India - China Cultural Interface: An Agenda for Future
Brig Vinod Anand, Senior Fellow, VIF

Linked Through Civilisation & Culture

Both India and have China have fascinated each other - culturally, religiously and civilisationally – over the past two millennia. Across the centuries the two great civilisations have continually communicated with each other and until recent times had seen a peaceful co-existence ‘for over two thousand years.’ As Indian historian of world civilisations, D.P.Singhal observes, ‘this amicable relationship may have been nurtured by the close historical and religious ties of Buddhism introduced to China by Indian monks at a very early stage of their respective histories.’ (India and World Civilisation, vol.1 London, 1969). Chinese scholars in search of wisdom and deeply motivated by the quest of knowledge undertook some of the most arduous continental journeys to India. Indian scholars and teachers similarly travelled to China, taught there, were revered, feted and established themselves as knowledge-lighthouses. The civilisational exchange and interface thus began and was enhanced by centuries of interaction. In fact India and China formed a formidable civilisational and cultural coalition long before the rise of the West. One of India’s veteran diplomat and sometime foreign secretary, K.P.S.Menon (1898-1982) once put the relation in perspective when he said that, ‘The hall mark of intercourse of Sino-Indian relations is cultural intercourse and affinity. The two great peoples, wedded to civilized living in the ways of peace, naturally find in the exchange of culture the truest expression of their being. Not for them the covetous eyes of neither rapacious plunder nor territorial aggrandizement.’ (‘My Tribute to Tan-Yun-Shan’ in Tan Chung ed., In the Footsteps of Xuanzang: Tan Yun-Shan and India, New Delhi, 1999).

Economic and cultural exchanges between the two civilisations have been traced back at least to the Qin (221-206BC) and Han (202BC-220AD) dynasties. The celebrated epics of India, Ramayana and Mahabharata, contain numerous references to China. The Mahabharata in fact ‘refers to China several times’ and mentions, for example, the presents brought by the Chinese for the Rajasuya Yagna (coronation) of the Pandavas. The famous Arthasastra, Manusmriti too mentions China. Legendary historian of Asian civilisations René Grousset (1885-1952) argued that the name China came ‘from an ancient Sanskrit name for the regions to the east, and not, as often supposed, from the name of the state of Ch’in.’ It would be interesting to look at some of these suggestions made on the origins of the name from the civilisational contact dimension. The Sanskrit name Cina, it has been proposed, may have been inspired from the small state of that name Chan-si (Shan-si) in the northwest of China, which thrived in the fourth century B.C. Pointing at another cue, other scholars have argued that the Greek word for China ‘Tzinista’, may have been derived from the Sanskrit Chinasthana. (Singhal, op.cit) ‘I see no reason to doubt," commented sinologist Arthur Waley (1889-1966) in his book, The Way and its Power, "that the 'holy mountain-men' (sheng-hsien) described by Lieh Tzu are Indian rishi; and when we read in Chuang Tzu of certain Taoists who practiced movements very similar to the asanas of Hindu yoga, it is at least a possibility that some knowledge of the yoga technique which these rishi used had also drifted into China.’ (Cited in Singhal, op.cit)

Over ten centuries ago, Chinese monks Xuan Zang (Hsuan Tsang) and Fa Xian (Fa Hsien) journeyed to India for Buddhist scriptures and knowledge while renowned Indian monks Kumarajiva and Bodhidharma spread Buddhist teachings in China. In modern times Professor Tan Yun-Shan (1898-1983), the indefatigable director of the Cheena Bhavan at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan symbolised the continuance of this ancient civilisational-cultural quest through his life and mission. In what can perhaps be termed as one of the most significant description and tribute to these common cultural and civilisational ties between the two countries, Tan Yun-Shan while addressing scholars and students at Santiniketan in the presence of Rabindranath Tagore observed:

India and China are naturally a pair of sister countries. Their similarities and their associations are great, numerous, and intimate. Looking over the geography and history of all the nations in the world, we find there are not any other two nations that can be compared to our two countries. This is true from every respect and from every standard of observation and judgment. Our two countries, both situated in the bright and glorious continent of Asia. India to the south-west and China to the north-east, spread out lordly in different directions but yet are linked up at the main line, just like the two wheels of a carriage or the two wings of a bird, and, even better to say, like the two hands and feet or the two ears and eyes of a person. And the Himalayas, gigantic and majestic, brilliant and magnificent, exactly resemble the common backbone, or the shoulders, or the neck, and also the nerve system of theirs. Though their boundaries are marked off, yet the physical shape is similar. (‘Cultural Interchanges between India and China’ in Tan-Chung, op.cit.)

