History of India-China Interactions

In this conversation, Madhavi Thampi unravels the history of India-China interactions to Shivanand Kanavi

In this conversation, Madhavi Thampi unravels the history of India-China interactions to Shivanand Kanavi

Shivanand Kanavi: What we would like to discuss with you today is the contact between the Indian civilization and the Chinese civilization. What did it lead to? What did they learn from each other? These are two great civilizations that are divided by the Himalayas, but I glanced through a very interesting paper where the author said China and India are united by the Himalayas. We have heard of some names such as Hiuen Tsang and Fa Hien. And we have heard of exchange of knowledge and of the technology of silk production, gun powder, so on and so forth. Can you give a perspective on the interaction of these two civilisations?

Madhavi Thampi: Perspectives on ancient India-China contacts have been dominated by the Buddhist interactions, from about the 1st century CE to about the 10th-11th centuries CE. This is not to say that there were no interactions based on Buddhism after that, but they were no longer the main content of Sino-Indian exchanges. China itself became a centre of Buddhism after that. Still, there is one school which has focused on the Buddhist relationship and tended to not see anything else.

But there is another approach which I think is more contemporary. This sees that the relationship was much more than that based on Buddhism alone. It ante-dated Buddhism and continued afterwards. It may not have been so culturally significant or uplifting but it is also important in order to establish that there was a continuity of the relations. The debate still goes on, about what really was the character of the India-China relationship in pre-modern times.


Confucius (551 B.C.-478 B.C.)

Source: The Teachers’ and Pupils’ Cyclopaedia (Kansas City: The Bufton Book Company, 1909)1:401

The first recorded evidence of contact is contained in a story, which has many variations: in the Han period in China, around the 1st century CE, the emperor sent an envoy to what they called the Western Region, in order to form an alliance against the nomadic people who were troubling the Han Empire. They wanted to outflank them by going over to the west. When this envoy, Zhang Qian, got there he found some products from China. At that time there were no known trading relations between Bactria (now part of Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and, as a smaller part, Turkmenistan. The region was once host to religions like Zoroastrianism and Buddhism—Ed) and China. He recognized them as products of the Sichuan region of China. So he asked where they got these goods from and they said it came through India. So, this shows that there was a trade route from south western China into India through the North East, (from Sichuan to Yunnan region of China, Myanmar, Assam and into India).

This is a story that is recorded in Chinese histories. People have tried to document it in archaeological terms, but not very successfully. But it is still possible that there was this trade route as early as the 1st century B.C. The key point here is that probably relations began with trade.

On the other hand, in India we have references to China in the Arthashastra, and also in the Mahabharata to things like Cheena patta—silk. That is taken as evidence that special products of China were known in India. Similarly, the word cheeni quite likely originates in the fact that sugar making technology came from China. This is not really my area of expertise, but there are people who have documented these things very carefully.

Very soon, Buddhism became a major factor in Sino-Indian interaction. The connection was not just at the level of ideas; it was also linked to trade and the kind of products that were exchanged between China and India. In the later Han period, two monks were supposed to have come from India. This has also become a legend. There are many stories about how this happened. The most famous story is that the Han emperor had a dream of some deity in the western region and sent his envoys there. He brought back these two monks on white horses carrying a lot of Buddhist scriptures. He made a monastery for them which is known today as the ‘white horse monastery’. The Indian government today is rebuilding a white horse monastery in the city of Luoyang, the old Han capital of China.

SK: Many scholars refer a lot to Buddhist scriptures preserved in Tibetan language.

