Civilizational exchanges, insularity and national rivalries
WHAT has shaped the self-perceptions of Indians and Chinese? How have they viewed each other in historical past? Some allusions to this can be found in the book ‘The Argumentative Indian’ by Amartya Sen. The Nobel laureate writes “the reach of Buddhism and the presence of Chinese Buddhists in India would have done something to challenge the tendency to see the world in narrowly Indian terms”. When in the fifth century Faxian visited Buddhist monastery at Jetavana in India, the monks were intrigued by the Chinese coming all the way from a border country.
Xuanzang, another Chinese Buddhist pilgrim travelled in India in the seventh century stayed at ancient university at Nalanda. Monks made pleas to Xuanzang to stay on and make India his home saying ‘India is land of Buddha…. China is a country of mlecchas of unimportant barbarians who despise the religion and the faith ….. Buddha was not born there…… The mind of people is narrow and their coarseness profound’’.
Xuanzang, the guest, exercised restraint, but overweening self-righteousness hurt his national pride. His rejoinder was stately: “in my country magistrates are clothed with dignity and laws are everywhere respected. The emperor is virtuous and subject loyal…..humanity and justice are highly esteemed’.
Chinese had imperial impressions of themselves as well. There was “Sinic Core” then non-Chinese Manchus, Mongols, Uighurs, Turks and Tibetans who had to be controlled for security reasons and ‘Outer Zone’ of barbarians who are nonetheless expected to pay tribute and acknowledge Chinese superiority.
Traffic of ideas ad people between Indian and Chinese civilizations was extensive in first millennium, but the ‘balance of trade’ was in favour of China. ‘India was more receptive of two,’ Amartya Sen cites Joseph Needham. Sino-Indian exchange of ideas in secular sciences and mathematics continued into second millennium. The creative arts, literature and languages were enriched. Even the word ‘Mandarin’ is derived from Sanskrit word ‘Mantri’ says Sanskrit scholar Sen.
China, writes Atul Kohli in his recent book Imperialism and Developing World had grown into insular, self satisfied civilization that was wary of foreigners. Colonialism was making strides and slicing open breaches in the bulwarks of old Asian empires. India and China, suffered colonial experience. Trajectory of two, was however distinct. Colonial presence in India was long, deep, extensive and ruinous. It was not less calamitous for China. British imperialism dealt a body blow to national self-belief, cohesion and any pretence of unity. It gave rise to civil war and warlordism sapped much of the civilizational strength. Did the struggles for national liberation bring any broad cooperation between nationalist elites of two countries? Not really. The national liberation struggles have been too riveting and restrictive. Support for each other’s national movement was not entirely absent, it was however spasmodic.
Rabindranath Tagore was first among the big nationalist icons of India to venture to look East and Far East. Shantinikitan, a university he founded in 1901 had staff and students from China and Far East. Tagore was received and welcomed by Chinese intellectual and nationalist Liang Qichao in 1923. Qichao was effusive in his praise: “our old brother [India] affectionate and missing for more than thousand years is coming to call on his little brother [China]”. Tagore was however fiercely opposed by the Chinese radicals, booed, heckled and narrowly escaped an assault. Pankaj Mishra in his well acclaimed book ‘From the Ruins of Empire’ describes the Chinese mood: ‘For ordinary Chinese, there were visible symbols of Indian self–subjections in their own midst; Parsi businessmen as middlemen in British opium trade with China, ….Indian soldiers who helped the British quell the Boxer Rising ….and Sikh policemen unleashed on Chinese crowds’. Nehru had impressed Chiang Kai-Shek, Chinese leader of Kuomintang and his wife. On their visit to India during second world war, ‘the Viceroy of India Lord Linlithgow’, writes Ramachandra Guha ‘commented, cattily that Madam Chiang was a Kittennish weakness for Nehru’s eyelashes’ .
The post-colonial India of 1950 and war of the 1962, are making interesting comparisons to the present crisis. Home Minister Vallabhai Patel cautioned Nehru against dreamy idealism. The invasion on Tibet in 1950 was a rude jolt. ‘Chinese ambitions in this respect not only cover the Himalayan slopes on our side but also include important parts of Assam’, Patel wrote to Nehru. Nehru made a visit to China in 1954. He was greeted with standing ovations in Chinese cities. He wrote to his friend Edwina Mountbatten: ‘I had welcome in China such as I have in the big cities of India ….that is saying something’.
Earlier border clashes and war in 1962 put Nehru on weak wicket. His fulminations against Chinese were not of any help: ‘It [China] believes in the inevitability of war and does not want the tensions in the world to lessen’.
Jan Sang ideologue Deen Dayal Uphadhay criticized Nehru ‘for having more faith in Panchsheel perorations than in preparations and performance’.
Ramachandra Guha narrates an empathetic and literary illustration for Nehru’s failure in Rukun Advani’s novel Beethoven among Cows: ”Nehru a decent man, was betrayed by perfidious communists”.
Advani composed Hindi couplets to reflect the mood of times.
Jaise dood our maliai, Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai
Hosh me ao, Hosh me ao, Chou Mao Hosh me ao
Jaise noodle, vaise pulao, Nehru saath chowmein khao,
Chou Mao hosh me ao, hosh me ao, chowmein khao,
Hath milao gaal milao, Nehru saath haath milao,
Chou Mao hosh me ao, hosh me ao, aur haath milao,
Dono bhai chou Mao, Nehru saath baith jao,
Baith jao aur chowmein khao, Chou Mao hosh me ao.
Hindi chini Bye-bye is the clarion call in 2020 from TV studios.
- The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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