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The Bhai-Bhai Lie
The False Narrative of Chinese-Indian Friendship
TANSEN SEN is associate professor for Asian history at Baruch College.See more by this author
India in the Chinese Imagination: Myth, Religion, and Thought EDITED BY JOHN KIESCHNICK AND MEIR SHAHAR. University of Pennsylvania Press, 352 pp. $65.00.
Although China and India are often described in the West as rivals, the governments and some scholars of those countries have deliberately tried to paint a different portrait of their relationship. Since at least the first half of the twentieth century, several prominent members of Chinese and Indian elites have been in thrall to an intellectual movement known as pan-Asianism, which posits a deep cultural -- and, by extension, political -- solidarity between Asia’s two largest countries. The rhetoric of pan-Asianism has evolved over the decades, from the “brotherly” relationship described by the Indian intellectual Rabindranath Tagore and his Chinese contemporary Liang Qichao in the early twentieth century to the euphoric “Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai” (India-China brotherhood) celebrated by political leaders in the 1950s to the idea of “Chindia,” put forward by the Indian politician and columnist Jairam Ramesh in our current era.
The core aspect of this rhetoric has remained consistent: it has always justified present-day friendship between China and India on the basis of allegedly harmonious ancient ties. Today, diplomats and academics in both countries routinely claim that the two have enjoyed more than 2,000 years of mutual solidarity and peaceful exchange. This romanticized narrative is used as a diplomatic tool by policymakers who want to sidestep acrimonious border disputes and foster closer cultural ties between Beijing and Delhi.
An increasing number of scholars, however, are acknowledging that this narrative not only distorts historical reality but also, as demonstrated by the military conflict between China and India in 1962, may not be capable of sustainably resolving tensions between the two countries. A new collection of academic essays, India in the Chinese Imagination, is an overdue effort to more accurately portray and critically examine the ancient ties between China and India, with a special focus on the role of Buddhism. The contributors reveal that China regularly rejected aspects of Indian culture that did not fit into the Chinese context. Solidarity between the two civilizations, contrary to the claims of present-day diplomats and politicians, was never truly attained.