Renewing the Link

For historical and geopolitical reasons there was a hiatus in this civilisational interaction while both India and China suffered the effects of colonialism and Western imperialism. It brought about an interruption, a break and an eventual cessation in this interaction. Both were preoccupied in dealing with and then resisting colonial and imperialist forces. But even here the link had not completely ceased. China and India extended each other mutual support in the fight against colonial rule and the struggle for national independence and liberation. In 1937, the Indian National Congress issued a statement condemning the Japanese invasion of China. Doctor Dwarkanath Kotnis travelled all the way to China as a member of an Indian medical aid team and devoted his life to the cause of the liberation of the Chinese people. As a leading light of the University of Calcutta, Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee, later to become Industries Minister in free India’s first cabinet, facilitated academic and cultural exchange between the two countries by inviting scholars from China to come and stay in Calcutta and study Indian culture and languages. After liberation, a period saw some progress at trying to renew this link.

In the 1950s, China-India relations developed smoothly and the two countries co-initiated the famous Panchsheel, the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence, which are still recognised as the basic principles of international relations. But other political and historical issues intervened and interrupted for long decades this phase of cultural re-forging.

But eventually a process of recovery started. Thanks to their joint efforts, China and India diplomatic, trade and people-to-people exchanges were revived in the mid-1970s. The Indian Prime Minister’s visit to China in 1988 made a breakthrough in bilateral relations. In the 1990s, high-level visits between the two countries increased, and cooperation in various fields made steady progress. Two agreements were signed for the maintenance of peace and tranquillity and confidence-building measures in their border areas. In May 1998 came the Agreement on Cultural Cooperation which provided for the implementation of an executive Cultural Exchange Programme (CEP). Thereafter CEPs have been signed which provides for cooperation in a gamut of cultural areas including exchanges of visits of artists, officials, writers, archivists and archaeologists, organising cultural festivals, exchanges in the field of mass media, youth affairs and sports. In June 2003, a MoU was signed on reciprocal basis for setting up of Cultural Centres in the two capitals.

In a symbolic continuation of this gradual progress in further reactivating cultural ties in 2007, the restored Xuanzang Memorial Hall was inaugurated at Nalanda, in Bihar. The then Chinese foreign minister who led a 110 member delegation to the ceremony had then underlined the need for the two countries to work together, ‘Let us begin from this beautiful example’ he had then said. The 'Year of China-India Tourism Friendship' in 2007 was also launched. In May 2010 an Indian-style Buddhist Temple in the International Garden on the west side of the White Horse Temple in Luoyang, which was built by India over a period of five years, was dedicated to the people of China. Combining ancient principles of design and modern technology, the Rs.18 crore edifice was a unique gift from India and represented a bridge to the 2000 years old civilisational ties between the two people. While inaugurating the temple the then President of India had observed that, ‘"Luoyang is widely considered to be a cradle of the Chinese civilisation.... Historically it (the White Horse temple) has the unique distinction of symbolising an intermingling of Indian and Chinese cultures…I am confident that the Indian-styled temple will also be perceived by generations to come as a testimony of our friendship.’

A Centre for Indian Studies was also inaugurated in Peking University and Shenzhen University in consideration of an annual Visiting Chair in the Humanities and Social Sciences on 18 June 2008. The first visiting Indian professor has taken over the assignment in Shenzhen University. A bilateral Education Exchange Programme (EEP) also exists for exchange of scholars, mutual recognition of academic degrees, cooperation in the field of teachers training, exchanges between higher education institutions, and exchanges of Hindi and Chinese language teachers. Some Chinese universities and educational institutions have also entered into MoUs for information, faculty and student exchanges with Indian counterparts. An increasing number of Chinese students are also going to India for undergraduate studies. The two governments also annually offer 25 scholarships each under the CEP, though meagre and in need for urgent numerical revision, this was also a step forward in cementing academic collaboration.

Some travelling exhibitions by both sides have been organised in each other’s cities to promote cultural awareness. The Governments of India and China have also organised the ‘Festival of India’ in China and the ‘Festival of China’ in India. Perhaps the time has now come for both India and China, aspiring to re-emerge as great powers on the world stage, to actively renew and reinvent those past cultural and historic links. Both have in them huge cultural reservoirs that could considerably enhance their emergence. A few pointers to possible measures in this direction can perhaps further facilitate the exploration for cultural cooperation and interface.

Future Pathways

The following are recommendations which, if implemented, would strengthen India-China cultural relationship so that geo-cultural paradigm becomes the dominating theme rather that the geo-political paradigm between the two great civilisations.

