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  • Published: 2 February 2021
  • ISBN: 9781846145629
  • Imprint: Allen Lane
  • Format: Hardback
  • Pages: 864
  • RRP: $69.99

Underground Asia

Global Revolutionaries and the Assault on Empire



This book tells the story of a connected wave of revolution across Asia from its beginnings in the first years of the twentieth century to a crescendo of protest, rebellion and war between 1925 and 1927. It sees the struggles for freedom from foreign domination in India, Southeast Asia and China – that is, the greater part of humanity – as a connected assault on empires. It is written from the perspective of those who took their struggle abroad, as exiles, operating over long distances, in a search for allies and in pursuit of a world revolution, which they believed Asia was destined to lead. The book’s scope is therefore global in compass. Many of the pathways of Asia’s revolutionaries crossed in Europe and the Americas, at the metropolitan hearts of the empires they sought to overthrow. Then, after 1920, they converged in the Soviet Union, only to return to Asia soon after, as the continent became the front line of the global revolution.

One objective of this kind of world history is to ‘loosen’ our sense of time and space, to shift narrative focus and to look at great events afresh.1 Although this story encompasses the milestones of the age – the Great War, the Bolshevik revolution and the end of empires – its own watershed moments unfold rather differently, and in so doing decentre our understanding of these larger processes. Familiar, national stories might, at times, seem a little far away. The towering figures of modern Asian history – the likes of Sun Yat-sen, Gandhi, Sukarno, Mao Zedong – all play a role in this story. But they do not necessarily begin, nor end, as its most important figures. I have written from the standpoint of diverse actors, many now overlooked in national histories. I do so from the vantage-point of what they knew and saw, and what they may have believed and thought possible at the time. In telling their story, I have tried as hard as possible not to divulge too much of the hindsight of the historian. In retrospect, many might now be seen among the vanquished of Asian history. But, in their triumphs, failures and adversities, they shaped Asia’s future in profound ways.

This book offers, quite deliberately and literally, an eccentric view of Asian history. It traces the insurgent geography of what I call ‘underground Asia’. I try to describe the terrain revolutionaries carved out for themselves, and how certain milieus generated new ideas and strategies for action. It tells of lives that were lived at the interstices of empires, and of struggles that did not see the nation-state as its sole end or as the natural ordering of a future world. Although much divided them, often violently so, most of the principal actors in this book voiced a commitment to what the Indonesian journalist, novelist and activist Mas Marco Kartodikromo called ‘the human nation of the world’. Thinkers continually stressed that they lived in an era of transition: a time and a place between – or, perhaps more accurately, besides – empire and nation. Mas Marco and his contemporaries celebrated a ‘world in motion’ and a ‘world upside down’.2 This evoked a vision of Asia, and of the world, that was more open than any time before or, perhaps, since.

Research for this book has taken me beyond my linguistic capacity; this has been inescapable for the story I wanted to tell. The same was also true for the people I am writing about. Most things happened in translation; the process of translation is crucial to the story, and it had – it has – its limits and its blindnesses. I have tried to be internally consistent with place names, and generally use their modern form. In the case of China this means the Pinyin, although there are exceptions: for example, I use ‘Canton’ for Guangzhou. Beyond China, I also use traditional forms – ‘Batavia’ for Jakarta, ‘Calcutta’ for Kolkata, and so on – where using modern names for what were at the time very distinctive colonial or semi-colonial spaces seems anachronistic.

In the case of personal names, for China I have largely opted for the Pinyin form, but retained the older romanization where to do otherwise would add little to clarity – for example, Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang. Similarly, I have mostly followed contemporary usage for names from South and Southeast Asia. I am not a Vietnamese or Japanese language specialist, so I have, on the whole, omitted diacritics. An added challenge for the historian is the use of pseudonyms, which was endemic to clandestine struggle. For instance, the man we encounter around 1905 as Nguyen Tat Thanh becomes Seaman Ba, then Nguyen Ai Quoc, Ly Thuy and Sung Mun Cho, with many other aliases in between. He later refashions himself under the name by which he is best known to posterity. Other key examples are Ibrahim / Tan Malaka, and Naren / the Reverend C. A. Martin / M. N. Roy. I generally use the name they were going by at the time. To aid the reader, cross-references are included in the index.

