China – 1: Why a Series on China?

Why should we write about China on The South Asian Idea?

For many reasons:

First, comparisons between the economies of China and India are becoming increasingly common. Both are categorized as emerging dragons and new global superpowers. In fact, a new name has been coined to refer to these twin stars of the future – Chindia!

Second, both represent amongst the most ancient, continuously-lived civilizations with very rich histories. It is possible to understand more about ourselves through a comparison of some aspects of these histories.

Third, both China and India are large, billion-plus countries and there is much discussion of what each can learn from the other.

Fourth, both have majorities that subscribe to non-monotheistic belief systems. This allows interesting contrasts across countries with monotheistic dominance and also with each other given the variations in their own belief systems. These can further our insights into the relationship between religious fundamentalism and the nature of belief systems.

Fifth, both have absorbed numerous waves of invaders which again allows for the possibility of interesting comparisons.

These are sufficient reasons. There are also two more immediate triggers that make this an opportune time to begin this discussion.

First, my interest in China was sparked again after reading Mark Lilla’s book (The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West). In the Introduction Lilla laments the fact that “Today we have progressed to the point where we are again fighting the battles of the sixteenth century…. We assumed that this was no longer possible, that human beings had learned to separate religious questions from political ones, that fanaticism was dead. We were wrong.”

It struck me immediately that Lilla had limited himself to the monotheistic religions and therefore had nothing to say about the relationship of politics and religion in India and China. The question of how religious fundamentalism is related to the conception of God is obviously both intellectually interesting and politically critical. There is much to be learnt here and I have invested considerable time in trying to unravel some of the implications (without reaching any firm conclusions as yet).

Second, a reader (Vikram) of the post (Hinduism – 1: What is ‘Hinduism’?) suggested that a comparison with China might be useful:

Can a contrast be drawn with the ‘Chinese’ identity? There are quite a number of variations among the Chinese people (Mandarin, Hakka, Cantonese) but they are not as sharp as the variations between say the Punjabi, Bengali and Tamil people in India. Why that is the case is another intriguing question in itself.

In some sense both India and China developed civilizations relatively early, and in many ways have maintained the continuity of their ancient civilizations. This was because of the large size of their populations which could absorb shocks from the outside where others could not. A prominent example is Iran, which in many ways was not able to absorb the ‘shock’ of the entry of Islam and the Mongol invasions.

The key difference was that the Chinese very quickly developed a political identity revolving around the emperor, whereas India, in some sense only achieved this after the adoption of the Constitution and after the separation of some areas which were historically part of its identity. The Chinese identity was in many ways better equipped to incorporate the nation state. Whereas the Indian/Hindu identity, seems to be very problematic when it comes to morphing into a national one.

I think this insecurity of the difference within Hindus is one of the principal reasons for the growth of the intolerant Hindu nationalism.

There are many very interesting suggestions in this comment that can be followed up to advantage.

Finally, another reader (Vinod) recommended the chapter “How China became Chinese” in the book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond. I have now read the chapter and find that it does indeed provide answers to some of the questions posed by Vikram. I feel that these answers would also be found useful by other readers.

For all these reasons, we endeavor to launch a series on China. As always, readers must remember that our starting point is not one of expert knowledge but one of keen interest. Our hope remains to start a useful conversation, to learn from each other as we go along, and to collectively emerge less ignorant at the end.

For comparisons of the Indian and Chinese economies, see the May 2009 issue of Himal magazine.


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