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India-China Cultural Relations: Historical Perspective

(Based on the writer’s presentation at the University of Madras symposium jointly held with Fudan University, Shanghai on 7, 8 and 9 august 2007.)


Culture has many definitions.

It is now widely understood to imply many widely differentiated definitions by societies differentiated by religious differences, ethical concepts, and ethos — which includes social behaviour and traditions including social structures, music and dancing, languages and literature, culinary preferences, and other outward symbols of living.

This article does not intend to touch on all or every one of these aspects. I shall restrict myself to a few.

India and China may be reckoned easily to have different cultures in the true sociological sense. China’s is basically a temperate climate against largely torrid climate of India, implying different constraints for agricultural development, plenitude of natural resources of China against the paucity of the same valuable resources in India.

There is no social divide in China as it exists in India. But, there are some similar divides. The Soldier is rated low in China while in India he is only no 2 to the priest.

But, unlike in India, where castes are endogamous, in China, all Chinese are of equal marital acceptability.

The political developments, post–1972, leading to the permanent membership of the UN Security Council, after Nixon’s Visit in February 1972, thus resulting in an availability of tremendous political leverage, leading to outstanding economic developments, are not objects of my paper.


Most importantly, these two giants of Asia are unique 21st Century examples of unbroken civilizations extant for over 3000 years, contiguous territorially, and with significant mutual influence in areas like religion and ordinarily Cultural symbols like art, literature etc. Other comparably great civilizations of the past like the Greek, and the even more ancient Egyptian, civilizations cannot be said to be extant.

Much like India, China too has suffered a tremendous number of invasions influencing very little the basic Han culture except in area like Religion – Buddhism – which did not, repeat did not, come in as an adjunct to invading forces.

India too, had suffered innumerable invasions earlier. But, apart from the later culture-modifying Arab, Afghan, Persian and TurkoMongol invasions from the 8th Century AD onwards till the 18th century AD, as well as the equally culture-modifying invasions by the Europeans from the 18th Century AD to the 20th Century AD, the first invasions of India were by the more or less same forces as those invaders of Han China; they were the Mongolian Tribes HUNS (XIONG NU)and the KUSHANS (YUE ZHI). These ethnic tribes, were cousins of those who had invaded China; these have been described in Chinese literature of the Warring States Period (7th Century BC to the middle of 13th Century AD).

These tribes had been unavoidably HAN-IZED, a great tribute to the general immutability of the Chinese value system, while those which came into the sub-Continental India were HINDUIZED, who morphed into the Indian cultural melting-pot, and were included into the Hindu caste structure as the second top-most in the caste hierarchy.

(YueZhi ) Kushan kings Kujula Kadphises, Kadphises the Second, Kanishka, Huvishka and the next Kushan King Vasudeva, are examples of this. The magnificent Buddha statue of Kanishka period in Delhi Museum attests to their interest general preferences.

Buddhism entered China in and around the 2nd Century BC, through the Scythians.

An ancient reference in this context is to the 2nd Century BC Han Dynasty Emperor Han Wu Ti dreaming of a white pigeon flying in from the direction of India, interpreted by the Court Soothsayers as referring to Buddha and the country of origin, the Western heaven- ancient word for India.

Another reference is to 2nd Century AD LATTER HAN DYNASTY Emperor Ming who reportedly saw a golden deity riding a white horse. Although this reference is not confirmed by then contemporary annals, Tang Emperor TAI ZONG, confirms this, as recorded in then contemporary annals, in 650 AD.

There are two versions about the early Buddhist Pilgrims.

Amongst the well-recorded is the Buddhist Pilgrim from India, Bodhidharma, from Kancheepuram in the 5th century AD who, according to some historians, perhaps, established the White Horse Monastery (BaiMaSi) in present – day LuoYang and died on the banks of the Luo He (River). Former Chinese Premier Li Peng is reported to have suggested that Bodhidarma was definitely from South India .

Another version is about another set of 5th Century AD Monks from India – Kasyapa Matanga and Buddha Raksha, who reportedly came into Luoyang, riding white horses. (See previous reference to Han Dynasty Emperor Ming’s dream). (Hence: White horse Monastery). Perhaps, this is a more credible explanation of Bai Ma Si.

