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From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia by Pankaj Mishra. A history of Asia (*very* loosely Asia since it includes the Ottoman Empire and bits of Egypt), colonialism and the rise of nationalism/pan-Islamism/pan-Asianism, seen through the eyes of three 19th/20th-Century intellectuals (al-Afghani, Ling Qichao and Rabidranath Tagore) . I am… conflicted about this book.

On the one hand, it’s a welcome and refreshing account of the colonisation/decolonisation of Asia through the eyes of Asians–for people raised in the West and unfamiliar with the blood and greed-drenched history of colonisation, it’s definitely a worthy read, if only because it lays bare the sheer destructive scale of what the Western powers did to Asia (and it’s also worth seeing the repetitions of colonisation patterns in today’s globalisation), and the frustrated, powerless soul-searching of Asians seeking to conciliate the Industrial Revolution ideologies with their own traditions.

On the other hand… I can’t speak for the Indian parts of the accounts (though this article can and isn’t overly pleased about them), but I also found it a very frustrating book, because Mishra distorts facts to suit his theory of unified Asian resistance to the West (to cite just one of them, he cites the invasion of Vietnam by France in 1854 as a sign that China was besieged by Western powers eating into its hegemony–whereas in fact Vietnam had been independent of China for a while and the power balance in the region was a little bit more complicated), and I had no means of judging which bits were accurate. Mishra also quite obviously does not understand how Chinese society worked–to suggest that Confucianism is an alien and artificial ideology (that he grants was deeply embedded in Chinese minds, but in a tone that suggests recent embedding more than millenia-old beliefs) misses the point by a rather wide margin. On the whole, I think it makes for interesting reading, but definitely more for the quotes than for the arguments raised by Mishra.

A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, by Ursula Le Guin: those were the first fantasy books in English I ever read, and so I’m coming back to them loaded with memories. They’re good–they’re very chewy and tackling weighty subject matters while maintaining the outward guise of epic fantasies, and the language is deceptively simple and gorgeous (though looking back at them, the vocabulary is definitely more elaborate than I remembered. I pity my younger self, parsing them through with a dictionary…).

It’s also an interesting reread: I’d never noticed when I first read them, but the role of women in them is appalling. A Wizard of Earthsea is particularly spectacular, its women being either evil sorceresses or smiling domestic goddesses, and most certainly not fit to go adventuring; but The Tombs of Atuan also has disquieting overtones of women’s proper place being in the home rather than wielding political power (Kossil being the embodiment of womanly power, and Arha/Tenar rather a powerless figure when it comes down to it). I can see why Le Guin felt motivated to write Tehanu, but again that takes the approach of making women’s work valuable in and of itself–don’t get me wrong, that’s also rather valuable and not recognised enough, but there’s no reason to forbid women to take up men’s work either…


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