swing away from despotism toward participative democracy. There was no such parallel movement in the East. There doesn't appear to have been much scrabbling about in dusty archives by Mishra. He does not appear to have a working knowledge of either Arabic or Chinese, and, it seems, has relied exclusively on English-language sources.
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LibraryThing member le.vert.galant
A very readable account of Asian history as seen through the eyes of representative intellectuals such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Liang Qichao. I enjoyed the books perspective and synthesis, but I wish it had spent more time on it's subjects' thought and less on a retelling of 20th century
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history. But it is highly recommended for bringing this material out of the academic presses and into something coherent and unique.
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LibraryThing member bowedbookshelf
A little history is a dangerous thing. One of the reasons I have never liked reading history is that I discovered written history often has pieces that are missing that can change one’s understanding of an event or time. One has to dig down into the details and the truth may never reveal itself.
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But thank goodness for Pankaj Mishra, who gives us history like nothing Americans are likely to encounter in school: history from the point of view of majority non-white nations around the time of the first global upheaval, at the turn of the last century and the First World War.

Mishra focuses on Asia as it was defined at the time, anything east of Turkey and west of Japan, and uses the words of individuals to define a zeitgeist that inspired and motivated upheavals taking place in the world at the time. Though Europe’s most influential thinkers deemed most of the non-white non-European societies unfit for self-rule, the men that drove revolutionary change in those very societies were motivated by notions of equality and human dignity spoken and written of in Western Europe, and later, by Woodrow Wilson.

One of those men was Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, revered now as the intellectual god-father of the Islamic Revolution. Educated in Tehran in the mid-ninetieth century, al-Afghani passed himself off as a member of different sects and nationalities in order to most effectively educate and reform with an eye to anti-imperialist strategy.
The English people believe me a Russian
The Muslims think me a Zoroastrian
The Sunnis think me a Shiite
And the Shiite think me an enemy of Ali
Some of the friends of the four companions have believe me a Wahhabi
Some of the virtuous Imamites have imagined me a Babi…
And yet al-Afghani was able to keep his focus on power to the subjugated people of Asia and exhort them to greater resistance to the imperialist power being brought to bear upon them by the West. Al-Afghani turns up wherever societal turmoil was in progress (Afghanistan, India, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Iran) and by his writings and speeches was able to urge a “protective modernization” upon fellow Muslims: “self-strengthening without blind imitation of the West, and who insisted that the Koran itself sanctioned many of the values—individual freedom and dignity, justice, the use of reason, even patriotism—touted by Turkish high officials as ‘Western.’” “Fanaticism and political tyranny” were the basic evils of unreformed Muslim society, he argued, the means by which the West had come to dominate the East.

Eventually al-Afghani came to believe that modernization alone as not sufficient, as it was making countries in the East subservient client states of the West. Pan-Islamism and nationalism was then considered to be the only way to beat back the encroaching West. He has a long history, traveling to Paris, Moscow and back, eventually, to Persia, agitating until his death in 1897. His grave, long unmarked, was moved to Kabul in 1944, and was visited by the American ambassador in 2002, who paid for restoration of the site. One group of al-Afghani’s followers became proponents of Salafism, the puritanical movement which is the basis for ISIS, surely a perversion of what al-Afghani believed.

I spend so much time on al-Afghani because I don’t think I have ever heard of him before, or if I have, I never knew anything about what he was thinking. Mishra just begins with al-Afghani, however, and delves into China’s (and Vietnam’s) pre-revolutionaries, Liang Qichao, Kang Youwei, and Tan Sitong. Tan died, tragically for China’s interests one might argue, by allowing himself to be captured and executed in his twenties by forces loyal to the dowager empress. He was one who was clever enough to have negotiated the moral shoals of republicanism by combining it with the Confucian notion of social ethics.

Liang Qichao was the one of Tan's contemporaries to travel in the United States, writing “70 percent of the entire national wealth of America is in the hands of 200,000 rich people…How strange, how bizarre!” Liang was later part of a delegation to the peace conference held in Paris following the First World War. Interests of the non-white majority countries were ignored, despite the notions of freedom from oppression and human dignity embodied in Wilson’s ‘Fourteen Points’ and lodged in the hearts of many nationalists.

The final figure upon whom Mishra focuses is Rabindranath Tagore, who was likewise awakened to new ideas through contact with the West, but who also saw the spiritual vacuity in the West’s worldview. When he visited China in the 1920’s he was disparaged by crowds shouting “We don’t want philosophy, we want materialism!” Such a thing could be said to be heard today in Beijing. Let’s hope the Chinese don’t come to regret their single-minded choice, or are turned back once they see the desert ahead.

It is hard to avoid Mishra’s conclusion that racism was the reason Eastern countries were exploited and ignored by the West at the turn of the twentieth century. It is also true that the West had made advances in science, logic, and humanistic theories that struck thinkers in Asia as entirely worthwhile and modern. The Asians, however, could see something perverted in the West’s materialistic rapacity and sought to preserve some of their rich spiritual heritage while modernizing their political systems. If the West had only appreciated and taken on board what the East had to offer, rather than using muscle to subdue the insistence on autonomy from imperialism, probably none of us would be in the position in which we find ourselves today.

Mishra’s work of history is enormously important and entirely welcome, covering as he does vast parts of the non-white Asiatic world during a time of turmoil. He does not avoid the blank spots, omissions, and imputations common to writers of history: in the one sentence assigned to Armenia he writes, “However, harassed by Armenian nationalists in the east of Anatolia, the Turks ruthlessly deported hundreds of thousands of Armenians in 1915, an act that later invited accusations of genocide.” Nonetheless, this work and its bibliography is a giant step towards redressing our ignorance of the histories, needs, and desires of peoples in their search for rights.
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LibraryThing member rivkat
How anticolonial consciousness grew in China, Japan, Iran, Afghanistan, and other Asian/Middle Eastern areas both before and after WWI.
LibraryThing member Kavinay
To this day, even descendants of colonized peoples refer to westernization as a synonym for modernization. It's a pervasive assumption that Mishra breaks down by articulating how revolutionary forces already existed in the east before Europe descended upon them, propped up elites, suppressed change
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and thereby entrenched foreign wealth extraction.
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Orwell Prize (Shortlist — 2013)
Bernard Schwartz Book Award (Shortlist — 2013)
Lionel Gelber Prize (Shortlist — 2013)
Crossword Book Award (Winner — 2013)




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