There had been many Indo-Kucheans amongst the Buddhist pilgrims, most eminent being KumaraJiva in the 5th century AD from Kuche, present-day Tarim Basin,( in modern China ‘s autonomous western-most province Xing Jiang- Sinkiang), whose ancestors spoke the Kuchean language – ( a variation of the most eastern Indo-European Tocharian A and B languages).

( The following is not relevant to any past, present or future territorial claims but only relevant to the present discussion on ancient Cultural and Linguistic connections between India and China. It is: the undoubted evidence said to be available of Indian kings ruling in Kuche in centuries before Christ perhaps in the centuries co-oeval with Asoka, incidentally during China’s WARRING STATES’ period).

The basic point to note is the fact that Buddhism, in its migratory path across much of Northeast and Southeast Asia, did not receive any political support or largesse.

Amongst all these Indian philosophers going to China, Bodhidarma was to become historically and hagioigraphically, pre-eminent as the originator of Chan Buddhism (Zen Buddhism) and it owes its development to Bodhidarma.

Buddhism was initially opposed by traditional followers of Confucius but, first to suffer from official control during some periods of Tang Dynasty ( sometime during the 6th to the 9th Century AD), which Dynasty, contrarily, also saw its acme, with return of Emperor’s support.

The Acme of Buddhist art was, and is, to be the Dun Huang Grottos in the Kansu Province , China’s own Ajanta and Ellora cave paintings and sculptures.

Considering that the physiognomy of some of those sculpted, painted, in the early grottos of Dun Huang were considered definitely to resemble more those from the south of the Himalayas, hints perhaps, at the possible participation of Indian Sculptors and Painters.

I think, we would lose our way if, at this juncture, we don’t pay reverent homage to the prince of Buddhist travelers from China to India:

Xuan Zang ( in Mandarin Pinyin orthography ) and Hiuen Tsang ( in Southern Chinese dialect orthography). In his memorable Journal, Journey to the West, Xuan Zang gives a socio-economic – religious documentation of the conditions of India of Harsha, Chalukyas and Pallavas. His encomium of Nalanda in Bihar, rivalling the preChrist, Takshasila University, (TAXILA, geographically, is in Pakistan) as one of World’s earliest universities is an outstanding document for a country – India – which is not known for historians or historiography.

If the earliest known Indian historian was KALHANA, a Kashmiri, who wrote Raja Tarangini in the TWELFTH Century AD, Chinese could boast of SiMa Jian (SSUMA CHIEN), Zhang Jian (ChangChien) etc., in the early centuries around the beginning of the first millennium after Christ.

Our next Indian historian was the Economic Historian, Romesh Chandra Dutt, of the 19 th-20th Century AD, if we don’t count the 3rdCentury BC classic, Kautilya’s Arthashastra.

For our historical references, we still depend on:

  1. pre-Asoka Megasthenes’s INDICA,

  2. 1st Century AD Anonymous author of PERIPLUS of THE ERYTHRAEAN SEA,

  3. 1st Century AD Roman historian PLINY,

  4. Chinese Traveller Fa Xian (Fa Hien), contemporaneous with the 3 rd- 4th Century Gupta period,

  5. 7th Century Chinese Traveller XUAN ZANG contemporaneous with Harsha,

  6. 11th Century Arabian Historian AL BIRUNI,

  7. Sixteenth Century Portugese travelller, Domingo Paes for South Indian History, etc.,

  8. Authors of the well-balanced middle 20th Century AD classic “Rise and Fulfilment of British Rule in INDIA”, Edward Thompson and GT Garrett,

  9. and many others including Marco Polo, the Genoan, in the 13th Century or around.

A contribution, more important than the reliable historical documentation by Xuan Zang and, therefore, the Chinese, was that Xuan Zang took away as much, as he could, with the help of many elephants and guards gifted by King Harhavardhana, many volumes of Samskrit and PALI Scriptures which, otherwise, could have suffered the fate of the books in the then world-famous – famous in the occidental world- The Library in Alexandria.