MT: That could be, and it could also be a different kind of Buddhism. From the 1st to 4th century CE, the main problem was of translation. Appropriate techniques had not been developed. It was not just that the two cultures and value systems were different, as you know, the whole script is different. The Chinese script is ideographic so you cannot just spell out things and leave it like that. Even more difficult than the script was dealing with an entirely different set of concepts. The indigenous Chinese philosophical and ethical concepts were a far cry from Indian philosophical concepts. If the idea itself did not exist in China, how do you find the matching word to translate it? After the first two monks, more and more started to come from India. The one to crack the translation technique was Kumarajiva, a monk. He was not actually an Indian; he came from Kucha, one of the oasis states from the region of Chinese Central Asia known today as Xinjiang. The fact is that Buddhism did not really go to China directly from India. It came through intermediary states. Each of these oases was a little principality or state that thrived mainly on trade, on what came to be known as the silk route. Thus, Buddhism spread especially from Kashmir, which was a big centre of Buddhism, into Central Asia. From there it went on into China. Of course there were monks who went straight from India to China also.

SK: Were these monks representing any royalty or state?

MT: From the Chinese side you often had pilgrims being sent by the ruler. Hiuen Tsang himself went without the permission of the Tang emperor, which was a risky thing to do. However, he was pardoned for this lapse after he came back to China! From the Indian side they mainly came on translate their own, probably with the encouragement of their own sect. Generally when these Indian monks came, they were well received by the Chinese rulers and were set up in monasteries, given a place and support for translations etc. Kumarajiva’s translations were supposed to have filled a whole room!

Buddhism came into China during the period of the unified empire. However, after the fall of the Han dynasty, there were a series of nomadic incursions into north China. China broke up into different states, and a kind of north-south divide came into being in China. The northern principalities were much more of a mix, a hybrid of the Chinese and nomadic cultures, while the culture in the south was more like the original Chinese. Still Buddhism continued to flourish in this period on both sides. This is considered the period when it is said to have really spread among all strata of the population.

SK: What attracted Chinese to Buddhism, when they already had Taoism and Confucianism?

MT: Definitely the principal philosophical system was Confucianism, but it was associated with the unified, imperial state from the Han period. It was a doctrine that prioritised service to the emperor and to the state. The collapse of the Han Empire, roughly contemporaneous with the fall of the Roman Empire in Europe, was a traumatic development that naturally affected the credibility of Confucianism itself.

SK: Can we say that Confucianism was more of a social and ethical philosophy than spiritual?

MT: Exactly, it had very little to do with spirituality. For example there is this famous passage in the Analects of Confucius when a disciple asked him about his views on God and he said that he didn’t know anything about it! So, the whole question of the afterlife and God, while not denied outright, was hardly addressed. In a period of great political anarchy and chaos and a lot of violence, when there were a series of repeated raids and incursions from outside China, it was hard to adhere to a philosophy which said that one’s primary objective should be to develop the quality of being a good official. Whom are you going to serve? It was in this period that issues of suffering and of the meaning of life and death, which Buddhism addressed, would have preoccupied people’s minds more. In the south, Buddhism addressed many of the spiritual questions of people who had been dislocated and uprooted in the great waves of migration to the south that followed the nomadic incursions into the north. In the north, where the rulers were fully or semi nomadic, they were particularly receptive to Buddhism because it was a foreign religion. In China, the bodhisattva concept particularly was very attractive, because it stood for the one who postpones his own salvation for the sake of saving the people. So, you have Indian bodhisattvas getting transposed into the Chinese system changing their names and forms. For instance the bodhisattva AvalokiteĊ›vara took the form of a woman, a goddess in China called Guan Yin (representing compassion, mercy).

Generally speaking, the way Chinese have practiced their religion, it has never been exclusive. They can follow different belief systems at the same time, that’s not a problem for them.

At this time the Tantric form of Buddhism developed in Tibet. It didn’t spread much in China. China also developed its own schools of Buddhism, one is very well known, and it is called Chan, from the Sanskrit word Dhyana, meditation, which in Japan is known as Zen.