In a complex way, the work of historians mirrors that of colonial policemen as they briefly catch sight of, and often misidentify, quarries before they suddenly plunge back into the shadows. Indeed, I have drawn on the archives of the principal western colonial powers – British, French and Dutch – and those of the Shanghai Municipal Police. Their seductive, distorting nature, however, and their illusory claims to authority have long been acknowledged by historians. Police reports were often composed from the whispers of informers paid by piece rate. This was a world of professional dissimulators. Police interrogations were a choreographed affair designed to establish an implicitly agreed story, especially where prisoners turned police witness. I have tried to embed into the narrative of this book a sense of what was known or unknown, disputed or misunderstood, or, more importantly, what was believed to be true at the time. I have been very much struck by the symbiotic, often intimate, relationship between international policing and the anti-colonial underground; how the one helped bring the other into existence. Global revolutionaries obsessively tried to forge connections to advance their struggles; the police obsessively looked to uncover connections in order to prove the existence of wider conspiracies and plots. Each helped fashion the other and this drove forward events.

It is a paradox that some of the most clandestine lives of the imperial underground were some of the best documented of their time. The case files of Nguyen Tat Thanh in the Archives Nationales d’Outre Mer in Aix-en-Provence, for example, amount to several large boxes, packed with reports on the thinnest paper. They contain copies of private letters, translations of writings and ephemera, snippets of conversations and confessions of his associates and the informing of his enemies that are not extant elsewhere. These can be triangulated with the archives of international communism in Moscow, copies of which I have consulted in collections in western Europe and in published volumes, along with the remarkable amount that people wrote about themselves and others, to fix their place in these events and to draw up the roll call of martyrs. The archives of those individuals with no country have a vitally important home in libraries such as the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam.

In writing this book, I am acutely conscious that I stand on the shoulders of many ground-breaking scholars, biographers in particular, who have traced ‘despised and forgotten’ lives over vast distances, and who did so at a time when it was much harder to do so than it is now. I highlight their work in the endnotes. Unlike many of them, I have benefited from online archives and powerful digital search tools. These technologies open up new possibilities for the history of global networks. But they are governed by the choices that historians make and must be set within an understanding of local contexts, the textures of place and of the visceral reality of human mobility.3 For each connection I have chosen to follow, I know that there are others that might lead in other directions.

At the heart of the book is an attempt to trace the connections within Asia that have shaped its modern age. It steps backwards in time from the two books I wrote with Christopher Bayly that trace the connected arc of war and revolution across South and Southeast Asia after 1941.4 War is a pivotal theme of this book also, but, in order to tell the story of an earlier era of anti-imperial struggle, I have had to range over a wider geographical compass. This book is also about empires, but seen here from their dark underside. I have tried to write this history from within and from below, at the eye level of men and women moving through strange cities and unfamiliar landscapes, and in secret. The story opens with a prelude in the summer of 1924, when some of these long journeys were about to burst into the open, and on a massive scale. It then returns to their starting points around 1905 and follows them forward chronologically and in synchronism to their terminus in 1927. Finally, an epilogue takes a longer view of the outcomes and legacies of underground Asia.


  1. Rudolf Mrázek, Engineers of Happy Land: Technology and Nationalism in a Colony, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 2002, p. xv.
  2. Takashi Shiraishi, An Age in Motion: Popular Radicalism in Java, 1912– 1926, Cornell, NY, Cornell University Press, 1990, is a seminal influence on this study.
  3. E.g. Lara Putnam, ‘The Transnational and the Text-Searchable: Digitized Sources and the Shadows They Cast’, American Historical Review, 121/2 (2016), pp. 377–402.
  4. Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper, Forgotten Armies: The Fall of British Asia, 1941–45, London, Allen Lane, 2004, and Forgotten Wars: The End of Britain’s Asian Empire, London, Allen Lane, 2007

Underground Asia Tim Harper

The story of the hidden struggle waged by secret networks around the world to destroy European imperialism

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