But, somewhat contrary to this thesis, is also the fact India’s early religious texts, as they were, having been written on easily perishable Palm leaves, got opportunity to be transcribed onto paper, which had been invented by the Chinese. But for Xuan Zang and China, many Buddhist Schools of thought and their development in the world, certainly in China, would never have happened or become known.

The Buddhism, which went to China, went on to Korea and Japan. Everyone knows about Zen Buddhism of Japan. But we should acknowledge Indian Buddhist Monk, Bodhidarma’s contribution to Chan Buddhism. The Chinese character CHAN derives from Sanskrit word Dhyan and the Chinese character Chan is READ as ZEN in Japanese.

Chinese, historically, were not a religious people. Confucius refused to discuss gods and Spirits, (although Taoism, a major religion to attract the Chinese for as long as Confucianism, did refer to Spirits. Verily, Taoism does not define itself. What can be described is not TAO).

What attracted the Chinese to Buddhism might have been that Buddha himself was an agnostic and refused to discuss God. This might have attracted the Chinese people who still revere him, as a great teacher, in considerable numbers. A contrary argument is that the Buddhism which attracted the Chinese was the Mahayana Buddhism of NAGARJUNA and ASHWAGOSHA who had envisioned Buddha, perhaps, as a theistic divinity.

In modern times, in the 20th century AD, Marxist China mostly went by the Communist maxim “Religion is the opium of the people”; in spite of this, there is a tremendous continuity of this religious ethos in China, over millennia.

Hindu Temples

After a fairly expansive reference to the earlier Buddhist linkages between China and India, if I don’t make at least sparse reference to the existence of Hindu Temple of 12th Century AD in QUAN ZHOU in China’s FUJIAN Province ( may have been by Nagarathar Chettiars, who had indeed built temples in the 19 th Century, in Vietnam and other Indo-China Countries), and in TALI in YUNNAN Province, Southwest China, almost bordering India’s North EAST

Finally, another religious connection is the fact, St. FRANCIS XAVIER, Jesuit priest, died in Macao ( Ao men Gao) some 400 years ago,and his remains are boxed and kept for viewing in the famous Bom Jesu Cathedral in Goa, India.

Other cultural linkages are, chronologically, loan words, visit of Rabindranath Tagore, in 1924, and “loan” of a great Indian, Dr. Dwaraknath Shantaram Kotnis in 1938 to war-ridden China.


Tagore’s visit raised a lot of hopes for literary euphoria amongst the Chinese just coming out of the initially literary and more importantly, political, May 4 th Movement, some of whose progenitors initially glorified Tagore’s visit but later recanted, may be, due to ideological reasons – Zhen du Xiu, “Mao Dun” etc. It was left to Guo MoRo, and few others who came to realize Tagore’s down to earth concerns for the poor farmers, and that Tagore was not a spiritualist only, talking high and dry religious philosophy.

Tagore got a Chinese name-Zhu Zhendan (Zhu stands for ancient name for India (there is still a village near Beijing airport called TIAN ZHU – standing for INDIA ) and ZHENDAN stands for transliteration for Samskrit CHANDAN for SANDALWOOD)

A great development that took place after his visit was the setting up of the India China Cultural Society, with Tan Yunshan as the major actor in it. And Tan YunShan himelf became part of Vishva Bharati; a Cheena Bhavan was established there under him. One can speak more about Tagore’s visit and the pro-Tagore winds and counter winds. (By the way, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that I started learning Chinese at the feet of Tan Zhong, then of Delhi University: Tan Zhong is the son of Professor Tan Yun Shan).

Tagore’s visit itself, a controversial one, is a subject worth dilating upon, separately in a voluminous paper.

KOTNIS- India’s son and China’s son-in-law

A great Indian Dwarakanath Santaram Kotnis, a Doctor by profession, joined the Medical Delegation sent by the Indian National Congress during the Sino-Japanese war, which started at the Marco Polo bridge, in 1937. The delegation, led by DR ATAL, who later died in China, had two other doctors, the younger being young Kotnis. He was a great and compassionate Doctor, and was greatly appreciated by Mao ZEDONG, in YanAn. HE married a Chinese, Guo Qing Lan and had a daughter named YIN HUA ( Yin for YIN DU , India, and Hua for Zhong HUA , CHINA). In fact, Kotnis did not return to India, when he was told that his father had died; he remained in China, showing his great compassion for the battling Chinese. Kotnis died in China, due to illness due to the rigours of cold North China, and wartime tensions and illnesses. He is survived by his wife, Guo Qing Lan.

