ACROSS THE HIMALAYAN GAP
HOW TO UNDERSAND CHINA
V. V. Paranjpe
is supposed to be a Chinese curse which condemns men to live in
“interesting” times. Perhaps one should call it a boon. I went to China
in mid-1947 and lived ten long and “interesting” years in Beijing
(Peking) -years which witnessed the freedom of India in 1947, collapse of
the KMT rule in China in 1948 and the “awakening of the Chinese giant”
under Mao in 1949, followed by a sudden but unfortunately short-lived bloom
of Sine-Soviet and Sino-Indian friendships.
reached Beijing at the end of July 1947, tasted the rigours of a coal-less
and therefore bitter winter of 1948 when Beijing was besieged by the
communist armies and the University’s coal supply lay inacessible to us
outside the city walls. The siege fortunately lasted only about a month and
on 22nd January 1948 we were “liberated”. The University continued to
function in a desultory manner. I finally left Beijing in June 1950 ending
my student career - only to return to Beijing a year later, in October
1951,, as a member of independent India’s Embassy in Beijing.
those days to be a student of Peking University (more commonly known by its
short name “Beida”) was a great honour. Because Beida symbolised the
Chinese renaissance which began in 1919 and in which Beida students led the
battle for “Science and Democracy” under the inspiring and patriotic
leadership of great men like Tsai Yuan-pei (Cai Yuanpei), Hu Shih and Chen
Tuhsiu (Chen Duxiu). In 1947, Dr. Hu Shih had again returned to Beida as its
President and he had gathered a galaxy of Chinese scholars around him.
thus had the opportunity and privilege of learning Chinese under scholars
like Lo Changpei, Tang Lan, Zheng Zhenduo, Wu Xiaoling and Ren Jiyu at Beida.
In addition, I attended classes of Professors Chen Mengjia andYu Min inYen
Ching (vanjing) University, oi Professor Qi Gong in Furen University and of
Professor Zhou Yiliang in Tsing Hua [Qinghua) University, Beida in those
days was in its original location in the heart of the town, while Yen Ching
and Tsing Hua universities were several kitomatres
in 1947 and Beijing today are two different things. Then, it was like a
sleepy village which did not initially impress you except with its imposing
city walls and watch-towers. But it grew on you with time, because it had
character-a very Chinese city with single-storeyed Chinese style houses
having many courtyards and red gates. The Forbidden Palace stood out with
its shimmering yellow-blue-green tiles. (These tiles are called “liuli”
in Chinese which is a transliteration of the Sanskrit word, Vaidurya”).
Like other old capitals of China it had a symmetrical design with East-West
and North-South lanes. Today’s Beijing, in contrast, has become a concrete
jungle of high-rise apartments and crisscrossing flyovers like any big
Western town. The old city wall is gone; the narrow “hutongs” (lanes)
have made way for broad streets and the old historic landmarks of the city
have virtually disappeared.
embassies - and there were not many -were then situated in Dongjiao Minxiang,
the erstwhile Legation Quarters. The Indian Embassy itself was housed in the
Hong Kong-Shanghai Bank building, and I served under three successive Indian
Ambasadors - Panikkar, Raghavan and R.K. Nehru - the last being the most
the only officer who knew Chinese in the Embassy, I became involved in all
the VIP visits and talks between Indian and Chinese leaders including Pandit
Nehru, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai.
was 40 odd years ago that Nehru visited China in 1954. It was a landmark
event in Sino-lndian relations. Sino-Indian friendship reached its high
point. Nehru was a sinophile and he had nothing but admiration for Chinese
culture. Even the events of 1962 did not change that faith. He was the first
leader to make friendship with China a cornerstone of free India’s foreign
Chinese leaders really unrolled the red carpet for Nehru and the massive
arrangements for his welcome were overwhelming in their impact. Upon
Nehru’s return to India it created a cloud-burst of friendly feelings for
the Chinese all over India. No wonder, during his return visit to India in
1956, Zhou Enlai received a tumultuous welcome with skies reverberating with
the lilting notes of “Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai”. This was pernaps the
golden period of India-China relations. In Beijing, Indian Embassy received
favoured treatment, bettered only by that shown to the Soviet Bloc
countries. The degree of Chinese attention to India could be gauged from the
number of occasions on which Mao met Indian delegations and graced the
Indian Embassy with his presence.
