China and the World

Passage to India

An account of China and India’s intertwined history


“Those who come between or dare/ Tamper with us. We reply: Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai.”

This verse of solidarity (bhai-bhai means ‘brother-brother) was part of a poem composed by Harindranath Chattopadhyaya to celebrate the 1954 Panchasheel Agreement, marking a renewed friendship between China and India. The newly-independent India had been one of the first non-Communist nations to recognise the new People’s Republic, and many hoped that the concept of Sino-Indian “brotherhood” would build a stronger relationship.

This friendship was severed in 1962 with the brief Sino-Indian war (China won it, to lasting Indian chagrin). For another 20 years, China and India were wary of one another, with minor confrontations at the disputed border, before cultural delegations returned in the 1980s.

However, to fully understand the relationship between China and India (or rather, the Chinese and Indian peoples), you have to look much further back in time. Important links between the two over the last 2,000 years have influenced both nations. In his new book – India, China, and the World: A Connected History – Tansen Sen of NYU Shanghai traces the development of this lengthy relationship. As he points out, it long predates the existence of India and China as the political entities we now know. The book covers an ambitious scope of time, but Sen explains, “in order to fully comprehend the interactions between India and China, a wide canvas of space, people, objects, and timeframe is needed”.

From the first century AD, Buddhist monks travelled from India to China to spread their faith. They brought with them new knowledge on astronomy and geography. The Buddhist travellers translated Sanskrit texts into Chinese, and these texts became a main source of information about South Asia.

Between the fourth and the eighth centuries, Ayurvedic medicine was also introduced to China, and influenced the development of Chinese medicine. Ayurvedic understanding of anatomy and pressure points can be seen in the development of Chinese acupuncture and healing systems. As the centuries passed, the influence of Buddhism in China grew – and developed into its own form.

China’s explorations – particularly those of Admiral Zheng He during the Ming Dynasty – allowed the Chinese to learn more about India and its surroundings. This knowledge brought with it awareness of trade links. In turn, the arrival of European colonists increased the rate of trade between Chinese and Indian ports.

Indian soldiers serving with the British army came to China from the time of the Opium Wars up till World War Two. They took back to India what they had learned of China, while Chinese encountered different Indian groups. ­

By the first half of the twentieth century, the emerging consciousness of Pan-Asianism had encouraged friendship across the region. This was the period that saw the creation of the Pan-Pacific Union, which hoped to build peace and trade through cultural links. Faster steamship and rail travel made it easier for students and politicians to travel around the region. For both Chinese reformers and Indian independence activists during the 1920s, a knowledge of the long history of Sino-Indian exchanges was a powerful influence. For some Chinese intellectuals, it was felt that knowledge of China’s classical past, with its Indian influences, could help show the way forward in the post-Qing era. World War Two put these efforts on hold, but in the 1950s, deliberate attempts were made by the leaders of the two nations to recreate the ancient connections.

More recent contact between China and Pakistan, including a vast Belt and Road investment package, has unsettled the Sino-Indian relationship. Meanwhile, India has turned to Japan as its new partner to build (and finance) a bullet-train line, a move some see as designed to curtail Beijing’s influence (a Chinese alternative would likely have been cheaper and faster).

The recent standoff in a contested Himalayan area (known as Doklam by the Indians and Donglang in Chinese) shows that tensions can still run high between these competitive neighbours, with a border war always a threat (see WiC378).

All of which makes this book a timely reminder of the long relationship between these two cultures, and of their generally peaceful concord.

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