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India-China Relations: A Historical and Civilizational Perspective

India and China, the two giants of Asia are two of the oldest and living civilizations of the world. Being neighbors India and China had established trade and cultural relations since time immemorial. Indian as well as Chinese historical records reveal that India-China interaction was a two-way traffic, and the two elements of this exchange were material and spiritual or cultural linkages. The exchange was facilitated by the four routes of communications namely, the Central Asian Route or the so-called Silk Route; Assam- Burma and Yunnan Route or the famous Southern Silk Route; Tibet Nepal Route; and the Sea Route or the so-called Maritime Silk Route.

The first credible information about the India-China interactions is provided by Si Maqian (BC 145 – BC 90?), the great Chinese historian in his masterpiece Records of a Historian: Foreigners in southwest. The record narrates that when Zhang Qian, a Han envoy in the western regions returned to the court in 122 BC, he reported to Han Emperor Wu Di (BC 140 – BC 87) that while in Bactria or Bactriana in Central Asia (later variedly called as Tukharistan, Tokharistan, and Tocharistan), he saw Sichuan silk and bamboo walking sticks there; .he came to know from the local merchants that they were procuring these and other Chinese products from the Indian markets, thus establishing the fact that India and China were already having trade relations in the second century BC. Later Ban Gu (32 AD – 92 AD), another Chinese historian writes in his book Early Han Annals about the state of affairs in Kashmir and its products like pearls, corals and lapis lazuli etc. These were the primary products India traded with China, whereas silk appears to be the major item transported from China to India. Ban Gu’s book also mentions about the sea route connecting southern India and China, and certain states such as Huangzhi (identified as Kanchipuram) having brisk diplomatic and trade relations with China.

Trade relations further developed during Tang (618-907), Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1279-1368) dynasties. By this time maritime activities were intense and it is reported in various sources that in Canton there were ships of Indians, Persians and Sri Lankan merchants. Meanwhile, Indian astronomy, calendar, medicine, music and dance, sugar manufacturing technology etc. made their way to China. During Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Calicut and Cochin in India rose to prominence as the new ports. References of other sea ports such as Mahabalipuram, Goa, Nagapattam, Quilon, Nicobar, Mumbai, Malabar, Calcutta and many more could be found in various Chinese literary sources.

Beside material exchanges, it was perhaps the spiritual linkage that transformed this relationship completely and took it to a new high.  When exactly Buddhism disseminated into China, is a debatable proposition, however, most prevalent version is the famous dream of “golden Buddha” by Han Emperor Ming Di (58AD-75AD). It was an outcome of this dream that the Chinese emperor dispatched a search team to India, whereby two highly proficient Buddhist scholar monks Kashyapa Matanga and Dharmaraksha were taken to China. The monastery, White Horse Monastery, which was built to accommodate them in Luoyang, attracts thousands of devotees and tourists even today. In May 2010 during her visit to China, the Indian President Pratibha Patil inaugurated a Buddhist complex built with an Indian investment of 4 million US dollars next to this monastery. The first wave of the Indian scholar-monks going to China lasted until 3rd century AD. The second wave stretched between 4th and the 5th century, and the third between 6th and 7th centuries, the influence of Buddhism in China broadened, and many scholar monks from China to India and from India to China in thousands visited either country.

It is difficult to list all of them here however, mention must be made of Kumarajiva (343-413) who established a great feet in the history of Sino-Indian cultural exchange. His contribution to Buddhism exceeds all other Indian monk and rivals that of Xuanzang, the Chinese monk who visited India during 7th century. Kumarajiva, apart from being reduced to war booty for his brilliance and impeccable memory by the Chinese monarchs, was also accorded the highest honor of Rajyaguru by emperor Yao Xing of Later Qin dynasty. Between 2nd century and 13th century some 6000-7000 fascicles of the sutras were disseminated to China and translated into Chinese; Kumarajiva alone translated 74 scriptures in 384 fascicles. Another Indian who was high on popularity in China was Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma went to China in 6th century AD, and is believed to be the founder of Shaolin martial art in China. Shaolin monastery in Luoyang still reminds us of this great Indian cultural ambassador to China.

