Historical Perspectives

Updated 3 September 2013

There is a stark difference in the Chinese and Indian historical perspective of the West. To try and begin to understand that:

  • We need firstly to look back, briefly, over the two countries very long history: China’s 4,000 years of records and India before the Raj.
  • Then we take a summary look over the turbulent first half of the 20th Century: China transforming from a feudal imperial regime to a republic soon to be wallowing in both a civil war as well as defending against a major foreign invasion; and India transforming from a colonial state to two independent nations immediately to be submerged into post-partition turmoil.
  • And, finally, we look over the 60 years since: Chinese Liberation – which was almost as traumatic as the first half century; and Indian Independence – relatively placid by comparison, though not when compared to most Western nations.

Before we do that, let’s take a quick look at what are the fundamental differences in perspectives. Incidentally, neither ‘China’ nor ‘China’ are native names.  India is ‘Bharat‘ and China is ‘Chungkuo‘.


Chinese perspective

If you asked a Chinese in Starbucks or McDonald’s in Shanghai: “What is the Chinese view of the West, especially of Britain?” chances are he will say that, despite never been colonised, China had been mistreated and humiliated by the West, where treaties were one-sided and signed under ‘gunboat diplomacy’, that much of Chinese treasures found in western museums and private collections came from the looting of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing (photo of small part of ruins) 150 years ago towards the end of the Second Opium War (1856-60) waged by Britain – led by the 8th Lord Elgin, son of the Lord Elgin of the Parthenon marbles – and France and that this all resulted from western (British) commercial greed that caused the British East India Company to introduce and sell opium to China to offset the cost of Chinese tea, silk and porcelain.

True Story of Ah Q – is a short novel by Lu Xun, an author of the early part of the 20th century and highly regarded by Chinese of all persuasions – left, right or centre. According to Synopsis of the true Story of Ah Q

“… the ‘adventures of Ah Q, a man from the peasant, rural class with little education and no definite work. Ah Q is famous for ‘spiritual victories’, Lu Xun’s euphemism for self-deception even when faced with extreme defeat or humiliation. Ah Q is a bully of the less fortunate but fearful of those who are above him in rank, strength, or power. He persuades himself mentally that he is spiritually ‘superior’ to his oppressors even as he succumbs to their tyranny and suppression. Lu Xun exposes Ah Q’s extreme faults as symptomatic of the Chinese national character of his time.” 

Westerners should note that this story of Ah Q is remembered as symptomatic of China’s past, something that today’s Chinese will not allow to happen again.  Incidentally, some say Lu Xun’s Ah Q was named after the Manchu pigtail (the queue). China instituted the Lu Xun Literature Prize in 1995 awarded every three years, along the lines of the British Booker Prize.

If western politicians or journalists from time to time say: “Oh, the Chinese authorities are using this xenophobia to divert local attention away from domestic issue of the day”, they may only be partly right. There is an underlying and lasting resentment of the ‘century of humiliation’ which contributed not insignificantly to the descent of China from its position as probably the richest country to one of the poorest in that interval, out of which it is now slowly but inexorably recovering. At least in GDP if not yet in GDP per capita!

For a balanced view of the period 1832-1914, you should read: The Scramble for China: Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire, 1832-1914  by Robert Bickers, history professor, Bristol University.


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Indian perspective

If you asked an Indian in Starbucks or McDonald’s – “What is the Indian view of the West, especially of Britain?” chances are he will say that, despite being subjugated as a British colony, Indians do not hate the British, that the Raj had both good and bad points and, perhaps, with the hindsight of history, the good probably outweighed the bad.


Differences in attitude to historical dating

There is ambiguity of dating in older Indian history as Indian scholars were more interested in the substance and not the chronology of events; and their records, like the Chinese, refers to regnal years. But – unlike the Chinese – there is no cross reference to a continuous calendar such as the Chinese 60-year zodiac cycle. So until historians of the British Raj started to map Indian dynasties to the western calendar there was some uncertainty as to which empire succeeded which other in India. And which rulers of subsets of India coexisted with other such rulers, apart from when wars between them were recorded by historians of both regimes.

Another example of this lack of interest in ‘absolute’ time and historical ‘fact’ also meant that it was British Raj archaeologists like Sir Alexander Cunningham who established the historical Buddha who by the 19th century was regarded more as a legend than a historical person. And the historical temple caves of and at Ajanta, Ellora and Elephanta were discovered by the British; one an officer implausibly named John Smith.

Curiously, many British Raj ‘scholars’ like Sir Alexander were officers in the ‘Indian Army’. Good thing there were long periods of stability during the Raj to enable these soldiers to become very competent and enthusiastic archaeologists, historians and surveyors (e.g. Sir George Everest after whom the tallest mountain is named)!

Lord Curzon is credited with restoring many of the ancient monuments including the Taj Mahal. His contribution was recalled by Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh in his acceptance speech of Honorary Degree from Oxford University, July 8, 2005 London: In the context of the study and preservation of Indian culture, I also wish to recall the contribution of another great Oxonian, Lord Curzon, about whose project to preserve and restore Indian monuments, Jawaharlal Nehru himself said, “After every other Viceroy has been forgotten, Curzon will be remembered because he restored all that was beautiful in India.”


Melding or assimilating

With each invasion of India, the foreign culture was melded into the indigenous one, creating a cultural pluralism. The mixing has not been thorough. For example, the Muslim influence manifests itself even today with Urdu, a derivative Hindustani, with Persian words written in the Arabic script. It was the Muslim conquerors’ systemic effort to communicate with the vanquished. Persian was the Mughal court language, just as Norman French was that of England for several generations after its conquest by Duke William, of Normandy. And the legacy also includes, sadly, periodic Muslim-Hindu rioting, sometimes instigated by unscrupulous politicians such as the infamous destruction by Hindu extremists of the Babri Masjid mosque at Ayodhya built by one of Babar’s generals on the destroyed ruins of an ancient temple, and reputed birthplace of Lord Rama.

By contrast, with each invasion of China, the invaders decided that the indigenous culture was so superior that the rulers adopted it, not least because of the established civil administration based on meritocracy.  Any peasant could sit the civil service exams, assuming he had enough resources to study and not to till the fields. And over the centuries, several peasants rose to be ministers, though many more became local magistrates and governors. So the Mongols adopted Han customs and court dress, and protocol – though they appointed mainly Mongols as military chiefs preferred to employ senior civil servants from non-Han people, such as Tibetans and Manchus. And several centuries later so did the Manchus – again discriminating against the majority Han, certainly for senior military posts but also senior civil service. This time, inter-marriage between Manchu and Han were prohibited and Han men were required to wear a pigtail (or queue) on pain of death if the queue was shaved off.

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6 Responses to “Historical Perspectives”

  1. Historical information shared in your blog, about India is inaccurate. Pls do research thoroughly. Indian ancient history begins from 3500 B.C.

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