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28-30 JANUARY 2006














Kamal Sheel
















It is really a great honour to be elected to preside over the section on “Countries other than India” in the Indian History Congress session at Visva-Bharti, Santiniketan. I am extremely grateful to members of the Indian History Congress and its executive committee for bestowing their trust and confidence in me. I must however admit that during the course of my career my professional expertise as a historian of China has been gradually subsumed under the task and responsibility of an area studies expert – who is required to dabble in almost everything that concerns China and East Asia, with history being just one part.  I beg to be excused if my presentation today does not come up to the high standards of the galaxy of historians who have graced this seat of honour.   


I must also say that as a China expert I hold Visva Bharti in great esteem. It is truly the founding place of Chinese studies in India. One cannot forget the great contribution that Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore and Professor Tan Yunshan made in promotion of studies of China. Pioneering researches here by scholars from far and near also laid the foundation of Sino-Indian studies which have not only enlightened us about the rich history of Sino-Indian interaction but are also at the forefront of our comprehension of China. Speaking at this venue one cannot disassociate oneself from the saga of Sino-Indian interaction. My presentation therefore focuses on some observations on Chinese discourses on India. 


Moreover, in today’s predominant context of globalization, the study of history and culture of the “other” has gained greater importance. The “other” is no longer exotic, mysterious, or exceptional but is integrated into our modern comity of nations.  When historians study the “other” they explicitly or implicitly make comparisons. In fact, comparisons have been an integral part of history writing.  Lucien  Febvre has stated long back that that there is no history but comparative history.  Marc Bloch has emphasized the need for a comparative analysis of the past for history writing. The integration of global into history however cautions us against doing so in the context of binary dichotomies. A study of the interplay between diverse peoples and cultures requires the heuristic framework of interaction.


Not unlike comparison between east and west, mentions of India and China together most often end in comparative assessments. Both are among the largest nation-states of the world with long histories of rich and glorious civilizations. They have been agrarian countries together constituting almost one third of the world’s population. They are more or less populated by peoples different in race, temperament and even language. Occupying a major share of world economy throughout their long histories, both suffered under foreign domination and rule and staged long social and political struggles for emancipation. Attaining political independence around the same time in the middle of the twentieth century, both confronted challenges of rebuilding their society and economy. They urgently embarked upon these tasks following divergent political systems that respectively emerged out of their own historical characteristics. At the advent of twenty-first century, both are dynamic centers of economic growth. They are being projected to becoming leading economies of the world and lead to the “Asian renaissance” within a short time.  Scholars and commentators have started highlighting possible global consequences of such development.


Besides such parallel similar developments, the geographical location makes India and China neighbours with a historically very long continuing interaction.  It goes back to the early history of humankind beginning with the neolithic times in these two vast areas of Asia. The first mention of India to be found in Chinese records is in connection with the mission to Daxia (Bactria) in about 138 B.C of a talented and courageous Chinese envoy, Zhang Qian. Fourteen years later, after spending ten years as a captive of the Xiongnu, he escaped and returned home. In his report to the Chinese emperor, he referred to the country of Shen-du (India) at the southeast of the Yuezhi country. Since then, there are series of recorded materials depicting the story of movements of peoples and ideas between the two countries. This resulted in myriad forms of fruitful exchanges ranging from religion and philosophy to medicine, science and mathematics. So great was the impact that Hu Shi, the renowned Chinese philosopher, thus remarked: “ India conquered and dominated China culturally for two thousand years without ever having to send a single soldier across her border.”[1]


The long interaction and many parallels in their historical evolution have produced both complementary and competitive discourses. Representing knowledge of the “other” gained at different historical times, these have continued to impact the studies of Sino-Indian interaction. It is in this context that I observe some of Chinese discourses on India which may help comprehend the varying nature of the Sino-Indian relationship.


