r l f a d h i s t o r y had injured China even more than had foreign soldiers. The alien assault, typified by the brutal suppression of the Boxer Rising, was more ignominious still because the Middle Kingdom had sustained a flourishing civilisation when Europe was in the Dark Ages. Liang acknowledged that China’s tribulations stemmed partly from the fact that it had looked on itself as the world and dismissed outsiders as barbarians. But his prescriptions were anything but coherent. They included not only renascent Confucianism but liberal democracy and enlightened despotism – a notion that appealed to Mao Zedong.
As Mishra shows, the spread of Western imperialism provoked many other conflicting ideological responses in the East. Broadly speaking their proponents divided between those who embraced occidental faiths (such as materialism, social Darwinism, communism and capitalism) and those who sought indigenous panaceas, notably religious and nationalistic ones. Thus Fukuzawa Yukichi wanted Japan to escape from Asia and join the West, which seemed the logical outcome of its dramatic modernisation programme at the time of the Meiji Restoration. Similarly Kemal Atatürk sought to transform Turkey into a progressive secular state, once expostulating: ‘Islam, this absurd theology of an immoral Bedouin, is a rotting corpse that poisons our lives.’
On the other hand, Japanese intellectuals such as Okawa Shumei wished their country, under the auspices of its divine emperor, to lead a pan-Asian struggle against the white empire-builders. Pan-Islamists echoed the anti-Western rhetoric of the Turkish poet Ziya Gökalp: ‘the minarets are our bayonets, the domes our helmets, the mosques our barracks and the faithful our army’. Gandhi and Tagore, by contrast, led a spiritual challenge to imperial power. Militancy, they believed, would do no more in India than forge an English raj without the Englishman; in the Far East it would raise a tower of skulls. Soul force, spun from the simple, patient, virtuous and organic life of preindustrial villages, would give Indians the only victory worth having – a moral victory.
Where most Asian critics of Western imperialism did agree was in their scathing assessment of its evils. These were, as the Chinese writer Tang Tiaoding said, either justified or glossed over in ‘white people’s histories’. To some extent they still are – in the richly nostalgic brocade of Jan Morris, say, or the brashly right-wing calculus of Niall Ferguson. This is what makes the detailed indictment catalogued by Mishra so valuable, particularly when compared to the postmodernist vapourings of Edward Said. Its starting point is Tagore’s declaration that the ‘torch of European civilisation was not meant to set light, but to set fire’. But the charge sheet is not just a recapitulation of instances of imperial incendiarism, such as the Amritsar massacre or the bombing of Iraqi villages. It incisively anatomises what George Orwell called the ‘slimy humbug’ of the white man’s burden.
Thus Aurobindo Ghose stated that the puritanical, pharisaical British conquered in the name of liberty and usurped under the cloak of altruism. Their apparently liberal initiatives aimed to divide and rule, their supposedly benevolent undertakings were designed to serve their own ends and their so-called civilising mission was mainly a matter of cant. Their railways were built to promote commercial exploitation and to tighten military control: Nehru compared them to iron bands confining and imprisoning India. Their schools were fashioned to turn out clerks, cogs in the imperial machine. Even their hospitals were a mixed blessing since they helped to foster a population explosion. In short, modern empires were a means of keeping colonised races in a state of all-round thraldom.
Of course the West had no monopoly of hypocrisy, let alone of oppression. But the imperial ills that it visited on Asia, especially as diagnosed by the likes of al-Afghani and Liang, help to explain the pathological state of East–West relations today. These have been further poisoned by disastrous neoimperial adventures, from the invasion of Suez to the occupation of Iraq, from the CIA/MI6 coup against Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran to the NATO incursion into Afghanistan. Israel remains a colonial bone lodged in the Arab throat.Terror, most notably in the shape of 9/11, has been followed by horrors such as Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay. Pankaj Mishra foresees further bloody confrontation as an ailing West competes with a reviving East for the world’s diminishing resources. It is a bleak conclusion to a stimulating and original book. To order this book for £16, see the Literary Review bookshop on page 37
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