As great powers clashed during World War I, another war raged in colonial Asia. In February 1915, Indian soldiers mutinied in Singapore following rumors that they would soon be sent to Egypt to fight fellow Muslims of the Ottoman Empire. Unable to control the rebellion, the British had to rely on European special constables and the support of the Japanese imperial consul to regain control of the city-island. This mutiny was part of a wider plot by the far-flung members of the Ghadar Party, an Indian anti-imperial movement started in California, to initiate a pan-Indian insurrection across the British Empire. A transnational network stretching from San Francisco to Kabul supported these efforts; Ghadarites worked in collaboration with German consulates, the Ottoman Empire, and Irish republicans to supply resources, especially arms, to Indian rebels. Imperial counterintelligence agents eventually managed to snuff out this revolution, but not before it shook the British Empire and its allies. The New York Times called the Singapore Mutiny the “greatest threat to British power in Asia” in over half a century.

In Tim Harper’s Underground Asia, a magisterial history of anti-imperialism in Asia in the first three decades of the twentieth century, this uprising constitutes one part of an Asia-wide assault on European empires. Asia seethed during World War I. Waves of labor strikes hit the urban centers and plantations of Java. A revolt against new land taxes broke out in Kelantan, on the Malay Peninsula. From Saigon to Sumatra, Singapore to Lahore, the spirit of rebellion spread like wildfire. Specific grievances fueled each uprising, and their participants espoused a range of political ideologies. But the rebellions shared a global outlook: a conviction that the tables would soon be turned in favor of subjugated peoples against their European masters.

Ironically, this surge of anti-imperialism has often been treated as an offshoot of an American or European story. Scholars of this period tend to focus on how anticolonial movements borrowed ideas of national self-determination and revolution from Western liberals, such as Woodrow Wilson, or from communist revolutionaries, such as Vladimir Lenin. That emphasis has the effect of casting political events in Asia as mere echoes of developments in the West.

Harper, by contrast, seeks to place Asian anticolonialism in its own context. The scale and ambition of his work are nothing short of remarkable. He reconstructs how migration, the translation and transmission of texts, and the formation of intellectual and political communities helped spark the rebellions and build an “Asian underground” of determined radical opposition to European empires at the high point of imperialism. Although by training a historian of Southeast Asia, he dispenses with the restricting framework of area studies—which separates East, Southeast, and South Asia—and likewise doesn’t confine his inquiry to a particular empire, looking across the borders of British, Dutch, and French possessions. In so doing, Harper shows how imperial subjects in Asia came to develop radical worldviews and build the movements that would eventually drive European powers out of the continent.

But his is also a history of a lost era and its forgotten possibilities. He shows how Asian revolutionaries in the period developed internationalist and cosmopolitan visions of the world, which were much broader than those of the nationalists who would come to dominate Asia and Africa during the mid-twentieth century. Decolonization and the emergence of nation-states in those parts of the world rested on the defeat of alternative conceptions of freedom centered on pan-Asianism, pan-Islamism, and a communist world revolution.

Harper’s book arrives at another moment of rebellion across Asia. In the unprecedented demands for reform of the monarchy in Thailand, the struggles for Hong Kong’s autonomy, the large-scale and months-long strikes of Indian farmers, and the uprising against the return of military rule in Myanmar, hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets in recent years. The protests sweeping Asia are reminders that the project of achieving freedom and equality in the region, a project begun underground in the early decades of the last century, remains unfinished today.

THE LIGHT OF ASIA

At the dawn of the twentieth century, as European empires tightened their hold across Asia, one country seemed to offer anti-imperial thinkers a vision of a future beyond colonial rule. Surveying “the present outlook of the darker races” in 1897, the African American intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois declared that “the one bright spot in Asia to-day is the island empire of Japan.” Centralizing and modernizing reforms in the nineteenth century had strengthened the Japanese state such that it could resist the advances of European empires. Japan’s decisive military victory over Russia in 1905 further confirmed the country’s status as “the light of Asia,” inspiring anticolonial thinkers across the continent.

