Chindia in the mind: Sino-Indian exchanges and comparisons in literature and philosophy

Rabindranath Tagore in China, 1924 (via Wikimedia Commons) Rabindranath Tagore in China, 1924 (via Wikimedia Commons)

India and China share a physical border. Indeed, that is the element of their proximity that stands out the most thanks to the 1962 war, briefly revisited in the form of border skirmishes in 2020. But the two great nations also share common ground in veneration of the Buddha and trade exchanges that span centuries. The Chinese learned about the message of the Buddha from India and, to their immense credit, they also preserved it through translations of the ancient Buddhist texts whose records did not survive in India. This history of healthy spiritual and commercial exchange has more recently been shadowed by increasing distrust and even contempt. Politics and commerce is not however the only way in which two countries have interacted.

sino-indiaThree recently published books venture into comparative literary and philosophical analyses of the two nations. Two deal with the literary relations between India and China in the first half of the 20th century (until the 1962 war), while the third covers classical political thought in ancient India and China during the 8th-3rd centuries BCE, a period of broad and widespread change in religious and philosophical thought that has been labelled the Axial Age. These exercises in contextualizing India-China intellectual exchanges present a very complex picture. While possibly inconclusive,  the attempt itself proves to be a challenging exercise in comparativism. Each of these books contributes to the understanding of South-South connections by going against the grain of using the West as the point of comparison, rather than comparing them with each other.


Imagining India in Modern China: Literary Decolonization and the Imperial Unconscious (1895-1962), Gal Gvili (Columbia University Press, October 2022)
Imagining India in Modern China: Literary Decolonization and the Imperial Unconscious (1895-1962), Gal Gvili (Columbia University Press, October 2022)

In Imagining India in Modern China: Literary Decolonization and the Imperial Unconscious (1895-1962), Gal Gvili argues that India was a significant influence in Chinese literature of the given period in various ways. Tagore, for instance, visited China in 1924 and spoke of spiritual bonds between the two countries. Tagore articulated a vision of pan-Asianism that had India and China at its center. About China, he said


Great China, rich with her ancient wisdom and social ethics, her discipline of industry and self-control is like a whale awakening the lust of spoil in the heart of the Nation. She is already carrying in her quivering flesh harpoons sent by the unerring aim of the Nation, the creature of science and selfishness.


Inspired by Tagore, Xu Zhimo, a poet of the May Fourth generation, paid a tribute to the Nobel laureate in a poem about a vision in which the speaker is joined by Tagore on Mount Tai:


His long arms open wide-
Hoping, greeting, urging…
This giant’s finger is pointing eastwards-
What is there, what is rising there, in the East?
The East is filled with splendid beautiful colors
The East is a light infinitely bright
It has shined; it has arrived here at last
Sing, praise, this is the revival of the East!
It is the victory of light!


Wang Tongzhao, another May Fourth writer, was also deeply moved by Tagore’s message of Eastern spirituality as the agent that could change the world. In works such as Nationalism in the West, he critiqued imperialism as an off-shoot of Western religion with its focus on a single god in the fashion of a ruler. He found Indian religions to be a key to a very different vision of a society that does not believe in systemic subjugation to an authority:


Already in antiquity, Indian religions did not believe in an omnipotent one God. While Indian religions advocated faith in many gods, the other [monotheistic] religions failed to recognize the divine inhuman personality [you shen de renge], and instead of nurturing human emotions and imaginations, stifled them by subjecting them to the worship of the one.


Tagore’s presence and his vision of eastern spirituality is also felt in the new poetry written by poets such as Bing Xin. Here is one of her short poems (xiaoshi):


Even if the sky is overcast,
And men are lonely,
Only one soul is needed
To guard your solemn, still night,
And the desolation of loneliness
Is immediately dissolved from the universe


While Gvili highlights these examples of Tagore’s influence on Chinese writers, she also highlights that Tagore was critiqued by the Chinese Marxists. She also notes that even those who found Tagore inspiring ignored his critique of the idea of nation and nationalism because it did not sit well with their own political aspirations. Nevertheless, she finds such engagements—turning to India for inspiration in spirituality, and reading Tagore partially—to be evidence enough for Indian influence on Chinese literary milieu.

The other connection is the idea of zhenshi aesthetics, the ideal of truthfulness in art, put forth by Ji Xialin who is otherwise known for his memoir of the Cultural Revolution. Zhenshi emerged in Mao Zedong’s lectures later published as Talks at Yan’an Forum of Art and Literature (1943) in which Mao proposed that art ought to produce a better version of reality. Ji Xialin translated Shakuntala, the Sanskrit play by Kalidasa. as Shagongdaluo, and, in his preface to the translation, argued that the play was an apt example for demonstration of zhenshi ideals because it depicts the plight of the heroine who is abandoned by the king and dares to criticize the king. Ji Xialin’s translation made sure that this aspect of the zhen (“a condensed ideal reality”) came alive in language and in performance. Gvili summarizes the influence the play had:


In China, Shakuntala was celebrated for its brilliance in bringing characters to life, thus creating a reality more intense and nearer the ideal. Kalidasa was understood to be a master in extracting the true from the real. Prompted by Ji Xianlin’s translation and the China Youth Art Theater’s performance, Chinese appreciation of the play brought together traditional and transregional modes of criticism with contemporary paradigms of socialist culture.


Gvili’s main argument is:


As a regional ally with long periods of religious and cross-cultural interaction, as well as a shared history of imperialist oppression, India figures prominently in the modern Chinese literary imagination. India’s colonization, its struggle for independence, and its leadership in the earliest iteration of Third Worldism inspired Chinese intellectuals and literary figures to develop literary forms that negotiated the legacies of colonialism and charted escape routes from its epistemic brutality.


States of Disconnect: The China-India Literary Relation in the Twentieth Century, Adhira Mangalagiri (Columbia University Press, January 2023)
States of Disconnect: The China-India Literary Relation in the Twentieth Century, Adhira Mangalagiri (Columbia University Press, January 2023)

However, in States of Disconnect: The China-India Literary Relation in the Twentieth Century, Adhira Mangalagiri says the exact opposite for the same period that Gvili covers. She finds that India and China’s  hostility was visible in the way they represented each other in literature. Two examples stand out in her analyses of this comparison: the way the Indian policemen are depicted in Chinese writing and what comes across as Indian attack on Chinese writers for subordinating artistic freedom to the communist idea of art.

The Indian policeman was the agent of British presence in China. Mangalagiri speaks of a photograph of one such cop in Shanghai which bears the caption:


The Indian policemen at every street junction: although they are leftover subjects of a colonized nation [wangguo de yimin], yet, they consider the Chinese people even lowlier than themselves.


Then there is a 1913 poem by Diedie (“Chatterbox”) titled “Mocking the Indian Policeman”:


His face blurred like charcoal, bearded, all wrapped up in a red turban,
Stupid like cattle, prodded along; he stands shamelessly before us.
Such a tall, huge, strong man, yet now his nation has fallen and he is only a slave
We should learn from his example, and immediately expose our own societal ignorance.


The photograph and the poem are, Mangalagiri writes, examples of “the tenuous intimacies of thinking China and India together through the uneasy binds of a sameness undesired”. The sameness referred to here is the philosophy of pan-Asianism that has been pointed towards as the larger unifying force between India and China.

Another example from Mangalagiri is the Asian Writers Conference held in 1956 in New Delhi. An initiative of cultural diplomacy, the programme was marked by controversy. Some Indian writers voiced their opinion that communist regimes do not allow for artistic freedom. The writers from China felt cornered and compelled to either defend or apologise for their philosophy of art. Poet Xiao San wrote a poem about a moment in the conference:


Nehru and Zhou Enlai, the two Premiers
Together welcome the New Year,
“Indians and Chinese are brothers!”
This slogan fills people’s mouths, their hearts fill with affection
Suddenly, a dark cloud spreads across the sky.
The sun over India,
And the hearts of the people,
All are covered in shadow:
At this very moment, “Eisenhower-ism” encroaches,
Some know not whether to laugh or to cry.


While Mangalagiri’s examples are important evidence for her argument  it is her larger methodological point that stands strong. She argues that exercises in comparative literature should not restrict themselves to similarities in texts from different cultures; rather, comparison must also involve elements that stand out for “disconnect”.

