For Mishra, the modern world is primarily the post-colonial world, and the greatest minds in shaping that world have been leading thinkers in the great Asian anti-colonial movements. Looking at the whole of Asia from Egypt to Japan, Mishra focuses not so much on the political leaders of those movements, but more on the thinkers who articulated the primary visions of a new Asia. For the Muslim world, Mishra's leading thinker is Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, with his calls for a rational but united Islamic society that defends its independence and follows its own moral vision. For China it is Liang Qichao, whose thoughtful critique of Western imperialism involved the vision of a modern, powerful China that upholds its own spiritual heritage. For India, he focuses on Rabindranath Tagore, as a thinker who inspired India before Gandhi.
Most of the book follows the twists and turns of these momentous lives, whose ideas foreshadowed the world we know today. Then Mishra basically presses the fast-forward button and zooms through the tragic and transformative developments to date. Of course Westerners regarded these rebels against the great colonial empires as backward-facing terrorists against progress. Of course their visions of Asia gained popular endorsement in the decades to come. But Mishra also shows how Asians have been torn between accepting the colonial West's terms of social Darwinist competition for supremacy (as in the cases of imperial Japan or Islamist jihadism) or forging some different basis for cultural autonomy. In following the cultural evolution of Asia, Mishra describes the challenges of reinventing Asian civilizations. The colonial competition for survival of the fittest among nations has increasingly become a culture of competition for advantage between individuals. In response to that new Western "reality," Asia is still struggling to shape societies that are based more on improved human relations than on sharpened competition.
We are so used to learning our history from a from a British, or at least European side that it is fascinating to learn something of how great minds from other cultures saw the same events and ideas. This book is clearly and well-written, and I find that I have learnt a great deal from it.
This has been a mind-altering read. Far from being an anti-imperial rant, it is a careful compilation of the writings of three observers of European expansion into the east, chiefly British, French, Dutch and US. The annihilation of the Russian fleet by Japan in 1905 showed that Europeans were not invincible, and led to serious questioning of the West's colonising ways. Jamal al-Din al Afghani was born in Persia, Liang Qichao was Chinese and Rabindranath Tagore was Bengali, and all became well-known writers and critics of the "white man's" imperial pretensions. While the West spoke darkly of the "Yellow Peril", the East referred to the "White Disaster". Anyone interested in our troublous times could find this book enlightening.