The study of Chinese history in India is in crisis

In a recent op-ed in this paper (‘A history fact-check for China’, IE, January 13), Sujan R Chinoy took to task Henry Kissinger for accepting at face value Mao Zedong’s assertion that China and India fought “one-and-a-half wars” several centuries ago. Chinoy observed that this claim, which figures in the prologue to Kissinger’s 2011 volume On China, misrepresents the historical record of these military encounters. At a time when we are saturated by social-media-driven misinformation and disinformation, any attempt to fact-check and set the record straight is indeed welcome. Especially so, if it is accompanied by the chance to further expose the tainted legacy of the Cold War’s most celebrated strategist. Sadly, Chinoy’s charge that Kissinger reveals “insufficient scholarship on ancient India” lands a hollow blow. Hollow not because Kissinger is indeed ill-informed, but hollow because so is Chinoy.

Notwithstanding the op-ed’s pivot to deliver a contemporary (and laudable) anti-war message, Chinoy dabbles in intricate historical details without himself being knowledgeable about them firsthand. In the process, he displays a poor knowledge of both Indian and Chinese history and suspect research skills, all of which are representative of the disastrous state of China and China-India studies in India.

Chinoy’s criticism of Kissinger rests on thin ice because it relies on a questionable and largely plagiarised work of secondary scholarship. Had he consulted other studies on Wang Xuance (incorrectly transliterated in the op-ed as “Wang Xuanze”), Chinoy would have realised that the Tang emissary’s military action in India, which took place in 648, was not “apocryphal in terms of its scale and significance”. Quite to the contrary, it was a significant event that resulted in the abdication, punishment and incarceration of the Indian official/ruler who supposedly initiated the military confrontation.

We know this through a close and critical reading of Chinese language materials, which constitute a key source for Indian history of this period. One need only look at D Devahuti’s Harsha: A Political History to recognise how valuable such materials can be in addressing questions on which Indian sources are silent. After all, Indian records make no mention of Wang Xuance, Xuanzang, or the other Chinese and Indian monks referenced in the op-ed.

The ability to read and analyse these records demands significant linguistic and methodological training. Unfortunately, there is a significant dearth of people with such skills in India. Furthermore, the dismissal of these sources as “apocryphal” is emblematic of a key problem in China-India studies in India, where Indian scholars of China assume that they qualify as experts in Indian history, society, politics and economy purely by virtue of their birth. Once the fact-checking begins, this conceit comes unstuck. The discussion of the kingdom of Kuche, Western Regions/Xiyu, India/Tianzhu, the Yuan and Ming dynasties, and the use of the term “Han China” in the op-ed suffers from a similar ignorance of Chinese history and sources.

This ignorance has significant implications beyond the academic study of China and China-India relations. Too often, Indian scholars, officials and political leaders gleefully accept Chinese narratives of 2,000 years of bilateral friendship, especially those connected to Buddhism. Thus, the sectarian portrayal of Dharmaratna and Kasyapa Matanga as the first Indian Buddhist monks in China, the hagiographical account of Bodhidharma as the Indian initiator of martial arts at the Shaolin Temple, and even the narrative of Wang Xuance as a pro-Harsha Tang emissary — the China-India state-sponsored film Kungfu Yoga is based on this premise — are all celebrated and applauded. Fact-checking of China-India history should start with questioning these narratives and the historical records they are purportedly based upon.

Op-eds in India and in Chinese print and social media have amplified the poor coverage of China. Add to the mix the more recent COVID-19-induced relentlessness of webinars, and what we have is an oversupply of shoddy analysis. The study of Chinese history in India (of which China-India history ought merely to be a constituent part) is especially in crisis. If we really want to use history and historical sources to deal with China (or fact-check those who promote China’s position), then this op-ed is, unfortunately, a demonstration of our inability to do so. The issue is especially disconcerting because Chinoy heads India’s leading strategic affairs think-tank.

The inability to deal with Chinese historical sources is by no means endemic to the policy analysis world; it is commonplace among scholars and op-ed writers. There is today not a single historian of modern or pre-modern China teaching at a major research university in India. Not only have existing vacancies not been filled, the current misguided push to disengage from China is likely to compound the depressing state of affairs. As a result, we will become increasingly reliant upon scholarship produced elsewhere (primarily the United States and the United Kingdom) to inform our understanding of Chinese history, society, and politics. A real tragedy, for no other country offers to India a comparable combination of a long and fascinating history and a tumultuous and transformative present. And in the absence of meaningful research that speaks to Indian concerns and conditions, the discourse on China will descend into a vortex of racism, ignorance and envy. In the history of self-goals, this would certainly merit a podium finish.

Building capacity by itself is of course no panacea for effective policy formulation. The US, which has a large and diverse China-studies community, is a case in point. But capacity is certainly a necessary condition. As a first step, we cannot, therefore, disengage from China, as the present Indian government would have us do. A similar disengagement policy after the China-India War of 1962 is at the root of the current dismal state of China and China-India studies in India. Reinvoking that Cold War mentality will not serve our goal to understand, analyse and respond to China. Instead, there should be more academic exchanges between Indian and Chinese scholars, more institutions teaching China-related courses in India, and more Indian scholars who can competently scrutinise Chinese sources, policies, and social and cultural developments. The alternative may appear self-congratulatory but will end up being self-defeating.

This article first appeared in the print edition on January 20, 2021, under the title “Know thy neighbour”. Ghosh (Harvard University) and Sen (NYU Shanghai) are historians of China and China-India interactions

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