Pankaj Mishra’s From Ruins of Empire: The Revolt against the West and the Remaking of Asia, published in 2013 after his harsh debates with the British historian Niall Ferguson, asserts that Asian countries still struggle with their own scenarios on the case of Western colonization. In the late nineteenth century, through economic and political exploitation, marine powerhouses such as the Netherlands and the United Kingdom imposed colonization in Asia, while Oriental intellectuals arose in shock and awe that their homes once in perpetual peace are shattered.

The book follows three intellectual figures’ trial and error in the pursuit of Asian modernization: Jamal al-Din al-Afghani in Egypt, Liang Qichao in China, and Rabindranath Tagore in India; and possibly sets a teleological agenda in which Asian countries will eventually have revenge with their own remaking of traditional values after decades of struggling with modernization and westernization in order to regain their geopolitical and cultural dominance from the bygone peripheral debilities.

An interesting part of this book is that Mishra renders intellectuals, rather than politicians, as the protagonists in historical scenarios. In 1885, Japanese intellectual Fukuzawa Yukichi’s argument “escape Asia and join with the civilized nations of the West” (that is, leave behind hidebound Sinocentric culture and modernize) became one of the reasons why Japan defeats Russia and proclaims her predominance in East Asia, at the same time galvanizing the modernization movement of her Asian neighbors. Liang Qichao, a scholar in the late-Qing, was also much influenced by the fashion of “resurrection from the survival of the ruins”, and combined his theory with Social Darwinism, ultimately impacting his successors such as Sun Yat-sen and Mao Ze-dong in their pursuit of the political and cultural triumph of the Great China.

As an Asian reader, I could share strong sympathy with Pankaj Mishra’s ambition to retort against those who claim the West is still globally dominant, and to reassert Asian re-emergence from the world system’s periphery to the center. However, I am not sure if I could fully agree with Mishra:

First, Mishra sets up a progressive and teleological agenda in which Asian countries have learned their lessons from Western’s economic and political colonization and will regain their predominance through westernization and modernization. Yet, at the same time they will subsequently merit more from their own traditions after they find deficiencies from the West, such as when Liang Qichao discovers the flaws of Western democracies after his visit to the United States and hence chooses to return to ask for answers from the Confucian tradition. I can understand how precious our tradition is, but when we choose our tradition as the only remedy from the ruins, could it lead to another nihilistic cultural conservatism? Asian values could be an alternative mode of development, but we should be cautious when it becomes a Sonderweg.

Second, if I understand Mishra correctly, he presents intellectuals as a series of successive movements where he renders the whole modernization as a historical linear process. However, he may overlook the immanent conflicts and paradoxes that differentiate divergent paths of thoughts and actions in the historical course. As for pro-westernization scholars, some such as Hu Shi proclaim for American-style Democracies, while some such as Chen Duxiu favor Rousseau parliamentary systems and European Socialism. As for those for a renaissance of tradition, some would embrace Confucianism while others, Fǎ-Jiā legalism, in spite of the intellectuals’ own transformations from their personal experiences. These immanent conflicts and paradoxes would bring complexities to the re-making of Asian values, which Pankaj Mishra has overly simplified.

The ambition to seek the central dominance, from the periphery, is understandable. After closing up the book, I wondered if we could explore the heritages of the colonized, especially “the periphery of the periphery”. The colonized and exploited East Asian entities inherited and experienced multitude of complex traditions and transformations — Confucian traditions, modernized Japanese post-1885 tradition, different westernized models from the 1920s (the contentious tension between Liberalism and Socialism), pan-Americanization from Cold War scenarios, and the clash of civilizations in the wave of Globalization. Following after the “Ruins of Empires”, could the East Asian entities create a kaleidoscopic picture of a trans-cultural Asian image?


Kuan-Wei Wu

Kuan-Wei is a freelance writer and wandering spirit in Taiwan and abroad. He consumes all types of knowledge, from sociology and political science to anthropology and philosophy, in none of which is he an expert. Now, being a good storyteller for the unspoken is one of his ideals.