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Rethinking East And West

Pankaj Mishra with a big new take on how Asia sees the world and the West now.

A street vendor sells portraits of Indian Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore on his 150th birth anniversary in Calcutta, India, Sunday, May 9, 2010. Events across India marked the 150th birth anniversary of freedom poet Tagore. (AP)

A street vendor sells portraits of Indian Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore on his 150th birth anniversary in Calcutta, India, Sunday, May 9, 2010. Events across India marked the 150th birth anniversary of freedom poet Tagore. (AP)

Guests

Pankaj Mishra, Indian essayist and novelist.  His latest book is “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia.”

From Tom’s Reading List

The Daily Beast “That the West is in some form of decline isn’t much in dispute. But Mishra advances the discussion by arguing that the West’s moral decline traces back a century, through two world wars, a horrific legacy of colonialism, and a failure to treat non-Western nations as equal partners. This moral decline matters, he claims, because it reflects how Western liberal democracy may not be suited to these societies.”

Bloomberg “This week, demonstrators incensed by Japan’s purchase of the disputed rocky outcrops known as the Senkaku Islands filled Chinese cities for the biggest anti- Japanese protests since 2005. These mostly young men and women holding pictures of Mao Zedong reminded me of Mao’s speech at the founding of the People’s Republic of China in September 1949: the “Chinese people, comprising one-quarter of humanity,” Mao warned, “have now stood up,” adding that “ours will no longer be a nation subject to insult and humiliation.””

Book Excerpt: The Ruins Of Empire

by Pankaj Mishra

The contemporary world first began to assume its decisive shape over two days in May 1905 in the narrow waters of the Tsushima Strait. In what is now one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, a small Japanese fleet commanded by Admiral Togo Heihachiro annihilated much of the Russian navy, which had sailed half way round the world to reach the Far East. Described by the German kaiser as the most important naval battle since Trafalgar a century earlier, and by resident Theodore Roosevelt as ‘the greatest phenomenon the world has ever seen’, the Battle of Tsushima effectively terminated a war that had been rumbling on since February 1904, fought mainly to decide whether Russia or Japan would control Korea and Manchuria. For the first time since the Middle Ages, a non-European country had vanquished a European power in a major war; and the news careened around a world that Western imperialists– and the invention of the telegraph– had closely knit together.

In Calcutta, safeguarding the British Empire’s most cherished possession, the viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, feared that ‘the reverberations of that victory have gone like a thunderclap through the whispering galleries of the East’. For once the aloof and frequently blundering Curzon had his finger on the pulse of native opinion, which was best articulated by a then unknown lawyer in South Africa
called Mohandas Gandhi (1869 – 1948), who predicted ‘so far and wide have the roots of Japanese victory spread that we cannot now visualize all the fruit it will put forth’.

In Damascus, Mustafa Kemal, a young Ottoman soldier later known as Atatürk (1881-1938), was ecstatic. Desperate to reform and strengthen the Ottoman Empire against Western threats, Kemal had, like many Turks, taken Japan as a model, and now felt vindicated. Reading the newspapers in his provincial town, the sixteen-year-old Jawaharlal Nehru ( 1889-1964), later India’s first prime minister, had excitedly followed the early stages of Japan’s war with Russia, fantasizing about his own role in ‘Indian freedom and Asiatic freedom from the thralldom of Europe’. The news from Tsushima reached him as he was travelling on a train from Dover to his English public school, Harrow; it immediately put him in ‘high good humour’. The Chinese nationalist Sun Yat-sen ( 18866-1925) was also in London when he heard the news and was similarly exultant. Returning by ship to China in late 1905, Sun was congratulated by Arab port workers at the Suez Canal who thought that he was Japanese.

Excited speculation about the implications of Japan’s success filled Turkish, Egyptian, Vietnamese, Persian and Chinese newspapers. Newborn babies in Indian villages were named after Japanese admirals. In the United States, the African-American leader W. E. B. Du Bois spoke of a worldwide eruption of ‘colored pride’. Something akin to this sentiment clearly seized the pacifist poet (and future Nobel laureate) Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), who on receiving the news from Tsushima led his students in an impromptu victory march
around a little school compound in rural Bengal.

It mattered little to which class or race they belonged; the subordinate peoples of the world keenly absorbed the deeper implications– moral and psychological– of Japan’s triumph. This diversity was startling. Nehru belonged to a family of affluent, Anglophile Brahmans; his father, a beneficiary of British rule over India, was even rumoured to send his shirts to Europe for dry-cleaning. Sun Yat-sen was the son of a poor farmer; one of his brothers died during the Californian Gold
Rush that Chinese coolie labour serviced. Abdurreshid Ibrahim (1857-1944), the foremost pan-Islamic intellectual of his time who travelled to Japan in 1909 to establish contacts with Japanese politicians and activists, was born in western Siberia. Mustafa Kemal was from Salonica (now in Greece), born to parents of Albanian and Macedonian origin. His later associate, the Turkish novelist Halide Edip (1884-1964), who named her newborn son after the Japanese admiral Togo, was a secular-minded feminist. Burma’s nationalist icon U Ottama (1879-1939), who was inspired by Japan’s victory over Russia to move to Tokyo in 1907, was a Buddhist monk.

