Mostly robust biographies of 11 galvanizers of modern Asian nationalism, from Gandhi to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, underscore the importance of politics before economics.
Editor Guha (Gandhi Before India, 2014, etc.) reminds Western readers in his introduction that to concentrate on Asia’s stunning recent economic rise without studying the nationalist developments that preceded it is to ignore (again), at our great loss, the essential makeup and character of these nations. He argues that through understanding the lives of these founders, many of whom—Zhou Enlai and Ho Chi Minh, for example—gleaned their first political understanding from the West, we can grasp the wider political and social processes they effected in their own countries. Composed by various Western and Asian scholars and writers, these essays offer pithy highlights of each individual’s early life and political development, followed by delineation of how each applied his or her beliefs (for good or ill) to anti-colonial campaigns. Considerations of the subjects’ lasting legacies are too brief but provocative. Chiang Kai-Shek needed to modernize China desperately, yet his efforts at democratic and economic reform were subsumed by his need to defeat the Communists. Ho Chi Minh, brought up in a milieu of anti-colonial activism, was repeatedly rejected by Western democracies in his appeal “to pay more attention to the plight of the colonized,” before finding crucial support for Vietnamese independence in the Soviet Union. Mao Zedong’s colossal influence can still be felt throughout Chinese society in the breakdown of Confucian norms, emotional populist responses and the idea of an “individuated self” (underexplored here by Rana Mitter). Strong-arm nationalists Sukarno of Indonesia and Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore get their due as wildly popular, if problematic, leaders. Indira Gandhi is the sole female profiled, and none of Japan’s militaristic nationalists were deemed worthy of inclusion.
A terrific teaching aid with helpful footnotes.