The model that frightens Beijing the most
The Battle of Amoy (Xiamen) between British and Chinese forces on August 26, 1841, during the First Opium War (Photo: Getty Images)
THE QING HARBOURED inherited notions of India as a land of Buddhism lying to the west, but could not reconcile this with reports about a Mughal empire then ruling that geography. So the geography itself was adjusted to locate India to the south of what was now the Mughal empire. The fall of the Mughals in the mid-eighteenth century and the emergence of British colonial rule in India, with all its implications for China, was for several decades only vaguely understood. This is covered in fascinating detail by Matthew Mosca in his landmark book, From Frontier Policy to Foreign Policy: The Question of India and the Transformation of Geopolitics in Qing China. It was with the Opium Wars of 1839-42 and 1856-60 that China was deeply shaken by its vulnerability to a British empire now firmly established in the Asian continent, which drew its power and resources from its colonial empire in India.
The opium which drained China of silver and enfeebled its citizens, and the Indian soldiers who served as the shock troops during the humiliating Opium Wars, led the Qing court and Chinese intellectuals to examine the reasons behind Chinese weakness. Associated with this was an exploration of the Indian condition and India’s role as a springboard for the painful British assault on China. Consequently, there emerged, in parallel, a deeply negative popular perception of Indians from their role as street-side enforcers of British rule in the foreign concessions. There was also deep resentment of the prominent Indian traders in cities like Shanghai who flaunted their wealth, gained mainly from the opium trade. Chinese intellectuals, whether conservative reformers like Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, or more radical figures like Chen Duxiu, Lu Xun or Liang Shuming, saw India as a ‘worst-case scenario’ for China. India’s past as a brilliant and sophisticated civilization was acknowledged, but its more recent history was of special relevance to China, if it were to be successful in confronting the powerful Western challenge.
Interestingly, though Japan had defeated China in 1894-95, it was seen in China as having succeeded in becoming a modern nation and, therefore, a model to be emulated. Several Chinese students and scholars headed to Japan around the turn of the century to learn from its example. In contrast, India was regarded as a teacher by negative example, a failed and fallen country which had been subjugated and enslaved, virtually without resistance from its people. As pointed out by the Japanese scholar Shimada, ‘…reformers and radicals alike shared the anxiety that China not follow in the footsteps of India’.
The opium which drained China of silver and enfeebled its citizens, and the Indian soldiers who served as the shock troops during the humiliating opium wars, led the Ging court and Chinese intellectuals to examine the reasons behind Chinese weakness. Associated with this was an exploration of the Indian condition and India’s role as a springboard for the painful British assault on China
Kang Youwei was an advocate of constitutional monarchy, with the Meiji Restoration of Japan as the model. He became an adviser to the Qing emperor Guangxu and was associated with the 100 Days of Reform, but fell victim to the powerful reactionary clique around Empress Dowager Cixi. He went into exile to escape execution, and it was during his exile that he visited India from 1901-03 and again later, in 1909. It was from India that he criticized the move by some reformers for Guangdong province to declare independence, adopt radical reforms and then seek to overhaul the reactionary Qing monarchy at the centre. He wrote to his student, Liang Qichao:
My 4 million compatriots, if you wish to become a fallen nation of slaves, then quickly support the fight for independence in all provinces like the Indian people have done. But if my compatriots, you do not wish to become a fallen nation or an exterminated race, then you should deem useless India’s fight for independence in all its provinces.
Here, Kang sought to compare Guangdong province with Bengal, which had fallen prey to the British because of the failure of various Indian princely states to present a united front under a strong central authority.
Other Chinese intellectuals sought to explain India’s plight as a colonized country through the inherent character of its people. In his earlier writings, the scholar Zhang Taiyan argued that the Indian people were especially susceptible to British occupation after their experience with the Mongols and then the Mughals:
By the time the Mughals unified the land the Indian people had already pledged their allegiance to a different people. To be owned by the Mughals and then to be owned by the British what difference did it make to them.
The weather in India was also cited as a reason for Indian laziness and lack of vigour. Zhang Taiyan observed:
Don’t you know in the tropics people do not go cold and hungry therefore people become lazy and things go easily rotten. They are weaker than you [Kang] saw.
These scholars did not see the irony of their blaming the Indians’ supposedly deficient character for their falling prey to foreign rule and ignoring their own country’s history of having been conquered and ruled by the alien Mongols in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as the Yuan dynasty, and later by the Manchus from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries as the Qing dynasty.
If the Indians were themselves responsible for falling prey to alien rule, then were the Hans during the Ming dynasty also responsible for falling prey to the Manchus? Were there similar character faults at play? These questions never surfaced in the Chinese discourse.
