Understanding Our Neighbours
Dr Aravind Yelery
China spans from Central Asia to the Far East and from Indo-China to the fringes of Siberia, hence it becomes essential to understand the historical legacy of this country and how it shaped the Chinese. Chinese cultural history is almost as long as that of India’s. Perhaps, it is the only example in the history of nations that two civilisations prospered, thrived and re-emerged throughout the millennia and remained prominent in the present, modernised world. Both nations went through the same circles of dynastical power transitions, golden age of innovation, spiritual-ethical awakening, feudal wars, foreign aggressions and rounds of political revivals, nationalism with an unending task of nation building.
The references to silk, paper, gun powder, porcelain get us closer to understand what China was in the past. They represent a China which had rich natural resources, a trained pool of human resource and disciplined centralised power. The Chinese recorded dynastical history starts approximately from 2100 BCE; it was a time when Harappan Civilisation in India was in its bloom. The earlier recorded dynasty in China is Xia Dynasty which existed parallel to the timeline of Indian Indus Valley Civilisation. Xia Dynasty was later replaced by Shang and Zhou Dynasty. Similar to many ancient kingdoms, the political succession was hereditary; the underlying beliefs were based on ancestral spirits and God. The tombs in China indicate that the sacrifice to the heavens and ancestors were an important part of ritual life. As the Zhou Dynasty was weakened, the smaller states engaged in the power struggle causing political chaos and anarchy. But the chaos gave China the identity it was looking for, the unified China under single banner.
The ‘warring states’ period lasted for about 200 years in China (475-221 BCE). At the end, the Qin state emerged victorious. In 221 BC, Qin leader Shi Huang took control of the collapsing political powers of Zhou dynasty by conquering neighboring city-states and unified them. Although, the Qin dynastical rule lasted for 20 years, it was the beginning of emperor-centred states. This was essential to build a strong, centrally unified nation-state. It was the beginning of unified China. His tomb is famous for the terracotta warriors found in Xian. Shi Huang adopted a non-hereditary bureaucratic system in his new empire. Centralisation was seen as the most realistic option to build strong empire to fight against northern invaders as well as a way of standardising legal codes and bureaucratic procedures and bringing customary forms of writing and coinage. During the same period, the Mauryan Empire was in its rise and fame in India. When the Chinese political terrain was getting unified under Qin, Asoka brought the major areas of Indian subcontinent under a single flag. Qin approached a rational way of rule and Mauryans had similarly adopted ethical view of state and society. Buddhism was given royal patronage. Buddhism was destined to spread across Asia, including China. As Han dynasty replaced the Qin dynasty, Buddhism found the much sought place to spread. It was mere a coincidence or destiny that Asoka’s agony over Kalinga War helped Buddhism get prominent space in the Indian subcontinent and wait until Qin Dynasty come to an end. The Qin were legalist and neither entertained Confucian teachings nor Buddhist beliefs. The last years of Qin Dynasty and beginning of Han Dynasty overlapped with the disintegration of Mauryan Empire in India. This allowed Buddhism to strive and re-emerge in China.
The ideas, innovations which were introduced during Qin Dynasty were carried forward with some alterations until the end of Chinese monarchy in the 20th century. Han were moderate and allowed Confucius and other thoughts to blossom further. Confucianism was adopted to define the practice among imperial family, civil bureaucrats and other social classes including artisans, gentry, merchants, etc. While Confucius ideas held China together as a prospering kingdom, in India Vedic culture and its discourses of Buddhism and Jainism did enrich the Indian society. The Chinese early history is also marked with intrusions by nomads and foreign aggressions. While India faced the foreign aggression from Persians and Greeks during 600 BCE, Xiongnu on the northern borders troubled the Han emperors, throughout their rule, destabilizing the economy and social harmony. By 220 AD, Han Dyanasty ceased to exist.
The political instability in China resulted in the growing number of civil wars, feudal conflicts and plight of masses. China had to wait for another three and half centuries for a respectable status as kingdom under Sui Dynasty (580 AD). When it was reunified, the Indian golden age had already begun in the subcontinent under Gupta Dynasty (320 AD) when the vast parts of India were brought under the single umbrella rule of Chandra Gupta—I. The two great civilisations were going to build their early contacts as Chinese travelers set to embark their journey to India.
(The writer is convenor of Sewa International and Zonal Coordinator of ICCS)