LOAN WORDS from Chinese to Indian Languages via Samskrit

I owe this to JIN DingHan,: Cheeni – for Crystal Sugar Cheeni Mitthi — Porcelain ( Chinese clay) Cheena Sukha – Silk Cheena Pishtha -Lead Cheena (cheenia) Badam for Pea Nut ( from my friends from Uttar Pradesh)

Some comments on Cheeni: Although, India did learn making Crystalline Sugar from China, earlier, China learnt raw sugar making from India – Authority – Professor Ji Xianlin of Beijing University and author of Translation into Chinese of Samskrit Classics, like Kalidaasa’s S’aakuntalam and Vaalmeeki Raamaayanam and many other classics.

There were other words, like Patas (Pataka), Barud ( for Gunpowder ), Mariner’s Compass (Qutabnama) etc., which came into the Indian vocabulary from China via Persian or Arabic.

Some GOOD and BAD experiences ( not counting 1962)

In 1914, Sun Yat Sen, father of post-imperialist China, called for the unification of all oppressed peoples of East and Southeast Asia and India to fight western colonialism.

Indian soldiers were part of the British troops, when they put down Boxer Rebellion in and around 1900. There is some unsavory reference to the soldierly inappropriateness on the part of the British Indian soldiers.

British Indian soldiers had, indeed, been used even in the earlier battles, in the1850s, waged by the Chinese Emperor, with the help of the Indian components of the British troops, to put down the indigenous TAI PING Rebellion, which wanted to set up a Heavenly Kingdom, inspired by Christianity. Hong Xiu Quan, leader of the Taiping rebellion, called himself the younger brother of Jesus Christ.

Not strangely, perhaps, some Indian troops turned against their British masters. May be, this was a precursor to the so-called 1857 Sepoy mutiny.

Opium Wars

Opium itself was a matter of shame for British India . Opium was widely cultivated in the then Central Provinces and Berar, now Madhya Pradesh, at British behest.

The British used Indian opium to stupefy Chinese, who were not known to be opium eaters, before. By selling Opium, they could buy Chinese Silk, Tea etc., simultaneously weakening the Chinese!

Early Chinese experience with British India was, therefore, somewhat negative, considering after the Opium war of 1839 and the signing of the Treaty of NANJING, in 1842, and the leasing of the treaty ports along East and North China Sea, commercial settlements for Europeans resulted in the policing of the extra-territorial settlements, by foreigners. Chinese for the first time saw Sikh policemen (called HONG TOU’ s—RED CAPs). The appearance was intimidatory, and was a major minus point for India. Chinese mothers were said to frighten their children into sleep by threatening then with imminent Hong Tou visits.

The Opium war itself had its origin in the banning of Opium by the Manchu Emperor (Qing Dynasty), on the advice of an honest civilian controlling River Port of Canton ( Guangzhou ) named Lin De Xu. Commissioner Lin was relieved after the 1839 war, at European insistence, who wanted not to be hindered in their opium trade. Lin was sent to ILI Khazakh region, as Governor, where he did yeoman work, including an important cartographic work for China to parcel out ILI KHAZAKH region of SINKIANG ( XIN JIANG).

The reference to an honest Chinese civilian in his context, is to emphasize the fact that from the Han Dynasty ( from the 2nd Century BC to 2nd Century AD), Chinese Civil servants were selected through competitive examinations ! We have done well to learn from China, this practice, although through the “GOOD” offices of the British Empire.

No paper is adequate to describe even a select topic out of the vast complexities of China-India cultural links.

There is much more to learn for Indians about China’s contributions to mutual relationship.

(The writer, Mr.P.N.G.Subramanian (IFS), is former Consul general of India in Shanghai, China. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India.)

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