were at least five different occasions when we had long sessions with
Mao.The first two long discussions between Mao and Nehru were during
Nehru’s visit; then at a dinner in honour of Nehru at Xinqiao Hotel graced
by Mao. Even after Prime Minister Nehru’s return to India, Mao accepted an
invitation for a private dinner with Ambassador R.K. Nehru, a cousin of the
Prime Minister. Mao came with Chen Yun and spent nearly four hours at the
Embassy chatting away and watching the film “Jhanak Jhanak payal Baje” which had been specially flown from
India for the occasion.
last time I saw Mao was when
Ambassador Nehru paid a farewell call on Mao in Canton in January 1957 and
Mao, who was accompanied by Tao Zhu, entertained us to a private dinner with
a special Chinese wine, called “snake spleen wine" (shedan
jiu), strongly recommended by Mao for making the eyes “shining and
bright”. During the dinner Mao spoke about his decision to relinquish
Chairmanship of the Republic, and handing over power to his younger
colleague Liu Shaoqi.
poetic farewell to Nehru
most unforgettable memory of Mao was when he bade goodbye to Pandit Nehru.
We were in Zhongnanhai at Mao’s place. It was late in the evening, and the
moon had come out. Mao escorted Nehru all the way to his car. While shaking
Nehru’s hand, he suddenly came out with two lines from the Chinese
classical poet, Qu Yuan. Quoting him Mao said:
is no greater sorrow than the sorrow of departing alive.
is no greater joy than the joy of first meeting."
Nehru’s visit another memorable thing happened. At Nehru’s return
banquet for nearly 800 Chinese leaders at the Beijing Hotel, alcohol was
served at an official function for perhaps the first and only time in recent
had put me in charge of the banquet arrangements, and it was decided to have
a proper Chinese banquet with nearly fifteen courses. Since the Chinese
guests were not teetotallers, t thought it would be appropriate to serve
liquor, but the Indian government practice forbade it and Prime Minister
Nehru himself disapproved of it. The then Indian Ambassador Raghavan did not
dare raise the subject with the Prime Minister. However Mrs. Indira Gandhi
agreed with me that alcohol should be served, and Nehru had such a soft
corner for his daughter that it meant hall the battle was won! Through a
very delicate manoeuvre, we got him to agree to serve drinks-but only mild
ones like sherry. So, we sewed Chinese Yellow wine at all tables.
Zhou Enlai, who was the chief guest, preferred Maotai (which is stronger
than whisky), and Nehru agreed that we serve it but only at the head table.
Needless to say, the, dinner was a great success and Pandit Nehru was quite
Zhou Enlai’s visit to India in 1956 his meeting with Rajaji in Madras was
a memorable occasion. Rajaji came to call on him at Guindy and there ensued
a very lively conversation between the world’s two sharp-witted leaders.
Rajaji strongly advocated India leaving the British Commonwealth, Zhou Enlai,
surprisingly argued, and more convincingly too, in favour of India’s
remaining in the commonwealth.
believe it was 2nd October 1957; a large Indian Communist Party delegation
led by Mr. E.M.S. Namboodiripad was in Beijing. Ambassador Nehru had
organised a meeting to commemorate Gandhi-Jayanti. Zhou Enlai himself came
to the function. Namboodiripad made a rambling speech. Zhou Enlai spoke
briefly but forcefully. Contrary to Soviet assessment, he lauded Gandhiji in
eight words paying tribute to Gandhiji’s great spirit of simplicity,
dedication and capacity to suffer hardships.
Attends Dr. Atal’s Cremation
Atal, leader of the Aid-China Medical Mission sent by the Indian National
Congress and a distant relation of Nehru came to China for a visit and
unfortunately died in Beijing. In his last days Zhou Enlai not only made
repeated enquiries about his health, but saw him at the hospital and finally
even attended his cremation. There were very few people at the electric
crematorium. Ambassador Nehru, Zhou Enlai with an aide, and I .There was no
Indian priest available. Because of my knowledge of Sanskrit, I had to
officiate as a priest. I read a few verses from the Second Chapter of Gita
and the ceremony ended.
of an Interpreter
interpretation is always a difficult job but when it comes to political
topics, it becomes even more so. In the case of the Chinese language,
difficulties are compounded by dialectical differences and by the meaning of
words being obscured by homonyms. Mao spoke with a very strong Hunan accent
which was often difficult to decipher. I remember Mao’s telling an Indian
delegation to “HO” with Pakistan and his interpreter was stuck because
the Chinese sound ‘HO: stands for two different words, one meaning
“peace” and the other meaning “to merge” or “unite”. The Chinese
interpreter was naturally at a loss to decide whether Mao meant to say “Be
at peace with Pakistan” or "Unite and merge with Pakistan”.