To be sure, comparative studies of India and China are marked by two kinds of discourses. Some of the earliest and more prominent have been civilizational discourses based on studies of convergence and cultural interaction during the course of their long history. The Buddhist connections, often termed as cultural brotherhood, are too well known. India was the Sukhavati (land of Paradise) for the Chinese Buddhists. It witnessed movement of learned persons both ways. Chinese Buddhist monks like Faxian, Xuan Zhang, Yijing and Indian monks like Kumarjiva, Kassapa, and Matanga are now familiar names in the long list of persons who contributed to spread knowledge in this vast region. Such interaction had profound impact on China. Noting this, Kenneth Chen remarks: “Neo-Confucianism was stimulated in its development by a number of Buddhist ideas. Certain feature of Taoism, such as its canon and pantheon, was taken over from Buddhism. Works and phrases in the Chinese language owe their origin to terms introduced by Buddhism…while in astronomical, calendarical, and medical studies the Chinese benefited from information introduced by Indian Buddhist monks.  Finally, and most important of all, the religious life of the Chinese was affected profoundly by the doctrines and practices, pantheon and ceremonies brought in by the Indian religion.”[2] The long and deep civilzational affinities between India and China and its continuities were subjects of large perceptive studies by scholars from Cheena Bhavan at Visva-Bharti and are being admirably pursued by scholars like Professor Tan Chung and the others. Recently Amratya Sen, in his chapter on India and China in The Argumentative Indian, has noted that “many of the concerns and interests, that linked China and India in the first millennium (varying from mathematics and science to literature, arts and public communication) with interactions across the borders have continued to exert their influence in the thousand years that have passed since the first millennium.”[3] Particularly fascinating has been his observation on cross-border exchanges in the area of public health.  The abiding contribution of these civilizational discourses in shaping the Sino-Indian interaction cannot be denied.


Yet, there are also another kind of discourses that emanate from the framework of nation-state and are based on comparative studies of their respective polity and economy.  These have mostly emerged in the course of shift in modern times from civilizations to nation-states. With both India and China attaining their political freedom around the same time, maintaining their respective political systems in more or less stable manner, and now gradually emerging as Asian giants, the comparative assessment of their respective polity, society and economy has increasingly engaged scholars and commentators alike.  Some of the discourses in this area have been marked by their conscious application of sophisticated and formalized tools of analysis as well as careful historical reading of the past. There are however many others which have been marked by their projection of prejudices  - whether arising out of cold war mentalities, civilizational binaries, threat perception, inadequate or selective historical readings or chauvinistic pitting of one against the other as competitors and rivals.[4]


These latter discourses on India, originating in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, have been shaped by efforts to preserve China’s self image and couched in their own perception of political India.[5] Until the recent take off of the Indian economy, these often resulted in dismal or negative presentations of India as a failure as opposed to a successful China. For many Chinese in present times, India figured mostly as a country with uncontrolled population growth and abysmal living conditions of its poor especially among the lower castes.[6] It is in loggerheads with China over the border issues and has been defeated in 1962 war.  Democracy in India has led to its poverty and religious intolerance has made it a soft and unstable state ultimately slowing its overall developmental process. Standard Chinese elementary school geography textbooks compare Indian and Chinese achievements in population, literacy, GDP per capita, export, and industrial output and demonstrate superior Chinese performance in all the areas thanks to the correct application of economic reform policies under the Communist state.


There has been conscious downplay of any notion of linkages between democracy and development. If the end result of democracy in India has so far been persistent poverty, endless caste and ethnic conflicts, myriad roadblocks to economic reform policies, and ever-growing political chaos, the Chinese authoritarian model demonstrates successful economic growth bringing about overall prosperity and stability.  A suggestion on likely Indian challenge to China as a successful democracy for last 50 years, Harvard professor Tu Weiming notes, angered scholars in China and especially in Hong Kong. They asserted, “Well, if that’s democracy, we don’t want it. We want a soft authoritarianism that will be able to mobilize our resources for development.”[7] A Chinese commentator angrily debunked the notion that Indian Buddhism “conquered” China and concluded that Indian “demeanor and mentality are very similar to those of the Manchu’s during late Qing Dynasty and therefore self-defeating in nature.  Let's hope that the Indians come back to reality on earth and raise the average income of their 'untouchables' to more than a dollar a day within the foreseeable future, and then perhaps we can talk some more about competition between China and India.”[8] Another Chinese commentator wrote “Fifty and 25 years ago there was the common topic of discussion about India surpassing China, and so this is not a new topic, Western scholars believed that India would overtake China, because, they asserted, India is a market economy, while China is not. However, 25 years have already elapsed, China has been developing not along this track and has gained world-attracting achievements.”[9]


The portrayal of India as the failed ‘other’ may be a necessity for the Chinese Communist Party and the state to demonstrate its winning model and legitimize its rule. The state in contemporary China is therefore detrimental to any assertion of autonomous forces or emergence of pluralism as corollary to expansion of capitalist economy and growing integration of market with global economy. Such developments are likely to threaten its survival. It therefore needs to pursue a policy of authoritarianism through its repressive bureaucratic organs to prevent growth of dissent. Freedom and democracy in all probability would remain elusive as long as the state and its bourgeoisie in China successfully pursue the policy of vigorous promotion of productive forces and as long as they prevent threats to living standards and rapid degradation of countless people who depend upon it.


