From the Ruins of Empire | Pankaj Mishra

Summary of: From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia
By: Pankaj Mishra


In ‘From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia’, Pankaj Mishra takes us on a journey through Asia’s tumultuous history, focusing on the impacts of Western imperialism and the efforts of Eastern nations to preserve their traditional values while modernizing. This summary unravels the complex web of events, starting from Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 to the rise of Asian thinkers and leaders like al-Afghani, Liang Qichao, and Rabindranath Tagore, who challenged the Western narrative and sought new ways to empower and uplift their respective nations. Embark on this insightful expedition to understand how Asia gained prominence after long-standing subordination to Western forces.

The West Dominates Asia

The subordination of Asian countries to Western powers began with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 to protect French trade interests. This marked the start of Western countries’ stronghold on Asia, as the trade imbalances of the nineteenth century fueled British engagement in the Chinese opium trade and the British East India Trading Company’s dominance in India. This led to the Opium Wars and the Indian Mutiny of 1857, both of which resulted in the West extending their grip on Asia and transforming the political, economic, and social landscapes of the region.

Napoleon Bonaparte’s 40,000-strong French army invasion of Egypt in 1798 marked the beginning of Asian countries’ subordination to Western powers. Trade issues drove Western expansion into China and India, as European powers wrested control of the Chinese mainland following two wars ignited by the opium trade.

During the nineteenth century, China and Western countries experienced an imbalance in economic relations. China exported more than it imported, prompting West traders, particularly the British, to introduce the addictive narcotic opium to the Chinese market. As opium addiction spread, Western traders capitalized on rising prices and corrected the trade imbalance. Consequently, European powers gained control of the Chinese economy.

Aware of the unsustainable situation, China sought to end the harmful yet profitable opium trade, leading to the Opium Wars from 1839 to 1842 and 1856 to 1860. China’s struggle ended in defeat, granting Western powers more influence over trade and favorable treaties.

Simultaneously, the Indian Mutiny of 1857 resulted in increased Western control of India. Since the seventeenth century, the British East India Trading Company had exercised its dominance over trade and Indian territories, leading to attempts at resistance. Despite outnumbering British forces, the mutineers lost due to inferior training and weaponry.

The British victory marked the end of native Muslim rule in India, paving the way for de facto British rule that altered the nation’s political, economic, and social structures. Most notably, British representatives carved India into separate governing regions, solidifying their dominance over vast territories and increasing the presence of British soldiers.

The Rise of Eastern Dominance

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Japanese Emperor Meiji transformed Japan by merging traditional Eastern values with Western technological progress, leading to the country’s industrialization and military prowess. This was prompted by American warships arriving in Japan in 1852, which showcased the superiority of Western naval power. This awakening culminated in Japan’s victory over Russia in 1905, signaling a shift in Western dominance in Asia and determining control over Korea and Manchuria. The triumph inspired Eastern leaders like Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder and first president of the Republic of Turkey, to adopt Japan’s approach in their own nations. Ataturk’s policies emphasized the modernization of technology and politics, secularism, and nationalism as a unifying force, thus contributing to the West’s diminishing power in the region.

Pan-Islamism Against Western Influence

Born in 1838 in Persia, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani was a visionary who sought to unite the Islamic world against Western dominance. Witnessing the West’s growing influence as he traveled through the Middle East, al-Afghani formulated a pan-Islamic approach to resist this encroachment. Advocating for nationalism and pan-Islamism, he saw the Ottoman Empire as the key to rallying Muslim nations together under a united force capable of countering Western threats. As an ideological advisor to Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II, al-Afghani’s views evolved as he observed the failures of national resistance movements, realizing the need for strong ties among Muslim nations. In addition to his efforts within the Ottoman Empire, al-Afghani underscored the importance of Persian nationalism, urging Persians to guard their natural resources, such as tobacco, from foreign control. This, he believed, would prevent economic exploitation and protect the independence of his native land. His powerful ideas continue to resonate and inspire, illustrating the indelible impact of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani on the Islamic world.

Balancing Confucianism and Modernization

China’s Liang Qichao, an influential thinker born in 1873, sought to counteract the dominance of Western culture over his homeland through a fusion of long-standing Confucian values and carefully chosen modern Western practices. Confucianism, a humanistic philosophy rooted in familial piety, loyalty, and learning, provided Liang with a foundation for forging strong community ties as a defense against Western encroachment. One essential Confucian idea, ren, emphasizes harmony and compromise, which Liang proposed as an alternative to the competitive spirit of Western capitalism. While firmly grounded in Confucian thought, Liang recognized the need for modernization in China, and advocated adopting certain Western principles and economic systems to strengthen Confucianism’s social and moral core. In his quest for balance, Liang found inspiration in Adam Smith’s capitalist theories on increasing national wealth and John Stuart Mill’s utilitarian philosophy, focused on achieving the greatest good for both society and individuals.

Uniting Through Art and Spirituality

Rabindranath Tagore, born in 1861 amidst British colonial rule and Indian nationalism, transcended political divides by championing unity through art and spirituality. A polymath, Tagore dabbled in painting, poetry, music, and novel-writing to counter colonialism and bridge cultural gaps. Recognizing art as a unifying force, Tagore’s writings exposed the destructive impact of nationalism on society, as showcased in his novels Gora and Home and the World. Tagore’s significant influence in literature earned him the honor of being the first non-European Nobel Prize laureate in 1913. His global reach allowed him to deliver lectures advocating Eastern cultures and spiritual unity, shaping a cosmopolitan perspective that criticized both European colonialism and nationalism. Tagore championed the idea that while nationalism could empower colonized nations to resist foreign rule, relying on xenophobia was counterproductive. Instead, he envisioned a spiritual unity rooted in the shared aspirations of humankind, transcending the limitations imposed by colonialist and nationalist worldviews.

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