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Reviewed by:
  • Makers of Modern Asia ed. by Ramachandra Guha
  • Benjamin D. Hopkins
Makers of Modern Asia, edited by Ramachandra Guha. Cambridge, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014. 385 pp. $29.95 US (cloth).

In his volume Makers of Modern Asia, Ramachandra Guha has brought together an impressive assembly of scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals tasked with authoring a series of biographical essays about Asia’s major leading political figures of the twentieth century. The list of figures, while in many ways predictable, is notable for its inclusivity. In it, the reader finds three Indian (Mohandas Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Indira Gandhi) and four Chinese (Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and Deng Xiaoping) leaders, as well as one each from Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh), Indonesia (Sukarno), Singapore (Lee Kuan Yew), and Pakistan [End Page 440] (Zulfikar Ali Bhutto). The list reads like a roster of the veritable heavyweights of Asian statesmen (and a token woman) of the recent past. In keeping with the volume’s theme of ‘‘makers,’’ nearly all the selected individuals were key movers in the nationalist movements that gained independence (de jure and de facto) throughout Asia during the middle decades of the century.

Makers of Modern Asia begins with a short introductory essay authored by Guha himself, where he lays out the structure and logic of the book. The book ’s aim is to bring to the fore the ‘‘now somewhat obscured history of agitation and consolidation that created unified, stable (or more or less stable) nation-states out of fragmented territories and fractious social groups’’ (4). The work, then, is most decidedly that of political biography. As such, it returns to a version of history rather long passé within the profession, namely that of ‘‘big-man’’ history. Yet the authors use this form to reflect on wider social and political issues that their subjects both shaped and were beholden to.

Taken individually, the eleven essays offer contributions of somewhat uneven character. Some, such as James R. Rush’s chapter on Sukarno and Odd Arne Westad’s on Deng Xiaoping, provide a chronological biography of their subject from birth to death. Others, such as Sophie Quinn-Judge’s contribution on Ho-Chi Minh, more tightly focus on particular episodes of the individual’s life, in this case the years between the end of WWII and the outbreak of the Second Indo-China War. Consequently, the essays fail to set a collective tone for the volume, as each reflects the individual voice of its author. Some take a relatively light tack vis-à-vis the details of the historical narrative, while others provide what is at times an overwhelming wealth of information. Further, while Guha’s introduction emphasizes the volume’s focus on politics as opposed to economics, not all of the essays reflect this. Notably, Jay Taylor’s essay on Chiang Kai-Shek concentrates largely on the economic policies of the Kuomintang under his leadership.

As stand-alone pieces, the contributions are on the whole engagingly written, often staking out provocative revisionist lines that provide the reader ample food for thought. However, as an edited collection they hang together rather poorly. The individual editorial choices made by each author in addressing their subject means there is little parallel structure binding the volume together. Further, the rather vague focus of the volume—politics—provides little meaningful structure for the work as a whole. Arguably, one of the problems working against a semblance of coherence for the volume is the national framework Guha emphasizes in his introduction. Though it structures the collection of essays, with each contribution looking at a figure of national significance and provides a formula for balance in the selected essays with the larger nations receiving [End Page 441] the lion’s share of attention, it also structures the book ’s limitation as a whole. The individual nationalist discourses of each respective subject are largely self-contained, though admittedly not self-referential. Indeed, the centrality of imperial connections is particularly notable in the lives of the leaders from Asia’s smaller nations, such as Ho Chi Minh and Lee Kuan Yew.

The volume’s national focus posits a broader, perhaps existential question...


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pp. 440-442
Launched on MUSE
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