But the past also matters. In Chinese discourses, the notion of India as “the failed other”, to a large extent, emanated from such characterization of India during the construct of nationalism in late imperial China. It was linked to the contemporary Chinese discourses of culture, race and modernity. A series of defeats beginning with the Opium Wars until the Sino Japanese War of 1894-5 marked the failure of Chinese attempt at self strengthening and modernization, and the total fiasco of the Hundred Reform of 1898 and the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 eliminated any opportunity for the resurrection of their old order.  This threatened China’s political sovereignty, cultural coherence and historical integrity. Worst of all, the present day problem of history and society escaped Confucian solution. It led to the Chinese intellectuals’ realization of the growing marginality of their middle kingdom and recognition of a superior West. The advent of the West forced them, as Joseph Levenson argues, to relativize Confucian values in their attempt to deal with the confrontation between the universal claims of those values and the requirements of modern nationalism for which the survival of China as a modern entity was paramount.[10] In their search for saving China and more specifically Chinese race from a position of inferiority vis-à-vis the West, as Dikotter demonstrates, the early twentieth century witnessed rise of even stronger racial thinking competing with and, in some instances, displacing Confucian conceptions of Chinese cultural universalism.[11]


Further, Chinese intellectual debates of the late 19th and early 20th centuries linked rising threat of western imperialism to lack of modernization and formation of nation. The destabilization of China’s position as “the middle kingdom”, as Rebecca Karl’s illuminating study demonstrates, led to the discovery of a global structure and of shared global space.  In order to situate China in this space they attempted to divide individual countries or cultures into “developed” or “under developed” according to the development stage of formation of nation. “This served to both constrain and open out solutions to China’s problems…and came to be articulated in the language of nationalism and modernity.”[12] The disaffected Chinese intellectuals and young students thus sought to redefine and recreate a Chinese nation out of the ruins of empire.


Yet, by its very nature, this project was highly contested because it was based on received images of the other. India figured in these discourses in the context of often new and evolving parameters that Chinese intellectuals had been invoking in search for their own place in the global world. Prasenjit Duara’s outstanding comparative studies of Chinese and Indian nationalism have aptly pointed out multiplicity of historical representations of political community that highly mediated modern nations are required to negotiate.[13] Colonial India and its people were constantly subjected to investigation using these parameters. This overwhelmed such cultural/ civilizational  discourse as the following one which was being championed by Zhang Binglin [Zhang Taiyuan] and the others. The subsequent overlapping of cultural and political as well as adumbration received in different historical times created multiple and contesting discourses on India.


The cultural/ civilizational discourse, as mentioned above, focused on the Buddhist connection between India and China and lauded deeper civilizational unity and fruitful exchanges that had led to many glorious achievements in their region. It centered not on colonial but cultural India. This view favorably considered India’s cultural heritage – primarily Buddhism- and placed it both within a general cultural understanding of nation and a more specific cultural understanding of “Asia”. As such, some of the late Qing intellectuals drew inspiration from Buddhism and sought solution for their contemporary problems in Buddhism. The most prominent among them was Zhang Binglin, a Chinese revolutionary based in Japan. Zhang and Liu Shipei - an anarchist, in their debates over the superiority of Eastern vs. Western culture exhumed the Buddhist cultural connection positively and projected a vastly more propitious view of India.[14]


Zhang’s discovery of India, as Rebecca Karl perceptively notes, was transpired by his efforts “to recover the Chinese past from the depredations of Manchu rule and from the hegemony of narrow Confucian interpretation, all in the name of reviving a Chinese national essence [guocui] that was to provide the basis for the Chinese people’s and the Chinese nation’s emergence in the present”.[15]  His interest was not in political India under the British rule but in cultural India of which Buddhism was an integral part. Zhang believed that Chinese had to rescue their past from the hands of Manchus whose appropriation of Confucius and the Confucian tradition in the Ming/Qing transfer had been a contrived tactical move to impose Manchu rule in China. Chinese racial/national essence could be discovered by decentering Confucianism. Hence Buddhism. Zhang’s encounters and interactions with Indian nationalists in Japan helped inspire his projects on Chinese history - these led him to link his hopes for China’s revolution to India’s liberation. Zhang as such was then India’s biggest champion.[16]