During this phase, even the positive history of Buddhism as a factor of affinity between the two countries was reinterpreted negatively. Liang Shuming, for example, said that for the reinvigoration of China, Indian influence must be eliminated and not a trace of it be allowed to survive in China. Some years later, Hu Shih took up this theme and argued in an address at Harvard University in 1937 that the Chinese weakness in confronting Japanese aggression was due to the ‘Indianization of China’. According to Hu Shih:
India conquered and dominated China culturally for 20 centuries without ever having to send a single soldier across her border.
But he meant this to convey that India’s baneful influence on China be exorcised rather than celebrated. His statement is often misinterpreted in India as a grateful Chinese acknowledgement of its cultural debt to India, when its intent is quite the opposite.
Rabindranath Tagore’s visit to China in 1924 has been described as a milestone in India-China relations. The suggestion that it rekindled a sense of affinity between the peoples of the two countries and promoted solidarity in their struggle against Western imperialism is an exaggeration. Tagore may have been received with polite courtesy and enjoyed respect as a Nobel laureate, but his notions of a rejuvenated Eastern civilization prevailing over a materialistic and spiritually bankrupt West found no resonance in China. Eastern civilization, as the Chinese saw it, did not include India, though perhaps it could include Japan. Left-wing intellectuals such as Lu Xun, Guo Moruo, Shen Yanbing, Chen Duxiu and Qu Qiubai were all critical of Tagore’s ideas even though they admired his scholarship and poetry. Shen Yanbing said:
We are determined not to welcome the Tagore who loudly sings the praises of Eastern civilisation, nor do we welcome the Tagore who creates a paradise of poetry and love and leads our youth into it so that they might find comfort and intoxication in meditating.
Qu Qiubai was more even more dismissive, describing Tagore as a man of the past whose advice was irrelevant. The claim made by the Japanese scholar Shigenobu Okura had greater resonance among the Chinese, when he said:
Of the nations of Asian civilisation today, I consider Japan to be the greatest. Next is China. As for the people of Babylon and India, even though their cultures could be admired in bygone days, now they cannot even be compared.
The Chinese audience might have contested the Japanese claim to be number one, but would not have disagreed with the proposition on India.
Chiang Kai-shek, China’s wartime leader, was sympathetic to the Indian independence movement but was disappointed that the Congress Party was not ready to support the Allied counter-offensive against Japan in China. He paid a visit to India in February 1942 and met both Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru despite dissuasion from the British. He was conscious of the British instigating Hindu-Muslim division. In his diary he wrote that Jinnah was ‘dishonest’ and that ‘it’s not true that Hindus and Muslims can’t get on’. He thought that ‘truly patriotic Muslims’ would stay with the Congress.
It is in the record of several private conversations which Chinese leaders had with foreign interlocutors that the attitude of contempt against India comes out most clearly. In conversations with Kissinger in 1972, Zhou referred to Nehru’s Discovery of India, saying that Nehru was thinking of a great Indian empire, but ‘actually India is a bottomless hole’
Chiang’s long meeting with Gandhi was a disappointment. He observed later that ‘Gandhi knows and loves only India and doesn’t care about other places and peoples’. In his view, India’s ‘traditional philosophy has made him this way. He only knows how to endure pain, and has no zeal—this is not the spirit of a revolutionary leader.’ Clearly, Chiang found Gandhi’s ideas of non-violence and satyagraha not revolutionary and high-spirited enough. Even a sympathetic Chinese leader like Chiang saw Gandhi as a typically weak and even submissive Indian.
When Chiang’s KMT forces were defeated and Mao established the PRC, India’s prompt recognition of the new regime in Beijing soured whatever goodwill may have remained. Despite the Indian gesture, PRC leaders remained suspicious, initially dismissing India as remaining under Western influence despite having gained independence.
Wherever there were opportunities for direct engagement and conversation, the more prejudiced notions could be contested. Unfortunately, much of Chinese and Japanese readings of India during the first decades of the twentieth century were derived through translations of British colonial literature, which were openly and crudely racist in their depictions of India and its people. It is these mediated perceptions which have remained entrenched in Chinese attitudes.
DID THINGS CHANGE after India gained independence in 1947 and China achieved liberation in 1949? Did the negative attitudes from the early decades of the twentieth century persist, or was there a change in the Chinese discourse on India? In reviewing India-China relations over the past seven decades, we see the following pattern: When India-China relations are in a positive phase, for whatever reason, there is an invariable harking back to the shared Buddhist heritage and the history of dense trade and cultural exchanges. There may also be references to mutual sympathy and support during the more modern period of India’s struggle for independence and China’s liberation, though the evidence for this is more limited. However, whenever relations have become strained and contentious, the disparaging and negative narratives of the more recent past surface not only in the Chinese media but also in records of Chinese leaders’ conversations with foreign interlocutors.
