Chinese President Xi Jinping with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (right) in Chennai, India. Photo: Xinhua/Zuma Press/TNS
Asian Angle
by Nilosree Biswas
Asian Angle
by Nilosree Biswas

Friends to foes: can China and India’s ancient links offer hints on mending rift?

  • Across trade, migration, geopolitical fights and culture, the two countries have been deeply intertwined across centuries
  • Sino-Indian history – that began over 1,000 years ago between southern Indian kingdoms of Pallava, Chola and Song China – is often overlooked in discussing China-India relationships
At the 1937 inauguration of the first Sino-Indian cultural centre in India, co-founder Rabindranath Tagore paid homage to a friendship that began centuries ago.

The foundations of that bond, the Nobel-winning poet noted, “were laid 1,800 years back with patience and sacrifice”.

With the similar concepts of “acceptance and peaceful coexistence”, Tagore and co-founder Tan Yun-Shan – a noted Chinese scholar and the first director of the Cheena Bhavan Institute of Chinese Language and Culture – worked to deepen Sino-Indian links; their efforts gained fruit intermittently throughout but more tangibly from the 1980s.

As the two nations sought to strengthen bilateral ties, a phrase emerged: “Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai” (“Indians and Chinese are brothers”).

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But decades later, changing geopolitical realities and events like the Sino-Indian War in 1962 and the deadly Galwan border clash of 2021 have crushed the ideals of acceptance and peaceful coexistence. Relations further deteriorated after India banned Chinese apps and clamped down on Chinese-owned firms, while New Delhi’s Indo-Pacific calculations amid China’s rise are driving the once-friendly neighbours further apart.

Are relations destined to come to an end? It is worth delving into the historical links mentioned by poet Tagore for clues.

Sino-Indian cultural ties

Relations between China and India, the second- and seventh-largest economies in the world, respectively, have come a long way. More than 1,000 years ago, the southern Indian kingdoms of Pallava and Chola were entwined with Song China over more than trade.

Chinese historian Ban Gu, known for his treatise The Book of Han, referred to the Chinese court sending multiple delegations to the Cholas, the third-century Tamil dynasty. According to noted historian William Dalrymple, ancient Indian leaders sent emissaries as part of a “diffusion of Indian culture”.

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Dalrymple has called this the “Indosphere” in his coming book The Golden Road, which details how Indian civilisation, science and language influenced surrounding countries from the days of Ashoka, the Mauryan emperor in 250 BC, until the peak of the Pallavas. Mutual influences continued and increased during the Chola period.

“It really began when Buddhist missionaries during Ashoka’s reign were leaving for what was then the Ptolemaic world in Central Asia and Persia, to Sri Lanka and from there to Burma, Thailand and Southeast Asia,” he writes.

Migration picked up steadily and the India-China relationship began to be shaped by Buddhist monks, traders, travellers and artists. This also meant that the Chinese accepted Buddhism, the new religious philosophy which became one of the drivers of the evolving relationship.

Anirudh Kanisetti, a public historian and author of Lords of the Deccan: Southern India from Chalukyas to Cholas, pointed out that the first evidence of Chola engagement with China came from an official delegation from the Chola court to China dating back to 1,015 AD, “though it’s also most certain that indirect interaction in the form of trade had been happening before that”.

The India-China relationship was shaped by Buddhist monks, traders, travellers and artists. This also meant that the Chinese accepted Buddhism, the new religious philosophy which became one of the drivers of the evolving relationship. Photo: AFP

The historian affirmed that “China was known to earlier Tamil dynasties, like Pallavas who had sent embassies to Chinese court in the seventh, eighth centuries”. Courts on both sides played major roles in establishing the relationship between the two regions but it was essentially human interaction on the ground that fuelled trans-regional ties across the Indian Ocean.

Dalrymple calls this multi-tier engagement pluralistic, saying that the number of Indian pilgrims and visitors to China exceeded the number of Chinese visitors to India, evidenced by the establishment of “Chola style temples at more than one port city [Guangdong] and have survived till date”.

While the architecture of these temples was driven by distinct temple designs of Tanjore in southern India, the deities often had Chinese features. Both Tamil and Chinese artisans were involved in this culture of mixed aesthetics. Chinese umbrellas were used by Tamils and temple scaffolds in China bore sculpted stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata. The emergence of a distinct mixed aesthetics is an indicator of peaceful coexistence and that “political” and “cultural” do not always stick to a hegemonic principle.


Ancient Buddhist statues discovered with traces of gold, silver and coloured glass

Ancient Buddhist statues discovered with traces of gold, silver and coloured glass

Early business dealings between Cholas and Chinese began with religious overtures, with demand for objects like camphor and aloe wood in Buddhist rituals. Kanisetti noted that the nature of the items traded later evolved to “general luxury goods like silk, gold, spices, pearls”.

In the 10th and 11th centuries, demand evolved to daily necessities such as food items and Indian pepper. Kanisetti noted that it was “cost-effective” for China to import some food products, indicating that it already had infrastructure for carrying vessels and storage.

Geopolitical winds of change

The geopolitics of the China-India relationship shifted when Rajendra became the Chola king and galvanised naval military action.

“The Ming dynasty in China and the Cholas of South India were both similarly interested in controlling geopolitical choke points and using that as ways to potentially reroute and take over infrastructure. This is similar to what we often see in modern day geopolitics,” Kanisetti wrote.

Dalrymple describes that military strategies dominated the Sino-India relationship in this period, as “there was very good evidence that China took Chola envoys much more seriously after they damaged and attacked Srivijaya in Sumatra”.

Srivijaya had dominated Southeast Asia in terms of trade, becoming an important geopolitical player.

Dalrymple further mentions the attack as “a major muscle-flexing exercise for the Cholas” that prompted the Chinese court to take notice of this at a time of heightened immigration from India to Southeast Asia that had begun in the Pallava period.

Sino-India relationships also had an impact on culture, with Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temples bearing the most visible signs of immigration from India to the east. Sanskrit also became the language of many administrations across Indian Ocean territories.

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“You get wonderful libraries erected in temples of Southeast Asia, with readings of Mahabharata and Ramayana, so Southeast Asia became a major centre for Sanskrit culture,” Dalrymple explained.

China and India have continued their cross-cultural relationship across the centuries, even as China is often seen as the richer and more powerful country, more politically unified than India.

“But culturally, Buddhism, an Indian religion, made a deeper impact and there is no comparable reverse thrust.

“As for the present-day relationship, there is much room to tap China’s Buddhist past as the basis of diplomacy,” said the noted historian, citing the construction of a large statue of Faxian, an eminent Buddhist monk and scholar of the Eastern Jin dynasty, in Bihar, India.

A historical past with syncretic imprints and philosophy of peaceful coexistence could provide the foundation to further strengthen China-India relationships today.

Nilosree Biswas is a writer and filmmaker based in Mumbai, India.