International relations and interactions among countries today are primarily focused on geopolitical considerations. This began with the emergence of nation-states in Europe which were characterized by fixed borders, thus dividing humankind. The emergence and creation of nation-states in the non-Western world was an affront to culture and civilization, worsened by colonialism. By internalizing the nation-state system and the mindset that comes with it, the world has done more harm than good for itself.
Being neighbors, India and China, which are considered the two Asian superpowers today, also share rich cultural links dating back centuries. Even in the face of modern-day political hurdles, this aspect of the two nations’ relationship has continued to strengthen, fostering great people-to-people contact and cooperation.
Indian poet and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, a great admirer of Chinese culture and civilization, has been credited for a commendable effort to revive cultural links between India and China—links that had tightly bound the two civilizations in the past. After his first visit to China in 1924, Tagore decided to found an institution to play a role in enhancing and promoting cultural exchange between the peoples of India and China. Later in 1928 in Malaysia (then called Malaya), the poet met Tan Yunshan, an outstanding Buddhist scholar. At Tagore’s invitation, Tan Yunshan came to India and stayed on the campus of Vishwabharati, Tagore’s international university located in Shantiniketan, West Bengal. The subsequent scholarly discussions between him and Tan Yunshan on the historical, cultural and civilizational aspects of India and China led to a concrete plan to build an institution. In 1937, with monetary support from the Chinese government, a center for Chinese language and cultural studies was established. Named ‘Cheena Bhavan,’ it eventually became a university department where teaching and research on Chinese language, literature and culture was conducted.
Said Tagore in his speech at the opening ceremony of Cheena Bhawan: “This is indeed a great day for me, a day long awaited, in which I can revive on behalf of our people and the people of China, discourse with a foundation laid 1,800 years ago by our ancestors with infinite patience and sacrifice.” An intense believer in the power of culture to influence relationships between peoples of different lands, Tagore declared in the same speech, “Cooperation and love, mutual trust and mutual aid make for strength and real merit of a civilization. We were for over a century so successfully hypnotized by the prosperous West behind its chariot that, though choked by the dust, deafened by the noise, humbled by our helplessness, overwhelmed by speed, we still agreed to acknowledge that this chariot-drive was progress, and that progress was civilization.” Tagore advocated intense cultural interaction between India and China and strongly opposed those who blindly worshiped Western cultural traits and values. It is important for us to give due consideration to his views.
In the pre-modern borderless era, travelers, mostly monks, freely made trips to each other’s lands. They gained knowledge about the various aspects of the lives of people who lived in distant lands. In his 2018 book India, China and the World: A Connected History, Tansen Sen showed that in the first century CE, Buddhist ideas and images from India first reached Han China through merchants and traders. The cultural impact was so strong that drawings were engraved on the boulders of Mount Kongwang in northern Jiangsu province. The popularity of Buddhism in China, which peaked in the Tang dynasty, inspired major cultural interactions between Indians and Chinese. This exchange continued with varying intensity throughout the medieval period too. However, with the dawn of colonialism, we have witnessed a dominance of geopolitics at the cost of cultural bonding. But this does not undermine the fact that a robust cultural relationship has existed between the peoples of India and China.
India’s independence in 1947 and China’s Liberation in 1949 created a new opportunity for the two new nations to restore and rejuvenate goodwill through people-to-people relations. The first decade, ending with 1959, witnessed a reasonable volume of interactions between the two countries, considering that both were weak and with limited resources. Unfortunately, political flashpoints such as the 1962 border war greatly obstructed and curtailed the growth and development of a healthy relationship. The once smooth trajectory of overall Sino-Indian relations was affected.
After this rough patch, restoring trust between the two peoples became a crucial issue. Relations began to show progress after Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China in 1988. And with the liberalization of the Indian economy and rapid growth of the Chinese economy in the early 1990s, economic relations expanded quickly as trade and investment grew rapidly, the trust deficit notwithstanding. This economic exchange has continued to steadily grow and deepen over the years. However, broad consensus holds that fostering people-to-people relations through cultural contacts remains imperative. Better relations will help the two countries as well as the rest of Asia and the world. A robust cultural relationship will most certainly reduce the trust deficit significantly. The India-China example can then have the potential to serve as a model for other states. On the Asian continent with its many flashpoints, ties between peoples can make a big difference. This may sound unrealistic and impractical but an attempt—a serious attempt—towards this end would not harm anyone.
One cannot exaggerate the ever-growing popularity of the Chinese language in India. Of course, this development has a lot to do with China becoming an economic powerhouse which led to wider trade, investment and other commercial contacts between India and China and new job opportunities for many. Many universities in the public sector and some in the private sector have introduced Chinese language courses, which have attracted many students. Primarily intended for training people to work for Chinese companies and Indian companies doing business with China, the positive side effect of these language courses has been that they also introduce Chinese culture—its literature, drama, art, cinema and everything else. Although the number of people learning Indian languages is not as high in China, many Chinese, particularly the young ones, seem to be greatly attracted to Indian culture. Yoga is gradually gaining popularity. In Kunming, Yunnan Minzu University has a department exclusively devoted to the learning and teaching of Yoga. Most remarkable, however, is the popularity of Bollywood films and music. Last April, while I was a visiting faculty at Central China Normal University, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that many students watch Indian movies fairly regularly and love to talk about them. In India many filmmakers have a high opinion of Chinese films of this century as well as contemporary Chinese directors.
Enhancing cultural relations between nations, particularly ancient civilizations, will have a positive impact on people, but needs to be conducted on a wide scale. A positive and meaningful step in this direction was taken by the two governments of India and China when they agreed to publish an Encyclopedia of India-China Cultural Contacts. The idea of releasing this volume was introduced in December 2010 in a joint Communique issued by the Indian and Chinese governments at the end of Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to India. Later, the Institute of Chinese Studies was identified by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs as the resource center for this project. According the Institute’s website: “The objective was to bring the history of many centuries of India-China cultural contacts into the public domain, making it easily accessible to people of both countries. The goal is to reinforce connected histories and pinpoint encounters and links that have facilitated mutual enrichment and growth of both cultures and societies. As an initiative between two governments, it was expected to provide a much-needed boost to the effort to build popular consciousness and confidence in the shared cultural experience of India and China.” Over three years, a group of scholars from both countries worked tirelessly to produce the massive work comprising extremely useful information not just about events and places but also about individuals who made efforts to bring India and China closer to one another from early times down to the present. In 2014, the encyclopedia was released and remains a very useful source material for scholars from all over the world.
The Ministries of Culture of both the countries need to launch measures to promote greater cultural understanding and appreciation of one another. For starters, translation projects need to be undertaken with seriousness and sincerity. All historians in India know that in pre-modern times, many Chinese scholars who visited India wrote detailed accounts of their experiences after returning home. Such writings exist in great volume, but no major effort has taken place to translate them into English, Hindi or any other Indian language. From the Indian perspective, these accounts will shine considerable light on the lives and ideas of Indians in ancient times. Such translation projects can lead to or expand into bigger projects undertaken by UNESCO or similar organizations and include inter-cultural studies of the whole of Asia as well as the entire world. In other words, an India-China connected history project can merge into a global academic endeavor which in turn can benefit all of humanity in the form of knowledge. This will lead to mutual understanding and appreciation and ultimately to peace and harmony.
The author is the vice-chairperson at the Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi.