Asia’s rising stars
Reviewed by Uttam Sengupta

India China: Neighbours Strangers
Edited by Ira Pande.
HarperCollins (a joint venture with India Today Group & India International Centre).
Pages 455. Rs 699.

THE anthology is a welcome addition to the growing body of literature on the relationship between India and China. Will the Chinese dragon and the Indian elephant dance together or will they remain rivals and destroy one or each other is the fascinating question that is sought to be addressed in this anthology of over 30 essays. The volume, by coincidence or design, has been published on the 60th anniversary this year of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Curiously, photographs are the volume’s weakest link. Mostly black and white photographs of Chinese people, life and times by distinguished photographers like Pabo Batholomew, Saibal Das, Vidura Jang Bahadur and others are unfortunately wasted due to their unimaginative use. They are all bunched together and splashed without much of an explanation about the context either.

The visual effect, rather the absence of it, is, however, compensated by the essays. Vikram Seth writes an account of his travel through Xinjiang province and how he was prompted to sing a song from the Hindi classic, Awara, and how people enquired after ‘Lita’ and ‘Laaj’ (Rita and Raj on celluloid, Nergis and Raj Kapoor in real life). Pallavi Aiyar provides an insight into the cultural differences that the argumentative Indian must overcome. While India, she writes, has a passion for ideas, delights in argument for its own sake and while Indians are compulsive dissenters, it is the absence of all this that made her homesick in Beijing.

The essays delve into the complex and confused relationship between the two countries and their current concerns. On economic indices, China of course is so far ahead of India that they are no longer comparable. Nor has China ever been so secure and so powerful at any point in its history. But the trust deficit and suspicion between the two countries, prompted as much by linguistic, cultural, political and ideological differences as by scholars who are convinced that the Asian giants are bound to clash, remains of a high order. And while China has little understanding or sympathy for the Indian political systems and institutions and the media, the average Indian has even less understanding of Chinese institutions and thinking.

Tansen Sen from the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies at Singapore provides an interesting account of how Chinese scholars viewed India as a "lost and enslaved nation" even a century ago. He quotes one of them, Liang Qichao, writing in 1901 that while he had heard of countries destroying other countries, he had never come across another instance of a "non-country" (East India Company) destroying and enslaving a country.

"Red-turbaned Sikhs employed by the British as policemen in China" was cited as proof of the soft and servile Indians succumbing to the colonisers. That the overwhelming view in China is of a far too effeminate India is also corroborated by Edward Friedman, a political scientist from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Friedman writes that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has an official version of history in which China is always peaceful and which describes the Manchus and the Mongols as re-unifiers and not as imperialists and conquerors.

This blinkered view of the CCP, writes Friedman, makes it impossible for China to appreciate how others view it. If India raises the issue of China’s huge trade surplus, China tends to blame India for being protectionist. Ironically, when China was in India’s shoes vis-`E0-vis Japan, Beijing lost no time in blaming Tokyo for being exploitative. Similarly, Indian concerns over China’s military support to Pakistan is dismissed as "cold-war, backward-looking perspective" although Beijing never lets Japan forget the war thrust by the Japanese Emperor Hirohito between 1937 and 1945. While China is always "misunderstood" and fears encirclement, it views its own efforts to have footholds in the Indian Ocean or the Arabian Sea to be normal and natural.

Ashwani Saith compares the two countries as non-identical twins separated at birth and brought up in two different and distinctive homes and environment. He quotes Nehru, who said in 1954 that the future would show which of the two countries would be more successful in dealing with essentially similar problems. But 66 years later, the question is not, "Is China ahead?" but rather "Why is China ahead?" and not just in economic terms but also in sports, for example.

More than one essay points out that the Chinese word for their country stands for the ‘Middle Land’, which is interpreted to signify that China is at the centre of the universe. But there is also a contrary view put forward by a Chinese contributor, who painstakingly cites several ancient texts to suggest that the term was actually coined for Magadha in India!

The volume is a useful reference book for anyone interested in the idea of Chindia.

Anthology of essays does sometimes tend to be uneven and repetitive and this volume too does not escape the tedium. But then, it is seldom easy to juggle so many essays, half a dozen of them written by Chinese scholars, and written by people who have distinguished themselves in their respective fields.