China’s changing discourse on India


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INDIA and China are among the largest nation states of the world with long histories of rich and glorious civilizations. Both have been agrarian countries, together constituting almost a third of the world’s total population and a major share of world economy throughout their long histories. In modern times, both suffered under foreign domination and rule and staged protracted social and political struggles for emancipation. Attaining political independence around the same time in the middle of the 20th century, both embarked upon the task of rebuilding their society and economy following divergent political paths arising out of historical features of their respective state and society. At the advent of the 21st century, both are dynamic centres of economic growth, projected as becoming leading economies of the world within a short time. Not unlike comparisons between East and West, references to India and China together most often end in comparative assessments.

India and China also have one of the longest histories of continuing interaction, going back to the early history of man in these two vast neighbouring areas of Asia. There are materials to depict the story of movements of peoples and ideas between the two countries from the neolithic times onwards, indicative of their abiding interest in each other. Such interest naturally evoked discourses based on historical knowledge of the ‘other’ at different times. To the extent that these discourses shaped ‘knowledge’ about the ‘other’, they facilitate our comprehension of complex vicissitudes in the Sino-Indian relationship. The aim of the present paper is limited to a brief exposition of Chinese discourses on modern India.

The earliest Chinese discourses on India are based on a recognition of the latter as the land of an equally ‘civilized’ culture arising out of the varied and fruitful interaction between them in which Buddhism played a leading role. In contrast, the modern Chinese discourses emanate from the framework of nation state and are based on comparative studies of their respective polity and economy. Some of these are marked by conscious application of sophisticated and formalized tools of analysis as well as a careful historical reading of the past. There are, however, many others which have been marked by projection of prejudices – whether arising out of Cold War mentalities, a binary contrasting of democracy and dictatorship, threat perceptions, inadequate or selective historical readings or a chauvinistic pitting of one against the other as competitors and rivals.

Until recently, Chinese discourses on modern India conventionally viewed India as a failure and China as a success. Evolving from their own worldview as developed from the early twentieth century, as well as by efforts to preserve and project China’s self-image as a successful Communist state, these overwhelmingly projected India as a ‘soft’ or ‘dead’ state. For many Chinese, as Edward Friedman writes, it is also a ‘matter of Confucianism versus Hinduism. The Chinese assumption is that Confucianism is sober, rational and practical, and Hinduism is mystical, irrational and other worldly, which is why China succeeds and India fails. Chineseness is superior to Indianness.’ These conclusions are justified in the context of such examples as India’s capitulation to and collaboration with colonial power, Indian democracy’s dismal performance in alleviating problems of poverty and inequality, and most of all its diverse and chaotic social and religious institutions and practices which strayed the Indian state from the course of development and achievement of ‘wealth and power’ – characteristics of the successful Chinese path to modernity.


The notion of India as ‘the failed other’, to a large extent emanated from the construct of nationalism in late imperial China which linked the rising threat of western imperialism to lack of modernization and formation of a nation. It was a threat that escaped a Confucian solution. Instead, in the wake of realization of the destablization of China’s position as ‘the middle kingdom’ and recognition of a superior ‘West’, a new group of intellectuals, as Rebecca Karl perceptively notes, discovered a global structure consisting of shared spaces. These disaffected intellectuals sought to build a modern Chinese nation out of the vestiges of a Confucian empire.


In order to situate China in this shared global space, they attempted to divide individual countries or cultures into ‘developed’ or ‘under-developed’ according to the development stage of nation formation. Failing to foster a sense of nation, they feared, would push China into the same trap as that of destroyed, dead or lost countries like India. For them, 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 issues 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 rendered into a metaphor of historical finality. As ‘wangguo’, both India and Poland became anathema, a warning of what could happen to China if the Chinese did not move ahead to reconstruct their nation.

