understanding china

V. V. Paranjpe

There 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.
I 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.
In 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.
I 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 outside the town, and I used to cycle there for my lectures.
Two Beijings
Beijing 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.
All 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 successful.
As 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.
Nehru and Mao
It 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 policy.
The 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.
There 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.
The 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.
Mao’s poetic farewell to Nehru
My 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:
“There is no greater sorrow than the sorrow of departing alive.
There is no greater joy than the joy of first meeting.”
Alcohol In banquet
During 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 times.
Nehru 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.
However, 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 pleased about.
Zhou-Rajaji dialogue
During 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.
While 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.
Zhou on Gandhiji
I 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.
Zhou Attends Dr. Atal’s Cremation
Dr. 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.
Travails of an Interpreter
Good 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 “peace”.
While 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 pacified.
The 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.
“Standard Indian”
It 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 English.
Similarly 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!
A 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 the Sikhs.
The Bond of Buddhism
As 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.
Buddhism has been our strongest bond. It brought India and China together nearly 2,000 years ago.
How 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 fabric.
It 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.
Buddhism 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 vegetarianism.
To 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.
Buddhist metaphysics with its doctrines of evanescence and illusion (Maya) probably fascinated the poetic and the elite.
Chinese 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 non-violent ways.
But 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).
Since 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.
If 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!
All 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.
As 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.
In 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).
The 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”.
Understanding China
There 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!
Moreover, 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 past.
We 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.
Hindus, on the other hand, fend to be emotional, idealistic, voluble, rather vague and a little brash.
But these are only external manifestations of more basic differences rooted in our different world outlooks.
Since 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.
The 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.
Hindus thus became more other-worldly treating this life as a mere preparatory platform for the next.
The 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.
The 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.
Women and wealth thus became an anathema. Buddhism echoed the same sentiment when it called woman “Visattika” (poisonous).
The 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.
To 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 sun!
To 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.
The 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.
The 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.
This 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.
Hindu 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.
A Chinese accepts responsibility for his actions and consequences thereof without “bearing a grudge to heaven or man”.
Indians 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 nothing.
Hindus 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 (Shabda-Brahma).
To 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.
The 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.
In 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.
As 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. This is not a complete catalogue but only some tentative observations which are open to correction. I have not gone into the faults or failings of each side. That would be a bigger and perhaps more bitter exercise.


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