Winston Churchill called Russia unfathomable. He referred to it as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, adding that “perhaps there is a key,” to unlocking that riddle. Such a description is even more applicable to today’s China.

Innumerable think tanks and experts, mostly from the West—but too few from India—are attempting to find ‘that key’ which will explain the phenomena of a country, once brought to its knees by Mao, spectacularly rising to economic and geopolitical pre-eminence in a mere 40 years under authoritarian communist rule.

China is our most important neighbour sharing contested borders across thousands of kilometres in the Himalayas and now engaged in a military stand-off, the end of which no one can predict. Ironically, it is also India’s second largest trading partner. Sadly, China is also a country most Indians know so little about.

Shyam Saran, one of our most respected China hands and a former Foreign Secretary, is concerned about such ignorance. He seeks to ‘unlock’ China for us through his latest book, How China Sees India and the World.

It gives us an interesting interpretation of China’s history and its role in determining how it sees ‘India and the world.’ Of particular interest is Saran’s coverage of the rise of the Chinese Communist party to power against overwhelming odds.

Through his book, Saran seeks to ‘normalise’ China. Ever so subtly, and with the sureness of a Japanese chef preparing fugu, he draws on China’s long history to counter China’s claim to be a unique civilisation with a long history of nationhood. Drawing on its history, Saran contends that China, contrary to popular perception, has not always been a unified centralised state.

Cultural assertion

Like India, China too “has seen the rise and fall of empires,” and has often been invaded.

What Saran underplays is the fact that even as it came under Mongol rule it was, as the historian, Michael Wood brings out in his book The Story of China, the Chinese who made them accept their Confucian ways—a remarkable display of resilience and cultural assertion by a subject people!

Saran debunks China’s claims to historical ownership of areas on its periphery including Tibet and the waters close to it. He does well to highlight the influence of Buddhism—an Indian import—on China and the fact that many Chinese scholars came to India to study in its famous ancient centres of learning such as those in Takshashila and Nalanda.

Indian savants were also much sought after in China. All this challenges Chinese perceptions of India being inferior to it in every way. While doing so Saran contends that Chinese understanding of India is “mediated through third-party sources and not direct experience of India and Indians.” This is only partially correct. The converse is also true.

Saran is spot on in highlighting the significant impact India has had on South-East Asia through trade and Sanskrit. South India’s maritime links with South East Asia gets a fair airing in Saran’s book, buttressing his point that historically India’s impact on the cultures and languages on countries to its East was much more than China’s has been.

Saran’s book is interesting and informative and deserves to be read. However, it has a few shortcomings.

The first of these is that he under-states China’s considerable achievements down the ages and that is a pity. Unless these are brought to the attention of Indians, popular perceptions of China as brutal and uncivilised will be reinforced making any future improvement in relations between the two countries much harder.

Pride in accomplishments

Surely, Sharan knows that China’s attitude to the rest of the world as well as to India is greatly conditioned by its pride in its accomplishments in diverse fields across millennia. The Needham project, initiated in 1954 at Cambridge University, for instance, has documented China’s significant achievements in nautical technology as well as in the areas of cartography, geology, seismology and mineralogy. In all these areas China was ahead of the rest of the world right up to the 1600s, a space it is now reclaiming.

Some of the greatest philosophical, literary and historical works in the world, such as the Analects of Confucius, the poetry of Du Fu, the epic novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, by Luo Guanzhong, and the great historian, Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian to name a few have all come out of China and Saran would have done well to touch on some of them. Going beyond our present unpleasant relations, we need to understand China as a great civilisation without being overwhelmed by it.

Given his deep career-long engagement with China culminating as our country’s top diplomat, Saran should have been more forthcoming than he is in his book with his own insights on India’s fraught relations with China.

Two of Sharan’s former colleagues in the Foreign Service, Natwar Singh and Nirupama Rao, authors of My China Diary, and The Fractured Himalaya: India Tibet China 1949-62, respectively, have been much bolder.

A third shortcoming of Sharan’s book is its failure to take note of Nehru, China and Tibet, a book by AS Bhasin, the former head of the historical division of the Ministry of External Affairs, who had access to all the records India has on its relations with China. In it he contends that our conflict with China was largely of Nehru’s making and that several Chinese attempts to arrive at a settlement, not unfavourable to India, were all spurned.

Bhasin backs his contentions with seemingly credible ‘proof’. Is he right? It is an important question that Saran ought to have addressed in his book. That he does not should worry us all. What are we not being told?

(The reviewer teaches at IISc. Bengaluru; views expressed are his own)

Check out the book on Amazon

Title: How China Sees India and the World

Author: Shyam Saran

Price: Rs 799

Pages: 286

Publisher: Juggernaut Books - New Delhi

Year: 2022