As efforts to strengthen Indo-Chinese ties continue, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jingping have repeatedly referenced the ancient historic relationship between the two countries as an inspiration to the contemporary states. But in reality the relationship between the states, even in the past, has been far from ideal.

In an interaction with Chinese journalists on Monday, Modi declared that “India and China are bound by history, connected by culture, and inspired by rich traditions.” Xi Jingping, in turn, expressed his appreciation of such historical musings, endorsing Modi’s claim that China and India are two bodies sharing the same spirit. But despite such statements, the motives behind the diplomatic displays of affection are far from identical.

“Xi is invoking historical ties between China and India partly to establish a connection with the Indian public,” said Tanvi Madan, director of the India Project, and fellow in the Foreign Policy programme at the Brookings Institution. “Modi is not just trying to forge common ground when he mentions China-India cultural and historic ties. He is also trying to assert that India and China are equals. For example, he has highlighted Buddhism as something that the two countries don’t just share, but that went from India to China, rather than the other way around."

Modern misreadings

Oddly enough, Modi’s depiction of a past in which Chinese and Indian civilisations flourished in mutual respect was championed by a politician he never professes admiration for – Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. But despite Nehru’s similarly friendly rhetoric of “Hindi-Chini, bhai bhai”, his reading of history was put into question when a dispute over the Himalayan border resulted in the 1962 Sino-Indian War, and a humiliating defeat for India.

But despite the consensus that the 1962 war emerged from a vital flaw in India’s understanding of its cultural and historic links with China, the country has paid little attention to the field of Chinese Studies. “In this case, the state has so far demonstrated very little political will, largely because post-1962 everything went into shock,” said professor Alka Acharya, of the Centre for East Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “It rocked the Indian psyche. As far as I can tell, the state has abdicated its role in terms of promoting cultural linkages, with extremely minuscule investment in Chinese Studies.”

Even Modi’s mention of Buddhism was perhaps better left unsaid, as Professor Acharya explains: “The Chinese have maintained and preserved historical texts, and their records on Buddhism are actually much better on average than those in India.”

A questionable past

But the larger question remains: how harmonious were the relations between ancient civilisations in China and India?

“The narrative of India and China having a 2,000-year-old harmonious relationship is very problematic,” said Professor Tansen Sen of Baruch College in New York, who studies the history of India-China interactions. “This narrative started in the early 20th century, when intellectuals in China, Japan and India were looking at Asian history from within a colonial framework. They wanted to create a sense of solidarity, a pan-Asian identity.”

It was within this context, Sen explained, that Nehru came to develop his idea of Indo-Chinese “civilisational dialogue”, a notion that turned out to be exaggerated. “We should understand that the spread of Buddhism to China was a complex and multi-ethnic endeavour,” said Sen. “It introduced a new worldview, a totally new approach to life, and many people in China did not like that fact. In fact, it gets to a point in the ninth and tenth centuries when even Chinese Buddhists, trying to forge their own path, started to question the need to import Indian ways.”

Instead, Sen claims, given that very few Indians lived in China at this time, the discourse around Buddhism was primarily among the Chinese themselves, as well as the Japanese and Koreans. Having developed their own schools of Buddhism by this point, Sen said, “a knowledge-gap” started to emerge in Chinese historical accounts of India.

Visitors to colonial India

It was only in the 18th and 19th centuries that people from China started to visit India again in numbers. What they found shocked them. “Initially, they had very limited knowledge of the country,” said Sen. “Later, in the late 19th century, Qing government officials gradually became aware of the presence and threat from the British in India. They had no idea that in the 18th century, India had come under such British domination. It’s at this point that many Chinese intellectuals start referring to India as a ‘lost civilization’ or an 'enslaved nation', and the discourse becomes much less about awe and more about apathy and even antagonism. The presence of Sikh soldiers and guards working for the British in China did not help; it added to the resentment towards India and Indians.”

Sen and his colleagues emphasise the need for greater investment in quality scholarship in both India and China, to help us to understand the roots and traditions behind the two country’s perceptions of the other. “ No matter what Xi or Modi say,” Sen argued, “ if you don’t have awareness of the history or invest in people who can study and analyse aspects of the core historical periods of India and China that are being invoked, how can we properly understand each others cultures and the interactions that took place between them?”