Here I want to mention something that the Chinese did, which is very much part of the Chinese genius. At different times different things were attributed to the Buddha. Some of them were almost contradictory with each other. This was quite confusing to the Chinese. So, one of their sects, Tian Tai, systematized and categorized the teachings of Buddha according to certain periods in his life and certain stages in his enlightenment. Once they had done this, they were able to accept the variations.

SK: Did the early teachings of Buddha have more of an influence on the Chinese rather than the later Madhyamika schools?

MT: By and large the later form of Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism, had a greater influence on China than the Hinayana. After the reunification of China in the later 6th century CE, the Tang period (7th to 10th centuries) is considered the high watermark of Buddhism in China. Despite Confucianism making a comeback, the Tang rulers were also patrons of Buddhism. This again shows the eclectic nature of the Chinese tradition. In this period, the Buddhist sangha became very strong. The only time you could talk of real persecution of Buddhism in China was in this period. But it was not like the Inquisition in Europe where it was an ideological persecution. In China, the emperors would either close down the monasteries or reduce their size in order to reduce their power. Though the Tang emperors favored Buddhism as a religion, they did not like anything that challenged the power of their state. They always wanted the right to control some of the appointments in the sangha. They would sometimes leave them alone. But they never gave up that right to control.

Many of the Chinese pilgrims spent a lot of time in India and went back. The Chinese came, collected the materials, learnt the doctrines and went back to China. But the Indian monks who went to China rarely came back. They mostly stayed there doing translation and teaching. So, the aim of both was basically the same, to take the doctrine there. They went by sea or by the land route through mountains and deserts. However, the sea route was no less dangerous. Generally speaking, sea routes became dominant after about 8th-9th century CE.

We have two excellent scholarly works on Sino-Indian interactions in the pre-modern period. One is by a Chinese scholar, Liu Xinru; she had studied Sino-Indian exchanges in the 1st to the 7th or 8th centuries CE, which is really the Buddhist phase. She showed how the trade in this period was very much linked with the products required for use in the practice of religion. The other work by an Indian scholar, Tansen Sen picks up from where Liu Xinru leaves off. He has shown that Sino-Indian relations didn’t decline with the decline of Buddhism in India, but continued vigorously even after on the basis of trade, especially from 11th-12th century onwards. Relations based on Buddhism did not die out. In fact, monks and pilgrims continued to go back and forth, but the doctrinal inputs from India were no longer vital to Chinese Buddhism.

This kind of work is really important to establish what continued and what did not continue in Sino-Indian relations. Otherwise, there has been this pervasive view that because Buddhism declined in India, relations with China declined; and then next thing one jumps to the 20th century, and what happened in between is just left out!

SK: I saw a reference that in Tipu Sultan’s time that there was an emissary from China, which led to the establishment of sericulture in Mysore.

MT: New research is showing the importance of trade in this period. We know that in the nineteenth century, painters and artists from China also were present in the court of Mysore and other princely states.

SK: The so called xenophobia of the Chinese, is there some truth to it?

MT: I think this xenophobia is an invention of the Westerners. China has been very much open to other societies and cultures, even while they always had a high sense of self worth. They never thought of themselves as inferior and they were not xenophobic either. It has been seen that they were open to Buddhism coming from India. Of course, few cultures around them could be compared to the Chinese civilization. The only thing comparable was the Indian civilization, and where they could learn something from it, they did so. Only a very secure civilization can be like that. At the same time the Chinese have their own terms and words for people who are non-Chinese, who don’t have the same culture as them. The western way of translating all those terms is the single word – barbarian. But actually it means someone who is not culturally like them. They didn’t have just one term for foreigners in China; they had several, depending on where they came from. As for India, they had much more respectful terms. Once Buddhism went there, India became the Heavenly Kingdom in the West for them.

The way we look at China today is unfortunately colored by 19th and 20th century western historiography.