Japan attracted many dreamers in this period. Harper’s narrative begins in 1905 with the journey of a group of Vietnamese revolutionaries—Phan Boi Chau, Prince Cuong De, and Phan Chau Trinh—who fled French Indochina for Japan after the French suppressed the anticolonial Can Vuong movement. Many other political and intellectual exiles turned to Japan for refuge. Students from across the region arrived to study in Tokyo. Merchants set up shop in rapidly industrializing Japanese cities. And aspiring industrialists came to learn from Japan’s industrial processes.

The idea of Asia as a political space united by a common struggle against Western imperialism, rather than a vague geographic concept, first emerged in this dynamic and bustling milieu. Students and exiles from various parts of the continent developed a common language of lamenting the “loss of country” and the shared “sickness” brought on by European domination. To them, Asia appeared as a “field for concerted action”; Asian thinkers in the early twentieth century looked forward to remaking their world on their own terms. They imagined a future that was not bound by territorial nation-states and instead was defined by political and economic relationships that traversed the region. This was the dream of pan-Asianism, a movement that encompassed various projects of building Asian unity through linguistic, religious, and commercial networks.

The rebellions shared a global outlook: a conviction that the tables would be turned in favor of subjugated peoples.

But Japan’s own imperial ambitions, its aspiration to be an “empire among empires,” quickly made it an inhospitable place for the nascent project of pan-Asianism. Japan signed agreements with France and the United Kingdom that exposed exiles to regimes of surveillance and repression. For figures such as the Vietnamese Chau, Japan no longer offered a viable model of Asian solidarity. The first wave of exiles dispersed from Japan and went underground. Chau ended up in China, where he built a new revolutionary league; French agents soon hunted down that group, as well. Despite its crackdown on the political organizing of exiles and émigrés, Japan did remain a hub of anti-imperial revolutionary ideas. Harper argues that even after the Russian Revolution in 1917, when anti-imperialists came to describe Russia as a political mecca, Japan continued to be “the principal source” of translated socialist texts.

Of course, Asian students and activists did travel to European centers—notably Berlin, Moscow, and Paris—and learn from radical European political theory. The circulation and translation of European political and social thought, including the works of Karl Marx, the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin, and the Italian nationalist Giuseppe Mazzini, played an important role in the intellectual formation of many anti-imperial thinkers. But Asians understood these texts through their own experiences and predicaments.

For instance, migrant labor formed a key bedrock of the economies of Western empires in Asia. That labor was more likely to be located on the plantation or at the docks than on the factory floor, the site so central to classical Marxist theory. In the early twentieth century, regimes of migrant labor uprooted millions of people. Asian cities such as Singapore grew dramatically, as they served as conveyor belts for labor and capital. Laborers from southern India fed the plantations of Malaya and Ceylon, where many lost their lives to malaria or dysentery. Chinese and Indian immigrants worked on railways and farms in Canada and the United States before new forms of immigration control and exclusion blocked their arrival. Students and political exiles would follow the paths that labor forged across oceans and continents.

THE VILLAGE ABROAD

Many of Harper’s protagonists are male, but he also shows how women participated in and took advantage of the turbulent and changing times. Women flocked to work in cities and factories to forge more independent lives. They also played a central role in uprisings and rebellions. For instance, women initiated the first labor strikes at the turn of the century in Shanghai’s factories. They can be difficult for historians to find in traditional archives; many women employed male pseudonyms or had their contributions diminished in the historical record by male comrades.

Despite these silences, Harper finds many women who daringly advanced revolutionary causes. In 1925, Wong Sang—dubbed “the bobbed-haired woman” for the fashionable, modern haircut she sported—set off a bomb in Kuala Lumpur in a failed attempt to assassinate the governor. When asked to enter her plea during her trial, she said very little, admitting that she was responsible and coyly suggesting she had “a very bad temper.” The investigation that followed her trial revealed that she was part of a conspiracy that stretched across modern-day Indonesia, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Thailand.

