By HARI KUNZRU
Illustrated. 356 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $27.
In 2011, the Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei exhibited 12 bronze animal heads representing the signs of the Chinese zodiac outside the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. The heads were enlarged replicas of a set designed in the 18th century by two European Jesuits for the emperor Qianlong and displayed in the gardens of the Yuanmingyuan, the emperor’s Old Summer Palace. At the time of the exhibition, Ai had disappeared into detention in China. The political controversy overshadowed the work itself, which posed its most searching questions not to the Chinese government, but to the West.
In 1860, during the Second Opium War, the Old Summer Palace was ransacked and torched by French and British soldiers. In “From the Ruins of Empire,” his timely and important history of Asian intellectual responses to Western colonialism, Pankaj Mishra quotes one looter who said that to describe “the splendors before our astonished eyes, I should need to dissolve specimens of all known precious stones in liquid gold for ink, and to dip it into a diamond pen tipped with the fantasies of an oriental poet.” The zodiac heads were among the spoils, which disappeared for generations into European art collections. The destruction of the Old Summer Palace, all but forgotten by its perpetrators, still excites shame and anger in China, where it is seen as a symbol of Western imperial brutality and a reminder of the consequences of national military weakness.
Mishra, the Indian essayist and novelist, shows how, like their European and American counterparts, Asian intellectuals of the 19th and 20th centuries responded to the colonial encounter by constructing a binary opposition between East and West. From Ottoman Turkey to Meiji Japan, writers struggled in the face of the humiliating experience of subjugation. The superior technology and organization of the imperial powers were self-evident. What was the correct response?
Could new innovations and modes of production be grafted onto existing social structures, or did cherished ways of life and thought have to be abandoned? The question of what to accept, what to adapt and what to reject from “the West” remains central in contemporary Asian politics; “From the Ruins of Empire” reveals much — not just about why a Chinese artist would erect replicas of stolen national treasures in a Western city, but about the ideological underpinnings of the Iranian revolution and India’s dogged pursuit of scientific and technical excellence.
Mishra tells this story through the biographies of three public intellectuals: the itinerant Persian-born agitator Jamal al-Din al-Afghani; the Chinese reformer Liang Qichao; and Rabindranath Tagore, poet and Nobel laureate, vaunted as the embodiment of traditional Eastern wisdom. Al-Afghani (1838-97) claimed to be a Sunni Muslim from Afghanistan but was actually a Persian Shiite. He traveled to India and by the age of 28 was in Kabul, trying to play off the British against the Russians in the “Great Game.” A man of flexible political allegiances and fond of the Koranic maxim “God does not change the condition of a people until they change their own condition,” he became an early apostle of pan-Islamism. He hoped to restore authenticity to a religion he saw as fundamentally rational, open to change and innovation, but which had become corrupt. After his expulsion from Kabul he traversed the Muslim world, from the mosques of Cairo to the drawing rooms of Istanbul, where he importuned the sultan to launch Muslim resistance to the West.
Liang Qichao (1873-1929) sought a middle way for China between the intellectual sclerosis of the Qing imperial court and the destructive transformation sought by the Communists. In 1898, having caught the ear of the 26-year-old emperor Guangxu, he and his friend and mentor Kang Youwei tried to initiate a rapid process of reform. It lasted only about 100 days before the dowager empress, in retirement at the Old Summer Palace, “took it upon herself to squash her little nephew.” Liang barely escaped with his life, and revolution, Mishra writes, became “inevitable.”
Kang and Liang were instrumental in the formulation of a decisive new category in Chinese political discourse: “the people.” Traditionally, popular opinion was considered irrelevant. Now they proposed that the state needed the consent of an educated citizenry to govern. Kang even believed that such reforms as mass education and free elections could realize the Confucian notion of ren (benevolence), a “utopian vision of an inevitable universal moral community, where egoism and the habit of making hierarchies would vanish.”
After the failed 1898 reforms, Liang went into exile in Japan, which in the Meiji period was as much a hotbed of international revolutionary plotting as London or Paris. It was a cosmopolitan milieu in which radicals from across Asia met, studied and argued in an atmosphere whose prevailing sentiments were “cultural pride, political resentment and self-pity.” Herbert Spencer, John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith and T. H. Huxley had been newly translated into Chinese, and social Darwinism became especially influential.
Under this influence, Liang moved away from a cosmological Confucianism, in which order was static and the emperor the “polestar,” toward a revolutionary notion of total social mobilization. The motivating force of modern international competition stems, he wrote, “from the citizenry’s struggle for survival which is irrepressible according to the laws of natural selection and survival of the fittest. Therefore the current international competitions are not something which only concerns the state, they concern the entire population.” The influence of Liang’s realist theory of power is abundantly evident in contemporary Chinese politics. Mishra notes dryly that liberal democracy “did not seem necessary to national self-strengthening.”
It was Liang who invited the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) to Shanghai to lecture in 1924. By the end of the 19th century, Hindu intellectuals had adopted a posture of spiritual superiority, disparaging modern civilization as a “machine” and Europeans (in the unforgettable words of Swami Vivekananda) as “wild animals . . . insane in their lust, drenched in alcohol from head to foot.” Tagore hoped that the East might temper the machinelike nature of modern civilization, “substituting the human heart for cold expediency,” but despite such lofty posturing, India had become a sort of cautionary tale for China, a country of humiliated British slaves.
When Tagore spoke at a meeting in Hankou, he met with heckles and slogans saying: “Go back, slave from a lost country! We don’t want philosophy, we want materialism!”
Tagore, the apparently unworldly romantic, transformed the consciousness of his region through essays, poems and songs, two of which are now the national anthems of India and Bangladesh. Likewise, al-Afghani’s mission to redeem the fallen Muslim world and Liang’s desire to mobilize the popular will for national transformation have both shaped a century of Asian political aspirations. Mishra’s astute and entertaining synthesis of these neglected histories goes a long way to substantiating his claim that “the central event of the last century for the majority of the world’s population was the intellectual and political awakening of Asia.”
Hari Kunzru’s most recent novel is “Gods Without Men.”