Book review: ‘What China and India Once Were’ by Sheldon Pollock and Benjamin Elman

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New Delhi | December 16, 2018 3:57 AM

A vast body of works that takes the reader back and forth in time, gazing at the two neighbouring countries through the prisms of history, literature, science, art, politics and much more.

sikkim, india, chinaTourists play in the snow at Sherathang near Nathula Pass, an open trading post in the Himalayas between India and China, in Sikkim. (Bloomberg)

China is a paradox, both of modern-day glitzy skyscrapers, grandiose projects of unparalleled magnitude—think Three Gorges—and the ignominy of mules tilling fields, beasts of burden being skinned (for meat) in rural backyards. India, too, is no less a bewildering juxtaposition. Both constitute almost 40% of the world’s population, with large untapped markets, economic growth, enormous human potential and also potential conflict. How does one understand and assess them, here and now?

The answer lies in history, or so say a team of distinguished historians based in the West, some of south-Asian origin, looking both inside in and outside in. They delve into the rivers of the past, drawing a parabolic continuum between the past and the present, between India and China, two non-European societies—in seeking to bridge the ‘Himalayan Gap’ with a weight of details, the sleight and spirit of inquiry, and more, a nuanced understanding.

It is impossible to name all the historians that have contributed to this volume. Luminaries include Sumit Guha, Richard M Eaton and Pamela Crossley, among others. Perhaps more relevant than names is their approach, sensitivities and cogent arguments that seek to look beyond preconceived notions and stereotypes—notions that typically associate fantastical mathematical, astronomical discoveries and great inventions with the West. In reality, China, India and Iran led the field of mathematical astronomy between the 13th and 17th century. They question stereotypes and prejudice in a manner that Edward Said did (Orientalism, 1978) and gnaw at the heart of Fredrich Hegel’s Eurocentric bias.

The collective essays, edited by Benjamin Elman and Sheldon Pollock, who understandably had a hard task on hand, are spread across the length, breadth and depth of ecology, historiography, religion, arts, literature and sciences. These, in turn, reflect in different ways the vast commonalities and differences that underlie the two countries that have written history their own way.

The opening essay details how economy, culture and politics in both countries are intrinsically linked with the environment, an insightful reflection on water management, domestication of animals, crop-cycles, trade and even migration. Incidentally, China began to tame nature dating back to the Grand Canal of the 6th century, and large-scale structures of water management (dikes, irrigation channels, clearing of forests) were already functional pre-1800. Indeed, anthropologist G William Skinner explained (not in this volume) the dramatic growth and decline of Kaifeng, north China (connected via the Grand Canal with Hangzhou)—its decline associated with the bursting of the dikes of the Yellow River in 1194. In contrast, India’s trysts with water management were heterogeneous, from a dependency on rain-fed agriculture in the eastern belt and north, to the failed water management system of the grand Vijayanagara empire. The introduction of New World crops in both countries was equally disruptive, with vastly different ecological outcomes.

Another essay highlights that as much as we in India dispel (and fear the China threat and vice-versa), there is a China in us, and somewhere, an India in China. The essay in question reflects on India and China’s shared inheritance of the Mongol empire (Yuan dynasty, 1272-1368) that trickled down through to the Mughal dynasty and the Qing (Manchu) dynasty, both conquest dynasties. In India, the inheritance saw an interplay with a rooted Sanskrit-based polity in a languid, if complex, manner. While India patronised, adopted and even learnt from the dominant culture in different ways, in China, instead of a hybridised aggregate, as was the case with India, the Qing mediated their rule differently with different audiences—using a combination of Manchu, Mongol and Ming systems of rule.

How the conquerors identified with the conquered in China and India provides an interesting and intimate perspective—several Mughal emperors worked a fluid amalgamating style, notably Akbar, who began to embrace Rajput warfare, aesthetics and princesses into the fold of the royal harem. In China, the Qing (Manchu) emperors took to the cosmology of heaven and earth (if you recollect, several Ming dynasty constructions, including the Great Wall and the Temple of Heaven, were given a fresh lease of life under the Qing), patronised Tibetan Buddhism and even practiced Manchu-shamanism.