On the Chinese side, Faxian (342-424), Xuanzang (600-664) and Yijing (635-713) shine bright among the Chinese scholar-monks to India. Faxian was the first Chinese to travel to India in search of Buddhist sutras with reliable literary sources. Faxian left Chang’an for India in 399 AD. He took the central Asian route, visited northern, central, western, eastern and southern India and returned to China by sea route in 412 AD. In 414 he completed his monumental work Accounts of a Buddhist Country. Xuanzang and Yijing had certain advantages over Faxian, as Tang Emperor Taizong (626-649) and Empress Wu Zetian (690-704) patronized them respectively. Xuanzang started to western regions in 628 AD at a young age of 29. He crossed many cities along Xinjiang, former Soviet Union, Afghanistan, and Pakistan and finally reached Kashmir. Xuanzang and Yi Jing both studied at Nalanda and became proficient in Sanskrit. It is indeed heartening that the University where the Chinese monks once studies is being rebuilt jointly by India, China, Japan and Singapore, and will offer courses in Buddhist studies besides other disciplines.

Xuanzang also acted as a bridge between India and China for strengthening diplomatic relations between the two. Harshavardhana, the Indian King was so impressed by his narratives about China that he dispatched an embassy to the Chinese capital Chang’an in 641 AD. The Chinese emperor Taizong responded positively and sent his envoy Wang Xuance to India thrice. Upon his return to China, Xuanzang penned down his India journey in his classic The Journey to West during Great Tang.

Along with Buddhist linkage, Hinduism also made inroads to China. This could be established from the discoveries of Hindu cultural relics at the sites such as Lopnor in Xinjiang, Kizil and Dunhuang grottoes in Gansu, Dali in Yunnan and Quanzhou in Guangdong provinces of China. Frescoes of Kizil and Dunhuang houses the portraits of many Hindu deities like Hanuman, Ganesha, Vinayaka, Laxmi and Shakti. Statues of Lord Krishna and Shiva have been unearthed from Quanzhou and Dali in China pointing to large settlements of the Indians in China. Owing to these cultural and material linkages, both India and China benefited immensely in the field of literature as also science and technology. Indian stories, fables, art, drama and medicine reached China. During Tang Dynasty, Chinese literary forms like Chuanqiwen and bianwen were greatly influenced by Indian literary style manifested in Panchtantra and Jataka stories. Above all, the cultural ambassadors from India to China and from China to India enhanced and strengthened mutual understanding, which acted as a catalyst in modern history of India and China for rendering mutual support and sympathy by the Indians and Chinese during their national freedom struggle.

From Yuan and Ming dynasties onward until India and China launched their freedom struggles, the cross cultural currents between them virtually went unnoticed. The interactions were interrupted by the drastic domestic changes and more importantly by the gradual eastward expansion of western colonialism. Following this India was completely colonized by the British and China gradually transformed into a semi-feudal and semi-colonial society. The anti-imperialist efflorescence of the Indian and Chinese people manifested in a major way as a challenge to the colonial order for the first time during the First War of Indian Independence (1857-59) in India and the Taiping Uprising (1850-1864) in China, as for the first time Indian soldiers stationed in China switched over to the Taipings and fought shoulder to shoulder against the imperialists and the Qing government. This rapprochement continued when more organized struggle for national independence was launched by the Indian and Chinese people. The reports of Indian soldiers joining the Taiping could be found in the memorials of the Qing army generals or other officials of the throne and with the foreigners who were directly involved in this peasant uprising.

It was due to the synergy between the cultures and the plight of India and China that the nationalists and revolutionaries of India and China developed deep mutual contacts and friendship amidst their anti-imperialist struggle. They became natural allies and thought various ways to dislodge the imperialists out of their countries. The supporters of Tilak, the leader of militant nationalists, carried out activities like Shivaji’s commemorative meetings as far as Tokyo in order to make the Indian voice of anti-imperialism reach outside India. These activities had active support of the Chinese nationalists such as Zhang Taiyan and Sun Yat-Sen. Sun Yat-Sen developed strong links with various Indian nationalists and revolutionaries and by using his good offices, introduced them to the leading Japanese personages thus enabling them to carry out their anti-British activities unhindered. Nationalists like Surendermohan Bose, Rash Behari Bose, M.N. Roy, Barakatullah, Lala Lajpat Rai and many other outstanding pioneers of Indian freedom movement maintained good contacts and friendship with Sun Yat-Sen.

