From The Ruins Of Empire by Pankaj Mishra was purchased in, of all places, a bookstore in King's Cross Station in London, where we had gone to see Platform 9 and 3/4. While the kids were taking each other's pictures, I wandered into the bookstore and was attracted by this nifty cover.
Basically, it's a look at the Victorian era through the eyes of some of its victims: the Asians. The Victorian era, which is generally thought of in the west as a time of expansion, invention, and progress, was experienced by Asians as the dismissal and devastation of their ancient societies. What many westerners don't know is that this juggernaut of change triggered intellectual movements in various Asian societies. Asia experienced a cultural renaissance forged by some of these thinkers who attempted to form responses to the financial, cultural, and military onslaught of the Europeans. Pankaj Mishra focuses on three such people: the Persian Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Liang Qichao of China, and the Indian Rabindrinath Tagore.
Al-Afghani was an early espouser of pan-Islamism (Muslims uniting culturally and politically against European occupiers). Al-Afghani used Islam to attempt to unify the people of Muslim countries, without much material success. But he influenced such later figures as Saad Zaghlul, who led a nationalist movement against the British after WWI, the Salafis, an (unlike Al-Afghani) puritanical and Arab-centric sect, and Rashid Rida, who inspired the founders of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Liang Qichao thought regretfully that China's traditional Confucianist culture was
not ruthless enough to succeed in the cutthroat new world made by the
Europeans. China needed a "benign despot" to unite the Chinese people in order to better resist the onslaughts of the British. He found republican democracy too chaotic and too vulnerable to incompetency to be successful. His heirs were the New Culture movement, made up of young intellectuals, factory workers, and clerks who despaired of preserving old ways and wanted to completely remake Chinese society in Europe's ruthless image.
The section on Rabindranath Tagore was a revelation to me: I knew him only as the author of beautiful spiritual poetry. Tagore wrote and traveled tirelessly, trying to inspire Asians to hold on to the "moral and spiritual power" of their traditions against the exploitations of Eurpeans, and trying to find common ground with Americans. He wrote a novel called The Home and the World (reviewed at Howling Frog Books!) dealing with the tension between old and new worlds in India. Near the end of his life in the 1930s, he was appalled by the violent and militaristic trends in Asia, particularly Japan.
As a look at a period of history through the eyes of the underdogs, this book is a lot like Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, which is US history as experienced by women, minorities, and the poor. Both books should be required reading for high school, or at least college, students.