One thought-provoking essay takes us into the inner wheels of India and China via the civil service examination system, one that China has followed with a meticulous, even fastidious, sincerity since the Song and Ming dynasties. In China, this is extrapolated as a meritocratic advancement open across the country, whereas in a comparable time-frame, India’s elite status (as continues till date, in parts of India) was reinforced not as meritocratic advancement, but rather as a hereditary privilege passed down generations—which helps us understand the context of inequality.

Yet another essay takes us into the inner world of gender systems, not via bodies of women (foot-binding and sati) but via the spatial dimension of quadrangular courtyard houses in China and India. In China, the enclosed siheyuan came with outer quarters and inner quarters, moon-gates and open courtyards or sky-wells, interspersed with gardens of gardenia and peony—with defined, marked gender spaces. Men occupied the outer quarters and women occupied the inner quarters. In India, too, women were relegated to the inner quarters in the harem or zenana.

In China, these spaces came circumscribed by the dominant ideology of Confucianism. In India, women had to struggle to savour the joy of Saraswati (goddess of learning). Yet, paradoxically, even within the narrow confines of the restrictive gender regime, authority often resided with the grand matriarch, with many women able to control finances and funds.

There was yet another essay that strikes a deep chord—an essay that reflects on the literary traditions in China and India and how it escapes a ‘freeze-frame’ narrative. While it reflects on the strong commonalities between India and China, such as a yen for literary meets and greets, there were substantive differences as well, because traditions, they indicate, are not static but evolutionary. China’s ideographic language persisted and prevalent for more than two millennia also enabled “an imagined unified literary culture”, where the same script was read differently. In contrast, after more than 1,500 years of Sanskrit, new languages and dialects burst on the scene, and despite prevalence of Sanskrit, read in different scripts. Again, they highlight the challenges of comparison—highlighting the obvious connection between the Odyssey and the Iliad with the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, otherwise obscured. As they write, “India and Europe share the epic in the conventional sense; China and Europe share early modern print culture; China and India share a fascination with mood and feelings.”

Yet another critical essay illustrates how political institutions impacted, supported and negated the sciences in both countries. In India, political plurality fostered variety; in China, strict control ensured “radical uniformity in accuracy and error”, which echoes in modern times.

The last essays—on religion and art—highlight how classifying, recognising and categorising religion in both countries led to unanticipated political outcomes—partition in India (1947), the destruction and desecration of temples during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) in China. Finally, for art lovers, the last essay explores how to view and understand the imagination of China and India—why, for example, landscape painting thrived in China and figural painting (of people as opposed to landscape) in India, and how different their techniques were.

The afterword at the tail end discusses the intricacies and the maze of comparison, the inherent challenges, and yet, the intrinsic value in the exercise to raise and frame questions for further inquiry, with a Joni Mitchell thrown in for the music and light.

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How does one judge the book, which takes you back and forth in time, across centuries, sometimes (gasp), between Mirabai and The Rose of Gulistan, Telangana and Akbar’s havelis, the romance of literature and the world of sciences, from observatories to oracle bones, from a castrated Sima Qian to the line and the haze of art?

Some of the essays are seamless and some not—partly because of India’s (and China’s) own diversity and complexity, and partly one suspects the vast literature that the exercise had to sift through. Speaking for myself, a general reader coming from the east and south of India, Mughal India appeared a prominent trope with fleeting accounts of the east, south, west and practically nothing about the north-east. Many terms may be alien to an Indian audience—such as a ‘Jiangnan’—simply because Chinese studies in India is still a feeble field. There is little reflection on the Indic influence in ‘Indo-China’—Champa Kingdom in Vietnam, Cholas and the Khmer Kingdom (Angkor Wat), Majapahit empire (Java) or even influence of the Cholas and Pallavas in present-day Malaysia.

Comparison has its pitfalls, but this book reminded me of historians like John Fairbank, the iconic and evergreen Wang Gungwu and Jonathan Spence—historians and great teachers who wrote (and write) history with a rare simplicity in form and essence, beauty and élan. Writing that shortens the distance between the historian and storyteller and flattens the hierarchy between academia and the general reader, drawing the reader into the willing embrace of history. This is sorely amiss in many of the essays.

The book tries the reader’s patience, but there are some back-handed rewards with an unexpected wealth of information, room for introspection and the door open for future endeavours. As for the book claiming that it is directed at the general reader, well, wish.

The writer is a Singapore-based Sinologist and adjunct fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi

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