Fortunately, Zhou Enlai, who was present, saw the difficulty and came to the
rescue and wrote down the correct Chinese character, which meant
watching a Shanghai opera in Huairentang hall inside the Forbidden City, I
also incurred Nehru’s displeasure because I told him that I could not
understand the dialect of the opera. Nehru turned in disgust to Zhou’s
Chinese interpreter, Mr. Pu Shouchang, and asked him, but the latter also
pleaded ignorance and sought ChenYun’s assistance, only then was Nehru
second occasion was in Shanghai, when Ihe Mayor held a special musical
evening in Nehru’s honour. Before the commencement of the programme, the
announcer talked at length about a young and talented musician who had
returned from the US, and was giving the recital in Nehru’s honour. The
announcer referred to the musician by the Chinese third personal pronoun
“Ta”, which is the same word used for “he”, “she” or “it”.
Not knowing the musician, I translated “ta” as “he”, but soon the
curtain went up to reveal a very pretty female musician. Nehru, hardly able
to contain his anger, turned to me and said “You have been referring to
the musician as a man, actually it is a woman. What kind of Chinese do you
know?” I explained to him that the word “ta” in Chinese did not
differentiate the gender and I suggested that he might ask the Mayor if he
did not believe me. Nehru did so but the Mayor could not understand what the
fuss was all about, and just smiled.
is only recently that Indians and Chinese are getting to know each other.
For hundreds of years there was virtually no contact. Even in the first half
of this century, not many Indians had met a proper Chinese. They knew China
only from the Chinese shoemakers and restaurateurs in Calcutta or hawkers
who went around with bales of silk cloth on their backs and spoke pidgin
the Chinese apparently remembered Indians only from the bearded burly Sikhs
who were brought in by the British as pdicemen in old concessions of
Shanghai, Canton (Guangzhou) and Tientsin (Tinjin). So when I first went to
Beijing in 1947, one of my Chinese hostel mates quizzically looked at me and
asked “who are you?” I said “I am an Indian”. He laughed and said
“But you are not the Standard Indian”. To him only a Sikh was a standard
Indian, while a tiny, beardless weakling like me was not a proper Indian -
perhaps a substandard one at best!
professor in Peking University who came from Shanghai told me how the
Chinese mothers in Shanghai used to put their babies to sleep by threatening
them: “sleep quickly, otherwise I will throw you to the red-headed
devil” (Hongtou Asan) meaning
Bond of Buddhism
India and China have been the central theme of my life and career, my mind
cannot stop reflecting on things that bind us and things that separate us. A
correct appreciation of both would seem essential.
has been our strongest bond. It brought India and China together nearly
2,000 years ago.
the relatively insular Chinese, proud of their own cultural tradition and
identity, came to accept a faith like Buddhism - totally foreign to Chinese
idiom of thought and life - is in itself a small miracle. Buddhism not only
found acceptance and took root in the whole of China but, over the
centuries, it became an integral part of the Chinese psyche and social
became so, evidently because it filled a vacuum in Chinese life and had
something in it for each section of the population - from the plebeian to
the poet to the prince. During many Chinese dynasties, Buddhism virtually
enjoyed the status of a state religion.
brought to China not only its own philosophy of evanescence and emptiness
but the whole gamut of Hindu thought and ideas, Hindu social practices and
superstitions like idol worship, concepts of heaven and hell, the doctrines
of karma and rebirth, an organised order of monkhood, Jataka stories, the
story of Hanuman and the Siddhis (or magical powers of sages) and
the common Chinese, idol worship (of Buddha) perhaps offered an easy way to
enlist divine aid to fulfil their dreams and desires and to end their
worries and problems through the inexpensive means of burning an incense!
The ingenious doctrine of karma offered a plausible and satisfying
explanation for the disparities of wealth in the world: the Jataka stories
narrating the exploits of Buddha with some music thrown in, the story of the
flying monkey (Hanuman) and the
siddhis (magical powers of sages) all provided colourful entertainment
diverting the plebeian mind from the boredom and hardships of daily life.
metaphysics with its doctrines of evanescence and illusion (Maya)
probably fascinated the poetic and the elite.
imperial rulers, many of whom were men of dubious origin, probably saw in
Buddhist monks, willing helpmates who could bestow on them divine blessings
and anoint them as “sons of heaven”, while Buddhist faith helped divert
the minds of their subjects from the harsh realities of their oppressive
rule to otherworldly concerns and channelise rebellious thoughts into
Buddhism would also seem to have done some real service to the people by
bringing to China Ayurveda (Indian system of medicine) which bases its
diagnosis on Nadi-Pariksha (examination
of pulse) and Tridhatu (Three
primary elements in the body viz. phlegm, bile and wind). These two also
became the basic principles of Chinese medicines, Indian monks also carried
Indian medicinal herbs to China as evidenced by texts of the Chinese Tripitakas
and the Chinese work called “Bencao
Gangmu” (or Herbal Pharmacopeia).