Yet, by its very nature, this project was highly contested because it was based on received images of the other. The highly supercilious nature of these discourses foreclosed any possibility of India providing a solution to China’s contemporary problems. In fact, India figured less and less in these discourses which emerged out of often new and evolving parameters that Chinese intellectuals had been invoking in search for their own place in the world. There is thus less than lukewarm references to India in the May Fourth literature and later. Colonial India and its people were constantly subjected to investigation using these parameters. The placing of nation over culture negated and contrasted with perceptions of a cultural India that had so far been predominant in China. It is therefore not surprising that Indian Nobel laureate and poet, Rabindranath Tagore’s critique of modernity and commendation of eastern tradition/spirituality failed to engage a majority of contemporary Chinese intellectuals and he received a hostile reception.

The Buddhist connection between India and China had created a discourse that focused not on colonial but cultural India, while lauding deeper civilizational unity and fruitful exchanges between them. This view favourably 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 solutions for their contemporary problems in Buddhism. Zhang Binglin (revolutionary and associate of Sun Yat Sen) and Liu Shipei (the anarchist) in their debates over the superiority of eastern vs. western culture, exhumed the Buddhist cultural connection positively that yielded a vastly more propitious view of India.


Yet, the opium trade and wars and the subsequent British encroachment in China through colonial India, began an alternative discourse superimposing on and replacing those structured on cultural to political or colonial India. It was from India that the British launched their economic and military offensive on China. To counter new threats, it became imperative to comprehend the source of this menace. The late Qing Chinese scholar-officials then paid special attention to India.

This is evident in the production of knowledge on contemporary India beginning with the middle of the 19th century. In his Haiguo Duzhi, the modern Chinese geographer Wei Yuan pays much attention to Southeast Asia and India which occupy the lengthiest section of his treatise, with the discussion on India filling up seven chapters. His geopolitical vision rests on saving the Canton trade from the British monopoly by weakening the latter’s position in India. He therefore envisions an 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 the 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 travellers, was flawed and his vision unworkable due to an inadequate grasp of changing international relations.


The Qing court also dispatched official fact-finding missions to India. The first official and recorded mission in 1878, after Zheng Ho’s naval expedition during the early Ming phase, was led by Huang Mocai, a government official of Xiucai rank with wide training in foreign languages, translation, international relations, geography and cartography. Its purpose was to prepare authentic maps of borders and frontiers. Huang arrived in Calcutta via Assam in March 1879 with a six person team, visited many cities of the 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, an expert in foreign affairs and a trusted high ranking official. Its aim was to understand the opium revenue system and to discuss with British officials the 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. They then travelled up to Simla through Allahabad, Delhi, Agra and Ambala to meet Governor General Lord Ripon. Reaching Bombay via Rajasthan, they also visited Poona to hold discussions with Governor Sir James Fergusson. Both of them finally boarded a ship in Bombay for Shanghai on 24 September 1881.


Besides this, some of the contemporary Chinese intellectuals too either travelled to India and/or wrote about it using available sources of knowledge. Among them, the most important was Kang Youwei, the leader of Hundred Day Reform Movement, who came to India in December 1901 and stayed for about six months.

These official missions and independent travellers/scholars produced narratives which became the source for the construction of modern Chinese discourses on India. Not unlike travel writings, these do not attempt to produce histories of India but present impressionistic, selective discussions of India for Chinese readers. These are thus like virtual histories invoked to fit their own concerns and anxieties into the 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 becoming a modern nation state. ‘Becoming an easy prey of the British, it has turned into its willing partner. It lacks a national spirit.’ The British can conquer India because, as Wu Kuangpei writes, their professional soldiers first built strong fortresses along the sea coast 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 a morass… [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 should not let foreigners take similar advantage of China. We have heroes and we should not indulge in lofty talks about love and justice but investigate the matter closely.’

Struck by the imposing and splendid gold and green stone palace of the ex-king of Avadh in Calcutta, these travellers commented that the king, moved there by the British, was living an idle and comfortable life receiving an official salary and raising his ancestral race after running away from a big and prosperous country of several thousands of miles and his own numerous people. ‘Dependent upon others, acting slavishly, and living shamefacedly like dung, how could he be peaceful and happy?’ On the other hand, while passing through Allahabad, they saw few Indians ‘dressed in long white robes, wearing black leather jackets, and carrying a dagger’ 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. There only are people of some villages who made an effort to not bow down. They can really be called giants among dwarfs. They are however called stupid by the British and outlaws by the Indians.’ 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 those of the British natives. To them, this was a sign of total capitulation of the Indian race.


