Jawaharlal Nehru and Mao Zedong at a reception during the Indian prime minister’s 1954 China visit. Photo: Public.Resource.Org  / Flickr
Jawaharlal Nehru and Mao Zedong at a reception during the Indian prime minister’s 1954 China visit. Photo: Public.Resource.Org / Flickr

India’s other China problem

Indian research and scholarship on China suffers from a narrow focus on ‘national interest’.

Indian media's coverage of the country's ongoing tensions with China has been remarkable for the proliferation of voices from the 'strategic community' – a group that includes retired civil servants, diplomats, army officers, as well as international-relations experts, journalists and commentators. Despite such spikes in interest, Chinese politics and society remain understudied in contemporary India, with a visible dearth of experts with facility in the Chinese language and a record of rigorous research.

In this interview, we explore these issues with Arunabh Ghosh, a historian of modern China and the author of the recently published Making it Count: Statistics and Statecraft in the Early People's Republic of China. Ghosh talks about the poor state of China scholarship in India, the securitisation of the subject after the 1962 war, the two country's history of scientific exchanges, and how Chinese media covers Southasia.

Himal Southasian: India's relations with China have once again become a popular subject in the Indian media and among the country's intelligentsia. In that context, could you give us a brief history of scholarship about China in India? And what is your assessment of the state of knowledge about Chinese society and politics in contemporary India?

Arunabh Ghosh: The systematic study of China in India can be traced to 1937, when Rabindranath Tagore established Cheena Bhavana at Visva Bharati University in present-day West Bengal. Prior to that, knowledge of China primarily consisted of colonial investigations and travelogues and memoirs written by travelers, traders and soldiers. A notable example is the recent translation of Thakur Gadadhar Singhs's Cheen Me Terah Maas (Thirteen Months in China), which contains fascinating reflections on China during the Boxer Uprising (1898-1900), with thoughtful asides about imperialism and the subaltern condition. Activities at Cheena Bhavana centered on the study of the arts, literature and ancient history. This humanistic focus, an echo of Tagore's own commitments, represented the confluence of two independent strands of scholarship and scholarly activism: studies of Buddhism and its spread across Asia over the previous two millennia, and the hopes and ambitions of a Pan-Asian revival. Crucial to these efforts was the establishment of the first library dedicated to the study of China. This library remains a terrific resource, especially for the study of China's history and culture, but is severely underutilised. Over the years, scholars affiliated with Cheena Bhavana have produced tremendously rich and valuable scholarship, but it is important to recognize that these are primarily intercultural in nature – ie, Sino-Indian or China-India – and not explicitly about the study of China itself.

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Himal Southasian