India and China: colonial encounters


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THIS essay explores some of the interactions between India and China in the colonial era and how these could have affected mutual perceptions in modern times. One of the less discussed aspects of colonialism is the impact it had on the relations among different countries or societies which came under colonial or imperialist domination. Countries that had traditionally been linked through trade, culture or political ties, experienced a disruption of the old ties or found themselves, often involuntarily, in a new relationship mediated by the colonial powers. The consequences of colonial domination in many cases were traumatic for their relations, and continue to trouble these relations even in the post-colonial era.

The era of colonial and imperialist domination also saw the rise of a new phenomenon – nationalism. Nationalism, too, as it developed in India and China in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, affected their relations significantly. In this essay I argue that the legacy of nationalism was a mixed one. While nationalism gave rise to many positive instances of cooperation between Indians and Chinese, at the same time it also contributed to sowing the seeds of mistrust and bitterness.

The colonial period needs to be taken seriously for any real understanding of how India-China relations have developed to the present stage. The relative neglect of this period, as one of little significance, has perhaps contributed to an unrealistic perception of this relationship, for which no amount of goodwill on the part of present-day policy-makers or officials can compensate. Particularly unjustifiable is the tendency in earlier historiography to dismiss India’s relations with China in this period as a subset of Sino-British relations. My attempt, therefore, will be to trace continuities from earlier times in the relationship between India and China in this period, particularly in the commercial sphere, while also pointing to certain new features that developed out of the colonial connection.


The trade links between India and China in the colonial period provide a good example of continuity as well as change. Commercial exchange between India and China had over many centuries formed part of the voluminous intra-Asian trade that has only in recent times begun to receive due scholarly attention. In certain periods the trade between India and China was direct, while in other periods commodities were exchanged through intermediaries, such as Arab or Central Asian traders, or through trading centres in Central or South East Asia. Goods that arrived in India from China were also transshipped to destinations further West. This trading connection was initially not displaced, but only modified by the participation of European traders who began to arrive in Asian waters from the sixteenth century.

In particular, the rising demand for Chinese tea in Europe led to a search for goods within Asia which could be exchanged for China’s tea, since goods from Europe did not find a sufficient market in China. Initially, Indian textiles were among the chief commodities picked up by European traders and sold in South East Asia in exchange for spices, which were then sold in China in exchange for tea. But the sudden spurt in the demand for tea in Britain from the 1780s led to the export of raw cotton from western India as the item which above all others could be sold in China in sufficient quantities to pay for the tea exports. Cotton from India, carried mainly by private British and Indian traders, registered a sixfold increase in just a few years. The trade with China in ‘the great staple’, as it was known, contributed significantly to the growth of Bombay from a struggling harbour town to a flourishing commercial entrepot.


The slump in the market for Indian raw cotton in China from the second decade of the nineteenth century, however, led to traders zeroing in on another commodity – opium. The opium trade was to cast a long shadow over India-China relations, and contributed significantly to a remoulding of the popular perception of India – from the ‘heavenly land’ of Buddhism of earlier times, to the land from where opium was sourced. The import and consumption of opium from India had immensely harmful consequences for the Chinese economy and society, which are well-known, and which I will not elaborate on here. Moreover, the demand for opium, an addictive drug, was self-expanding, and the opium traders, both western and Indian, showed little scruple in ignoring and evading the official regulations prohibiting its import in China.

As is well-known, Britain went to war with China in order to protect and extend this trade, inaugurating a long century of ‘unequal treaties’ and humiliation of China at the hands of foreign powers. Along with cotton, the trade in opium continued to be a mainstay of the trade between India and China throughout the nineteenth century. Ironically, those who made fortunes in this trade included some of the most respected business families in Bombay, renowned for their philanthropy and charitable work.