While some of the Chinese views are far too critical and to an extent even xenophobic, there is no doubt that contemporary India did not inspire any confidence among them. The pluralistic and diverse character of India was viewed as a negative factor in the building up of a nation state. Indian presence and participation in large numbers, as part of the British colonial empire, in China and elsewhere further reinforced this view. Chinese accounts thus denigrate Indians for their apparent lack of character, ethnic identity (same race consciousness), and a sense of nationalism and for allowing themselves to be ‘enslaved’ by the British. This happened because, as Kang Youwei remarks, India preserved her traditions without changing them. Hence, if China does not change its institutions, its fate would be similar.

Some contemporary Chinese intellectuals viewed Buddhism to be the guiding spirit of India. Xu Jiyu remarks, ‘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.’


Reasons for such negative images of contemporary India are not hard to find in China itself. The evil opium was seen as coming from Indian plantations. 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 in Shenbao, as S.J. Schmotzer’s study shows, pictures concerning India and Indian customs 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 musings from Chinese students abroad, noting the ‘slavish’ mentality of Indians in the United States who identify themselves as being of the English empire in the same way as some Chinese say they are from the Qing empire.

Such multiple images of India, ranging from a wellspring of Buddhism to one as ‘lost’ and an ‘enslaved’ country, emerged from heterogeneous streams of nationalism flowing into and through China at the time, and the different points of entry of various commentators into this stream. But these different positions were never neat or absolute. Zhang Binglin was quite positive about India in a cultural sense. It was not beyond him to criticize the present state of India, however, and to call on Indian nationalists to arouse their people from apathy. By the same token, those who called Indians ‘horse and cow slaves’ also called the Chinese people such names. This is indicative of a frustration with people’s apathy to rise above local and regional cultural considerations to foster a sense of nation.

Comparing encounters between British and Chinese with British and Indians, Wang Gungwu, a well-known and respected Chinese historian, commented that he was ‘struck to read the following lines from the 19th century Indian poet Mirza Ghalib to Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan’, which advised the latter to not look so much to the Mughal past but ‘open thine eyes… and examine Englishmen, their style, their manner, their trade and their art…’ He further writes that ‘this would not have been 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.’


To be sure, despite being appointed by 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. Like many other Indian intellectuals of the time, he had complex and ambivalent attitudes towards the British. Western scientific rationalism and pragmatism appealed to him as much as their cruel ways and brutal suppression repelled. Wang’s analogy may not be very appropriate but he is correct in pointing out the different prisms through which Indian and Chinese viewed their encounters with the British. It is in this context that Indian responses to the western political and cultural onslaught contrasted with the Chinese vision and led to its projection as a ‘lost country’.


Why was Professor Wang so emphatic that any advise to follow western cultural values not be heeded by a Chinese mandarin, as opposed to an Indian ‘mandarin’? An explanation may be found in an overwhelming state-centric structure in China where the mandarin was entrusted the task of jealously maintaining unity between state and society over a uniform Confucian political ideology. Thus, as distinct from 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.’

Unlike mandarins, there were no such compulsions for Brahmins or other 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. In fact, the political arena in India was characterized by a high degree of local autonomy. 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 a matter of frequent critical discussion in Chinese discourses.

To a great extent, the legacy of these modern Chinese discourses continued to shape their perception of India even after 1949. Received images of India coupled with the characteristic Chinese world view influenced by the continued state-centric structure, actuate contemporary discourses on India. They begin from school where, starting from standard Chinese elementary school geography textbooks to more advanced texts, India is often compared side by side with China. Indian performance in population, literacy, GDP per capita, exports, industrial outputs and so on are listed with those of China as index marks. Superior Chinese performance in all the areas is implicitly or explicitly attributed to the correct application of economic reform policies under the authoritarian Communist state, while a democratic and ‘soft’ state in India has not been able to eradicate poverty.