Yet, impacted by the opium trade and wars and the subsequent British encroachment in China through colonial India, the Chinese intellectuals had already begun an alternative discourse superimposing on and replacing those structured on cultural to political or territorial India. It was from India that the British had launched their economic and military offensive to China. To counter new threats coming from the “west”(i.e., India as traditionally known), it became imperative to comprehend the source of this menace. The late Qing Chinese scholar-officials then paid special attention to India. Their focus centered on the British ability to exploit resources from India to wage war against China and reasons for Indians’ acceptance of foreign rule. Concerned with the Indian production and trade of opium, causing greater outflow of silver from China and imbalancing the trade in favour of the west, they searched for reasons for the Indian peasants’ production of opium at the cost of other agricultural items. The task was to find ways and means to contain the expanding inflow of opium into China. Not less worrisome was the perceived threat from the British in opening an overland route through Burma (Myanmar) Yunnan corridor to reach Sichuan and Chinese hinterland. This route existed since ages and was part of the ancient southern silk route. The threat was real, as the British had already sent expedition to that area to explore opening of the route and to possibly lay a railway line connecting upper Burma and Yunnan.


That these concerns must have weighed heavily in the minds of Chinese scholar-officials is evident in the production of knowledge on contemporary India beginning with the middle of the nineteenth century. These must have foreshadowed Wei Yuan’s mind too when he wrote his Haiguo Duzhi to map the world on the basis of modern geographical works and to trace out the western expansion in Chinese tributary maritime zone.[17] In this first important modern work on geography and geopolitics in China, Wei pays much attention to Southeast Asia and India. Together they occupy the lengthiest section of his treatise with the discussion of India filling up seven chapters. His geo-political vision rests on saving the Canton trade from the British monopoly by enervating the latter’s position in India. He therefore envisions alliance with the French and Americans on the one hand and Russians on the other to contain the British who were considered the most threatening western power on Chinese horizon. However, his comprehension of modern territorial and political India, which is referred to in his treatise as “five Indies” – a term frequently used by earlier Chinese travelers, was flawed and his vision unworkable due to inadequate grasp of changing international relations.


Alert to the development at its western frontier, the Qing court also dispatched official fact-finding missions to India.[18] The Governor of Sichuan, Ding Yuzhen, commissioned first such mission in 1878 with the approval of the Zongli Yamen. Its leader was Huang Mocai, who was government official of Xiucai rank with wide training in foreign languages, translation, international relations, and geography with focus on cartography. It was probably the first official and recorded mission from China to India after Zheng He’s naval expeditions between 1405-1433 during the Ming dynasty. Its purpose was to prepare authentic maps of borders and frontiers. Huang arrived in Calcutta via Assam in March 1879 with a six persons’ team, visited many cities of north and south, and returned after six months by the sea route in September 1879.


 This was followed by another mission in 1881. Sent by Li Hongzhang, then Governor General at Tianjin and one of the most influential Qing officials, it was led by Ma Jianzhong who was an expert in foreign affairs and a trusted high ranking official under the former. Its aim was to find out about the opium revenue system and to discuss with the British officials ways and means for gradual termination of opium export to China. Accompanied by his attaché Wu Kuangpei, Ma arrived in Calcutta in August 1881, watched the management of opium monopoly, and met concerned officials there. They then traveled up to Simla through Allahabad, Delhi, Agra and Ambala to meet Governor General Lord Ripon. Reaching Bombay via Rajasthan, they also visited Poona to have discussions with Governor Sir James Fergusson there. Both of them finally boarded a ship in Bombay for Shanghai on September 24, 1881.  


In addition to these official missions, some of the Chinese intellectuals traveled to India and other parts of the world in search of new ideas and ideologies.  One of the most important among them was Kang Yuwei, the leader of the Hundred Day Reform Movement, who came to India in December 1901 and remained there for more than six months.


These official missions and independent travelers during the late 19th and early 20th centuries produced narratives, which became the source for construction of modern Chinese discourses on India. Huang Mocai’s  Yinduliji, Yulichuyan and Xijieshuidao, Ma Jianzhong’s Nanxingji, Wu Kuangpei’s Nanxingriji, and Kang Yuwei’s Yinduyouji are some of the important narratives that present a picture of the current status of India to the Chinese. Not unlike travel writings, these do not attempt to produce histories of India but present impressionistic selective discussions of India for the Chinese readers. These were thus like virtual histories invoked to fit their own concerns and anxieties into their discourses of nationalism and modernity.