Another traditional commercial connection between India and China that continued into the colonial period was the trade carried on the back of horses and mules over the high mountain ranges dividing Kashmir and Ladakh from the western region of China known as Xinjiang. In the nineteenth century, the main items traded were not very different from what they had traditionally been – that is, from India, opium, cotton, piece-goods, spices, Indian tea, sugar and indigo, and from Xinjiang, charas (by far the most important item), tea, silk, wool, felt, carpets, gold and silver, precious stones, horses and mules.1

However, the rivalry between Britain and Russia in this part of the world in the later part of the century, usually referred to as ‘The Great Game’, affected both the manner in which the trade was conducted and the fortunes of the traders themselves. Despite the small volume of the trade, the British authorities in India began to pay it great attention for political reasons, seeing it as the spearhead of their campaign to gain a foothold in Xinjiang and to thwart the expansion of Russian influence. Routine disputes between Indian merchants and local people, formerly solved in a generally evenhanded manner by the Chinese authorities, became a vehicle to assert British power, arousing much resentment among the Chinese and the local population.2 The backlash was felt with full force by the Indians in the twentieth century, when they were repeatedly targets of violence in Xinjiang, precipitating their complete exodus from the region in the 1930s and 1940s.


An interesting example of an altogether new type of trading connection in the colonial period was the export of machine-made cotton yarn from Indian mills to China from the 1870s. Unlike the earlier items of trade, this was a product neither of Indian agriculture nor of its traditional handicraft, but one of the earliest products of its modern industry. By the 1880s, the Chinese market was absorbing 80% of the total output of Bombay’s cotton yarn industry, and by the 1890s, 96% of China’s total cotton yarn imports came from India.3 The China market for cotton yarn can be said to have sustained the fledgling Indian textile industry at a crucial stage of its growth. Of particular significance was the fact that this trade was carried out not in collaboration, but in competition with British industry. Until the 1870s, Britain had been the sole foreign supplier of manufactured cotton yarn to China, but by the 1890s, Indian cotton yarn had ousted British yarn from this position, and had reduced Britain’s share to just four per cent.

Overall, India’s trade with China in the colonial period, while not unjustifiably dominated in the public perception by the opium trade, presents in reality a somewhat more diverse picture. There were many continuities with the traditional trade, as well as new features associated with the colonial presence. While much of the trade was driven by and subordinate to the interests of British commerce and finance, there was also some element of autonomy and even competition with the British in this trade.


The presence of thousands of Indian soldiers and policemen in China, on the other hand, presents a much clearer picture of how imperialism and colonialism radically transformed the relations between the two countries. There was no precedent for such a phenomenon in earlier epochs. From the middle of the nineteenth century Indians were sent to China by Britain to fight its wars with China, and to safeguard its interests in China’s ports and in its colony of Hong Kong. In both the Opium Wars as well as the suppression of the Taiping and Boxer Rebellions – all landmarks in China’s subjugation by the imperialist powers – we find that Indians were used as combatants.

There is no doubt that this role that Indians fulfilled in China – so different from anything in the earlier experience of India-China relations – strongly coloured the Chinese perception of India in the modern era. Sikh and other recruits from Punjab in particular, striking because of their turbans and beards and overall martial appearance, were sent to China by the British as policemen with the specific purpose of striking fear and awe in the hearts of the general population there. As M.N. Roy was to write, they performed this duty so zealously that ‘the rickshaw coolies and street urchins stand in greater fear of the Indians than of the English and other foreigners.’4 Rabindranath Tagore also noted with despair that Indians were being used as ‘pawns’ by the British and had come to be ‘regarded by other Asiatic powers as a menace to their freedom.’5


Imperialism and colonialism, however, gave rise in due course to their antithesis – the assertion of national identity and the struggle for independence in the colonial and dependent countries. In the twentieth century, both India and China were powerfully caught up in the currents of nationalism and anti-imperialism. In cultural terms, this led many intellectuals and patriots to a rediscovery of their own heritage and that of other Asian countries.

In India, Rabindranath Tagore was the most eloquent spokes-person of this trend. His great stature, enhanced by being the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, gave him an iconic status among some circles in other Asian countries, including China and Japan. Although his visit to China in 1924 aroused opposition from some circles there, the spirit of pan-Asian or anti-imperialist solidarity gained momentum. In China, Sun Yat-sen repeatedly expressed this spirit, though more in political than cultural terms.