Negative media reports concerning India and Indian leaders are well documented. Before the Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai (Indians and Chinese are brothers) phase in the early 1950s, India was considered as an instrument of Western imperialism. Its independence and non-alignment were said to be only in name. The Tibet crisis in 1959 led to another phase of very negative reporting on India, including the infamous People’s Daily article, attributed to Mao himself, entitled ‘On Nehru’s Philosophy’. This long article, which appeared on 6 May 1959, accused Nehru of harbouring ulterior intent towards Tibet and undermining Chinese sovereignty over what China considered its own sovereign territory. Later, on 27 October 1962, in the aftermath of the first wave of attacks on the Sino-Indian border, the People’s Daily published another long diatribe against Nehru, entitled ‘More on Nehru’s Philosophy in the Light of the Sino-Indian Boundary Question’. This later article quoted from Nehru’s book, The Discovery of India, to argue: ‘The goal pursued by this ambitious Nehru is the establishment of a great empire unprecedented in history.’
The article refers to Nehru as a ‘lackey of the imperialists’.
But it is in the record of several private conversations which Chinese leaders had with foreign interlocutors that the attitude of contempt against India comes out most clearly. I will cite here some of Zhou Enlai’s observations about India and Nehru in conversations with [Henry] Kissinger in 1972.
Tagore’s visit to China in 1924 has been described as a milestone in India-China relations. The suggestion that it rekindled a sense of affinity between the peoples of the two countries and promoted solidarity in their struggle against western imperialism is an exaggeration. His notions of a rejuvenated eastern civilization prevailing over a materialistic and spiritually bankrupt West found no resonance in China
Zhou referred to Nehru’s Discovery of India, saying that Nehru was thinking of a great Indian empire, but ‘actually India is a bottomless hole’.
Zhou: India is a highly suspicious country. It is quite a big country, sometimes it puts on airs of a big country, but sometimes it has an inferiority complex.
Kissinger: It has been governed by foreigners through most of its history.
Zhou: Yes, that might be one of the historical factors.
Zhou: …Nehru invited me to a tea party in his garden, among the guests were two people in costume. There were two Tibetan lamas and suddenly there appeared a female lama. Do you know who she was?
Kissinger: Madame Binh?
Zhou: Madame Gandhi (laughter). She was dressed up entirely in Tibetan costume. That was something that Nehru was capable of doing… I was speechless confronted with such a situation. It was impossible for me to say anything.
For Zhou, Mrs Gandhi donning a Tibetan costume while he was present was proof that India coveted Tibet! That India too is home to communities that share Tibet’s culture and way of life may have been difficult for Zhou to understand.
These exchanges just go to show that it is not India which is a highly suspicious country but China.
WE SEE THAT a line runs through the negative and derogatory perceptions of India and Indians in China, which took hold during the British colonial period. While India’s past glory as a great civilization was conceded, in contemporary times it became an example of a failed and fallen country. The reason for this decline was said to be the slavish character of its people and the lack of a strong central political authority to mobilize the people to resist foreign aggression. The Chinese depictions of Indians bordered on being racist.
India’s present, then, was the future that would await China if it did not reform and modernize, if it did not unite and maintain a strong central authority.
These negative attitudes persist, surfacing whenever relations start to worsen. During more positive phases, these attitudes are masked and the rhetoric harks back to the ancient period of civilizational engagement between the two countries, though even in this case the spread of Buddhism in China from India is regarded by some as a baneful external influence which should be thoroughly exorcised to allow the true Chinese spirit to emerge. While there are positive strains of thinking about India, particularly among those who have had more sustained encounters with its people, they do not constitute the dominant category.
Chiang’s long meeting with Gandhi was a disappointment. He observed later that ‘Gandhi knows and loves only India and doesn’t care about other places and peoples’. Chiang found Gandhi’s ideas of non-violence and satyagraha not revolutionary and high-spirited enough. Even a
sympathetic Chinese leader like Chiang saw Gandhi as a typically weak and even submissive Indian
In dealing with the China challenge, India needs to analyse these deeper strands in Chinese perceptions of India and the prism through which the Chinese mind interprets Indian foreign policy behaviour. These perceptions are mediated through third-party sources and not through direct Chinese experience of India and Indians over an extended period of time.
Currently, we find that China is increasingly assessing India through the prism of its fraught and worsening relations with the US. India is not regarded as having independent agency. For the Chinese pessimist, the future could relive the past, in which India became the platform for an assault on China and hence needs to be neutralized well in time. India’s people and leaders cannot be trusted because they are by nature (and not by calculation) given to petty intrigues and trickery. Sometimes, history may be rewritten or reinterpreted to fit preconceived notions about an adversary’s character.
This points to the need for more intensive China studies in our country, in particular of its history, its culture, its society, and of the patterns of thought that are ingrained among its people. This exercise will have two advantages. One, it will point the way to slowly but steadily removing the sludge of prejudice which animates much of Chinese behaviour towards India. Two, it will open the way for chipping away at our own prejudices and uninformed notions about China and the Chinese people, thereby making a more productive India-China engagement more likely, even if not inevitable. Both sides need to shed the stereotype images they harbour about each other.
(This is an edited excerpt from How China Sees India and the World by Shyam Saran)