If you’ve been following along for a while, you’ve probably figured out that I like books that look at familiar history from another point of view. (For example, here, and here, and here.) Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia, is an excellent example.*
Misra begins with the statement that the intellectual and political awakening of Asia was the central event of the twentieth century for a majority of the world’s population. That event came about as a result of a new class of western-educated Asian elites. As a group, they typically rejected their traditional heritage in favor of western modes of thought, then later re-embraced their native traditions, transforming those traditions in the process.
Instead of concentrating on well-known Asian historical figures, Mishra centers his book on the intellectual journeys of three men who are important historical figures in their own cultures but largely unfamiliar to most Westerners. Journalist and political activist Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-97) was a founder of Islamic modernism. Chinese intellectual Liang Qichao (1873-1929) inspired a generation of young Chinese activists with his calls for reform. Indian poet and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was a leader of the Bengal Renaissance.
Over the course of the book, Misra shows how his characters are shaped by and respond to the familiar events of European imperialism in Asia, giving those events a new perspective for the Western reader. His stated goal is not to replace a Euro-centric view with an “equally problematic Asia-centric one”, but to look at both the past and the present from multiple viewpoints. For the most part, he succeeds.
* I previously reviewed From The Ruins of Empire when it first came out in October, 2012. Now it’s being released in paperback and I have a lovely new copy to share. If you’d like to have a chance to win, tell me your favorite non-Western thinker or historical figure in the comments on the blog. If you don’t have a favorite,** tell me who you’d like to know more about.
**Really? Not even one?
This review appeared originally in Shelf Awareness for Readers