Buddhistic metaphysical thought came close to Taoist thought, it easily
fused with it to create the school of “Qingtan” during the post-Han
period from the third century onwards.
Indian monks did succeed in spreading the gospel of Buddha throughout China
and making it virtually a Buddhist country China, in a way, had it back on
India by Sinifying Buddhism to an unrecognisable extent! Indian monks used
to live in stone caves; the Chinese Buddhists built beautiful wooden
monasteries with Chinese architectural designs. The Chinese virtually
eschewed the intricate metaphysical dogmas of Indian Buddhism and stuck to
more simple and often Tantric forms of worship. They converted Sanskrit
adjectives of Buddha, like Amitabha (one of infinite lustre) and Avalokitesvara (Lord of all he surveys) into proper nouns and made
them into separate Gods, Mistranslations and change of gender posed no
problem for the Chinese. The most popular Chinese Buddhist idol Guarryin
is a mistranslation of the original Sanskrit word Avalokitesvara (Chinese scholarXuanzang corrected the translation
into “Guanzizar" but it
failed to gain currency). He was made into a God of Mercy and since Mercy
is more fittingty an attribute of women only, Guanyin
became a female Bodhisattva! This transformation of gender was a Chinese
masterstroke which would have left many orthodox Indian Buddhists
dumb-founded. According to the Buddhist canon, no woman can aspire to become
a Buddha or Bodhisattva unless she is reborn as a mate and even then
Buddhahood would be a far cry. In a way China had returned the compliment!
this is not to say that the dissemination of Buddhism in China was all
smooth sailing. It had its ups and downs and its followers often faced
persecution. Many Chinese (particularly Confucian) scholars found fault with
the philosophical ideas and social implications of Buddhism.
early as the end of the fifth century Fan Zhen challenged the idea of soul
or spirit having a separate identity apart from the body. He maintained that
the spirit is to the body what sharpness is to a knife. No knife, no
sharpness. No body, no soul.
Late Tang (8-9 Century A.D.) there was the famous memorial of Han Yu asking
the Emperor to "Turn these monks into men and burn their books”
(Buddhist monks being unproductive members of society, were not men).
most recent and trenchant criticism came at the begining of this century
from the veteran Chinese scholar, Dr. Hu Shih, who remarked “Buddhism
brought to China not only eighteen heavens but thirty-three hells”.
is a great deal of talk about building closer Sine-Indian friendship which
is undoubtedly desirable and necessary, Yet, over the past four decades, we
have failed to establish a true or lasting friendship. One of the main
reasons, to my mind, is our very inadequate understanding of China and the
Chinese people. Granted that it is not easy to understand a country of
China’s magnitude, antiquity, complexity and cultural richness, serious
effort seems to be lacking on our part and ignorance will not promote
understanding and without understanding there can be no friendship - in
fact, only mishaps!
we tend to take Sine-Indian friendship for granted and only remember and
harp on the common points, namely that we are both Asians, both are a warm
and hospitable people who respect age and learning. But even two brothers
can be very different and there are important differences in the ways of
thought and expression of Indians and Chinese, Only if we take these
differences into account and fashion our behaviour, then can we avoid the
pitfalls and misunderstandings which have marred our relations in the recent
are generally aware that the Chinese are a polite but proud and pragmatic
people who attach importance to reason; that the Chinese, like the Vedic
gods of yore, prefer the indirect to the direct.
on the other hand, fend to be emotional, idealistic, voluble, rather vague
and a little brash.
these are only external manifestations of more basic differences rooted in
our different world outlooks.
ancient times, Hindus. were fond of metaphysical speculation and they
speculated about reality and life beyond death and put forward the concepts
of Atma (individual soul) and
Brahman (cosmic soul), and the ideal of Moksha
(emancipation of the soul) or Amrittava,
(immortality or deathlessness) as the ultimate aim of life.
Chinese, on the other hand, confined themselves to the mundane affairs of
this world, that is to say, the conduct of an individual in society. So,
while Hindus produced intricate metaphysical dogmas, the Chinese confined
themselves mainly to ethics and etiquette.
thus became more other-worldly treating this life as a mere preparatory
platform for the next.