Contacts were forged between Indian and Chinese nationalists, both individuals and groups, as early as the time of World War I. Activists of the Hindustani Ghadar Party based in San Francisco, who came to China to mobilise support and obtain arms for their struggle to overthrow British rule in India, found sympathisers among prominent Chinese, including among others Li Yuan Hung, then President of the Chinese Republic, and the Foreign Minister Wu Ting-fang.6 The maverick Indian nationalist Raja Mahendra Pratap, who spent many years in exile in China and Japan, claimed to have received considerable support from Chinese nationalist leaders like Sun Fo, son of Sun Yat-sen, and even from such unlikely figures as the warlords Feng Yuxiang and Wu Peifu.7

From the 1920s, this trend of anti-imperialist cooperation was accelerated, with the Indian National Congress and other organisations in India coming out openly in opposition to the use of Indian troops by the British to suppress the Chinese. During China’s war of resistance against Japanese occupation in the 1930s and 1940s, this support took the form of concrete assistance, such as the Indian Medical Mission. A close personal equation also developed between Indian and Chinese leaders such as Chiang Kai-shek and Jawaharlal Nehru.


However, perhaps the most remarkable impact of nationalism on the relationship between India and China in this period was on those who had been used as the instrument of colonial domination – the mass of Indian soldiers and policemen stationed in China. From the second decade of the twentieth century, we see a remarkable transformation of loyalties on their part. Here we are not referring to just one incident, but to a repeated propensity to revolt against their colonial masters.

During the first World War, Indian regiments based in Hong Kong and elsewhere in China were a seething mass of insubordination, to the great alarm of the colonial authorities. From the point of view of India-China relations, the next phase of disquiet among them, from the mid-1920s, proved to be even more significant, since from this period we find instances of Indian soldiers en masse refusing orders to fire on Chinese, at great personal cost. Entire battalions had to be disbanded or transferred hastily back to India, and those involved were severely punished.8 Thus the great tide of nationalist agitation that developed in China in this period found a sympathetic echo in the hearts of precisely those Indians who were sent to suppress them.


The nationalist and anti-colonial upsurge among Indian security personnel in China continued into the 1930s and 1940s. Nationalism, however, turned out to be a double-edged sword. In China, the struggle against the Japanese occupation became a primary concern from the 1930s. Not only was the intensity of the struggle against Britain and other western powers and their privileges temporarily toned down, but during World War II, China was officially allied to these powers. This was at a time when the struggle against the British in India was reaching its high water mark.

During the war, Chiang Kai-shek had the delicate mission of trying to persuade the Indian National Congress not to oppose the war effort while urging Britain to make concessions to the demand for Indian independence. But the story of the Indian soldiers and policemen in China was more problematic. A large proportion of these Indians gravitated towards that stream of nationalism represented by Subhash Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army, which worked in coordination with the Japanese, even if it did not directly take orders from them.

Although the community was polarised on the issue, at the end of the war, Indians in China as a whole came under a cloud of suspicion and resentment for having been ‘collaborationists’. Thus nationalism that to some extent offset the earlier image in China of India as a ‘pawn’ or ‘auxiliary’ of the British imperialists, was also responsible for pitting Indians and Chinese against each other during the Second World War.


The intractable border problem between India and China was yet another legacy of the colonial period. In this essay I am not concerned with the intricacies of the claims and counterclaims made by both sides. What I would like draw attention to is the evolution of the territorial definition of what constituted ‘India’ and ‘China’ in this period. The British pushed the northern limits of their empire in India to the point where it abutted on the Chinese empire. Later, the leaders of newly independent India took it more or less for granted that the territorial scope of the India they inherited was largely that of the former British Indian empire, barring Burma and the areas detached through the Partition.

In China too, from the later part of the nineteenth century, there was a concerted effort to secure the western and northern border regions, to a great extent in reaction to the attempts by various imperialist powers to extend their influence over and detach these areas. The concern with establishing or consolidating the authority of China over these regions carried over from the imperial period into the republican era in the early twentieth century. Thus in what was once a nebulous frontier zone of not much consequence between India and China, there emerged during the colonial period a contentious border line to be asserted and defended as a matter of ‘national security’, with all the uneasiness that this implies.