These narratives are replete with descriptions that portray India as inert, immobile, and dead and thus incapable of rising to its past glory or to a modern nation-state. Becoming an easy prey of the British, India had turned into its willing partner. It lacked a national spirit. The British could conquer India because, as Wu Kuangpei writes, their professional soldiers first built strong fortresses along the sea coasts and “gradually nibbled” the whole territory.  France and Holland “also desired to do like Britain but were unable to have their ambition filled.”  India was ruined because its people were “insensitive with no pretensions to mechanical skills, and living in barren open country in small villages were totally cut off from the world”. Hence, “one morning, the other race arrived through the sea route, …frightened Buddhism to make it extinct, and adjudicated local people as serfs. The weak are prey of the strong and that certainly was the cause of [the ruin of India]. Without encountering united vigorous resistance from India, …[this race] acted in such regrettable manner. It is said that the country is since sinking into mourning… [Yet] still living more or less undisturbed and peaceful as if nothing has happened is not only not mourning but also disgraceful.” His advise to the Chinese was that we must learn from the fate of India and would not let foreigners take similar advantages in China. We have heroes and we should not indulge in lofty talks about love and justice but investigate the matter closely.[19]


In Calcutta, Ma and Wu were surprised to find the exiled king of Avadh living an idle and comfortable life in an imposing and splendid gold and green stone palace receiving official salary and raising his ancestral race. Running away from a big and prosperous country of several thousands of miles and his own numerous people, dependent upon the others, acting slavishly, and living shamefacedly like dung, they commented, how could he be peaceful and happy?  On the other hand, while passing through Allahabad, they saw some Indians “dressed in long white robes, wearing black leather jackets, and carrying a dagger” and possibly coming from “small northern states still not capitulated to the British” who received their admiration. “Strange!”, Wu wrote, “a country is put into so much of trouble and does not dare to stand. Only are there people of some villages who made an effort to not to bow down. They can really be called giants among dwarfs... They are however called stupid by the British and outlaws by the Indians.”[20] Another matter of surprise, noted by almost all Chinese commentators, was the British ability to recruit soldiers from India for their large army so much so that the number of Indian soldiers exceeded several times than that of the British natives. To them, it was the sign of total capitulation of the Indian race.


While some of the Chinese views are too critical and to some extent xenophobic, there is no doubt that contemporary India did not inspire any confidence among them. Pluralistic and diverse character of India was found to be negative factors in building up of a nation-state. The Indian presence and participation in large numbers as part of the British colonial empire in China and elsewhere further reinforced this. They were presented as collaborators – a status demonstrating no national spirit or consciousness and hence unsuitable to provide a model for emulation by Chinese.[21] They argued that Indians lacked character, ethnic identity (same race consciousness), and any historical sense of nationalism. They had allowed themselves and their country to be “enslaved” by a small group of the capitalists without much resistance. Kang Yuwei, in a speech to open “the Society for Self-Strengthening” in 1895, said, “Formerly India was a celebrated nation in Asia, but she preserved her traditions without changing them, so the British subjugated her. If we do not change our institutions, how can our fate be any different?” Chen Duxiu noted in 1904 that in destroyed countries people only thought about their own families and lacked a collective sense of nation, a parochialism that rendered them unable to effectively combat the process of their own destruction. Therefore, the necessary project was the fostering of a sense of ‘nation’.


On the other hand, reacting to some of the Chinese intellectuals’ invocation of the civilizational discourse and admiration for Buddhism as the guiding spirit of India, Xu Jiyu remarked, “If Buddhism failed to protect India how can it be used in China? How strange it is that of all the world this insidious thing, opium, grows only in the state  [which was the source] of Buddhism.” To be sure, Xu had little use for Buddhism. That this religion has done so little for India was another reason for opposing it in China. “[Buddhist] intelligence shone in the morning, but the pure land has become dirty. Other peoples cannot help but think twice about the power of Buddha.” [22]


Such descriptions formed the bulk of later Chinese discourses on India invoked in their own search of nationalism, culture and modernity. The highly supercilious nature of these discourses closed any possibility of India providing any solution to contemporary problems of China. Chinese intellectuals of the time feared China getting into same trap as India’s if it did not act suitably.  For them, as Rebecca Karl notes, India along with Poland, Egypt, Turkey and such peoples as the Jews were at the outer parameters of a modern geography of defeat and have been plagued by internal disunity, conservatism, foreign meddling, and other ills that were at issue in China as well. These nations constituted a “fellowship of humiliation” and ranked first among  “lost countries” [wangguo], a locution derived from traditional Chinese dynastic change and rendered into a metaphor of historical finality.[23] As “wangguo”, both India and Poland became anathema for what could happen to China if Chinese did not move ahead to reconstruct their nation.


