Historical Perspective on Ancient and Medieval Sino-India Wars
Colonel D Lakshmana Kumar

Before the 1962 border clash, Mao Zedong apparently told his commanders that China and India had previously fought ‘One and a half wars’ and in both instances India had been defeated convincingly. This historical misconception would have had no significance had it not been quoted repeatedly by authors and scholars. This paper, therefore, intends to critically analyze Mao Zedong’s claim by examining all the major Sino-India military confrontations of ancient and medieval times so as to bring out the relevant facts of history and illustrate that in their long history of existence there was never a direct confrontation between the two civilizations.

Perspective on Sino-India Confrontations

One of the most natural and clearly identifiable buffer zones in the world is between that of India and China in the form of the Himalayas. This has remained more or less unaltered for as far back as civilization goes, though it may not be right to view it as a buffer between India and China because Tibet, as an independent entity, has always been the actual buffer between India and China until the recent past. In fact, strategic affairs expert Brahma Chellaney says that China and India are ‘comparatively speaking, new neighbours’. Nevertheless, for more than 5000 years now, great civilization have existed on both sides of Himalaya and have maintained some or other kind of cultural links, at least for the last 2000 years.1 During this period, their armies had seldom crossed the Himalayas to challenge each other’s sovereignty or to annex a part of it.

Historian John Keay claim that the Himalayas has only been crossed once before 1962 by either of the armies and that too an insignificantly small incursion by Chinese army into a remote corner of India.2 Nevertheless, there was no major war fought between the ruling Chinese dynasty and its contemporary power in India ever. However, before the 1962 border clash, Mao Zedong told his commanders that China and India had previously fought ‘One and a half wars’ and in both instances India had been defeated convincingly. 3 He went on to claim that the first war had occurred during Tang Dynasty (618-907) apparently in support of an Indian kingdom and the ‘half war’ was the one fought by Tamerlane against Delhi Sultanate in 1398. His reasoning for referring to the latter as ‘half war’, was that Tamerlane was a Mongol ruler and as per him at that time Mongolia and China were part of the same political entity. Mao Zedong, who always had disdain for history, is known to have contorted history as per convenience. In this case too, he did so with impunity.

The actual transcripts of the meeting where Mao made these claims are not available, as the only book which had direct quotations of Mao, ‘Snows of the Himalaya Mountains: the True Record of the China-India War’ by Sun Shao and Chen Zhibin was banned shortly after its appearance. Today, more than fifty years hence, it continues to create a historical misconception as many authors4 quote Mao’s apparent claims in different context without giving a clarification on the historical facts as such. This paper, therefore, intends to critically analyze Mao Zedong’s claim by examining all the major Sino-India military confrontations of ancient and medieval times so as to bring out the relevant facts of history.

The First Empire Extending Across Himalayas

The Kushans, a Central Asian semi-nomadic tribe known as Yueh-Chi, were the first to establish an empire which extended onto both sides of the Himalayas, from outskirts of Pataliputra on the Gangetic plain to Turfan in the Tarim Basin (in China’s Xinjiang region).5 During their initial days of settlement near Bactria (Northern Afghanistan), China’s Han Dynasty rulers had reached out to them in order to form alliance against their common enemy, the Xiongnu. However, ‘they showed no interest in returning to the East of the Pamirs’.6 It was only almost two centuries later that they returned to the Tarim Basin which was their ancestral land.

The first ever confrontation between Kushans and Chinese Han Empire took place in 86 CE. The Kushans, having collaborated militarily with the Chinese against other nomadic tribes during 84-85 CE, requested for the hands of a Han princess in recognition for their support. But the Han Dynasty general, Ban Chao turned down their request. Consequently, a force of 70,000 was dispatched against the General.7 However, they were forced to retreat after a while as Ban Chao resorted to scorched-earth policy which made their sustenance extremely difficult.