Where Gal Gvili looks for similarities, Mangalagiri identifies hostile differences. Where Gvili spots an opportunity for South-South dialogue, Managalagiri punctures the narrative of two millennia of friendship. Put together, the two books underline the tensions involved in claiming anything about the relationship between reality and literary representation, and more so, with India-China relationship as focus.


Bridging Two Worlds Comparing Classical Political Thought and Statecraft in India and China, Daniel A Bell (ed), Amitav Acharya (ed), Rajeev Bhargava (ed), Yan Xuetong (ed) (University of California Press, January 2023)
Bridging Two Worlds: Comparing Classical Political Thought and Statecraft in India and China, Daniel A Bell (ed), Amitav Acharya (ed), Rajeev Bhargava (ed), Yan Xuetong (ed) (University of California Press, January 2023)

In Bridging Two Worlds: Comparing Classical Political Thought and Statecraft in India and China, editors Amitav Acharya, Daniel A Bell, Rajeev Bhargava and Yan Xuetong bring together scholarly essays by other political scientists who respond to the question of adding to theories of international political thought from the point of view of ancient India and China. The editors’ objective is to “recover deep respect and mutual learning between the two great Asian powers with thousands of years of history.” Contributors turn to the Axial Age (ca. 8th-3rd century BCE) philosophers with Xun Xi, Confucius, Mencius and Han Feizi on the one hand, and Vedic philosophy, Kautilya (also known as Chanakya), and Buddhist thought on the other hand as voices that deserve to be heard and be made to speak to each other too. While the previous two books made (conflicting) arguments on the basis of diverse selections from Chinese and Indian literature, this exercise is about bringing together other scholarly voices:


Ancient Chinese and Indian ideas continue to be influential in contemporary political debates in China and India and inform diplomatic thinking and policy-making. So Chinese thinkers can learn about what influences thinking about political thought and statecraft in contemporary India, and Indian thinkers can learn about what influences thinking about political thought and statecraft in contemporary China.


Xu Jin compares the thought of Han Feizi and Kautilya. Among the similarities between the two is their tumultuous times they lived in. Han Feizi wrote in the context of constant wars for annexation during the Spring and Autumn and WArring States periods from 280 BC to 233 BC. Kautilya wrote at a time when Alexander was planning to invade India around the fourth century BC. Xu Jin points out that both were political realists in that they wanted the state to wage and win wars in order to bring stability to society. Both emphasized foreign policy as a means to growth of power for the state. However, according to Han Feizi, a ruler should primarily focus on self-reliance rather than diplomacy. He in fact found diplomatic relations untrustworthy. In contrast, according to Kautilya, alliances with other states helped a ruler. In conclusion, Xu Jin finds their questions to be relevant to contemporary questions too:


Where is the balance between realpolitik and moral politics? Which one carries the heavier weight? Are the realization of national interests and the pursuit for human peace and justice doomed by conflict? Undoubtedly, the way that we understand politics, ethics, and decision making has to be firmly grounded in the background and in reality. It should not deal in fantasy. For one thing, we need to think about political issues realistically, as Han Feizi did; for another, we need to be concerned about the well-being of the people, as Chanakya was.


Thus, one cannot draw clear lessons for policy in contemporary times from one thinker alone. But this kind of stock-taking helps in spelling out what might otherwise remain random decisions or tactics deployed by India or China.


The takeaway from the three books discussed here for those interested in India-China comparisons is that any act of drawing parallels depends on the agenda involved: to draw attention to the influence of one on another, to disrupt the narrative of influence (and thereby of friendship), and to make the two speak to each other for a productive dialogue as well as for addition of Asian voices to otherwise West-centric disciplinary thought.

As the two examples of literary studies show, analysis of representation of something as an end in itself can lead to very different choices in textual selection, which in turn, lead one to opposite conclusions about a phenomenon. Not that turning to philosophy in history can nudge one towards conclusive answers about the present. But what becomes clearer in the process is that any further investigation needs to keep in mind a larger picture of how the individual components of one’s selections speak to the ones left out.

Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.