SK: Tell us something about technological exchanges between the two countries

MT: Apart from possible transmission of things like sugar-making and sericulture in the ancient period, the Song period in China (10th to 13th century) saw several great inventions: printing, the compass, gunpowder, etc. We don’t know exactly if they were transmitted to India, but we know that there was a great increase of Chinese navigation in the waters of South East Asia and the Indian Ocean for some centuries after that. There were flourishing sea ports on the southern and south eastern coasts, some of which had whole colonies of foreign traders. The port of Quanzhou in the 14th century had a colony of Indians living there. Archaeological remains of Saivite temples with Tamil inscriptions have been found there. The Chola rulers had relations with Song China. So the Chinese had some knowledge of places in India, and there are detailed accounts by them about Malabar, Kanchivaram and such places.

The Song Empire was defeated by the Mongols. For a land based people, the Mongols were very open to maritime trade. But the high watermark of China’s venture into the Indian Ocean was in the early 15th century. The Ming ruler at that time launched several huge maritime expeditions which went all the way from the Chinese coast into the South East Asian waters, through the Malacca Straits, touching various ports along the Indian peninsula and going right across the Indian Ocean as far as East Africa. These were the expeditions commanded by Admiral Zheng He. Each ship – and there were dozens on each voyage – carried 2000-3000 men and weaponry, and the tonnage exceeded anything floating on the sea at that time. Historians are still debating about the purpose. It wasn’t really necessary to send expeditions like that for trade alone. And there were at least 5 major expeditions between 1405 and 1433. There are Chinese records of this expedition and what they saw; including the economy, government and culture of the places they visited. Of course, it is from their own perspective, but these are surprisingly detailed accounts.

In the pre-modern period, I would say this was one of the last major dramatic encounters between China and India.

SK: Where did they touch India?

MT: The whole peninsular region, including the Malabar Coast and the east coast, as well as Sri Lanka.

SK: I wonder if they had any other contact with Kerala. Around the same time some extraordinary mathematical treatises were written in Kerala, and these relate to calculus related to navigation. This is actually calculus which was developed in India and is now being called the Kerala School of Mathematics. This precedes Newton by 200 years. They have also now found navigational instruments linked to this. Whether the Chinese knew about it we don’t know. But they say Vasco Da

Gama was lost and in Madagascar he found an Indian, (they just called him a dark man), who then guided him to the coast of Kerala.

MT: They may have learnt from each other. It may not have been from just one expedition, but they did have contacts.

SK: It is interesting that the European expeditions were state funded, even stock market funded, because they were looking for things they didn’t have. However, China is said to have claimed at one point that they had nothing they wanted from Europe or elsewhere. So unless it is purely for exploratory reasons, or for purely vain or egoistic reasons on the part of the ruler, why would they send such huge expeditions?

MT: The jury is still out on this. People go on discussing this – what was really the motive. But we do know that the whole venture suddenly stopped. The later Ming rulers started to follow a policy of seclusion. About this also, we don’t know why exactly. Various reasons are given–financial or other reasons. That was the last major effort of the Chinese to come out of their own part of the world and be adventurous in maritime terms, but trade still continued. The goods came in Chinese ships thereafter only up to South East Asia and were exchanged there, in places like Malacca and other points.

Meanwhile there is a completely different aspect of Sino-Indian interactions, with Indian merchants who went into the region of western China and Central Asia. There was a small yet very widespread Indian merchant diaspora which in the Mughal period went as far as Iran, Russia, Chinese Turkistan, Afghanistan, etc. Thus, when you talk of China-India relations in the later period, you can’t talk of only the sea contacts. For centuries, Indian merchants, traders and money-lenders were going there – mainly from Punjab, Sind and Kashmir. There were several routes. There was also trade with Tibet from Kashmir. Places like Leh were points at which goods were exchanged; also Yarkand in Chinese Turkestan (today’s Xinjiang) was one place where Indian traders went with their goods. Basically there is no point of discontinuity, no point at which they stopped contact.

SK: Which also means that they didn’t see each other as threats?