There are no other records of military confrontation between Kushans and Chinese Han Dynasty. In fact immediately after the death of Ban Chao, there was a general uprising against the Chinese power in 106 CE and the Han Dynasty abandoned its empire in the Western regions in 107 CE.8 Consequently, by early second century, Kushans extended their empire towards East till Turfan that included Kashgar, Khotan and Yarkand.9 However, what is of greater relevance during this era was the introduction of Buddhism into China, along the Silk route, which is considered as the ‘most significant event in the history of India-China cultural exchange’.10

Buddhism, in turn had a profound effect on China and the cultural links between India and China also increased over the next few centuries to reach its zenith after Xuanzang – a Chinese monk who had travelled extensively in India for fifteen years- returned from India in 645 CE.

Mao’s ‘First’ Sino–India War

Xuanzang (or Yuan-Chwang), on his return to China from India, received a hero’s welcome. His travel and the treasures of texts he carried back had tremendous impact on China; that also had its own diplomatic repercussions.11 Oddly enough, herein lay the genesis of the said ‘first military confrontation’ between the two civilizations.

Wang Xuance, the ambassador of the Tang Dynasty in Harshavardhana’s court, returned to India in 648 CE after a gap of five years, with a much more impressive embassy which was certainly due to the positive influence of Xuanzang’s report. But unfortunately, Harshavardhana had died in the previous year and consequently the entire Northern States were in disarray. Moreover, the Brahman in India had started viewing the Buddhist community as a threat to their position of power since they were getting patronized by many Indian rulers. The recent popularity of the Chinese monk Xuanzang only added fuel to fire. 12 Moreover, there was a complete political chaos in Eastern part of India at that time. It is said that during that time ‘every Kshatriya, Brahmin grandee or merchant was a king in his own house’.13 Thus, when Wang Xuance arrived in India, he received a hostile reception. Almost 30 members of his diplomatic mission were killed, all valuables were stolen and he himself barely escaped with his life.14

Wang Xuance retreated to Tibet. To his good luck, Tibet had recently ‘won’ a ‘peace-through-Kinship’ treaty with the Tang Dynasty (AD 640) 15 and had also conquered Nepal. During this period, both Tang and the Tibetan considered each other as their vassal state. Wan Xuance benefitted from these conditions and ‘demanded troops for a retaliatory attack on India, and the Tibetans obliged’.16 A joint force of Chinese and Tibetans is said to have attacked India passing through Chumbi Pass between Sikkim and Nepal. The man who allegedly usurped Harshavardhana’s throne was taken prisoner and sent to the Tang capital Changan. As per standard Tang history, ‘India was overawed’.17 This is ‘the first war’ which Mao referred to in 1962. Apparently it was ‘to assist the legal claimant to a throne of a sub-continental Kingdom’. 18

The whole episode appears to be nothing more than a minor incursion possibly against ‘a feudatory kingdom of Harsha in the present-day Northern Bihar’. 19 Moreover, there is no record available about the so called usurper of King Harsha, described as King Aluonashun, in any available Indian records. Besides, the army required for the punitive expedition was granted by the Tibetan King Song-tsen-gam-po, which composed of only twelve hundred mercenaries and more than seven hundred Nepali cavalry. There was certainly no direct involvement of Tang Army in the said expedition.20 Therefore, it is logical to conclude that Mao’s claimed ‘first Sino-India war’ never took place. Interestingly, such punitive raids were carried out earlier by Tibetans on Chinese border towns also.

Mongol’s Invasion Attempts

Mongols, who were one of the many Central Asian nomadic tribes, created the largest contiguous land empire in history. Though Mongols are never considered as Chinese, Mao Zedong described them as the common link in the ‘half war’. Therefore, let’s briefly examine the history of the Mongol’s invasion attempts into Indian sub-continent.