Apart from operating from Japan, the Indian revolutionaries also made China as one of their centers to carry out anti-British activities. Barring a few, most of them were the members of Ghadr Party. Much of the activities centered around Hankou, its being the center of Kuomintang (KMT) government and Shanghai and Hong Kong being the places where Indian settlers including policemen and troops numbered maximum. Their post Siam-Burma Plan activities find a link with the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Communist Party of China (CPC). Ghadar support to the Chinese nationalist government and in turn enlisting latter’s support was the direct outcome of the formation of First United Front in China between the KMT and CPC. Their activities came to an abrupt end with the collapse of the United Front in 1927, though some individuals continued to be active unto 1931 and 1932.

Gandhi’s arrival at the Indian political scene, and his movement of satyagraha and ahimsa generated heated debates in China. The Chinese people pronounced him as a symbol of ‘eastern civilization.’ The Chinese media paid utmost attention and widely covered the Indian freedom struggle in various newspapers and journals. Eastern Miscellany took the lead and introduced Gandhi and Gandhian movement to the Chinese people. It covered extensively the Non-cooperation Movement of 1920-22 and Civil Disobedience Movement of 1931-34. Roughly from 1905-1948, the Eastern Miscellany carried over 65 articles covering different aspects of Indian National Movement. The Chinese people showered both encomiums and criticism on Gandhi when he led the Non-Cooperation and Civil disobedience movements. Sun Yat-Sen, however never approved of his weapon of non-violence, for he was of the view that an armed struggle was indispensable for national liberation. Nevertheless, Sun approved of Gandhi’s pacifist techniques such as non-cooperation and civil disobedience. Gandhi even suggested these techniques and principle of non-violence to the Chinese people, but came round to the Chinese viewpoint that it cannot be applied to China’s national situation, especially when it was engaged in an armed struggle with the Japanese.

During the War of Resistance and the Second World War, so long as China suffered at the hands of the Japanese, the reverberations were felt in India too. India dispatched a medical mission to China in 1938. Dr. Kotnis, a doctor of this mission became a martyr when he died while serving the wounded soldiers of Eighth Route Army and other Chinese people. A couple of years back, Guo Qinglan, his surviving Chinese wife wrote her memoirs in Chinese. This author completed the translation in 2006, and when President Hu Jintao came to India, he personally handed the book entitled My Life with Kotnis to the relatives of Kotnis. Nehru made the bonds of friendship even stronger when he visited China in 1939. The Chinese people at first supported the Indian viewpoint that it should not join the war unless it was declared free. Later, they asked support from India for the war effort of allied powers, as the whole situation had changed with the formation of India-China-Burma War theatre. President Chiang Kai-Shek visited India in 1940 specially to break the ongoing deadlock between the British and the Congress, and met Gandhi.

In retrospect, the civilizational cross cultural currents between India and China went unhindered for many millennia.  Especially the colonial period was the period when both the people of India and China rendered support and sympathy to each other in their common struggle. It was Nehru’s vision that in future India and China would necessarily come nearer to each other for the vast and tremendous potentials of economic cooperation in a New World after the War. India was the first country in non-communist block to recognize China and establish diplomatic relations. It is unfortunate that both India and China did not handle their relations well in the 1950s due to various misconceptions and misunderstandings. The need of the hour is to build mutual trust, resurrect our centuries old sentiments with a new zeal, exploit our potentials and usher in a New World of economic cooperation and friendly relations. As rightly pointed out by Zhang Yan, China’s ambassador in India while addressing a round table organized by FICCI on 13 December 2010 that India-China relations were ‘very fragile’ and could be easily damaged if not handled with care. We could hope that both sides would show sensitivities to each other’s concerns, resolve their pending issues amicably and with greater political will. Today when we talk of ‘strategic partnership’ between India and China and its future, the same must be viewed in the larger perspective of India China historical bonds vis-à-vis their interests and future outlook.

(The writer, Dr. B R Deepak, is Associate Professor in the Centre of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The views expressed are his own. He could be reached at

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