Pankaj Mishra, an erudite essayist who writes for the New York Review of Books, the Guardian, and other venues, is an interpreter of the East. In his latest book, From the Ruins of Empire, he shows how modern Asia (which in this conception stretches from North Africa to Japan) emerged from its disastrous collision with European imperialism. The Islamist fervor that culminated in the collapsing twin towers; the swagger of communist-capitalist China; the bellicosity of Japan during World War II - all these, he argues, derived from 19th- and early 20th-century Asian efforts to fend off domination by the West.
"In all things, in all projects, they take the lead and we are on the defensive," marveled a Japanese observer, Fukuzawa Yukichi, in the 1870s. White men's corporations and militaries, acting in concert, had emasculated Egypt, subjugated India, humiliated China, and forced open Japan. The juggernaut, Mishra observes, "left its victims resentful but also envious of their conquerors and, ultimately, eager to be initiated into the mysteries of their seemingly near-magical power."
From the Ruins of Empire follows the intellectual evolution of several Asian thinkers as they sought for ways to overcome the "white peril." As they analyzed it, Western power derived not only from superiority in science and military technology but also and essentially from an unparalleled capacity for organizing citizens into nation-states.
These fierce entities, honed by centuries of warfare in Europe, efficiently channeled the energy and productivity of entire populations toward coherent, commercial ends. To hold their own, therefore, Asians would need not only to learn modern science, but also to quickly find and apply values strong enough to bind their diverse and contentious peoples into nations.
For Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, described as a "wild man of genius," the glue would be modernized Islam. Al-Afghani was born in Persia in 1838, spoke eight languages, spent his adult life traveling across Asia in an impassioned quest to strengthen Muslim culture and states, and conceived of pan-Islamism as a counterpoise to Western nationalism and imperialism. A few of his intellectual descendants packed box-cutters into their luggage in September 2001.
Nevertheless, Mishra writes, the Arab Spring would scarcely have been possible "without the intellectual and political foundation laid by al-Afghani's assimilation of Western ideas and his rethinking of Muslim traditions."
Liang Qichao, born in 1873, was trained as a Confucian but regarded the adoption of certain Western institutions, such as nationwide school systems that inculcated patriotism, as essential to China's survival. Touring the United States in 1903, he was shocked to find that the richest 200,000 owned 70 percent of the nation's wealth and that corporate interests played an insidious role in politics.
"Who says America is a nation freely formed by all the people?" Liang asked. "I see only a few great men who imposed it on them." China, he concluded, still needed nationhood but could do without democracy. One of his admirers was the young Mao Tse-tung, who "succeeded where Liang Qichao failed," Mishra writes, "in reviving and unifying China around a shared ethic."
For Japanese thinker Tokutomi Soho, the secret of European success was not only nationhood but also ruthlessness. "The European countries stand at the very pinnacle of violence," he wrote. With amazing swiftness, Japanese reformers built a nation around emperor-worship, methodically emulating the West in dress, education, a constitution, military technology - and imperial endeavor. It was time, Soho opined when Japan waged war against China in 1894, for the island nation "to take her place alongside the other great expansionist powers in the world."
Curiously, given India's recent quest to modernize itself along Western lines, it was the thinkers of "the lost country" - as India was contemptuously known to other Asians, because of its utter degradation under British rule - who warned most strenuously against blind imitation of the West.
Touring Japan in 1929, the Nobel Prize-winning poet Rabindranath Tagore furiously accused his hosts: "You have been infected by the virus of European imperialism." In the United States the next year, speaking to an audience that included Franklin D. Roosevelt, he elaborated, with more sorrow than anger, that "the age belongs to the West and humanity must be grateful to you for your science." But, he added, "you have exploited those who are helpless and humiliated those who are unfortunate with this gift."
Perhaps most radical of all was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who gets rather short shrift in Mishra's account. Gandhi held Western society to be based on a rapacious use of natural resources that necessitated the ongoing conquest of new sources of raw materials and markets. "God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West," Gandhi wrote in 1928:
The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom (England) is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 millions took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.
From the Ruins of Empire can be an intimidating read, because of its profusion of unfamiliar names and its sometimes terse recounting of historical events. After stumbling for days through the forest of details, however, one emerges with the realization that the amazingly diverse trajectories trodden by Asia in the last century finally make sense. The East always wanted to beat the West at its own game, as Mishra explains - or at least to catch up. Now that China and India are following Europe and the United States into Africa, acquiring chunks of land in deals that many observers describe as neocolonial, one can only wonder whether the unfortunates of the world are better off for the quest, or worse.
Madhusree Mukerjee is the author, most recently, of "Churchill's Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II."