Mongols launched numerous raids into India between 1221 and 1327, and hoped that Delhi Sultanate would succumb to the pressure, like the Seljuk Sultanate and Armenian Kingdom in the Middle East had succumbed, and accept vassal status. 21 However, the Delhi Sultanate stood resolutely and inflicted very heavy casualty on the raiding force. Initially the captured Mongols were allowed to settle near Delhi, what is even today known as Mughalpura (or Mongolpuri). But later on, the Delhi Sultanate dealt with them in an equally barbaric manner, by slaughtering them en-masse and even crushing many under the feet of elephants.22

Historians and researchers have given many reasons for the failure of Mongols in India, ranging from climatic conditions to the extraordinary skills with arms of the Delhi army.22 Whatever the reasons may be, the fact remains that they rarely succeeded in battles fought in India against the Delhi Sultanate, despite making several attempts.23

Genghis Khan died in 1227, but the Mongol Empire continued to grow. Later, the wars of succession among the grand children of Genghis Khan weakened the Empire considerably. Kubalai Khan finally won the Tohuid Civil War of succession and in 1271 officially proclaimed the establishment of Yuan Dynasty in China. With his death in 1294, the semblance of unified Mongol Empire also died and four separate Khanates or empires emerged. They were the Golden Horde (Russia, East Europe), the Chagatai Khanate (Uzbekistan, East of Mongolia), the Il-Khanate (Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan) and the Yuan Dynasty which was the first foreign dynasty ruling over China. Tamerlane or Timur, to whom Mao attributed the ‘half war’, was born in the Chagatai Khanate region and rose to power only in 1370. In fact, by this time, the Chagatai Khanate itself had split and therefore by 1370s all links between various Khanates and China had been severed. Moreover, by 1368, the Ming Dynasty had brought an end to the Yuan Dynasty, the first foreign dynasty ruling over China, thereby removing any possibility of a common thread between China and Timur’s incursion in India.

Mao’s ‘Half War’: Timur’s Incursion in India

In late 14th Century, the Delhi Sultanate was in total disarray and its boundary had shrunk to its lowest expanse.24 The most dominant powers in India at that time were the Vijayanagara Empire and the Bahmani Kingdom (or the Bahmanid Sultanate). By then, ‘all the Muslim states in the South were indigenous and ‘Indianized’. Even the Afghan rulers of Delhi had merged into India and ‘their dynasties became completely Indianized’ having amicable relations with the Hindus.25 This became the pretext for Timur to invade India, ‘in order to wage war against infidels and become a Ghazi as well as gain by plundering the wealth and valuables of the infidels’.26 However, the actual reason for his decision was based on the fact that the civil war in Delhi which was going on since 1394, offered an excellent opportunity for exploitation. Thus, in Oct 1398, when Timur reached the outskirts of Delhi, there was hardly any worthwhile army left to challenge him. After slaughtering all ‘infidels’ and plundering all along his way to Delhi, Timur returned to Samarkand in early 1399, without actually confronting any of the regional powers in India.

This incursion certainly can’t be termed as ‘half’ Sino-India war, as claimed by Mao, since Timur was neither a pure Mongol and nor China was part of the same political entity under the Mongols at that time. The fact is that, firstly, Timur, due to his Turko-Mongolian heritage, could never even use the title ‘Khan’27, and secondly, by 1397, the Ming Dynasty in China had completely consolidated its position and when they attempted to treat Timur as their vassal, Timur was so enraged that he detained the Chinese envoys. Rather contrary to Mao’s claim, China would have had a common link with India through Timur in suffering his wrath. However, China was extremely lucky to have escaped as Timur died just after assembling a huge army for the invasion of China in 1405.28


The world today focuses much on Sino-India relations and many authors give historical references of the cultural links as well as the military confrontations. The veracity of such references and the context in which they are made needs to be clearly understood, so as to draw correct lessons from the past. The unresolved boundary dispute between India and China only adds to the significance of history as it plays a crucial role in the psychological conditioning of military commanders at all levels.

Richard Neustadt and Ernest May claim that ‘decision-makers always draw on past experience, whether conscious of doing so or not’. The fact that there was never a direct military confrontation between the two civilization in thousands of years of existence while having deep cultural links, needs to be understood and highlighted in the correct perspective by authors, research scholars and policy makers alike so as to have a better Sino-India relations in the years ahead.