  1. A Joint Cultural-Cooperation-Committee (JCCC) could be officially set up to look into developing a framework of extensive and intensive cultural cooperation with a long term objective in mind. Without a joint framework cultural cooperation initiatives will lack a defined objective and systematic progress. The respective Ministries of Culture should be tasked to take this forward. In India an officer at the level of Joint Secretary can be made responsible for coordinating and monitoring the entire effort. Eminent personalities from the field of culture, academia and media will be members of this Committee. Various joint sub-committees can be formed to take forward the work in the areas enumerate below. These sub-committees will periodically report to the nodal central JCCC the progress of projects undertaken.
  2. A systematic programme for collaboration between leading Cultural organisations on either side needs to be drawn up. Mere travelling exhibitions will not suffice. The formation of a Cultural Exhibition Expert Committee with members from both countries to look into the conceptualizing, planning and coordinating of these exhibitions can be an interesting step forward in this. Leading curators and art historians from either side could be involved in the work.
  3. Increased Museum to Museum contacts, diversification of exhibitions to areas such as: handicrafts, textiles, music, artifacts, artisanal exchanges, exhibitions of cultural products from rural India and some other areas. India is rich in such diverse products and the experience for the Chinese can be really enriching. A Joint-Museum Committee can be formed to oversee this aspect.
  4. Festivals of China in India and vice versa can be planned more frequently with increased scope. The Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) is doing something in this regard but this needs to be further enhanced and diversified. Popularisation of Chinese culture in India and Indian culture in China should be the principal objective of this exercise.
  5. Joint effort in preserving tangible heritage can be undertaken. India and China can take initiative in providing expertise in preservation heritage monuments that symbolise India-China cultural and civilisational link. Sites such as these can be identified all over India and China and a joint collaborative group can be set up to study the status of these and the possibilities of cooperation in their preservation.
  6. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) and leading Indian institutions such as the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) can develop a series of collaborative efforts in various areas of research on Chinese and Indian societal evolution and issues. The Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), the apex body for historical research in India, can also draw up a series of collaborative projects with leading Chinese institutions of historical research. Exchange of scholars, collaborative projects on preservations and dissemination of manuscripts that highlight past cultural exchanges, forming a joint databank bank of these can be undertaken and then further diversified. It may be an interesting area where an increased cultural cooperation can make an impact. India’s flagship effort in this direction, the National Mission for Manuscripts (NMM) is already doing work in the area of preserving and discovering historical manuscripts and epigraphical material. Collaboration with the NMM will enrich the epigraphical reserves of both the countries. The Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) in New Delhi has also been working in this area especially in highlighting and studying the India-China cultural link. The IGNCA has been collecting material on past Chinese scholars who were fascinated by India and contributed to the understanding of the two people and civilisations. It has for instance, extensively chronicled and documented the works of Professor Tan Yuan Shan, a true cultural Ambassador of China in India. Efforts could be made to further document and commemorate such past initiatives. Universities in both countries that have cultural studies centres need to collaborate and create a consortium of such centres.
  7. China has been taking great initiative in supporting India’s efforts at creating the new Nalanda International University. The aim was to revive the ancient seat of Buddhist learning in the present day Bihar, as a modern centre of knowledge. A similar sister project could be conceived in China in some ancient Buddhist or Confucian seat of learning, or any other historical area closely identified with the growth of China as a great civilisation. India could be asked to take initiative in setting up such a university in collaboration with the Chinese ministry of education. Gradually neighbouring countries can also be invited to be part of the cultural-educational initiative. Such a project may not necessarily be a university but can be conceived of as a centre of cultural research and education that will impart special courses on Indian and Chinese culture, language and civilisation and may also confer recognised degrees. In short, it may become a centre for training and developing cultural ambassadors for both countries.
  8. Media Study Centres can be set up in leading Universities in either country. Collaborative efforts at documentary production, educational film making and even mainstream film industries in both countries can be explored.
  9. A lot can be learnt from China’s model of sports and physical education. The Beijing Olympics has demonstrated that much could be learnt from the Chinese model and retailored to Indian conditions and objectives. A close and dynamic cooperation framework between the two sports ministries could be worked out in this respect. The Sports Authority of India (SAI) can take a leading initiative in this matter. Since India has a struggling programme of general physical education, the Chinese model can be studied for its adaptability to India. Systematic exchange programmes of physical education experts, coaches and leading sports personalities can take place with a defined schedule to be followed. In the early 1950s India had implemented such an exchange programme with the then USSR and it had a remarkable effect in increasing the interest in sports in the country.

The above are but broad pointers which, if given adequate and sustained thought and planning, could launch and further strengthen efforts at civilisational bridge-building. The India-China cultural interface’s agenda for the future offers a varied scope for collaboration and exchange. A dynamic outreach and initiative must come from both sides in order to take the collaboration to the next stage. Such a step would certainly be for a larger purpose and benefit. Professor Tan Yun-Shan perhaps foresaw the future when he said, pointing to this need:

We Indians and Chinese must wake up at once, and restore our old national relationship. By the interchange of our cultures we shall achieve our cultural renaissance; by cultural renaissance we shall create a new world civilization; and by the new civilization we shall relieve all mankind. Our two countries having made a glorious world in the past, can't we make again a glorious world in the future?

٭ The above text is an updated and modified version of the presentation made at Shenzen University, PRC during the conference “The Fourth China-South Asia Cultural Forum” organized by Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries from November, 14-17, 2012 at Centre for Indian Studies, Shenzen University.

Published Date: 21th January 2013

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