China and India: Torches of the East

The tide of China-India cultural exchange seems unstoppable. Further infrastructure connectivity has facilitated a heavier flow of interaction between China and India, and even the seemingly insurmountable Himalayan range can do little to impede passionate exchange between the two Asian neighbors.
by Luo Zhaohui
On December 22nd, the Inauguration Ceremony of High Level People to People and Cultural Exchange Mechanism between China and India & China India Cultural Evening kicks off at Pravasi Bhartiya Kendra in New Delhi. State Councilor & Foreign Minister of China Mr. Wang Yi and his counterpart EAM Smt. Sushma Swaraj inaugurate the event.

This winter, the temperature in New Delhi dropped to the record low of recent years. However, the chilly weather did little to cool the heating up of China-India cultural exchange. Co-chaired by Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, the first meeting of the China-India high-level people-to-people and cultural exchanges mechanism was held in New Delhi in December 2018. As the most recent diplomatic event to implement the consensus reached by Chinese and Indian leaders during their Wuhan informal meeting in 2018, this meeting stirred a wave of cultural exchange between China and India.

First, the meeting was a high-level event. The establishment of the China-India high-level people-to-people and cultural exchanges mechanism was an important consensus reached by Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during their meeting in Wuhan, and both leaders sent congratulatory letters to the meeting. Alongside State Councilor Wang Yi, seven Chinese vice ministers from ministries of culture, tourism, education and other affairs attended the meeting and conducted in-depth communication with their Indian counterparts.

Second, the meeting included a multitude of activities. The two sides organized eight fruitful sub-events involving think tanks, media, museums, language and culture, an vocational education cooperation forum, a photography exhibition, a film week, and a book release, among others.

Third, the meeting achieved fruitful outcomes. The two sides agreed to focus on “ten pillars” and “eight priorities” to increase people-to-people and cultural exchanges. Universities and media organizations of the two nations reached five cooperation agreements. Two Indian colleges agreed to set up Chinese language teaching centers and two vocational education centers.

Fourth, the meeting exerted far-reaching influence. The establishment of a high-level people-to-people and cultural exchanges mechanism was unprecedented in the history of China-India relations and represented an innovation that conformed to the will of the general public of both countries. The mechanism helps evoke interest in cooperation between government departments of the two nations, enhances the importance of people-to-people exchanges, and accelerates comprehensive development of China-India relations.

History and Reality

Historically, China and India led the world economy for a long time. British economist Angus Maddison wrote in his book The World Economy that the combined GDP of China and India accounted for half of the global total for 1,600 years during recent two thousand years. Moreover, China and India continue to represent two major ancient civilizations of the East. The two nations learn from each other as they make remarkable contributions to human progress. The first meeting of the China-India high-level people-to-people and cultural exchanges mechanism was held as a huge success. Standing at a new historic starting point and eyeing further development of bilateral relations, the two nations are inheriting a profound legacy of historical exchange and preserving the general trend of communication between different civilizations as they forge ahead towards recreating the “Asian Century.”

The Xi-Modi meeting in Wuhan laid a solid political foundation for people-to-people and cultural exchanges between China and India. Last April during their meeting in Wuhan, President Xi and Prime Minister Modi visited an exhibition of cultural relics at Hubei Provincial Museum, enjoyed a performance of chime bells, and conducted in-depth discussions on mutual learning between the two nations with ancient civilizations. The Wuhan summit ushered China-India relations into the “fast lane.” Subsequently, the two leaders met three times on multilateral occasions, and three Chinese state councilors visited India. In 2018, bilateral trade volume reached a record high of US$95.5 billion, and nearly 1,000 Chinese companies operating in India created more than 100,000 jobs. The positive trend in China-India relations strongly bolstered the success of the first meeting of the high-level people-to-people and cultural exchanges mechanism.

An eon of mutual learning between Chinese and Indian civilizations has injected vitality into cultural exchanges between the two nations. Through peaceful coexistence and communication that transcend the limits of time and space, Chinese and Indian people have created brilliant cultures and set a pristine example in the history of cultural exchange. The origin of China-India cultural exchange can be traced back more than 2,000 years. During his expeditions to the western regions, Zhang Qian, an envoy of the Han Dynasty (202 BC – AD 220), made records on Shu cloth and bamboo sticks imported from India. Originating in India, Buddhism thrived in China. Eminent monks such as Faxian, Xuanzang and Bodhidharma made long, arduous journeys to spread Buddhist culture between China and India. During his seven voyages, Chinese explorer Zheng He visited India six times. China’s papermaking, silk, porcelain and tea were introduced to India, and Indian songs and dance, astronomy, architecture, perfumes and other items were exported to China. Surviving artifacts from these activities evidence mutual learning and interaction between the two nations along the ancient Silk Road. Both Eastern civilizations, China and India have always learned from each other and are inclusive in nature. Both nations attach great importance to ethics, morality and self-improvement and advocate harmonious coexistence between man and nature, peace, benevolence and familial kinship, demonstrating the charm of ancient Eastern philosophy.