Hence, an important outcome of the colonial era was the reconfiguration of the political map of this region of Asia. By the end of this period, India and China stood next to each other as the two giants of Asia. For their own reasons, the British had welded India together as one political-administrative unit, while Indian nationalism provided a strong ideological force binding it together. Around the same time that this new India was freed from colonial rule, China too, after several decades of weakness, foreign occupation and civil conflict, once again stood united under one strong state power. It had in addition gained international recognition as one of the Five Great Powers. Advances in transport and communications over the preceding century had also narrowed the distance between these two countries. The stage was set, as it were, for the rivalry and the jockeying for power and influence that continues to this day.

Unfortunately, it is this rivalry which erupted briefly into open conflict in 1962, that has dominated the discourse on India-China relations in our times. What this discourse has obscured is that there have been various levels and forms of interaction between India and China. The shrill Hindi-Cheeni bhai-bhai rhetoric, followed by the equally strident ‘betrayal’ and ‘aggression’ rhetoric in India, has cast into the shade all other memories and experiences, even those from the recent past. This includes memories of the times when Indians and Chinese made their way to each others’ shores, looking at the other country as a land of opportunity, and of the problems they encountered.

The role that the China trade played in the growth of Bombay, or the role that Indian traders played in the development of Hong Kong, has received little attention. And except for passing references to Rabindranath Tagore or the heroic exploits of Dr. Kotnis in wartime China, there are few echoes of the connections that were forged between Indian and Chinese intellectuals in the early twentieth century, or between diverse strands of the national and anti-imperialist movements in both countries. The black-and-white discourse about the India-China relationship does not do justice to the full range and multilayered character of their relations.


In one sense, recent trends in India-China relations appear as a kind of throwback to the colonial era. Indian entrepreneurs are once again flocking to China in droves. This includes not just the big companies and their employees, but the enterprising individuals who go to China to ‘make good’ in all kinds of activities from opening restaurants to teaching yoga, and who are prepared to face the hurdles of a strange language, different food habits and distance from family and home. As their numbers, and those of Indian students in China, increase, and as more Chinese too come to India for work and study, more informal contacts are being forged between Indians and Chinese, not just in the metropolitan cities, but even in smaller, provincial towns and localities. Through these a richer, better informed image of the other country is slowly developing, even though it will undoubtedly take time for this to break through the entrenched stereotyped images at the level of public consciousness in both countries.



1. Bir Good Gill, ‘Trade of the Punjab with Eastern Turkistan: its ramifications, 1865-79’, in Proceedings of the Punjab History Conference, Nineteenth Session, 22-24 March 1985, Publication Bureau, Punjabi University, Patiala, pp. 303-04.

2. See Madhavi Thampi, Indians in China, 1800-1949, Manohar, New Delhi, 2005, pp. 116-31.

3. Koh Sung-jae, Stages of Industrial Development in Asia. A Comparative History of the Cotton Industry in Japan, India, China and Korea (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1966), p.142. See also Claude Markovits, ‘Bombay as a Business Centre in the Colonial Period: A Comparison with Calcutta’, in Sujata Patel and Alice Thorner (eds), Bombay: Metaphor for Modern India (Oxford University Press, Bombay, 1995), pp. 32, 39.

4. Sibanarayan Ray, ed., Selected Works of M.N.Roy, Vol.II (1927-37), Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1988, p. 574.

5. From an article in the United States of India (June 1927), cited in Sohan Singh Josh, Hindustan Ghadar Party, Vol.II, People’s Publishing House, New Delhi, 1978, p. 261.

6. This came out during the trial of some Ghadar Party leaders in San Francisco in November 1917. See G.T. Brown, ‘Hindu Conspiracy and the Neutrality of the U.S.A. (1914-1917)’, unpublished M.A. Thesis, University of California, Berkeley, microfilm in National Archives of India, Acc. No. 1241 (Part), pp. 67-9.

7. Thampi, Indians in China, pp. 195-6.

8. See ibid., pp. 192-3.