Reasons for such negative image of present India are not hard to find in China itself. The evil opium was seen coming from Indian plantations. When Emperor Daoguang was suggested to treat Indian traders differently from British traders, he said: “India is where the opium comes from. Whom do you think that you are deceiving?”[24] Indian regiments had participated in the first Opium War of the mid 19th century.  The presence of Sikhs as British policemen in the British Treaty ports furthered these negative impressions. In pictorial representations of India and Indian customs in influential magazine Shenbao were “replete with contempt, picturing Indians as barbarian without a capacity to culture, as people who are yexin nanxun (wild-natured, hard to educate)”. Reinforcing such views were reports from students abroad, whose musings were often published in a special section of many journals. As one writer in the Hubei Xueshengji remarked (1903), Indians in the United States identify themselves as being of the English empire, just as Chinese say they are from the Qing Empire. Both, he concludes, are victims of  “slavish” mentality.   Such multiple images of India, ranging from India as wellspring of Buddhism to one as “lost” and “enslaved” country, were thus produced out of heterogeneous streams of nationalism and its various commentators flowing into and through China at different historical times.


Moreover, these images were also result of characteristic features of Chinese worldview. While comparing encounters of the Chinese and Indians with the British, Professor Wang Gungwu - a well-known and seasoned Chinese historian, was “struck” by the following lines from the 19th century Indian poet Mirza Ghalib to Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan that advised the latter to not to look so much to the Mughal past but “open thine eyes… and examine Englishmen, their style, their manner, their trade and their art…”[25] Wang comments that “this would not have been the advice that the Chinese mandarins of the time would have heeded and there were important cultural reasons why that was so. It is also a measure of the different starting points in Indian … and Chinese world views.” [26] To be sure, in spite of being appointed by the royal order to write the official history of the Mughal dynasty, Ghalib’s relationship with the royal court was very tenuous and he could not be truly equated with a Chinese mandarin engaged as a bureaucrat composer of literary verses and as chronicler of history. Not unlike many other Indians of the time, he had complex and ambivalent attitudes towards the British. Western scientific rationalism and pragmatism appealed to him and many other Indians of the time as much as their cruel ways and brutal suppression repelled. For example, Thakur Gadadhar Singh, an Indian soldier in the British troop to China in the Boxer War of 1900, writing a very China sympathetic personal memoir of the war could not help but place China’s contemporary woes to its failure to adopt western ways and means. “China may gain comfort and peace by being under the British in the same way as India… Together India and China will form the biggest Asian state.”[27]  Wang’s above analogy may not be very appropriate but he is correct in pointing out respectively different prisms through which Indians and Chinese viewed their encounters with British. It is in this context that the Indian responses to the western political and cultural onslaught contrasted with the Chinese vision and led to its projection of India as a “lost country”.


Why has there been emphasis that any advise to follow western cultural values could not be heeded by a Chinese mandarin as opposed to an Indian “mandarin”?  Roots of this may be found in the structure of state and the state-society relationship that historically characterized China.  The Qing, not unlike earlier dynasties in China, was state-centric.[28] In China, since the third century B.C., scholar-officials or mandarin were professionally responsible for holding the universal political empire and society together in the mould of a unified political ideology. The centralized rule of bureaucracy was further reinforced during the Song by the neo-Confucian political thought. It abhorred any territorial or regional decentralization and separation. This may have been aided, to a large extent and especially from the Song onwards, by one of the characteristic development of the peasant society which, as Miyajima has perceptively argued, is marked by separation of political leadership from the landholding[29]. It promoted state-centric forces bringing about a unity between state and society over a uniform political ideology which ultimately shaped the Chinese worldview[30].