MT: I don’t think that they ever viewed each other as a threat. Remember, for much of the time after the 10th century, there were various states in India and not only one big empire.

SK: What did they call India? West Asians called it Hindustan or the land east of the Sindhu (Indus).

MT: Actually in the earlier Buddhist period they gave names like ‘Heavenly Land to the West’, ‘Heavenly Bamboo’, or the ‘western region’. This word ‘Yindu’, which is the current name in Chinese for India, was given during the Tang period, may be because of the Arabs calling it Indu. Chinese accounts in the 19th century about India are very vague. They start knowing about places called Bombay or Madras, but you can see that initially they don’t know exactly where it is. There are even references to the “five Indias”!

The Chinese tradition of writing about foreign peoples was like this. After someone wrote something — like this official in the Song period who compiled a work based on the accounts of foreign traders in Quanzhou — that account gets repeated in subsequent works many times, till another person comes along who has some original material, like those who went on the great Ming expeditions. This becomes a new set of data, and then that version would get repeated again and again. In the 19th century they found that they had to find out again about India. With the arrival of the British in China and the trade in opium from India, again they wanted to know about India, mainly coming out of wanting to know what the British were up to. They updated their information about India in this period largely from Western accounts.

So, the point is that the image of India in China is not one. The image of India keeps changing.

SK: How did European colonialism in Asia affect this?

MT: There was a substantial change in the relationship. India got caught up in the trade of Britain and European countries with China, which was driven by the ever increasing demand for tea. Britain started looking unsuccessfully for things it could sell China in exchange for tea. Then they realized that whereas there was not much that they could sell directly to China, India had items the Chinese wanted.

First they realised that there was a market for raw cotton from India in China. Thus the cotton trade took off in a big way. Then, when the cotton trade started to stagnate in the 2nd decade of the 19th century, the British took to pushing opium in a big way.

SK: I thought the growth of cotton in India started only after the American civil war.

MT: It was much earlier. Indian textiles were a big commodity in the intra-Asian trade in the early period. But from the late 18th century raw cotton from India going directly to China became the mainstay of that trade. Then opium starts to figure in a big way. Opium was exported to China for a long time, but it did not become a big item till about 1820s. Earlier it was imported mainly for medicinal purposes and in small quantities. There were only say 2000 chests imported into China a year. But from the 1820s it becomes more than 20,000 and then later, 40,000 chests. Unlike cotton, opium is a self expanding commodity because the more you get addicted the more you need it. The import as well as the sale and production of opium were banned in China. So, the British East India Company would grow the opium in India, and it would be sold under license to private traders who would smuggle it to China. BEIC having a monopoly over the trade with China at Canton didn’t want to be caught carrying the opium. This way both made profits. That was Patna opium grown in the Bengal Presidency. Then they started selling Malwa opium, whose outlet was Bombay, which was cheaper than Patna opium. So the sales went up in a big way. Unlike Patna opium it was not grown under BEIC licence, but was grown in the interior regions and brought to Bombay by private British and Indian traders. By the 1830’s the opium imports started to affect the whole society in China. At one point about 80 to 90% of their armed forces and their bureaucracy was addicted. From having a favourable balance of trade with Britain, China started to pay massive quantities of silver to pay for the opium. That affected the currency rate, taxation procedures, and so on.

The British went to war in 1839 when the Chinese finally tried to enforce the ban on the opium trade. The Chinese were defeated and that begins the whole era of uneven treaties and repeated humiliation of China that lasted for more than 100 years. So India became in an instrument for British economic and political domination of China. Indian soldiers and policemen were also used by the British and Europeans for nearly one century in China.

SK: That phase of conflict between Britain and China, in which Indians also played a role as opium traders and soldiers, is that what started creating a negative image of India as a tool of British imperialism among the Chinese?

MT: Exactly, plus the Chinese were well aware of what had happened to India at the hands of the British. They knew that Indians had lost their independence and been conquered.

