Adnan Abidi / Courtesy Reuters A signboard on the Indian side of the Indo-China border in Arunachal Pradesh, November 11, 2009.

The Bhai-Bhai Lie

The False Narrative of Chinese-Indian Friendship

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.  


The first corrections to the standard narrative appear in the book’s introduction, where the editors of the book, Stanford University professor John Kieschnick and Tel Aviv University professor Meir Shahar, point out that direct contact between the two regions in ancient times was in reality very limited and mostly mediated by various middlemen, including Parthians and Sogdians from Central Asia and Arabs and Persians from the Middle East. 

The editors also note that claims of a long-standing Chinese-Indian relationship are complicated by the fact that China and India didn’t exist as coherent or independent states until the twentieth century. Using contemporary countries as a shorthand for describing the ancient world obscures how amorphous Asian borders once were. Consider the case of the ancient Buddhist monk Bodhidharma, who is typically described by Chinese and Indian scholars and politicians as a native of southern India responsible for introducing martial arts to China in the fifth or sixth century after taking residence in the famous Shaolin Temple. But in a splendid chapter by the late John R. McRae, a leading scholar of Zen Buddhism, the truth is shown to be more complicated. McRae writes that the earliest Chinese reference to Bodhidharma records him as a person from an area now under the jurisdiction of Afghanistan and Pakistan. This raises the question of why he should be evoked as a symbol of close ties between Beijing and Delhi, rather than as a symbol of ties between Beijing and Kabul, or Beijing and Islamabad.

Buddhism typically plays a central role in contemporary Chinese-Indian cultural diplomacy. This, however, comes at the neglect of the study of Hindu influences on Chinese society. India in the Chinese Imagination highlights this important facet of ancient interactions between India and China. In one chapter, Meir Shahar examines China's popular fiendish divinity called Nezha, which he traces back to Hinduism. Nezha, Shahar argues, has its origins in Nalakubara, the son of the famous Hindu deity known as Vaisravana. The latter was introduced to China in the seventh century through translations of Tantric Buddhist texts and appropriated by Chinese storytellers who began associating him with a historical Chinese warrior from the Tang dynasty named Li Jing. Nezha is a remarkable example of the amalgamation of Chinese and Indian mythologies -- but to that extent, Nezha also testifies to the distinctiveness that was attained during the process of transmitting Indian ideas to China.

Another Indian deity discussed in this volume is King Yama, the god of death. Similar to Vaisravana, Yama originated in ancient Hindu tradition and was later incorporated into the Buddhist pantheon. From there, he made his way to Chinese culture. Columbia University’s Bernard Faure traces the avenue by which Yama and the ritual practices associated with him spread. In China, Yama eventually became identified as a fearsome deity in charge of judging and punishing the dead, and he was often portrayed in images that illustrated the torments of hell. China's Buddhist clergy, Faure notes, used Yama to induce fear among the Chinese populace about karmic retribution, which “may reflect an attempt by the Buddhists to strengthen their hold on Chinese society.” The idea of hell that emerged in China thus bore traces of ancient Indian culture, but eventually developed into an entirely distinct conception with roots in indigenous Chinese culture.

This volume also explores the culture of sexuality in China and India, a subject that most scholars have avoided until now. Focusing on the Hindu-Buddhist deity Mahesvara (commonly known as Shiva), Nobuyoshi Yamabe of the Tokyo University of Agriculture compares phallic symbolism in Chinese and Indian texts. Yamabe discovers that local Chinese Buddhists censored sexually explicit discussions and images filtering into China from India. It seems that the Chinese were insistent on maintaining their own traditions concerning sexuality, rather than adopting those common in India.

This theme -- China's uneasy appropriation of certain aspects of Indian culture -- is also the theme of the final three chapters of the book. Robert H. Sharf of University of California, Berkeley, illustrates that medieval Chinese Buddhists were indifferent to the contemporaneous philosophical debates in India about existential issues. The French scholar Christine Mollier examines the ways that the Chinese (especially adherents of traditional Daoist religion) struggled to accept Indian concepts of karmic causality with the “simultaneous rejection and appropriation of the foreign tradition.” Stephen R. Bokenkamp of Arizona State University explores Chinese strategies for dealing with unfamiliar Indian scripts. These chapters show that the ancient encounters between these two very distinct cultural zones were extraordinarily complex, because they were each operating on the basis of beliefs and practices that seemed mutually irreconcilable. These and other chapters do demonstrate that ancient China and India managed to become connected with each other, but only through an arduous process of translating, rendering, explaining, and altering new ideas. Each cultural zone acquired an image of the other -- but those images were distinct from what each side saw when they looked in the mirror.


The question of whether the ancient cultural exchanges are in any way relevant to the contemporary relations between China and India is mostly outside the scope of the book. But, with many diplomats and politicians in both countries answering that question in the affirmative, it deserves closer scrutiny. 

There are three significant differences between the interactions that took place in the first millennium AD and present-day bilateral relations. First, territorialized states -- and the sense in both states of distinct national interests -- did not exist when Buddhist monks and itinerant traders wandered ancient China and India. Although various Indian polities and the courts of successive Chinese dynasties conducted diplomatic exchanges, the overall context and aims of political communication were vastly different from the contemporary political agenda. The emergence of two nation states in the mid twentieth century resulted in the creation of a common border for the first time. It is this border that is now the key cause of conflict between India and China. Ancient interactions between the two regions, even in the absence of a common border, were not always peaceful and harmonious, as pan-Asianist and bhai-bhai propagandists would have us believe. Chinese governments on several occasions instigated regime changes in South Asia. And in the early fifteenth century, the famous Ming admiral Zheng He used military force in the Malabar coast and Sri Lanka, most likely to demonstrate Ming dynasty’s hegemony in the Indian Ocean region.

Second, using Buddhism to promote contemporary exchanges and understanding is a complicated matter. As is clear from the chapters in India in the Chinese Imagination, the spread of Buddhist teachings to China involved several modifications and rejections of teachings and practices. In fact, by the tenth century, the Buddhists in China had started charting their own path and formed their schools of Buddhist teachings that needed little, if any, input from their Indian counterparts. The invoking of Buddhism in contemporary relations discounts this important divergence and fails to recognize the distinct Buddhist traditions in India and China that have evolved over the past 1,000 years.

Finally, it must be recognized that China and India -- their worldviews, self-perceptions, social and political concerns, and geographical contours -- have changed vastly over the past 2,000 years. To say that the two regions have had a continuous and consistent relationship with one another is mistaken, because the two societies have not had consistent relationships with themselves. The rhetoric of Chindia might serve the purposes of contemporary international relations and government propaganda. But it crumbles when exposed to first-rate scholarship of the sort found in India in the Chinese Imagination.