26 April 2014

Reviews of Some Recent Histories of Asia

by Pankaj Mishra  
(Penguin, 2013)

Amitav Ghosh described this book as "Enormously ambitious but thoroughly readable", and I'd have to agree on both counts; however, the book did not quite live up to my expectations. This may simply be a disservice which the hype that has surrounded this book (and the burnish added by Mishra's run in with Niall Ferguson) had inevitably incubated. In many respects, though, I think it is too ambitious not to have a few flaws and failings, but in taking a particular analytical approach with the intention of opening up discussion the book certainly serves its purpose. And, perhaps, with time and more thought (I hope) Mishra may well refine his work to better meet his ambition.

The book was useful to me in tying together certain thoughts on the connections, parallels, and differences between the disparate regions of Asia during the era of Western colonial incursion (as experienced by the Ottomans, China, & India, and the somewhat incongruous exception of Japan - which perhaps could have done with more analysis).

I found the unusual presentation-style of such a scholarly book rather odd though (especially the lengthy 'bibliographic essay' in place of more detailed notes and traditional bibliography); and I couldn't help feeling it rather boldly hints at a widely read and fiercely intelligent mind which has little patience - perhaps wanting to express his ideas as quickly and in as unhindered a manner as possible - and, in that sense, I felt the author let his own work down, because as such the book becomes simply a sweeping overview or general introduction to a very broad academic perspective which others will have to better elucidate or pick-apart in perhaps smaller and more point-focussed studies (but, then again, maybe that's his intention?). And, to be fair, he does admit that in pursuing his "impudent forays" : "I was more than aware that I was breaching disciplinary boundaries and academic protocols." ... In reading the somewhat mixed reviews of this book which I've come across he certainly seems to have succeeded in stirring debate.

Not as great a read as I'd hoped, but still it's a leaping trans-disciplinary mix which offers plenty of food for thought and many ideas for further development. Well worth the reading thereof.

Listen to Pankaj Mishra in conversation with Jeffrey Wasserstrom discussing "From the Ruins of Empire" and his 'exchange of views' with Niall Fergusson in this Sinica Podcast.

See also, an interesting exchange of views contesting the extent of colonial assimilation and transculturation in 18th & 19th century India between Pankaj Mishra and William Dalrymple, focussing on the latter's White Mughals (2002) in 'Symposium: Imperial Trauma, Part 2: The Powerlessness of the Powerful' Vol. 11, No. 3, (2005).

* * *

by Sam van Schaik  
(Yale, 2013)

This book is an excellent introduction to the complex and often contentious history of Tibet. It manages to convey an admirably balanced overview (especially of the recent past). As a concise narrative history it is informed by a very clear, scholarly interpretation of its source material, yet at the same time it remains a highly engaging read. The chapters are set out in a clear and logical chronology with a deft lightness of touch in terms of occasional references linking either forwards or backwards in time to help the reader remain orientated without getting bogged down at all. Each chapter is then broken up into short sections which make reading such a vast topic surprisingly digestible. Van Schaik's commendably clear writing style also makes this book progressively absorbing.

The book explains well how, until the intervention of Europeans and the subsequent global shift towards set ideas and ideals of rigid 'nationalisms', the political landscape of Central Asia was very much defined by shifting, fluid boundaries - based on fragile alliances and fealties, or outright conquest and subjugation - rather than fixed territorial demarcations as different polities rose and receded from prominence over time. Arguably these historical fluctuations have since been both the basis and the cause of various contentious attempts to settle and fix these polities in the modern era. In this sense Tibet has always found itself at the centre of a politically charged and highly contested chessboard of empires and nations.

Historians will no doubt wish that the notes and references section had been given more depth and space, yet given the vast scope of this history the author has realised a truly commendable achievement in writing such an accessible yet simultaneously thorough text. Such a book has been long overdue, and, as such, this history will now undoubtedly serve lay-readers and students alike as *the* primary introduction for both those readers either interested in a general overview, or those wishing to embark upon a more in-depth study of Tibet's fascinating story. I highly recommend it!