Historically different trajectories of political evolution of India and China and the nature of persons who fashioned the state thus defined the nature of relationship between state and society and moulded their respective worldviews. Thus, as opposed to the mandarin in China, it was usually the Brahmin, the holy man or priest, or the highest person in the hierarchical caste order who took a grip on society and “who sometimes deigned to engage in politics – politics in which neither he nor his caste society had much at stake.”[31] Unlike mandarins who were responsible to uphold the uniform political ideology, there were no such compulsions for Brahmins or caste leaders, as each caste generated its own rules and maintained social discipline and order without the state. The state and society in India were not bound by a uniform political ideology. A well-defined concept of territorial India and a centralized state remained absent throughout most periods of its history.  The fact that the British, like any other Indian ruler, could raise a local army to conquer India which no European/outside power could do to China naturally became frequent matter of discussion in Chinese discourse. 


Most recently, the rise of India as a stable nation-state with a fast developing economy has been producing such Chinese discourse that looks very positively to India. This is replacing those earlier discourses, which viewed India as the failed other because of its democratic set up or the colonial historical background. In fact, the same historical, cultural, and institutional roots, which were invoked to project it as a “lost country”, are now being gradually rediscovered as its significant strength providing necessary resilience and spirit to successfully forge ahead in this globalizing world. The earlier maligned colonial legacy marked by the entry of the colonizers through the construction of coastal fortress and trading cities and raising a force of willing native collaborators through the introduction of English and other cultural symbols are being shown to have provided enormous advantage. There is less projection of socialist China and democratic India in binaries and more investigation of specific political and economic policies. Noting this, Jinxin Huang writes, “Indian democracy is now seen as a valuable alternative in governance, a positive factor which provides a basis for unifying a multi-ethnic, multi-religion, and multi-lingual society. In contrast, the Chinese are experiencing growing regional alienation and violence that could threaten national unity…. Chinese authors cite the Buddhist tradition as a vital source of philanthropy in India and lament moral decay in China. This is an extraordinary rejection of the conventional wisdom that Confucianism is practical and Buddhism is this-worldly.”[32]    


Concluding this, we must recognize that Sino-Indian interactions were mediated by respective historical experiences of the two countries and produced multiple discourses about each other in different historical times. The study of Sino-Indian interaction should therefore entail the search for historical themes and conceptions that are meaningful across national boundaries leading to comparative analyses. One must desist from invoking such political narratives, which impose one’s own political, cultural, or economic superiority over the other. Such histories of nations which are based on celebrating a political past and deriding national rivals often results in projection of every human achievement and development in any field to their own country and a sense of bafflement if the recipient country does not respond in “acceptable” rituals and codes.   Any comparative study implies identifying those relevant concepts and those defining categories which pre-suppose comparability across national frontiers. That facilitates our comprehension of the way each civilisation evolves its own particular responses to varying situations and problems. It is in this context that the scholarship in the area of Sino-Indian interaction promise fresh perspectives and exciting possibilities.





[1]  Hu Shih, “The Indianization of China: A Case Study in Cultural Borrowing”, in Independence, Convergence, and Borrowing in Institution, Thought, and Art, (Harvard Tercentenary Conference of Arts and Sciences), Cambridge: Harvard College, 1937. An overview of Sino-Indian relations is available in P.C.Bagchi, India and China: A Thousand Years of Cultural Relations, Calcutta, Saraswat Pub., 1981. For the nature of later Sino-Indian interaction, see also Tansen Sen,  Buddhism, Diplomacy, and Trade: The Realignment of Sino-Indian Relations, 600-1400, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2003.

[2] Kenneth Ch’en, Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973,  p. 3

[3] Amartya Sen, The Argumentative Indian, (Penguin Books, London.2005) p.185. For a detailed discussion of civilzational discourse, see Tan Chung and Geng Yingzeng, India and China: Twenty Centuries of Civilizational Interaction and Vibration, Delhi: Centre for Studies in Civilizations, 2004.

[4] There has been mushrooming of works showing competing rivalries, e.g., “Can India overtake China?” “Is China a success while India a failure?”, “India’s China Challenge” (Business Standard Jan.18,2005), Is India China’s Imaginative Rival? (People’s Daily Feb 23, 2004), "India V China: A Tiger, Falling Behind a Dragon." (Economist 2003), “Will China be replaced by India” (People’s Daily March 14, 2004) Waheguru Pal Singh Sidhu and Jing-Dong Yuan, China and India: Cooperation or Conflict?, (Lynne Rienner, 2003), etc.

