Asian Responses to Colonialism

By Kabir Altaf

Pankaj Mishra’s new book From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia (FSG 2012) describes the Asian response to the colonial encounter.  The book covers the decades from the mid-nineteenth century to the beginning of World War II.   Mishra 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.” His book does not attempt to replace this Eurocentric perspective with an Asia-centric one, but “seeks to open up multiple perspectives on the past and the present, convinced that the assumptions of Western power–increasingly untenable–are no longer a reliable vantage point and may even be dangerously misleading” (8).

Asian intellectuals responded to European colonization in many different ways.  Some argued that Asians had been colonized because they lacked scientific knowledge and were technologically inferior to Europeans. Thus, the only way to get rid of the foreigners was to learn their ways– a response that can be called “Westernization”.  Others advocated a return to a pure and traditional culture, whether Islam in India and the Ottoman Empire or Confucianism in China. Sometimes, the same thinker would move from one position to the other, as in the case of Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani (1838-1897), who initially believed, like the more well-known Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan (1817-1898) that the basis of success in the modern world was the mastery of science. Mishra quotes: “‘O, sons of the East,’ he wrote in 1879, ‘don’t you know that the power of the westerners and their domination over you came about throughout their advance in learning and education, and your decline in those domains’ ” (58).  By the end of his life, however, Al-Afghani became one of the founders of what is today known as pan-Islamism.

In the early 1880s, when he returned to India from the Ottoman Empire, Al-Afghani had come to disagree completely with Sir Sayyid. He believed that the latter was a “deluded and parochial Westernizer, who was blind to the fate of his co-religionists elsewhere and the malafide intentions of the British in Muslim lands” (92). Al-Afghani believed that Indian Muslims, like those elsewhere, “should awaken and join other Muslim and non-Muslim peoples in a united front against the British. At the same time, Islam for Muslims ought to remain the main source of strength and values; they should not be deluded by Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan’s pro-British agenda. And neither Hindus nor Muslims should turn their back on their traditions” (96). His previous stint in India had alerted Al-Afghani to the advantages of Western science and knowledge. Now, upon his return, India served as a warning against those advocating total Westernization.

After leaving India, Al-Afghani went into exile in Paris. There, he and Mohammad Abduh, an Egyptian exile, started a secret society of Muslims dedicated to the unification and reform of Islam.  It was in the magazine that the two started that the interpretation of jihad as an individual rather than communal duty appeared. Abduh and Al-Afghani worked hard to find messages in the Koran that could fit their political program of awakening the Muslim masses.  In summing up the end of Al-Afghani’s intellectual career, Mishra writes: “He was among the new lay educated men, the first people from outside the traditionalist world of Islamic scholarship to reckon with the apparently fallen state of Muslims: the predecessor of India’s Muhammad Iqbal as well as Egypt’s Sayyid Qutb and Saudi Arabia’s Osama bin Laden. His devised solutions also anticipated the two main and interconnected Muslim responses to the West in the modern era: modernism, which sought to strengthen a revealed religion against the challenge of Western knowledge and power, and Islamism, which attempted to reshape the West-dominated world itself according to a utopian and revolutionary understanding of Islam” (120).  In our post 9/11 world, however, it is important to note that Al-Afghani’s Islamism did not come out of a place of religious fanaticism but out of a strong belief in anti-Imperialism.  Too often people seem to see Muslims as uniquely fundamentalist. It is important to understand that even bin Laden and his followers were responding to what they perceived as the imperialist actions of the West.  This explains why they chose to strike New York City, “the very capital of Western modernity” (122).