* * *

edited by Denise M. Glover, Stevan Harrell, Charles F. McKhann, Margaret Byrne Swain.
(University of Washington Press, 2011)

This book is a collection of eight essays, or “portraits”, each looking at different individuals who for various reasons all found themselves pursuing scientific studies in the borderland regions of southwest China at a time of great change. These individuals were often white Western males, and their hobbies and occupations frequently managed to merge a spectrum of roles: explorer, scientist, missionary, diplomat, photographer, travel writer. They were all imperial adventurers of one kind or another, each exploiting the fragmentation which accompanied the fall of the Qing, China’s last imperial dynasty, and the subsequent political struggles of the emerging Republican era. These were tumultuous times, yet all of these individuals – according to this book’s collective assertion – were ‘modernists’, each of them pursuing their separate scientific endeavours firmly fortified by their faith in human progress. The weakened fringes of the Chinese empire were the perfect place for such individuals seeking to push the boundaries of human knowledge whilst simultaneously filling in ‘the last blanks’ on the world map.

The book is the result of an academic symposium which in 2007 brought together a mixed group of scholars, researchers, and filmmakers, and as such, it presents a multi-disciplinary set of biographies which together examine the theme of ‘knowledge gathering and empire.’ The various papers collected in this book look at a range of individuals – some already well known to scholars, others less so – namely: Joseph Rock, David Crockett Graham, Ernest Henry Wilson, Reginald Farrer and George Forrest, Fritz and Hedwig Weiss, Paul Vial, Johan Gunnar Anderson and Ding Wenjiang. These were by no means the only scientific explorers operating in this area at this time, and consequently this book does not seek to give a broad overview of the many botanists, ethnographers, geologists, geographers, and archaeologists who travelled through the region, but rather it seeks to look at a handful of case studies. The book aims to examine questions such as – how objective and classificatory scientific aims rubbed along with religious and humanist ideals; why collecting and cataloguing took precedence over analysis and reflection. The book also looks at the posthumous reputations of these figures and how they have been perceived by subsequent generations within China – either helping to define China as a modern nation-state, or denounced during the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution, to today’s surprising rehabilitation and cultural commodification for an emerging national and international tourist trade.

This is a highly nuanced book which gives a fascinating glimpse into a little known area of China’s history, its cultural and scientific interactions with Western Imperialism, and a set of remarkably resourceful and tirelessly committed adventurers – an area which deserves to be explored more fully – yet which is presented here in such a format that will appeal as much to the interested armchair explorer as it will to the specialist academic.

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by John Darwin
(Penguin, 2013)  

Covering a lot of ground in Asia, this book is a history of the oddly disparate British imperialist project as a whole, and as such it also covers Africa and the Americas - but I'm including it amongst these book reviews primarily because it presents Asia (particularly with India having been such a long-standing and integral part of the British Empire) from an interesting, globally-interconnected perspective which neatly dovetails with Pankaj Mishra's subaltern perspective in From the Ruins of Empire which began this set of reviews.

For anyone with a general interest in the era of Western Imperialism this is a 'must-read' book. It provides an admirably balanced overview of the rise, eminence, and disintegration of the British Imperial system and is written in a clear and accessible, uncluttered style.

John Darwin, who currently seems to be at the height of his powers as a historian, examines the British Empire through a series of themed chapters, each looking at a different aspect of imperialist agency - highlighting the fact that there were in fact multiple means of conquering or establishing, and then exploiting, maintaining and administering, as well as eventually dissolving (or less frequently retaining) its imperial domains across the globe; whilst also remaining mindful of the fact that although the high days of the Empire are well and truly past, there are still British overseas territories in existence - hence the book's title. Similarly - and perhaps most importantly - the book doesn't shy away from examining the darker policies and incidents  which characterised British rule in some regions, nor the post-colonial legacies of which still remain contentious and apparent in today's global geopolitical realities.

