focus Reviews

Reviews of ‘Beyond Pan-Asianism: Connecting China and India, 1840s-1960s’, and ‘Tea-War: A History of Capitalism in China and India’: India’s forgotten China links

Toil A Chinese tea plantation with workers carrying and firing the tea. Engraving by A. Willmore, c. 1840. Wiki Commons  

The framing of the long history of India’s interactions with China tends to usually veer between two extremes. The centuries of exchanges, from trade along the Silk Road and Buddhism’s journey to China to maritime interactions, are sometimes invoked to suggest some idealised, pan-Asian, harmonious, and shared civilisational past.

On the other end of the spectrum, more recent interactions, from the early 20th century policing of Chinese streets by policemen from British India, an episode that remains deeply etched in Chinese consciousness, to the difficulties in relations between the two new states that came into being in 1947 and 1949, are seen as evidence of dooming both neighbours to perennial confrontation.

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No easy labels

In Beyond Pan-Asianism: Connecting China and India, 1840s-1960s, scholars Tansen Sen and Brian Tsui urge us to break out of this reductive framing and to instead embrace the complexity of interactions that, in truth, defies easy labelling.

Reviews of ‘Beyond Pan-Asianism: Connecting China and India, 1840s-1960s’, and ‘Tea-War: A History of Capitalism in China and India’: India’s forgotten China links

Sen and Tsui have put together a fascinating collection of essays exploring lesser known facets of engagement during a key period in India-China interactions. The Opium War and the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842 not only brought new contact but also mutual learning as both went through “multiple phases of turmoil, conflict and anti-colonial resistance”. This was also the time when the Sikh policemen of Shanghai would become a deep symbol for Chinese “of Indian capitulation to their European masters” and of India as a weak nation — a trope that persists today, along with, unfortunately, the pejorative of the time, “hongtou asan” or “red-headed asan”, a racial epithet for Indians that remains widely in use so many years later as an insult on Chinese social media.

Cautionary tales

Essays in this collection explore well-known events such as Tagore’s visit to China, and other perhaps less widely understood episodes that readers will find fascinating, such as Zhang Ke’s revisiting of late Qing travel writings on India. Among those writers was Kang Youwei, the Confucian reformist who travelled to India and whose writings capture the tension in the views of many Chinese, who saw India as a once glorious civilisation with an admirable past (and, of course, the birthplace of Buddhism) but also as a civilisation that was in “decay”, and for them, held out cautionary tales for China as it was dealing with its own turmoil. In a talk in Calcutta’s Chinatown, Kang would tell his hosts, “Indians are surely going to destroy their own country” while the Chinese, he said, “had the aspiration to be independent”. An essay by Madhavi Thampi looks at how Hong Kong and other cities of China became unlikely sites of Indian political activism in the first half of the 20th century in Republican China. Another by Yin Cao delves deep into how Hong Kong’s Queen’s Road got its famous Gurdwara in 1901 amid the spread of the Singh Sabha movement across Asia. The collective effect is to push the reader to get past reductive and easy framings of how two societies interacted.

Push and pull

In Tea War, Andrew Liu provides a deeply researched and granular account of one of those interactions – the tea industries in India and China, and the push and pull between them, mediated by the British, that would have lasting impacts on both neighbours. Liu’s book tells the story of global tea trade through this new dynamic between the tea industries of India and China, starting with the Opium War and the huge jump in Chinese tea exports.

Reviews of ‘Beyond Pan-Asianism: Connecting China and India, 1840s-1960s’, and ‘Tea-War: A History of Capitalism in China and India’: India’s forgotten China links

In a matter of decades, the colonial tea industry in India would supplant it and emerge dominant, even as nationalists in India rose up against the indentured labour that underpinned the industry. Similarly in China, Republican reformers in the early 20th century would look to push against what they saw as entrenched feudal systems.

Liu challenges conventional wisdoms about the early years of capitalism in India and China and what it really meant to be capitalist, when you had exploitative systems and unfree labour driving a prosperous trade.

His work provides a valuable lens, using the tea dynamic to study a rare “moment of concrete conjuncture” between two societies usually only compared in broad strokes but “rarely studied in terms of their material historical connections”.

Unfortunately, the book’s prohibitive pricing and the dense writing — alas, par for the course for most academic works — will likely deprive it of the reach it deserves.

Both works share one broader goal, which, as Sen and Tsui put it, is to make a case for why the “pan-Asian” lens to understand historical India-China engagement is inadequate in capturing the diversity and complexity of interactions in this period. They both seek to push the reader to rethink how we understand a spectrum of engagement that was far more diverse, even rife with its own inherent contradictions, than often understood, and in this endeavour, they both certainly succeed.

Beyond Pan-Asianism: Connecting China and India, 1840s-1960s; Edited by Tansen Sen, Brian Tsui, Oxford University Press, ₹1,495.

Tea-War: A History of Capitalism in China and India; Andrew B. Liu, Yale University Press, $50.

ananth.krishnan@thehindu.co.in


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