Just as intellectuals from India and the Muslim world evolved in their thinking from advocating Westernization to advocating pan-Islamism, Chinese intellectuals also responded to colonialism by advocating either liberalization or a return to Confucianism.  Mishra focuses on Liang Qichao (1873-1929). Early in his life, after China’s 1895 defeat by Japan, Liang arrived in Beijing with his teacher Kang Youwei to compete for a seat in the civil service exam. Initially, Liang was loyal to the ruling Qing order; however, he had begun to see that China’s old monarchic system had become a force for the status quo and was now capable of nothing more than maintaining the ruling dynasty in power.  Mishra writes: “Liang was beginning to realize that, however admirable in itself, the old Chinese order was not capable of generating the organizational and industrial power needed for survival in a ruthless international system dominated by the nation-states of the West. Though educated traditionally, he had already begun to drift away from the narrow world of Chinese scholarship and imperial service. And he was to move far from the ideas of his great teacher and mentor” (144).  After traveling in the United States in the early 1900s, Liang began to “lose his faith in people’s rights as the cure-all to autocracy as his indictment of American democracy grew”(172).  Liang had previously spent some years in exile in Meiji Japan and believed that Japan’s success “had proved that an authoritarian state could be more effective than liberal democratic institutions in building a modern nation” (175). Mishra writes: “As Liang saw it, China wasn’t faced with a choice of political systems. Such were its circumstances–a weak and ineffectual government, and a poorly educated and ethnically diverse population in a large country–that an autocracy was a necessity. A democratic republic would quickly lead to war between the military and the people, between lower and upper classes, one province and another; and revolutions would occur frequently, sapping the strength and dedication to the common good the Chinese nation needed to deal with external threats” (175). Fundamentally, Liang believed that only a benign autocracy would create a centralized state that would forge the Chinese people into a united citizenry.

Just as Al-Afghani’s views changed drastically over the course of his life, Liang’s views would also undergo a shift.  After the failure of the 1919 May Fourth Movement–in which students protested the Chinese government’s weak response to the Treaty of Versailles–Liang came to believe that it was Confucianism that would save China.  Mishra quotes him as follows: “[Of] the methods of relieving spiritual famine, I recognize the Eastern-Chinese and Indian–to be, in comparison, the best. Eastern learning has spirit as its departure; Western learning has matter as its point of departure” (212). Over his lifetime, Liang’s views on how best to respond to colonialism in China had changed drastically. He had gone from being a believer in people’s rights, to a believer in benign autocracy, and finally to a believer in the revival of Confucianism.

Unlike India and China, which largely failed in their anti-imperialist revolts, one Asian country which succeeded in becoming a global power was Japan. Eventually, Japan would become an imperialist power in its own right, extending control over much of East Asia.  One intellectual who, though initially an admirer of Japan, later came to deplore the country’s growing imperialist tendencies, was India’s Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941).  After Japan’s victory in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War, Tagore had been prompted to write a verse contrasting the transmission of Buddhism from India to Japan with the need to learn new techniques from the Japanese. However, on his visit to the country in 1916, Tagore was “alarmed to see a country that was then in the midst of an extraordinary growth of national self-confidence and imperialist expansion and preparing, too, for more battles ahead with both old enemies and new friends” (233).  The Japanese vogue for patriotism depressed Tagore, who wrote: “I have seen in Japan the voluntary submission of the whole people to the trimming of their minds and clipping of their freedoms by their governments… The people accept this all-pervading mental slavery with cheerfulness and pride because of their nervous desire to turn themselves into a machine of power, called the Nation, and emulate other machines in their collective worldliness” (235). On a return visit in 1929, Tagore began to realize the full extent to which Japan was become an imperialist power on the “Western model”. Mishra writes:  “He declared that he would never visit Japan again. His resolve was hardened by the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and then its extension into China proper in 1937, the early shots in the conquest of Asia–what Japanese militarists would soon call the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere” (239-40).

In 1935, one of Tagore’s old friends, the poet Yoneijiro Noguchi, wrote to ask him to endorse Japan’s war in China. Mishra quotes Tagore as replying that he thought Noguchi’s conception of Asia “would be ‘raised on a tower of skulls’. ‘It is true,’ he added, ‘that there are no better standards prevalent anywhere else and the so-called civilized peoples of the West are proving equally barbarous.’ But ‘if you refer me to them, I have nothing to say’. Noguchi persisted, pointing to the threat of communism in China. Tagore responded by ‘wishing the Japanese people, whom I love, not success, but remorse'” (240). Tagore was able to see the devastating effects that Japanese imperialism would have on East Asia.