Given the broad nature of its scope and the vast sweep of time which it covers, this relatively slim volume manages to convey a comprehensive, wholistic vision of what was a truly multifaceted entity in all its various and sometimes seemingly incongruous constituent parts, as well as what has been said and written about it by historians of different camps and different eras over time.

For me personally, having the book arranged into such thematic chapters threw into stark relief which areas of imperialism interest me most and which tend to pass me by - so in that sense it was both an affirmation and an eye-opener, as I did find myself making profitable parallels and connections between areas which I might otherwise have neglected or overlooked entirely. In that sense this is a perfect introductory text for history students of whichever (political, economic, military, social, cultural, etc.) branch of the subject who might similarly wish to gain both a broader and more nuanced perspective. The excellent 'notes' and 'references for further reading' sections are good primers for readers wishing to launch off and explore a particular topic in greater depth. Plus, it shouldn't be overlooked that the book is generously scattered throughout with a series of fascinating illustrative maps which are well worth poring over and stopping to consider alongside the accompanying text (I imagine they would make great teaching aids as well).

All round a very great book and a highly profitable read - one not to be missed!

12 April 2014

The Visitor of Chillon

“Lake Leman lies by Chillon’s walls:
A thousand feet in depth below
Its massy waters meet and flow;
Thus much the fathom-line was sent
From Chillon’s snow-white battlement”

- Lord Byron

In February this year, whilst I was on a work trip to Switzerland, I visited the Château de Chillon near Montreaux, on the easternmost shore of Lake Geneva. The castle is one of the most famous and picturesque sites in Switzerland, the idyllic subject of many a wistful tourist picture-postcard, yet its long history makes for a fascinating study of kaleidoscopic historical and literary perceptions. Its current idyllic symbolism and almost Disney-like beauty belies a very bloody history, such that writers from earlier eras once described the imposing ‘Bastille’-like edifice as dark, oppressive, and ugly.

The castle is thought to be over a thousand years old, with traces of human occupation on the rocky islet upon which the castle is built dating back to the Bronze Age – as demonstrated by excavations carried out from the late 19th century by the archaeologist, Albert Naef (1862-1936). The oldest written mention of the castle dates from 1150. The castle’s history is now divided into three important periods: the Savoy era (12th century to 1536); the Bernese era (1536-1798); and, the Vaudois era (1798-present). For much of its existence the castle was maintained as a fortress, arsenal, and prison. It was decommissioned in the 19th century, since when it has been preserved as a historic monument.


Set beneath a steep cliff, isolated on a rocky island which it occupies entirely and reached by a single wooden bridge, the castle with its tall imposing walls is a formidable mix of round and square towers topped by red tiled roofs. With the aid of an excellent leaflet given to you when you pay at the entrance gate it’s possible to explore the entire castle by yourself and get an understanding of the original functions of each of the rooms and galleries within. The building is fabulously atmospheric, from the dank chilly airs of the lake-level store rooms and dungeon up to the fresh airy heights of the central tower (which one ascends via a series of creaking wooden staircases that rather reminded me of those in the central tower of Himeji castle in Japan).


Unsurprisingly, the castle has been the subject of much artistic and literary interest over the centuries. Notable from the sketches, prints, and paintings of artists such as J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) and Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893), as well as the writings of the English Regicide, Edmund Ludlow (c.1617-1692),  and the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) onwards. The castle is perhaps best known by the poem The Prisoner of Chillon written by Lord Byron (1788-1824) after he visited the castle in 1816.

