An inquiring mind’s interactions with the children of post-liberalisation China
Arguably the most well-travelled Indian troubadour alive, Pankaj Mishra is a thinker-writer who not just dabbles in but speculates on and even specialises in areas as diverse as philosophy, history, international affairs and popular culture. This he does without allowing himself to be pigeonholed as a writer belonging to any one category. His writings indicate the curiosity of an inquiring soul as much they explain the sagacity of a worldly-wise mind.
To understand his oeuvre, we need to go back and read An end to suffering: The Buddha in the world, a spiritual bildungsroman where he describes the journeys he undertook to understand Buddha and his idea of dukkha (suffering). Mishra’s realisation — with the help of Buddha’s example — that one is neither identical to nor limited by one’s thoughts and experiences opened up for him new intellectual vistas.
And that one little nugget of knowledge has informed his writings ever since. A Great Clamour is no exception. A collection of long-form pieces he wrote for reputed magazines and journals like The New Yorker, New York Review of Books and London Review of Books, it portrays his attempts to understand the rapid materialistic rise of an officially atheistic China. This he does by interacting with the progenies a post-liberalisation China has spawned. These include intellectuals, spiritual leaders, academics, artists and many others politicised enough to be in the mainstream but not radicalised enough to be termed ‘dissidents’.
Between dissidents like Liu Xiabao and academics who toe the party line, there exists space in China for what Professor Wang Hui from Tsinghua university calls ‘critical intellectuals’. These are thinkers who believe in holding the regime to account without taking pleasure in identifying themselves as iconoclasts. They populate the fault lines created by China’s rapid modernisation and empathise with the vast section of population left out of the growth story. It is such ‘critical intellectuals’ Mishra interacts with in China.
That apart, the book also has journal entries of his voyages to countries in East and Southeast Asia. These are countries that are part of or are likely to be part of China’s ‘sphere of influence’. They include territories that are part of China like Hong Kong; territories China considers its part like Taiwan; as well as neighbours with whom China is engaged in disputes of territory or resources like Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia and Mongolia.
Intimacy and detachment
Mishra’s role throughout remains that of a semi-detached sutradhaar (narrator) rather than a social scientist intent on proving or disproving a hypothesis. Semi-detached, because he has not given away his vantage point, his perch, which is invariably India.
He is neither a foreign correspondent nor a travel writer, both of whom he considers “overrated figures of Western bourgeois culture”. Yet, he combines the cultural intimacy that the former brings and the professional detachment the latter affords. Writing about East Asia for him is discovering himself, nullifying certain pet theories while integrating certain others.
He opens up with ‘Sentimental education in Shanghai’, which provides introduction to the typical ‘person’ a modernised Chinese individual is likely to find himself trapped in. He analyses Fortress besieged, written by Qian Zhongshu in the 1940s, a picaresque Chinese novel considered a masterpiece of the country’s literature. Mishra says its protagonist represents the typical member China’s nouveau riche of today, one who has material wealth in abundance but faces a spiritual crisis.
Mishra then goes on to review books on Mao Zedong and the Maoist era, including Yang Jisheng’s Tombstone. They are about the cult of Mao and excesses of the Maoist era, like The Great Leap Forward, when between thirty million and forty-five million people died.
However, at the end of the two chapters, Mishra sees some positives in the Communist Party of China’s functioning. He believes that that problems and challenges facing it have tended to obscure its remarkable durability.
Mishra is at his detached best while looking at East Asia and China through the lens of the cultural landscape of its neighbours. As he calls Hong Kong ‘the apotheosis of capitalist modernity,’ he realises that such modernity at best constitutes a utopia without soul.
He observes the cultural lassitude of Mongolia, a sparsely populated landmass which, by some curse of geography, is sandwiched between Russia and China. Having borne the brunt of political experiments and excesses of both, its ruggedness stands testimony to the disdain with which Mother Nature at times treats politics.
His essays on Hong Kong, Taipei and Kuala Lumpur are part travelogues, part lyricism, each of which he tries to end with a bird’s eye view and a prognosis. Unlike his account of Mongolia, he ends these on a note of optimism.
On the other hand, he is pessimistic about Indonesia, a country connected more closely on the cultural front with India and one that seeks to replace India as the ‘I’ in BRICS. He acknowledges that a system that has produced an entrenched system of political and military elite has also produced idealists like Joko Widodo — known as Jokowi — Indonesia’s best hope for what prominent Indonesian thinker Soedjatmoko calls ‘bottom-up’ governance.
He, however, is not much optimistic about Jokowi’s style of governance finding much success at the national level. The reason? He feels the system is too debased to yield to the starry-eyed vision of idealists like Jokowi. His pessimism perhaps has portents for India. Is the Indian Constitution strong enough to accommodate Arvind Kejriwal’s bottom-up style without corrupting him to become part of the entrenched mainstream?
For a book with China as its focal point, the best essay turns out to be the one about its neighbour to the east. The last essay about Japan reads like a harbinger for its dragon cousin, indicating the anomie it is likely to suffer if it continues in its unchecked pursuit for economic growth.
Japan being a country which has gone beyond modernity, which has ‘outgrown growth’, as one thinker puts it, surely holds lessons for other Asian countries. With one suicide every 15 minutes, disguised unemployment and a horrifying inward tilt -- about one million Japanese never leave their homes — Japan represents what other Asian nations could become sans sufficient indigenous constitutional moorings.
For a country which Douglas MacArthur called ‘a boy of twelve’, Japan is now clearly in its dotage, with all the visible and invisible manifestations of old age. It has no clear forward plan once its post-WWII modernity — scripted under the tutelage of the U.S. — dies out completely.
And as writers like Oe Kenzaburo hypothesise, Japan’s crisis is as much existential as economic. Its ‘Yamato spirit’ and the vain idealism it inspired is still carefully preserved in Yasukuni shrine and the adjoining Yushukan Museum, which honour the Japanese war dead, including some high-profile war criminals. Sun Yat-Sen, father of modern China, had made, in one of his final speeches in 1924, the proclamation that Japan had imbibed the Western attribute of the “rule of Might” while retaining Oriental attribute of “rule of Right”. He said it had to choose between the two — hawkishness of the former and strength of the latter.
Japan chose the latter and is now getting sucked into a black hole, with politicians like the current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe only taking it further in. The choice is now before China and India.