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  Books   29 Jul 2023  Book Review | What we don’t talk about when we talk about China

Book Review | What we don’t talk about when we talk about China

Published : Jul 30, 2023, 12:05 am IST
Updated : Jul 30, 2023, 12:05 am IST

The book is designed to explain China’s past and present in a succinct, step-by-step manner which makes it easy to comprehend.

Cover photo of 'How China Sees India and the World' by Shyam Saran. (Photo by arrangement)
 Cover photo of 'How China Sees India and the World' by Shyam Saran. (Photo by arrangement)

“Shibao looked closely at these people and they all had faces black as coal. They were wearing a piece of red cloth around their heads like a tall hat; around their waists they wore a belt holding wooden clubs. Shibao asked the old man: Are these Indians? The old man said yes, the English use them as policemen. Shibao asked, why do they not use an Indian as the chief of police? The old man answered: Whoever heard of that? Indians are people of a lost country; they are no more than slaves.”

This is an excerpt from a popular 1904 Chinese novel quoted by author Shyam Saran in his illuminative book on Chinese perceptions about India and Indians. The view expressed in this short passage typifies Chinese views of Indians.

India, the author writes, in colonial times was seen as “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 mobilise the people to resist foreign aggression… India was thus held up as a teacher by negative example.”

Much has changed in India since its Independence more than 75 years ago but the negative Chinese view of Indians persists. Therefore, the author argues: “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.”

The book highlights the strands of Chinese history that illustrate their worldview, and particularly perceptions about their western neighbour, India. There is a need, as the author explains, for “a much deeper understanding of the nature of Chinese civilisation, its cultural peculiarities and the worldview of its people, formed layer upon layer, over 5,000 years of unbroken, though sometimes tumultuous, history.”

The author could not be more right. Sadly, China remains a black hole in the Indian consciousness. Indians might rant against China, its aggression on our borders and its success in swamping our markets with cheap goods, but their knowledge of China, its history, culture and society, is abysmal. This has been a historic shortcoming and one reason why India’s leadership has often failed to correctly assess Chinese intentions and actions.

“During the 40 years and more that I was engaged with China in different capacities,” writes the author, “I became increasingly aware of how little we really know about a country which is now a contiguous neighbour, a powerful adversary and a challenge which manifests itself in multiple dimensions — political, economic, technological and even cultural.”

“It is not enough for India to have a handful of Chinese-knowing diplomats and a small group of China scholars possessed of a relatively deep familiarity with China. The larger constituency of educated Indians must also have such familiarity,” he writes.

Saran is easily one of India’s most erudite ex-diplomats and his book is a brilliant introduction to the subject. The book is designed to explain China’s past and present in a succinct, step-by-step manner which makes it easy to comprehend, even though it contains a prodigious degree of scholarship.

The reader is taken through the various periods of Chinese history beginning with the ancient Xia dynasty, which is believed to have emerged 4,000 years ago, to the last Qing dynasty, the latter period of which encompasses China’s “century of humiliation” in the hands of foreign devils. The book then moves to era of the People’s Republic. The focus in all these periods is the contacts, or a lack thereof, with India.

Interestingly, in the first millennium, Chinese views on India were quite positive thanks to the waves of Chinese pilgrims travelling to India which was then known as Xitian, or ‘Western Paradise’. India, not China, was often described as the centre of the world. The main reason for this reverence was Buddhism which originated in India.

Exchanges between India and China continued over the centuries mainly through trade, a lot of it maritime. The famous Chinese navigator, Admiral Zheng He, was not only familiar with Indian ports but is believed to have eventually breathed his last on one of them, perhaps Calicut.

Chinese perceptions of India turned sharply negative during the colonial period when it suffered ignominious defeat in the so-called Opium Wars. Indian soldiers and Indian opium subjugated China. The British were not the only ones to profit from the infamous opium trade but also Indians, the author points out quoting historian Amar Farooqi: “…the destiny of Bombay as a great commercial centre was born of its becoming an accomplice in drugging of countless Chinese with opium. A venture in which the Indian business class showed great zeal.”

“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.”

Despite the humiliation and depredations of the colonial powers, China retained its sovereignty and fought the Second World War as an independent power, unlike most Indian soldiers who fought for their colonial masters. It is significant that after the war, China was welcomed as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council while India was partitioned and left in tatters.

Clearly, we need to learn from the histories of the nations and peoples around us. This book is a masterful attempt to break that intellectual isolation.

How China Sees India and the World

By Shyam Saran

Juggernaut Books

pp. 286; Rs 799

Tags: qing dynasty, book review, india foreign policy