The Revenge of the East image

The Revenge of the East

If you want to understand Asia today, argues Pankaj Mishra in his magnificent From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia, you have to understand that from Istanbul to Tokyo, key thinkers and activists throughout the 19th and 20th centuries were trying to respond to "the stubborn challenge of the West." This challenge "links not only the Muslim Jamal al-Din al-Afghani to the Chinese Liang Qichao, but also al-Afghani to Osama bin Laden, Liang to Mao Zedong, the Ottoman Empire to present-day Turkey and pre-Communist China to the capitalist China of today." It's a bold claim, but one which Mishra substantiates extensively in a series of essays on Asian intellectuals like al-Afghani, Liang, Rabindranath Tagore and Sayyid Qutb. The extent to which they succeeded is one of the fascinatingly unresolved questions prompted by the book.

Initially, Western technology was borrowed with full awareness of how it might corrode traditional ways of life:

Many of these thinkers judged Western-style politics and economics to be inherently violent and destructive forces … These thinkers sensed that, though irresistible and often necessary, the modern industrial society and social freedoms pioneered by Europe would destroy many of their cherished cultures and traditions, just as they had in Europe itself, and leave chaos in their place.

A compelling example is Zhang Junmai, a follower of Liang who hosted Tagore in China. In the 1920s, he highlighted the question with haunting clarity:

The fundamental principles on which our nation is founded are quietism, as opposed to activism; spiritual satisfaction, as opposed to the striving for material advantage; a self-sufficient agrarianism, as opposed to profit-seeking mercantilism; and a morally transforming sense of brotherhood rather than racial segregation … A nation founded on agriculture lacks a knowledge of the industrial arts, but it is likewise without material demands; thus, though it exists over a long period of time, it can still maintain a standard of poverty but equality, scarcity but peace. But how will it be hereafter?

Quite. As such, many leading Asian intellectuals brought similar critiques of modernity: Western selfishness, materialism, consumerism, individualism, industrialisation and popular entertainment would destroy the traditional ways of life and do untold harm to their society (the classic demonstration of which came in the slaughter of the Great War). Yet, Mishra argues,

it should be admitted: the course of history has bypassed many of their fondest hopes. In fact, it was European principles of nationalism and civic patriotism that almost all native elites embraced in order to beat (or at least draw level with) the West in what seemed a Darwinian struggle for the future. Even someone as spiritual minded, anti-political and critical of modern state-building as Gandhi could not avoid becoming a nationalist leader … Chinese intellectuals felt compelled to vilify over two millennia of Confucian tradition. The Ottoman Turks went so far as to abolish the office of the Islamic caliphate altogether, renounce their leadership of the Muslim umma, and then disestablish Islam itself in order to turn Turkey into a modern nation-state.

It didn’t work. Nationalism has a lot to answer for:

The European model of the ethnically homogenous nation-state was a poor fit in Europe itself. That it was particularly so for multi-ethnic Asian societies has been amply proved by the plight of Kashmiri Muslims, Tibetans, Uighurs, the Chinese in Malaysia, Sunni Muslims in Iraq, Kurds in Turkey and Tamils in Sri Lanka.

And therein lies the problem with the rise of the East, for all that Mishra welcomes it:

The rise of Asia … is in many ways the revenge of the East. Yet this success conceals an immense intellectual failure, one that has profound ramifications for the world today and the near future. It is simply this: no convincingly universalist response exists today to Western ideas of politics and economy, even though these seem increasingly febrile and dangerously unsuitable in large parts of the world. Gandhi, their most rigorous critic, is a forgotten figure within India today. Marxism-Leninism lies discredited … Turkey’s Islamic modernity doesn’t point to any alternative socio-economic order.

So what happens next? For Mishra, the idea that increased economic growth will bring Indian and Chinese consumers to the Western standard of living is “as absurd and dangerous a fantasy as anything dreamt up by al-Qaeda.” He is far more pessimistic. “It … looks set to create reservoirs of nihilistic rage and disappointment among hundreds of millions of have-nots - the bitter outcome of the universal triumph of Western modernity, which turns the revenge of the East into something darkly ambiguous, and all its victories truly Pyrrhic.”

Written in 2012, before the migrant crisis, the rise and fall of ISIS and the increase of Western nationalist populism in the last few years, this is a prophetic and unsettling book, as well as a fascinating account of Asian intellectual history. It’s well worth a look.

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