Chinese, on the other hand, were firmly bound to this world. For them, there
was hardly a world beyond. They lived in the present for the present.
ideals of life also differed. To a Hindu, the main object of life is
immortality or salvation of the Soul - which can only be attained through
renunciation of all worldly desires and non-attachment. It cannot be
attained by wealth or progeny.
and wealth thus became an anathema. Buddhism echoed the same sentiment when
it called woman “Visattika” (poisonous).
Chinese did not aim at any salvation of the Soul. In fact, they had hardly a
word for soul and there was no soul without a body. So the body was more
important. It was a sacred gift from the parents which must be nurtured with
care. Body needs food, drink and sex. So these were accepted as the normal
and natural urges of man.
a Hindu the body was an impure appendage which impedes the emancipation of
the Soul by imprisoning it. So the body is better despised or even discarded
rather than decorated. Hindus thus believed in various
Bratas (vows) to emaciate the body. Some Bratas
prescribe penance wherein one sits among four fires under the blazing
a Hindu, the spirit is more important than the form; and intention, more
important than expression. Thus a Hindu often tends to be informal to the
extent of shoddiness. Although a Hindu feels thankful, he would think it too
formal to thank some one in so many words. Expression would seem to devalue
intention, Curiously enough, many Indian languages derived from Sanskrit had
no word for “thank you” -- "Dhanyawad” etc. are modern coinages.
Chinese have at least three or four different words to express thanks. To a
Chinese, the form is as important, if not more, than the spirit. The Chinese
tend to be sticklers for protocol and form. They are a more formal people
and tend to be tidy and neat.
Chinese seem to observe a strict reciprocity in human relations, If a
Chinese works for you and is paid by you he will try to give you full worth
of the money paid to him. The Chinese will not keep a dinner or a gift
unreturned. What is received must: be returned.
Chinese reciprocity also works in a vicious way. When it comes to war or
feuds, it is eye-for-eye and tooth-for-tooth. As Confucius says “if injury
is rewarded by kindness then what is the reward for kindness?” As Mao
Zedong said: “If someone attacks me I must counter attack. If someone does
not attack I do not attack him either”. The Chinese are evidently good
friends but bad enemies.
attitude, on the other hand, tends to be more casual and tolerant. Indians
may not be too meticulous in returning visits or gifts, not because of any
lack of intention but due to a general laxity, Yet, he is willing to forgive
and forget. And he seems to be lukewarm in both friendship and enmity.
Chinese accepts responsibility for his actions and consequences thereof
without “bearing a grudge to heaven or man”.
seem prone to find an excuse or pass on the responsibility to some one else.
Hindu religiosity may have played a
part in it. For centuries the Bhakti cult in India encouraged an escapist
attitude to life and society by transferring all responsibility to God. All
that an Indian was asked to do was to repeat the name of God ad infinitum.
God was there to do everything and shoulder all the burdens while man did
seem to have excessive faith in the efficacy of the written word and tend to
be legalistic. Written word seems to give them a greater sense of security
than the oral one. Indians regard word of “shabda”
as a valid means of knowledge and elevate it to the status of a cosmic force
a Chinese, oral assurance is enough. Vice-Foreign Minister Zhang Hanfu was
fond of telling us: "We mean what we say”. 19th century European
traders described how all their big deals with the Chinese in Shanghai etc.
were oral and yet there never was any default in payment. In the last days
of KMT when inflation was sky-high found our grocer sticking to the price
quoted by him in the morning, although we were making the payment in the
evening when the Chinese Yuan had gone down by 50 per cent.
Chinese are long-term planners and are deliberate in action. Indians seem
often swayed by short term benefits and seem to react to situation as they
come up and then act in haste.
negotiations Indians would lay all their cards on the table; the Chinese
take a much longer time to reveal their true hand. In fact as in Urdu poetry
the real kick and twist comes last. In negotiating with China you need
patience and perseverence.
a mediaeval Chinese author has observed: “the Chinese are good with their
eyes, Indians, good with their ears”. The Chinese are good at painting and
handicrafts. Indians excel in music. The Chinese music is relatively simple
and as Hirabai Badodekar once observed to me, “the Chinese music seems to
have only two Ragas; Bhupa and Durgam”. It is said that Indian monks were
the first to discover the tonal character of the Chinese language.
©1998 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without written permission of the publisher.
Published in 1998 by
Gyan Publishing House
5, Ansari Road, Darya Ganj,
New Delhi - 110 002.