[5] The Indian discourses on China are, on the other hand, based on issues arising out of its own geopolitical concerns arising out of the fear of Border War of 1962,  China’s faster economic growth and consequent domination of global market, and presumed weaknesses of its own unregimented political system within a democratic structure as opposed to the centralized authoritarianism of the Communist state. 

[6] For various views in the contemporary Chinese discourse, see Jinxin Huang, “A New Chinese Discourse of India”, Journal of Contemporary China, (November 2005), 14 (45): 631-41

[7] Tu Weiming in “Whither China: Strategic Competitor, Global Trader, or Anti-terrorist Partner”, Bulletin of American academy of Arts and Science, (Spring 2002): 85

[8] W. Chao, “The India-China conflict Viewed through a Chinese Kaleidoscope” in China Daily (March 1, 2004). Available online.

[9]“Will China be replaced by India?” in Peoples Daily (March 14, 2004) Available online.

[10] See for detailed discussion, Joseph Levenson, Confucian China and its Modern Fate, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965

[11] See Frank Dikotter, The Discourse of Race in modern China, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992

[12] Rebecca E. Carl, “Secret Sharers: Chinese Nationalism and the Non-Western World at the Turn of the Twentieth Century”, Ph.D. dissertation, Duke University 1995: 3. This has subsequently been published under the title, Staging the World: Chinese Nationalism at the turn of the Twentieth Century, Durham: Duke University Press, 2002. The following discussion is significantly based on her perceptive insights.

[13] See Prasenjit Duara, “On Theories of Nationalism for India and China”, in Tan Chung, ed., In the Footsteps of Xuan Zhang : Tan Yun Shan and India , Delhi 2001. See also his Rescuing History from Nation, Chicago, 1996.

[14] See Rebecca E. Karl, op.cit. For a comprehensive discussion of Zhang Binglin’s  Indian connections, see also Shimada Kenji, Pioneer of the Chinese Revolution: Zhang Binglin and Confucianism, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990; for wider meaning of Zhang’s discourse, see Viren Murthy, “Reviving Radical Pan-Asianism: The Contemporary Relevance of Early Twentieth Century Conceptions of Asia”, (unpub. ms.) Chicago, n.d.

[15] Rebecca E. Carl, ibid, 97

[16] ibid, 98

[17] This is based on Jane Kate Leonord, Wei Yuan and China’s Rediscovery of the Maritime World, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984

[18] For detailed description see Lin Chengjie, Zhongyin renmin youhao guanxi shi: 1851-1949, Beijing: Beijing daxue chuban she, 1993

[19] This has been culled from ibid, 36-41

[20] ibid

[21] For this and ensuing discussion and quotations, see  Rebecca E. Karl, ibid, 93-96

[22] Fred W. Drake, China Charts the World, Hsu Chi-yu and His Geography of 1848, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975, pp. 102-3

[23] ibid

[24] ibid , also see K.P. Gupta, “The Making of China’s Image of India”, China Report (March-April 1979), 15 (2):39-50

[25] Wang Gungwu, Anglo-Chinese Encounters Since 1800: War, Trade,Scienec and Governance,  Cambridge University Press, 2003, 6

[26] ibid

[27] Thakur Gadadhar Singh, China mein terah maas [Thirteen Months in China], Varanasi/Lucknow, 1904. See p. 17 for the quote

[28]In a different context,  James Hevia , Cherishing Men from Afar: Qing Guest Ritual and the Macartney Embassy of 1793 , Durham : Duke University Press, 1995, demonstrates active role of the state in China. Refuting the conventional understanding of the Sino-British encounter in the late eighteenth century in terms of conflict between an aggressive West and an isolated and stagnant China, he argues that both the British and Chinese states were equally culturally arrogant and obsessed with power and prestige. 

[29] Hiroshi Miyajima, “The Emergence of Peasant Society in East Asia”, International Journal of Asian Studies, (2005) 2 (1): 1-23.

[30] Cyril Philips, “Tradition and Experiment in Asia”, published as four talks in The Listener (1954: February 25, and  March 4, 11, 25). Providing very perceptive insights for the comparative studies of India and China, he argues that the political change brought about by the Communist Revolution in China has many parallels in its long history that witnessed rebellions and war preceding political change.  It was however India that negotiated a difficult path unparallel to her historical past. The Independence Movement in India was thus more phenomenal. 

[31]  Ibid, p.377

[32] Jinxin Huang, ibid, p.641. See also Edward Friedman, “Is China a Success while India is a Failure?”, World Affairs (Fall 2004) for an insightful analysis.