Wong and others who played a role in Asia’s “great age of movement” were not isolated actors but part of new networks formed at “the waterfront, the lodging house, the coffeeshop, the clandestine printing press in the back alley,” Harper writes. Traveling the circuits of the Asian underground, they became members of what Chau called “the village abroad,” a dispersed but meaningful community of radicals who helped facilitate rebellion against and resistance to Western empires by illicitly moving people, money, arms, and revolutionary literature. The village abroad offered a distinct vantage point—both at the center of global economic processes and at their margins—from which its denizens debated important questions, including about the relationship among class, national, and religious identities and the necessity and prudence of violence as a tool of resistance. They always kept an eye on the global character of their struggle, while still staying attuned to the particular contexts in which they lived and strived.

Protesting in Hong Kong, September 2014
Protesting in Hong Kong, September 2014
Tyrone Siu / Reuters

Exemplary of this underground were the activities of the Ghadar movement, a group of U.S.-based Indian anticolonial revolutionaries that formed from the Hindustani Association of the Pacific Coast. As Harper notes, the group’s journal, Ghadar (Mutiny), was published in “a polyphony of languages and scripts,” including Gurmukhi, Hindi, and Urdu, and reached a global readership as it spread through the growing South Asian diaspora. Through publications and public meetings, Ghadarites grounded the fight for freedom from the British in invocations of a heroic Indian past. They drew on a range of ideologies but shared the anarchistic orientation of the wider world of underground Asia. Anarchism, Harper argues, was well suited to the experience of displacement and exile as “a doctrine of self-help and self-governance” and as an internationalist vision. It also fit the milieu of the village abroad, which was characterized by the “mixed labor forces of the waged, the unwaged and the casual.”

Members of the village abroad often endorsed political violence. A December 1913 Ghadar pamphlet, for instance, celebrated the attempted assassination in 1912 of the British viceroy of India with a homemade bomb, hailing “the power of the bomb” for “its ability to sow perpetual fear among the British.” These sporadic acts of violence would powerfully expose how imperial power relied on the compliance and support of the colonized. Violence turned the empire into “a nervous state,” to borrow the historian Nancy Rose Hunt’s evocative term, which felt obliged to constantly look over its shoulder.

But the underground did not just produce violence. It circulated ideas, information, and propaganda that offered eye-opening critiques of European empire, presented the tantalizing possibility of new postcolonial futures, and girded revolutionaries for the long struggle ahead. The pamphlets, magazines, and letters spread news across the region and drew new recruits to anti-imperial causes. Stopping this flow of incendiary writing would become as important to imperial powers as uncovering possible bomb attacks.

THE END OF A WORLD

After World War I, the cosmopolitan Asian underground began to wane. New restrictions on the mobility of labor and the ever more intricate dragnet of imperial surveillance and repression weakened the networks of the village abroad. As a result, anti-imperial thinkers and activists turned from the wider project of Asian liberation to narrower, nationalist aims. “The early vision of an Asian whole, united in suffering the same sickness,” was less powerful. Elder fugitives of the underground mourned the loss of a more internationalist project. For Lala Har Dayal, a founding member of the Ghadar Party, this was the age of “dismal nationalism.”

Harper charts this transformation in part through three anchor characters: the Indian Communist M. N. Roy, the Indonesian Tan Malaka, and the Vietnamese Nguyen Ai Quoc (better known by his assumed name of Ho Chi Minh—“He Who Enlightens”). The arcs of their lives map onto the ideological evolution of the struggle for freedom in Asia. Harper’s narrative unfolds as a detective’s tale, piecing together archival fragments, tracking aliases and pseudonyms, and doggedly following hidden trails to reconstruct the men’s distinctive and overlapping itineraries.

The protests sweeping Asia are reminders that the project of achieving freedom in the region remains unfinished.