Mishra concludes his book by bringing his argument to the present day. He points out that current Islamic fundamentalist movements such as al-Qaeda have developed for similar reasons as earlier pan-Islamic movements–as a response to a perception of attack by imperialist powers. He writes: “Failure to topple their own regimes, and news of atrocities committed against the devout in Palestine, Kashmir and Chechnya by pro-Western countries like Israel, India and Russia made them determined to strike the apparent puppet-master, the United States, and set off a worldwide clash between Muslims and the West. After a series of abortive attempts, the militants finally succeeded on 11 September 2001” (279).

Mishra also points out the irony that the current Afghan War, initiated by George Bush after 9/11, was justified by a pledge to bring democracy and development to Afghanistan. He points out that this pledge unwittingly parodied earlier Western interventions in Asia, such as the Anglo-Afghan wars of the late 19th century. Clearly, today’s neocolonialist powers have not learned from history that it is impossible for a colonial power to “win” in Afghanistan.

Finally, Mishra points out that, although India and China have experienced tremendous economic growth, this growth has further widened alarming economic and social disparities. He writes: “It has become clear that development, whether undertaken by colonial masters or sovereign nation-states, doesn’t benefit people evenly within a single territory, not to mention across larger regions” (307).  He further argues that the pursuit of endless economic growth– the hope that billions of consumers in India and China will one day enjoy the lifestyles of Europeans and Americans– is not sustainable. In Mishra’s words, this hope “is an absurd and dangerous fantasy as anything dreamt up by al-Qaeda. It condemns the global environment to early destruction and looks set to create reservoirs of nihilistic rage and disappointment among hundreds of millions of have-nots–the bitter outcome of the universal triumph of Western modernity, which turns the revenge of the East into something darkly ambiguous, and all its victories truly Pyrrhic” (309).

Several reviewers have criticized Mishra’s attempt to unite Asia intellectually. For example, Aditya Sinha, writing in DNA India, points out that “[Mishra’s thesis] is a bit jarring when evidence keeps popping up of how a different template–race–governs the relationship of Asian countries.” Sinha accuses Mishra’s project of “being a bit idealistic, to say the least”.  Sinha further points out that Mishra’s book utilizes almost no primary sources and wholly secondary (or even tertiary) sources. He writes: “Data that has gone through one generation of filtering is now put through another generation of filtering, with the danger of losing sight of what the primary historians were saying originally.” While this is a fair criticism, and one obviously doesn’t have to agree with all of Mishra’s arguments, in my opinion From The Ruins of Empire is an ambitious book that makes some interesting points about the different responses to European colonization as well as the evolution of the views of particular thinkers, particularly those that are less well-known (e.g. Al-Afghani). It is a worthwhile read and I would highly recommend it.

Kabir Altaf attended the Lahore University of Management Sciences and graduated magna cum laude from George Washington University with a major in Dramatic Literature and a minor in Music.


  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 11:31h, 30 September Reply

    Kabir: What do you think of this critical review of the book by Mihir Sharma? I feel there is something to what he says:

    “…by far the biggest problem with From the Ruins of Empire is its complete lack of original thought. The Turkish historian Cemil Aydin covered this ground masterfully a few years ago with The Politics of Anti-Westernism, which placed pan-Islamism and pan-Asianism in the context of specific battles and national histories, not some mystic eternal war between the Materialist West and Spiritual East. But, for Mr Mishra, Chinese civilisation is “distinct” because of Confucian values; Islam’s “unity” gave Muslim countries a clear “coherence”; and so on. Rather than transcending the simplistic and discredited “clash of civilisations” thesis he correctly derides, the Pankaj Mishra of this book aspires to be but a foot-soldier in that conflict — and not a very accomplished one.”