In modern times, the two countries have furthered their interactions. Chinese revolutionaries like Dr. Sun Yat-sen voiced support for the Indian independence movement. Famous Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore visited China twice, established the Cheena Bhavan (China College) at India’s Visva-Bharati University, and called for spreading Eastern philosophy alongside Chinese educator Tan Yunshan. Their efforts enabled the emergence of Indian studies in China and Chinese studies in India, which have since been further expanded. Chinese translator Xu Fancheng spent 33 years in India translating the Sanskrit scripture Bhagavad Gita. During the Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression, India sent a medical team to assist China. Indian physician Dwarkanath Kotnis even sacrificed his life during the medical mission to China. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, India became the first non-socialist country to establish diplomatic relations with China. Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru jointly developed the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, which have made great contributions to the construction of the new international order. “Hindi-Cheeni bhai-bhai” (“Indians and Chinese are brothers” in Hindi) became a buzz phrase that has inspired generations of young people to commit to consolidating China-India friendship. Even when political relations saw setbacks, cultural exchanges and interaction between the two nations continued unabated.

People-to-people and cultural exchanges between China and India conform to the general trend of exchange between different civilizations around the world and meet the practical needs of the two peoples. Since the turn of the 21st century, economic globalization, social informatization and cultural diversification have prevailed. In this context, the world is increasingly flat, and various cultures are clashing and integrating with each other. In a century of shared civilization, building a community with a shared future for humanity should be a common aspiration for people of all countries. People-to-people and cultural exchanges have become unstoppable trends advancing faster and faster. Further infrastructure connectivity has facilitated wider interaction between China and India, and even the seemingly insurmountable Himalayan range can no longer block passionate exchanges between the two Asian neighbors. Yoga, Darjeeling black tea and Bollywood films have gained popularity among Chinese youngsters. The Indian movie Dangal grossed an astonishing US$190 million in China, about twice the revenue it earned in India. Chinese food, acupuncture, martial arts and movie stars are also popular among Indians. Currently, more than 14 sister city and province relationships have been established between China and India, and more than 20,000 Indian students are studying in China. Annual mutual visits between the two countries have exceeded a million. China’s Yunnan Minzu University is the only university outside of India to offer a master’s degree in yoga. The two peoples’ curiosity toward each other is enhanced through broader interactions, which further stimulates cultural exchanges between the two nations.

Promising Prospects

It is great to sail when the vast sea is smooth. China and India have a combined population of 2.7 billion, accounting for 40 percent of the global total, and contribute 20 percent of the world’s total GDP. Promising prospects for cultural exchanges between the two nations have emerged across the board. The first meeting of the China-India high-level people-to-people and cultural exchanges mechanism marked a good start. Seizing the opportunity, China and India need to leverage the mechanism as a platform to implement the consensus reached by leaders of the two countries and mobilize people from all walks of life to commit to the great cause of strengthening everlasting China-India friendship.

First, the two countries need to take concrete actions to implement outcomes of the meeting, accelerate negotiations on seven cooperation agreements in fields like culture, sports and museum management, and improve the high-level people-to-people and cultural exchanges mechanism to accumulate more consensus and outcomes for the second meeting.

Second, the two countries need to focus on priority work. With the “ten pillars” and “eight priorities” designated by both sides in mind, we need to establish culture centers in each other’s country and join hands to produce films and organize activities to achieve sustainable cultural exchange.

Third, the two countries need to formulate medium- and long-term plans to create a new cultural exchange framework featuring both governmental and non-governmental cooperation and extensive participation to ensure that cultural exchange is “rooted in the people and benefiting the people.” 

As two ancient civilizations that form their own yin and yang, China and India have carried out diverse and colorful cultural exchange for ages. I believe that the two nations will certainly achieve more extensive exchange, friendly cooperation and harmonious coexistence and make greater contributions to world prosperity and stability as long as they continue to learn from each other and respect each other’s culture.

The author is the Chinese Ambassador to India.