Some of the numerous Arab, Turkish, Persian, Vietnamese and Indonesian nationalists who rejoiced over Russia’s defeat had even more diverse backgrounds. But they all shared one experience: of being subjugated by the people of the West that they had long considered upstarts, if not barbarians. And they all drew the same lesson from Japan’s victory: white men, conquerors of the world, were no longer invincible. A hundred fantasies– of national freedom, racial
dignity, or simple vengefulness– now bloomed in hearts and minds that had sullenly endured European authority over their lands.

Bullied by the Western powers in the nineteenth century, and chastened by those powers’ rough treatment of China, Japan had set itself an ambitious task of internal modernization from 1868: of replacing a semi-feudal shogunate with a constitutional monarchy and unified nation-state, and of creating a Western-style economy of high production and consumption. In a bestselling book of 1886 titled The Future Japan, Tokutomi Soho (1863-1957), Japan’s leading journalist, had laid out the likely costs of Japanese indifference to the ‘universal’ trends set by the West: ‘Those blue-eyed, red-bearded races will invade our country like a giant wave, drive our people to the islands in the sea.’

Already by the 1900’s, Japan’s growing industrial and military strength was provoking European and American visions of the ‘yellow peril’, a fearful image of Asiatic hordes overrunning the white West. The defeat of Russia proved that Japan’s programme of catching up with the West had been stunningly successful. ‘We are dispelling the myth of the inferiority of the non-white races,’ Tokutomi Soho now declared. ‘With our power we are forcing our acceptance as a member in the ranks of the world’s greatest powers.’

For many other non-white peoples, Russia’s humiliation seemed to negate the West’s racial hierarchies, mocking the European presumption to ‘civilize’ the supposedly ‘backward’ countries of Asia. ‘The logic of the “white man’s burden”,’ declared Benoy Kumar Sarkar (1887-1949), India’s pioneering sociologist, ‘has become an anachronism except only to the blindest fanatics.’ Japan had shown that Asian countries could find their own path to modern civilization, and its special vigour. The Young Turk activist, and later minister, Ahmed Riza (1859-1930) summed up this resonant admiration:

Events of the Far East have put forth evidence of the uselessness of interventions, frequent if pernicious, of Europe reforming a people. On–the contrary, the more isolated and preserved from contact with European invaders and plunderers a people is, the better is the measure of [its] evolution toward a rational renovation.

Struggling with institutionalized racism in white-ruled South Africa, Gandhi drew a similar moral lesson from Japan’s triumph: ‘When everyone in Japan, rich or poor, came to believe in self-respect, the country became free. She could give Russia a slap in the face. . . In the same way, we must, too, need to feel the spirit of self-respect.’ The Chinese philosopher Yan Fu (1854-1921) recalled a century of humiliations inflicted on China by Western ‘barbarians’, from the Opium wars to the burning of the imperial Summer Palace in Beijing, and concluded that ‘the only reason we did not devour their flesh and sleep upon their hides was that our power was insufficient’.

Japan had now shown how that power could be acquired. For many Asians, tormented by incompetent despots and predatory European businessmen, Japan’s constitution was the secret of its strength. Armed by its example, political activists across Asia helped fuel a series of popular constitutional revolutions against ossified autocracies (defeated Russia itself lurched into one in 1905). The Ottoman ruler, Sultan Abdulhamid II (1842-1918), had closely followed Japan’s modernization, especially as the ever-rising demands of European powers reduced Istanbul’s sovereignty to a pitiable fiction. But many admirers of Japan in the Muslim world were such secular, even antireligious, nationalists as the Young Turk exile and writer Abdullah Cevdet, who wrote of Japan as the carrier ‘of the sword, for the oppressors, for the insolent invaders; the torch for the oppressed, for those that shine unto themselves’. Emboldened by Japan’s victory, in 1908 the nationalist Young Turks forced Sultan Abdulhamid to reinstate a constitution suspended since 1876. The Persians, encouraged by the sight of constitutional Japan defeating autocratic Russia, created a national assembly in 1906.

(Excerpted from FROM THE RUINS OF EMPIRE by Pankaj Mishra. Copyright © 2012 by Pankaj Mishra. Published in September 2012 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.)

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