Samir Puri’s The Great Imperial Hangover provides a fresh assessment of the oft over-simplified historical phenomenon of empire. In it, Puri pulls apart the ‘intersecting imperial legacies’ that provide the undercurrent of modern politics, and demonstrates that those legacies continue to manifest in the greatest issues of our times – from Blair and Bush’s rehashing of the old imperial ‘white man’s burden’ in the Middle East and Africa, to the debates around the legitimacy of China’s borders. Such questions are often thorny ones, as British readers will know from the vehemence of the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ protest movement that has engulfed Oriel College in recent years. Yet Puri manages to show that the legacies of empire are too complex to ever be classified under a catch-all categorisation of ‘good’ or ‘bad’. They are a foundational component of the modern political landscape, with fluid and mixed meanings dependent on their audience and subject to interpretation and reinterpretation based on political utility and shifting moral parameters.
Empire was the default in human history before the nation states that we have come to take for granted displaced them during the twentieth century. Puri points out that whilst for most nationalism meant the fracturing of the old empires, the Chinese republic (formed in 1911) was unique in its incorporation of the borders created by the expansion of the Qing empire into the new nation state, under the founding principle of ‘Five Races Under One Union’. If we accept the interpretation of China as an empire-in-disguise, the plight of the Uighurs – resettled by the Qing to Xinjiang following the extermination of the region’s Dzungar people in the 1750s – appears not as the plight of a mistreated minority, but as the systematic cultural genocide of an entire colonised people. The next chapter in a saga of imperial expansion and assimilation that spans thousands of years.
This domestic imperial inheritance is but one of the ways that Chinese politics remains in the shadow of the country’s empire-riddled history. Another – one that Puri singles out for particular analysis – is the legacy cast by the clash of the Qing with the European empires during the nineteenth century, and the influence that this has had on China’s self-perception relative to the West. As China emerges from its ‘century of humiliation’, Puri argues that clash of empires will remain China’s historical point of reference. It represents a low point in its history of competition with the western imperialists against which it shall seek to define itself as it vies for global supremacy with another great empire-in-disguise, the USA. Empires never went away, they simply recast their modes of operation to fit the mould of the modern world.
The Great Imperial Hangover is a fantastic book that provides ample justification for the use of history as a paradigm through which to view current affairs. Puri – a former diplomat and RAND employee – makes no attempt to hide his work’s didactic purpose. To remain ignorant of our imperial past, to seek to tarnish it all with the same brush, or simply to attempt to cover it up, as has so often been the case, is to severely limit our understanding of the modern world’s diplomatic roots. The imperial legacies that structure modern politics warrant close analysis, and Puri’s work should provide a starting point for both the interested observer and those in the diplomatic profession whose job it is to manage our relations with those who view such legacies in ways that often differ from – or directly oppose – our own.
Sam Lake, History in Politics Writer