SK: Did they follow the Ghadar of 1857?

MT: They knew what was going on. In fact the term they had for countries like India means a lost or ruined country. Very often this was expressed as: “we don’t want to become like India, Turkey or Poland”. These were considered negative models. At the same time I have also seen references that the Chinese were sensitive to the fact that Indians were being forced to do all this. There is an account left by a Chinese official who travelled in India in 1870’s. He travelled to Calcutta, Shimla, and Western India. About the Indians he commented that they were conquered and dominated by foreigners, but that no one here seemed to think it was a terrible thing. “What a pity, what a shame!” he lamented

However, under the impact of the anti-colonial struggle here and the anti-imperialist movement in

China, sympathy for each other becomes more evident. The Hindustani Ghadar Party started working actively in China, and had a lot influence among the Punjabi soldiers and people in those areas. A very interesting phase in relations between Indians and Chinese began. Around 1925-27 there was a huge tide of revolutionary nationalist upsurge in China, which directly threatened British and other imperialist interests in China. Indian security forces were used to shoot down Chinese, but because of the active mobilisation done by the Ghadar Party and others, you began to have cases when Indian soldiers and policemen – sometimes whole battalions – refused to fire on Chinese. In one case in Canton one detachment of Indian policemen deserted and landed in front of the governor of the province and said they wanted to join the Chinese side. The governor was at first a little suspicious — after all, these were the same people who were on the other side. When they saw his hesitation, they said forthrightly – “look, we have burnt our boats. There is no going back for us, so you either take us, or you kill us”. So he recruited them and paid them more than what they were getting under the British!

During World War II, the Indian National Army had a major contingent in China and had a dominant influence in the Indian community there. That turned out to be unfortunate for India-China relations, because China was occupied by Japan, which was helping Subhash Chandra Bose. Indians were not at all against China and even Subhash Chandra Bose never condoned Japan’s occupation of China. But he had his own dealings. So, when the war ended, all those in the INA were considered collaborators, and there was no sympathy for Indians, even though they were in a bad state at the end of the war. Most Indians in China were uprooted and repatriated, almost forcibly, at that time.

SK: A final question — was Tibet historically a part of China as is claimed by them?

MT: The Chinese did not directly administer Tibet and other outlying regions, in the same way that they ruled the rest of China. Under the last imperial dynasty, they had a kind of alliance or loose administration under a Chinese Resident, and the Tibetans were more or less autonomous. My view is that you cannot look at history and say categorically whether Tibet is a part of China or not part of China. Depending on how strongly you feel about it, there is a case on both sides. You cannot say that just because China sent expeditions to Lhasa to assert the rule of the emperor, that Tibet is part of China. But Chinese give this as the reason. The Tibetans continued to follow their own Dalai Lama and other lamas. However, these lamas were recognized by the Chinese emperors.

When the Revolution of 1911 broke out in China, ending the Chinese empire, many outlying regions and even provinces of China proper declared their independence. So did Tibet. Britain at this time supported the Tibetan claim to independence. While the Tibetans may have wanted their freedom, Britain was playing a geopolitical game, trying to detach it from China which was weak.

In the Shimla convention in 1912-13, Britain called a meeting of the Tibetan representative and the Chinese delegate in Calcutta and their own delegate, to settle the border, not between India and China, but between ‘inner Tibet’ and ‘outer Tibet’. This is what was known as the McMahon Line. From what accounts I have seen, the Chinese envoy in India was put under tremendous pressure, they practically confined him to a room, and he initialled an agreement. But when this came before the national assembly in China, they refused to ratify it. Under international law it doesn’t have validity if it is not ratified by the sovereign body of a country. But the British went ahead and said look, the Tibetans and we agree, so it doesn’t matter if China doesn’t recognize it.

Madhavi Thampi teaches in the department of East Asian Studies of Delhi University. She has authored a number of works on the historical relationship between India and China.



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