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Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Makers of Modern Asia (2014) Edited by Ramachandra Guha

Photograph of Indira Gandhi as a young girl.  Like many other Makers of Modern Asia, she was educated in the UK, though she did not complete her university degree.

Makers of Modern Asia
Edited by  Ramachandra Guha
Published August 29th, 2014
Belknap Press of Harvard University
Photograph of Jawaharlal Nehru.  Although he has been hugely eclipsed in the west by the canonization of Gandhi, Nehru played a significant role in shaping modern India, guiding it through the rocky first years after independence. 

  Biography dominates the field of popular history- pick any three top sellers off the non-fiction list that can be categorized as "history" and all three are likely to be biographies, likely of American Presidents or Jesus.  This despite the fact that biography has very much fallen out of favor in academic circles concerned with historical matters.  Perhaps because of this disparity between popular tastes and academic tastes, there are often gaps in newer areas of historical inquiry when it comes newly popular historical subjects, and 20th century Asian history- one of THE hottest topics in World History, is no exception.

Photograph of Zulifkar/Zuliqar Ali Bhutto.  One of the revelations of Makers of Modern Asia is that Ali Bhutto was educated at USC and UC Berkeley. 
 Thank god, Makers of Modern Asia is here to rectify the lack of short, well written, biographical sketches of 20th century Asian leaders with its presence.  Published at the end of August by the excellent Belknap Press at Harvard University, Makers of Modern Asia has biographical sketches of 11 twentieth century Asian leaders:   Gandhi (India), Chiang Kai-shek(China), Ho Chi Minh(Vietnam), Mao Zedong(China), Jawaharlal Nehru(India), Zhou Enlai(China), Sukarno(Indonesia), Deng Xiaoping(China), Indira Gandhi(India), Lee Kuan Yew(Singapore) and Zulifkar Ali Bhutto(Pakistan).
Like Deng Xiaoping, Zhang Enlai, pictured here as a young man, rode the post-revolutionary Mao roller coaster, with spells in and out of power, but he emerges as a fascinating, first rate historical figure in the Makers of Modern Asia.

     Like all of the other titles I've read published by Belknap/Harvard University, Makers of Modern Asia is designed to satisfy both scholars of the field (ample footnotes and indexing) and general readers with a vague interest in learning more about the big leaders of 20th century Asian history. The amount of time one saves vs. reading individual biographies of some or all of these leaders is monumental- Makers of Modern Asia packs into 300 pages the important facts concerning all 11 leaders, and despite featuring 11 different authors, manages to keep an even tone throughout.

  All of the biographical sketches contain positives and negatives and appear to be written by actual people from those countries judging by the sensitivities displayed. The very idea of Westerners writing Asian history is clearly controversial even in more Western friendly places like India, witness the brou-ha-ha over Wendy Doinger's book, The Hindus, as recently as last year.  It is impossible not to look for commonalities between the leaders as a way to link the sketches together, and the clear common denominator appears to be educational experiences abroad, either in Japan, Paris, Russia, London or Berkeley(Bhutto.)

  The great irony that the West by and large educated the leaders who would lead the struggle against Western Imperialism is something the reader will have ample time to contemplate within the pages of Makers of Modern Asia.  I'm assuming that most readers, like myself, will possess general knowledge about Mao and Gandhi, and maybe recognize the names of leaders like Indira Gandhi, Deng Xiaoping, Lee Kuan Yew and draw blanks on the others.  For me, it was the lesser known leaders who proved the most revelatory.

  How often do you have the opportunity to contemplate the back story of Sukharno, the Indonesian leader who helmed the fourth largest country in the world with a relative lack of extravagant human misery.  All of those profiled "come alive" in the pages of Makers of Modern Asia.  Any reader looking for a jumping off point into the sea of recent Asian history would be well advised to start here rather than a nation/country specific/focused titles.  So much of 20th century Asian nation-state history was directly influenced by these personalities that neglecting them in favor of more esoteric theories about roots and causes seems a bit, as they in England, potty.

  I do strongly recommend picking this title up if you have an interest in the subject, or in not being an ignorant American the next time you are asked to opine on some Asia centered current event.

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