    The subtle perils of Eurocentrism

  • Kabir Altaf
    Posted at 04:19h, 01 October Reply


    I think everyone knows by now that Mishra is not a historian in the proper sense–he doesn’t have a doctorate in history, or even an MA. So he has not done original research and has instead relied on the work of others (historians included). I think Sharma’s criticism on that score is fair, but do we really expect Mishra to write HISTORY the way Historians write it?

    One can argue that he is a polemicist, he’s very clear about the argument that he’s making– colonialism was bad and many of the roots of modern problems like “Islamism” can be traced to anti-colonial responses. He synthesizes things from various places and uses them to make his argument. His book has a bibliography and end notes–anyone who feels that maybe Mishra is making stuff up can go look at what he has cited and see for themselves.

    Basically, Mishra is not a historian, he just writes about history. To expect “original thought” from him might be too big a burden to place on his head.

    His contribution to the field is simply to introduce less well known figures to the lay reader and then try to establish why and how their ideas are still important today. One can debate how successful he is at doing so, but I would argue that this project does add value somewhere.

    • Vijay Vikram
      Posted at 03:43h, 07 October


      I did expect original thought from Pankaj Mishra because I have engaged with his work for some time and come away reasonably impressed. But I was wrong, the book was a huge disappointment. He articulated no theory of non-Western political modernity.

      Even the comparatively humbler project of synthesising non-Western thought into a coherent whole was a miserable failure. I found little depth in the account he provided of the Weltanschauungen of Al-Afghani, Tagore and Ling Qichao. I don’t how I got through it.

      There are certainly some interesting reflections that are scattered throughout the text, particularly in the chapter “Asia Remade” and the epilogue, but they do not cohere into a single whole.

      The plaudits that Mishra has received in the West is indicative of the lack of a truly meaningful account of non-Western ideas and resurgence. The non-West awaits her spokesman.

      I found Mihir S. Sharma’s review to be absurd. I do laud Mishra’s effort to embark on such a project, even if it was a failure. Sharma on the other hand, either has no sympathy with this project or is unable to comprehend it.

      But, I will say this, Mishra appears to be confused. He explicates the living humiliation felt by generations of non-Westerners and their desire to humiliate their former masters in turn. And he outlines the attraction to anti-Western ideologies felt by non-Westerns who inhabit the West, particularly Muslims. However, he simultaneously derides the “clash of civilisations” thesis. This is untenable. If anything fires inter-civilisational conflict in the 21st Century, it is Western colonialism and the non-Western backlash. Mishra, as a product of the Indo-English encounter should be the first to see that.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 15:36h, 07 October

      Vijay: I agree with the thrust of your comments, in particular that Mishra fails to articulate a theory of non-western modernity. I liked the review of the book by David Shulman in the New York Review of Books where he distinguishes between an organic non-Western modernity and one that arose as a reaction to colonialism – Mishra takes the one for the other. This is a very important area of work and though Mishra fails, he should spur others to go beyond – the pointers by Shulman are quite useful.

      I am providing the link to Shulman’s review. Unfortunately, a subscription is needed to access the full text.

      Here is what Shulman has to say about the three central figures of Mishra’s book:

      “Of the three, the Chinese thinker Liang Qichao (1873–1929) was by far the most versatile and intellectually important (this is not, however, much of a compliment)…. Like nearly all the Asian advocates of modernist reform, he [Afghani] was, in sheer intellectual terms, profoundly superficial, though he has been elevated posthumously to the role of spiritual forerunner of the Iranian Islamist revolution…. I think he [Tagore] is better described as a romantic Bengali poet and musician, and I suggest we put the word “spiritual” aside. I have banned it in all my classes.”

      And, he then asks: “Are these men, then, among the major “intellectuals who remade Asia”? One thing is clear: all three are fully modern figures, their consciousness shaped primarily by the terms of the modernist crisis and debate.”