References :
  1. ‘Encyclopedia of India-China Cultural Contacts Vol 1’, available at https://mea.gov.in/images/pdf/India-ChinaEncyclopedia_Vol-1.pdf, p.3, accessed on 15Aug18.
  2. John Keay, China – A History, HarperPress 2009, p.244.
  3. Henry Kissinger, On China, Penguin Books 2011, p.1.
  4. Jaswant Singh, in his book ‘India at Risk’ has given a ref of Henry Kissinger’s ‘On China’, who in turn has given ref of John W Garver’s “China’s Decision for War with India in 1962”, in Alastair Iaian Johnston and Robert S. Ross, eds, ‘New directions in the study of China’s Foreign Policy’, who in turn has cited Sun Shao and Chen Zibius’, ‘Ximalaya Shan’.
  5. Avari Burjor, India: The Ancient Past, London: Routledge 2007, p.129-131.
  6. John Keay, China – A History, HarperPress 2009, p.136.
  7. Rafe de Crespigny, A Biographical Dictionary of Later Han to the Three Kingdoms (23-220 AD), Leiden: Koninklijke Brill 2007, p. 5-6.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Maj Gen G S Sandhu, A Military History of Ancient India, Vision Books 2000, p.294.
  10. ‘Encyclopedia of India-China Cultural Contacts Vol 1’, available at https://mea.gov.in/images/pdf/India-ChinaEncyclopedia_Vol-1.pdf, p.4, accessed on 15Aug18.
  11. John Keay, China – A History, HarperPress 2009, p.242 -43.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Maj Gen G S Sandhu, A Military History of Ancient India, Vision Books 2000, p.399.
  14. John Keay, China – A History, HarperPress 2009, p.243 and John W Garver, “China’s Decision for War with India in 1962”, available at http://indianstrategicknowledgeonline.com/web/china.pdf , p.50.
  15. David L. Snellgrove and Hugh Richardson, A CULTURAL HISTORY OF TIBET, Orchid Press 2003, p.27.
  16. John Keay, China – A History, HarperPress 2009, p.243.
  17. Ibid and Maj Gen G S Sandhu, A Military History of Ancient India, Vision Books 2000, p.342.
  18. John W Garver, “China’s Decision for War with India in 1962”, available at http://indianstrategicknowledgeonline.com/web/china.pdf , p.50.
  19. Tansen Sen , Buddhism, Diplomacy, and Trade: The Realignment of Sino-Indian Relations, 600-I400, Association for Asian Studies 2003, p. 22-23.
  20. Ibid and Sam Van Schaik, Tibet A History, Yale University Press 2011, p. 14.
  21. John Masson Smith.Jr, “Mongol Armies and Indian Campaigns”, available at http://www.mongolianculture.com/MONGOL-ARMIES.htm, accessed on 15Aug18.
  22. Ishwari Prasad, A Short History Of Muslim Rule In India, The Indian Press, p.104-108.
  23. Iqtidar Alam Khan, Historical Dictionary of Medieval India, Scarecrow Press, Inc 2008, p.19-27.
  24. Maj Gen G S Sandhu, A Military History of Medieval India, Vision Books 2000, p. 247.
  25. Iqtidar Alam Khan, Historical Dictionary of Medieval India, Scarecrow Press, Inc 2008, p.8 and Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India, Penguin Books India 2010, p. 257-59.
  26. Maj Gen G S Sandhu, A Military History of Medieval India, Vision Books 2000, p. 248.
  27. Manz, Beatrice Forbes, ‘Tamerlane and the symbolism of sovereignty’, Iranian Studies volume 21 (1-2), p. 105–122.
  28. John King Fairbank, Denis Crispin Twitchett, Frederick W. Mote(eds), The Cambridge History of China, Volume 7, Part 1, Cambridge University Press 1988, p.259.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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