“There are seven pillars of Gothic mould,
In Chillon’s dungeons deep and old,
There are seven columns, massy and grey,
Dim with a dull imprisoned ray,
A sunbeam which hath lost its way,
And through the crevice and the cleft
Of the thick wall is fallen and left;
Creeping o’er the floor so damp
Like a marsh’s meteor lamp:
And in each pillar there is a ring,
And in each ring there is a chain;
That iron is a cankering thing,
For in these limbs its teeth remain,
With marks that will not wear away
Till I have done with this new day”


The Prisoner of Chillon is actually a pair of poems (a sonnet and a longer narrative poem or ‘fable’) in which Byron recounts, and rather embellishes, the story of the castle’s most famous captive – François Bonivard (1493-1570). Bonivard was the Prior of Saint-Victor in Geneva and a republican opposed to Charles III of Savoy’s attempts to take Geneva. He was captured in 1530 and held captive at Chillon until 1536. For the first two years of his captivity he was held in comfort in the upper rooms of the castle, but spent the remaining four in chains in the castle’s dungeon, where he is renowned to have worn down the stone floor in pacing about one of the pillars to which he was shackled. He was eventually liberated when the castle was successfully besieged by the Bernese and Genovese, and returning to the newly Protestant Geneva he was made a member of the governing Council of Two Hundred.

The pillars of Bonnivard’s dungeon are all inscribed with numerous names both famous and obscure from different dates. One of these is that of Byron himself, now neatly framed, although some doubt has been cast as to whether the poet himself actually cut it into the stone or whether it was done by a later hand once his poem had been published and become a phenomenal success. Either way it was of interest to me as I recall seeing Bryon’s name scored into the old school room at Harrow (my home town) when I visited on a school trip when I was about 11 or 12 years old – and, if my memory serves me well, the two graffitios do look rather alike (?).

Later writers who visited the castle took a less romantic view and have left accounts which seem to seek to debunk or demythologise Chillon. Writing in 1833 John Ruskin (1819-1900) in particular sought to pick some very pedantic holes in Byron’s poetic tropes: “ ‘So far the fathom line was sent’ – Why fathom line? All lines for sounding are not fathom lines. If the lake was ever sounded from Chillon, it was probably sounded in metres, not fathoms.” (Zzzzz … I, for one, have never been able to get very far into anything written by John Ruskin!). Other writers were still even less impressed with the place itself. Writing in his diary whilst staying at the Hotel de Byron in Villeneuve on June 12th 1859, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) observed: “The castle is terribly in need of a pedestal; if its site were elevated to a height equal to its own, it would make a far better appearance.” Given its waterside setting he then compares the castle to “an old whitewashed factory or mill.” Perhaps Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany would have been more to his liking?

Hawthorne’s fellow countryman, Mark Twain (1835-1910), typically took a somewhat more wry or nuanced view: “I had always had a deep and reverent compassion for the sufferings of the ‘prisoner of Chillon,’ whose story Byron has told in such moving verse, so I took the steamer and made pilgrimage to the dungeons of the Castle of Chillon, to see the place where poor Bonivard endured his dreary captivity 300 years ago. I am glad I did that, for it took away some of the pain I was feeling on the prisoner’s account. His dungeon was a nice, cool, roomy place, and I cannot see why he should have been so dissatisfied with it … He surely could not have had a very cheerless time of it in that pretty dungeon. It has romantic window-slits that let in generous bars of light, and it has tall, noble columns, carved apparently from the living rock; and what is more, they are written all over with thousands of names, some of them, – like Bryon’s and Victor Hugo’s, – of the first celebrity. Why didn’t he amuse himself reading these names? Then there are the couriers and tourists – swarms of them every day – what was there to hinder him from having a good time with them? I think Bonivard’s sufferings have been overrated.” (Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, 1880).


I suppose everyone takes their own view of a place particular to themselves and perhaps their time. For me Chillon is a beautiful and fascinating place, sublimely atmospheric, rich in literary and historic ambience. And, for anyone of inclinations similar to mine, I recommend Patrick Vincent’s excellent pocket-sized Chillon: A Literary Guide as the perfect exploring companion.