      Shulman then goes on to talk about organic non-Western modernity: “One might begin by setting back the date of Asian modernizing in general and by distinguishing various meanings of the word “modern.” As Velcheru Narayana Rao has eloquently shown for southern India, a form of awareness that can be characterized as modern emerged naturally and organically in the Telugu- and Tamil-speaking parts of the subcontinent toward the end of the fifteenth century. It had nothing whatever to do with Western influence or the arrival of Vasco da Gama in Calicut in 1498. Highly original thinkers and poets, writing in all the languages of the south, discovered, or invented, a series of interlocking notions that together comprise a novel anthropology.”

      This is contrasted with “colonial modernities”: “Narayana Rao, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, and I have written at some length about this dramatic shift in sensibility that reached its height in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; I won’t pursue it further here except to remark that it has nothing to do with the “colonial modernity” that emerged in India during the nineteenth century and that concentrated on reforming what its proponents saw as degenerate, obsolete practices of the Hindu religion (such as child marriage, the ban on widows’ remarriage, and the prevalent institution of courtesans). This colonial modernism first crystallized in the major British center of Calcutta; it is usually connected to the names of the polymath pundit Ram Mohan Roy and the modernist philosopher Debendranath Tagore, the poet’s father. In the south we find a very similar public intellectual, Kandukuri Veeresalingam (1848–1919), a mediocre character who has been canonized today as the man who invented modernism in Andhra. By the end of the nineteenth century there were already neo-Vedantists like Vivekananda, who sold a sanitized, largely Westernized version of classical Indian philosophy to a wildly enthusiastic audience at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893; and there had also emerged, of course, early nationalists bitterly engaged with a Western set of values that they secretly admired.

      Shulman concludes with the following question: “Where, we might ask ourselves after reading through Mishra’s long narrative of intellectual catastrophe, are the subtler sensibilities, the minds attuned to the mordant ironies and aching anomie of Cavafy or Pessoa? Where, in short, are the real modernists of modern Asia? If we are truly dealing with an emergent globalized cultural order, then such voices must be there.”

      And he goes on to say “As indeed they are… If we give such voices the weight they deserve, then the history of Asian modernism begins to ramify and exfoliate backward toward the emergent indigenous modernities of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and away from the impoverished colonial modernities and their obsession with social reform. Given such a perspective, the ascent of Asia today would look less like an ambiguous revenge for the violent destruction of traditional worlds than a continuation and intensification of the vibrant intellectual currents active long before the gunboats arrived.”

      Mishra just picked the wrong voices as far as our interest goes.

    • Vijay Vikram
      Posted at 18:39h, 07 October

      South Asian: The idea that there may be an Indian modernity that preceded the Western encounter is one that never occurred to me. Thus, I dismissed Shulman’s review when I came across it a few days ago. Now that you have highlighted it, I am inclined to be more sympathetic.

      A modernity that is not colonial or not one constructed in response to the West is something that I am unable to fathom. Thus, I am a bit like Mishra. Modernity was produced in the West, exported to the non-West and it is the function of non-Western political animals to craft a response to this modernity. But whatever indigenous modernity they may produce, it will inevitably have a Western colouring and a Western provenance.

      The reactionary modernity theorised by Indian colonials is poorly understood as it is. I shudder to think of the vast intellectual effort that will be required to excavate India’s indigenous modernity. This is particularly difficult as India never had the political cohesion of its Eastern neighbour where if Mishra is to be believed, a Confucian order has prevailed for millennia. Thus, it becomes all the more difficult to extrapolate the thoughts of South Indian thinkers on a continental scale.

      PS: I found Mark Mazower’s to the be the most interesting response to the book

    • Kabir Altaf
      Posted at 14:56h, 08 October

      Hi Vijay,

      I agree with your characterization of Mishra as “confused”. But I tend to be more lenient with him. I think that he has done a great service just by introducing Al-Afghani and Liang Qiacho to the general reader. That synthesis of other sources is all that we can really expect from him. He is not a historian, nor does he claim to be one, so expecting him to articulate a new theory of his own seems to me a bit too much of a burden to place on him.

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