Chinese New Year celebrations in Kolkata. There is growing interest in interpreting as well as questioning “China–India” solidarity and connectivity as a comparative framework. Photo: IMAGO / Pacific Press Agency
Chinese New Year celebrations in Kolkata. There is growing interest in interpreting as well as questioning “China–India” solidarity and connectivity as a comparative framework. Photo: IMAGO / Pacific Press Agency

The limits of our understandings of India–China cultural exchanges

India and China’s close interactions over the centuries – literary or otherwise – make for important and interesting reference points, but much work needs to be done to address the failings and inadequacies of comparing the two

IN THE LATE autumn of 2019, I had the pleasure of working and researching in Beijing. One night, I went out to dinner with a newly-made friend – let’s call him Li – a businessman from Hainan, the southernmost island-province of China. He was fascinated to hear that I was a PhD student studying the history of India and China’s close, if brittle, relationship in the 1950s. Proud of China’s economic rise, Li assured me that “all of the countries of the East were on the rise” and this necessitated that “we” – he and I standing as surrogates for our erstwhile homelands, regardless of me not actually being Indian by nationality – had to learn more from each other. This was of course a good soundbite, but was undergirded, as he later admitted, by a certain chauvinism. Li recounted that on his most recent trip to Delhi he had been appalled by the scale of the city’s poverty, reminding him of his childhood in the countryside. More than anything else, visiting India made him realise “the true meaning of patriotism” – that, clearly, something about the Chinese developmental model worked where its regional competitors had failed, and that India too could “learn how to walk our same path.” 

This story is a familiar one. The late 2010s saw a boom in popularity for Indian cultural products – namely, Bollywood movies – in China. Many testimonials documenting the success of movies like 3 Idiots or Dangal noted that they addressed social issues such as class-based discrimination, women’s rights, inequality, which resonated with audiences who saw these themes as reflecting, if not necessarily their own lives, then at least the lives of their parents. As one Chinese tutor in Beijing told me, Indians “seem to have problems like ours, just one generation behind.” A sense of Indian and Chinese similarity, albeit one tied into a temporal hierarchy of China marching ever forward at an ever faster pace, within a larger “Eastern” culture, certainly has some affective power among the public. In recent years, the image of an increasingly US-friendly India – and one with a significantly younger population than China’s and growing manufacturing capability – has been plaguing some in China anxious about the country’s future. But the implicit assumption is still of an India largely following in China’s footsteps.

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