Roy sits awkwardly in the standard history of Indian anticolonialism that gives a central role to the Indian National Congress and leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. But Roy’s globe-spanning travels and his internationalist vision made him an emblematic figure of the Asian underground. Roy was initiated into anticolonial politics in India during the Swadeshi movement, which began in 1905 and was a precursor to the nationalist freedom struggle against the British. He left India in the midst of the 1915 Asia-wide uprisings. Following sojourns in Mexico City (where he helped found the Mexican Communist Party) and Berlin, he became a key theorist for the Comintern in Moscow. From this perch, he insisted on the central role Asia would play in world revolution and urged Lenin and others to turn their attention to the East. He also advocated a more skeptical stance toward the nationalist movements that Lenin often wanted to support and instead insisted on prioritizing workers and peasant movements in the colonies. But even as he commanded a central role in trying to direct a wider communist Asian revolution, he grew distant from developments in India, and his ability to influence events there waned. Frustrated by the “impotence of exile,” as Harper puts it, Roy returned to India in 1930. There, colonial authorities arrested him on an earlier warrant for conspiring to overthrow the empire. Released in 1936 due to poor health, he then briefly joined forces with the Indian National Congress, the nationalist party he had rejected in his early years. The partnership did not last long: Roy believed that the global fight against fascism took precedence over Congress’s commitment to noncooperation with colonial authorities, and the party expelled him for wanting to support British efforts during World War II. He experienced the end of empire in India as a spectator far removed from the field of action.

Malaka, a prominent member of the Indonesian Communist Party, known as the PKI, epitomized how members of the underground could meld visions of the world seemingly at odds with one another. He argued that pan-Islamism and Bolshevism were mutually reinforcing rather than opposed political projects. He was forced to leave the Dutch East Indies after authorities arrested him in 1922. He welcomed exile as a chance to experience, in his words, “the largeness of the world” but also recognized that “seldom are we [exiles] able to hold firm to our original beliefs, desires, and faith.” Malaka remained committed to the cause of Indonesian liberation, but along the way, his understanding of this project took on new dimensions that pitted him against his PKI comrades. From exile, he articulated a republican vision of Indonesia based on universal suffrage and a federal constitution. When his former comrades in the PKI planned an open rebellion, he rejected it as a “putsch,” favoring instead a slower, broader mass mobilization. He didn’t shy away from the use of violence as a revolutionary tactic, but he imagined direct action in more subtle ways, including “the suborning of military garrisons, the solidarity of general stoppages, the unstoppable momentum and moral force of the mass demonstrations.” Malaka would later be hailed as “the father of the Indonesian Republic” by Sukarno, the first leader of the country after independence, but when Malaka finally returned from exile, in 1945, Indonesian nationalist forces jailed and executed him.

After World War I, the cosmopolitan Asian underground began to wane.

Unlike these counterparts, Ho Chi Minh was successful in leading a national liberation movement. Ironically, he is the most shadowy of the three, having retreated so far into the underground that many parts of his travels are difficult to confirm. Like Roy, he passed through the Americas on his way to Moscow; like Malaka, he would come to reject explosive military plots and “patriotic anarchism” in favor of slowly building organizational capacity. In 1925, Ho Chi Minh organized the Revolutionary Youth League in the southern Chinese city of Canton (now Guangzhou). He saw firsthand the widening fissures between the two main forces in China, the Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, and the Chinese Communist Party. When he formed the Vietnamese Communist Party, he sought to build an organization that combined both nationalism and communism. The Comintern in Moscow chastised him for narrowing his work to Vietnam rather than seeking to liberate Indochina more broadly. But his increasingly national focus reflected changing times, as anti-imperial and socialist struggles throughout the region shifted from the internationalist orientation of the era of the underground to a more nationalist one. When Ho Chi Minh returned to Vietnam in 1941, after 30 years of exile, he had undergone a dual transformation: “from the son of a mandarin to a plebian, from a cosmopolitan into a patriot,” a journey that reflected the waxing and waning world of underground Asia. Ho Chi Minh’s return marked the beginning of a national struggle, first to end the Japanese occupation and French colonization of Vietnam and then to fend off the fateful intervention of the United States.

Around the time Ho Chi Minh returned to Vietnam, Chau penned his memoir. “My history is entirely a history of failure,” he concluded. The diverse, eclectic world of underground Asia—its rebellions nurtured in port cities, its smuggled journals, its migrant enclaves—had failed to realize its radical and internationalist vision of pan-Asianism. In its place, the end of European imperialism in Asia ushered in an age of narrower nationalisms fixated on state building. Chau’s journey to Japan in 1905 had opened one pathway of underground Asia, but those routes were now closed.

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  • ADOM GETACHEW is Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago and the author of Worldmaking After Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination.
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