Book Review: Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire

by indonotes

A recent account of anti-imperialism both intrigues and frustrates

In From the Ruins of Empire, Pankaj Mishra examines a range Asian responses to the shock induced by the integration of Asia into a political-economic system dominated by western imperialism – whether in the form of formal colonies, or informally through the forces imposition of ‘advisors’, trade agreements, indemnities or extraterritoriality.

In this he follows several thinkers, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Liang Qichao and Rabindranath Tagore, in their journeys (intellectual and physical) across Asia and beyond. In doing so he argues that their ‘passionate enquiries appear in retrospect as a single thread, weaving seemingly disparate events and regions into a single web of meaning’. He explores what he has elsewhere described as a ‘cosmopolitan moment’, with Asian thinkers crossing borders, borrowing, rejecting and reformulating ideas from the west and each other in an attempt to meet the political, economic and spiritual challenge posed by imperialism.

This is at once a challenge to the triumphalism of some western historians (particularly Niall Ferguson’s Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World) as well as nationalist narratives defined by the imperialism-nationalism opposition. By exploring the connections, debates and differences between the figures he examines, he demonstrates the dynamism and curiosity of thinkers in Asia as they responded to the dramatic changes in the world around them.

For someone engaged with the history of Indonesia this brought to mind the pergerakan (movement) that took shape in the Netherland Indies in the early twentieth century, where ideas about regional cultures, Islam, nationalism and communism jostled, mingled and competed.[1] The tensions Mishra examines between cosmopolitanism and nationalism can also be fruitfully explored in an Indonesian context. One might think of the very different perambulations of the radical Tan Malaka and devout Muslim and first Indonesian Foreign Minister Haji Agus Salim. Or indeed the complex international connections of Ki Hajar Dewantara who studied in the Netherlands but whose educational movement had links with the Santiniketan school founded by Tagore.

Yet although suggestive and stimulating, From the Ruins of Empire is not without its problems. Mishra sometimes makes generalisations that obscure as much as they reveal. For example, he argues that ‘The West has seen Asia through the narrow perspective of its own strategic and economic interests, leaving unexamined – and unimagined – the collective experiences and subjectivities of Asian peoples’. It is certainly true that strategic and economic imperatives have shaped perceptions of and learning about Asian societies, but this does not mean that the experiences and subjectivities of Asians have been unexamined or that narrowly strategic interests can fully explain this scholarship.[2] Mishra himself highlights on more than one occasion the links between orientalist learning and Asians’ perceptions of themselves. Moreover, the bibliography shows Mishra’s indebtedness to scholarship produced by western academia.

Some of the book’s strengths and weaknesses are exemplified by the treatment of Japanese imperial expansion. The combination of excitement and disillusionment among Asian intellectuals surrounding Japan’s rise is a salutary reminder of how news echoed around the globe, with its reverberations having a local inflection. I was reminded of certain parts of Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s novel Child of All Nations (Anak Semua Bangsa), where the protagonist, Minke, considers Japan’s expansion and growing status. When the Dutch raised the legal status of the Japanese in the Indies, he thinks ‘How proud must the Japanese be… I could only sit, mouth agape, in wonderment’.. With Japan’s victories in China ‘I had never dreamed’ that the Japanese ‘could become so highly respected among the international community of advanced nations. Their warships patrolled all the world’s waterways. The mouths of their cannons gaped out at both sky and sea. How proud any Asian would be to be so respected, never having to crawl and kowtow to some foreign power.’ However, he realises that Japan’s rise is coming at the expense of Chinese suffering: ‘What I was feeling then was that Europe had obtained its glory from swallowing up the world, and Japan from overrunning China. How strange it was if every glory was obtained only at the cost of the suffering of others.’

However, in describing the impact of the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia, the breadth of Mishra’s brushstrokes are apparent. He emphasises the psychological impact and the loss of western prestige as important, for example citing Lee Kuan Yew as recalling ‘The scales had fallen from our eyes and we saw for ourselves that the local people could run the country’. There is certainly some truth in this, but the impact of the Japanese occupation was highly varied. For example, when Mishra quotes the Filipino ambassador announcing it was time for Filipinos to ‘discard Anglo-Saxon civilisation… and recapture their charm and original virtues as an oriental people’ this should really be contextualised. The Philippines had long been on course for independence (under American neo-colonial tutelage), had an oligarchic elite with close ties to the US both before and after the war, and had a determined anti-Japanese resistance movement. The previous quote takes on a rather different complexion when juxtaposed with the thoughts of the Filipino guerrilla leader who recalled: ‘We were pro-Filipino and definitely anti-Japanese. We just wanted the Americans to come back [so we could] win the war, and go back to college.’

In summary, From the Ruins of Empire is suggestive and stimulating but the breadth of the subject sometimes means variations and subtleties get glossed over.


[1] The sense of dynamism and fluidity is brought out wonderfully in Takashi Shiraishi’s An Age in Motion: Popular Radicalism in Java,1912-1926.

[2] http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/653106 David C. Engerman, ‘Social Science in the Cold War’, Isis, Vol. 101, No. 2 (June 2010), pp. 393-400.

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