Elaborating on this, Zhang Jun, the Chinese economist at Fudan University, comments that, ‘Many Chinese economists do not realize challenges from India or are unwilling to accept that India can catch up or present a real challenge to China. There is a general assumption that democratic processes slow progress.’ In fact, the conscious downplaying of any notion of linkages between democracy and development characterizes most Chinese writing. India thus figures mostly as a country with abysmal living conditions of its poor, especially among the lower castes, and with unconstrained population growth acting as stumbling block to 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 over-all prosperity and stability. A suggestion on the likely Indian challenge to China as a successful democracy for the 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.’


In Chinese discourses, a considerable degree of mistrust normally characterizes Sino-Indian relations. China sees India as a potential rival to its dreams of major power status in Asia and systematically tries to depreciate India’s standing and capacities in all possible ways. Chinese media, an article in China’s International Labour Herald admits, has projected the negative side of India’s development story. Most of the Chinese still tend to think about India as an aggressive, disaster-prone and underdeveloped country. Hence, discussions on China-India rivalry are taken as vexatious.

A Chinese commentator wrote, ‘Fifty and even 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.’

Going further, another Chinese commentator angrily debunked the notion that Indian Buddhism ‘conquered’ China and concluded that ‘Indian demeanour and mentality are very similar to those of the Manchus 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.’

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. Not surprisingly, soon after the June 4 Tiananmen incident, several editorials in People’s Daily warned Chinese readers that China may suffer the same chaotic fate as India and the East European countries if democracy was allowed. The state in contemporary China is, therefore, hostile to any assertion of autonomous forces or emergence of pluralism as a corollary to the expansion of capitalist economy and growing integration of market with the 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.


Yet, during the last decade, the rise of democratic India as a stable nation state with a fast developing economy as well as the frequent front page world-wide plauditory coverage of its achievements in IT industry and other areas have come as a shock to the Chinese. Moreover, with greater international contacts, they have begun to see political advantage of a vibrant civil society, and dissatisfaction with the constraints embedded in their own state structure is surfacing.

This has produced another Chinese discourse that looks positively to India, replacing earlier perceptions 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 once invoked to project it as a ‘lost country’ are now gradually being rediscovered as its significant strength, providing necessary resilience and spirit to successfully forge ahead in this globalizing world. In fact, in contemporary Chinese discourses, the 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, is being shown to have provided enormous advantage for its economy to smoothly and rapidly take off.


There is less projection of socialist China and democratic India in binaries and more investigation of specific political and economic policies. The Chinese are particularly fascinated by the South and specially the Kerala experiment, which they hail as a successful example of development. Decentralized federal democracy promoting local governance and initiatives is now seen as a viable developmental path for emulation in China. Famine management, public education and health care are cited as impressive attributes of democracy. There is also admiration for Indian pluralism and religious tradition as a source of strength, thus rejecting the conventional view that Confucianism is practical and Buddhism is this-worldly. In his very informative article on emerging official and unofficial contemporary Chinese discourses on India, Jinxin Huang notes, ‘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…’

This trend is getting increasingly visible in official discourses too. An influential article in China’s International Labour Herald, which was widely publicized by Xinhua, exhorts its readers to tone down such prevalent perceptions that China was ahead of India in almost all fields. It emphasizes that apart from software, India has a leading position in many other sectors like biology and pharmaceutical industry. Moreover, ‘Given its demographic structure, India is the youngest country in the world, which means it will have abundant human resources for its economic development in the next 20 years.’ Debunking past Chinese discourses on India, it says, ‘Chinese people tend to judge others by their appearance... India’s disorder and poverty are only on the surface... Under the surface is a young country full of vitality. Many of the misconceptions stem from historical experiences, but others can be laid at the door of the media.’


In conclusion, we must admit that Sino-Indian interactions were mediated by similarities and differences of history and culture between the two countries and produced multiple discourses about each other in different historical times based on their respective historical experiences. Learning about these discourses helps us dispel the myth or the prejudiced notions that one has about the other and forge a relationship based on a more informed view of each other. The current Chinese discourses on India are thus hopefully indicative of growing acceptance of India by China in its entirety.


* This is an abridged version of my sectional president’s address at the 66th session of the Indian History Congress held at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, 28-30 January 2006.