Forging Cultural Bonds

The process of building a strong cultural relationship between nations isn’t limited to the event but goes much further and deeper.
by Sreemati Chakrabarti
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An Asian culture carnival is held during the Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations (CDAC) at the National Stadium, or the Bird's Nest, in Beijing, capital of China, May 15, 2019. by Xu Xun

I’ve visited China 22 times, for post-doctoral research, on university-funded field trips, conferences, and events like the Boao Forum for Asia. The first time I visited the country was in 1992. When I had been a student, visiting China was next to impossible for most foreigners, because China had not yet opened up. Finally, in 1992, I was able to visit the country on a national scholarship for post-doctoral research, by the Indian government’s Ministry of Human Resource Development. At the end of the visit, I produced an article titled “Women and Adult Literacy in China: Preliminary Enquiries,” which was published in The Indian Journal of Gender Studies. Since then, I’ve visited Beijing, Shanghai, Hainan, Guangzhou, Wuhan, Hunan and several other places across the country. Between 1992 and 2003, I saw China undergoing a sea-change during my trips to the country.

It underwent a complete transformation. It was stunning. The flyovers, the malls -- everything was different. Along with the country, the people had also become more open. Earlier they used to be very curious about foreigners. They’d observe you while you weren’t looking, and then quickly turn away when you looked in their direction. That has changed -- there are a lot more foreign residents here now. Back then, very few people knew about India. When I said “Yindu” (meaning “India” in Chinese), they would think I had perhaps said Indonesia instead. Today, there is a lot more awareness about India, especially among students and educated people.

An aspect of China that has remained constant though is the warmth and friendliness of its people. The welcome and open nature I saw during my first visit here -- that has not changed.

India and China share a special relationship, with years and years of shared cultural linkages. The two have always interacted with each other civilizationally. The nation-state mindset has ruined relations between countries. In the long run, we have to think in civilizational terms.

The concept of nation-state is a Western construct, and then later used as a tool by the nations they colonized, to assert their identities against the Western colonialists. But the concept of nation-state is outdated now. It has fulfilled its purpose and nationalism has gone past its shelf-life. Now, countries are realizing that we must broaden our views and horizons further.

That’s why international events like the Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations are important to emphasize the need for doing away with the nation-state mindset, and think internationally and civilizationally. In the long run, the idea of nation-state is detrimental to humankind. Its importance is fading and people need to stop clinging on to it.

In this scenario, cultural exchange is vital. Unless you have these exchanges, how will you get to know and understand each other’s cultures? You’ll keep imagining that your culture is the superior culture, and that you know everything and your texts and values are important and those of the others’ are not. Cultural exchange helps countries learn from each other.

Cultural exchange doesn’t mean that once a year you organize some festivals in the other country, and leave it at that. The process of forging strong cultural bonds goes further and deeper than that.

There should be collaboration between artists of various disciplines -- musicians, dancers, painters, sculptors. These collaborations and exchanges must be organized on a regular basis, with artists from different countries invited to train in the others. They will then take back with them a wealth of knowledge and understanding about the other country’s culture. Maybe from that synthesis of cultures, a new kind of art form may emerge.

Educational and language programs for the youth must be encouraged. Translations of more Indian books into Chinese and of Chinese books into Indian languages need to happen on a much larger scale, instead of remaining limited to the handful of the most well-known works. Only by paying attention to these areas and ensuring that the sharing of our respective cultural heritage flourishes can we truly understand each other.

The author is vice-chairperson at the Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi.