President Xi Jinping calls Fujian, the south-eastern Chinese province where he worked for over 17 years, his second home. A native of Shaanxi province in central China, he began his political career as the deputy mayor of Fujian’s Xiamen city in 1985. When Deng Xiaoping, the chief architect of modern China, initiated his bold policy of economic reforms, Xiamen was chosen as one of the first four special economic zones in 1980. Thus, Xi had firsthand experience of the complex challenges involved in China’s modernisation. He subsequently rose to occupy several party and government posts in Fujian before moving to Zhejiang province on China’s eastern coast. Now, as China’s most powerful leader since Deng, he faces even more complex challenges in his determination to make the country stronger and more prosperous.

Xi seems to have special attachment to the places he grew up or worked in. Thus, breaking protocol, he received Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Xian, the capital of Shaanxi, in 2015. The choice of Xian was highly symbolic: this is where the legendary scholar-traveler Hiuen Tsang or Xuanzhang (602–664 CE) brought valuable Buddhist manuscripts from India and got a massive pagoda built for their translation into Mandarin. In 2016, Xi invited the leaders of G-20 to a summit in the enchanting city of Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang. This city too has a strong India connection. Lingyin Temple in Hangzhou, one of China’s largest Buddhist shrines, was built 1,800 years ago by Matiyukti, an Indian monk. One can see Sanskrit inscriptions in the forest around the temple.

Now, Xi has invited leaders of India, Russia, Brazil and South Africa to Xiamen, a splendid city overlooking Taiwan, for the 9th BRICS Summit. The three-day summit begins September 3. As Xiamen and other places in Fujian have several footprints of India-China civilisational interaction, it seems apt that Xi and Modi will be meeting here. Hopefully, they will have successful reconciliatory talks, soon after ending the bitter military stand-off at Doklam, which had threatened to escalate into another India-China war.

The choice of Xiamen for the BRICS Summit is significant for another important reason. Along with the nearby port city of Quanzhou, Xiamen was the starting point of the ancient Maritime Silk Road. The Belt and Road Initiative, China’s most ambitious, and President Xi’s pet, project, seeks to revive the ancient overland and maritime silk routes with networks of highways, high-speed rail, ports and airports, digital connectivity platforms, power plants, pipelines, industrial hubs, and cultural-educational exchanges linking China and 60 countries in Asia, Europe, Africa and beyond. India boycotted the Belt and Road Summit Xi hosted in Beijing last May. Now that Doklam has been resolved, and since both India and Pakistan have joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, there is an urgent need for Modi and Xi to re-engage on India’s participation in this futuristic multilateral initiative, which has the potential to become a strong anchor for bilateral cooperation.

Xi Jinping in Fujian province in 1988.

I have had the pleasant opportunity to visit all three cities – Xian, Hangzhou and Xiamen – in the past two years. Each visit has convinced me of the truth of what Wen Jiabao, China’s former prime minister, once said: “Friendliness accounts for 99.99 per cent of the 2,200-year-old Sino-Indian exchanges and misunderstanding merely 0.01 per cent. It is high time we buried that 0.01 per cent.” Doklam belongs to that “0.01%”, to which no future flashpoints must get added.

And what did India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, have to say about the history of India-China interactions? In his classic Discovery of India, he writes:

“During these thousand years and more of intercourse between India and China, each country learned something from the other, not only in the regions of thought and philosophy, but also in the arts and sciences of life. Probably China was more influenced by India than India by China, which is a pity, for India could well have received, with profit to herself, some of the sound common sense of the Chinese, and with its aid checked her own extravagant fancies. China took much from India but she was always strong and self-confident enough to take it to her own way and fit in somewhere in her own texture of life. Even Buddhism and its intricate philosophy became tinged with the doctrines of Confucius and Lao-tze.”

Hindu-Buddhist heritage

Ever since I read a feature in The Hindu about the forgotten history of Hindu temples in Fujian a few years ago, I had been keen to visit these places. The opportunity came when, a fortnight before the BRICS Summit, I was invited by the Chinese Academy of Governance to participate in the “BRICS Seminar on Governance” in Quanzhou, just an hour’s drive from Xiamen. I was sleep-deprived and tired when I reached the state guest house a day before the seminar. But I told my hosts, “Take me to Kaiyuan Temple first.”

And there I was, admiring the temple’s two tall and magnificent pagodas, an unbelievable feat of stone construction with intricate carvings on their exteriors. A Buddhist-Hindu temple constructed in 685 CE, its Hindu elements are from a Shiva temple (now lost) built by Tamil traders from India. In China, Hinduism soon merged into Buddhism, and Buddhism, which too came from India, was Sinified by the genius of Chinese civilisation. But visitors can still see some incredible images of Hindu deities at Kaiyuan. In the main Mahavira Hall, there are stone columns bearing the carvings of Shiva with a damaru (drum) in hand, Krishna playing the flute, and even Narasimha, the man-lion god, slaying the demon Hiranyakashapu. The base of the pagodas exhibits panels showing numerous tales from Hindu-Buddhist mythologies.

A carving of Krishna playing flute at Kaiyuan Temple. Photo credit: Sudheendra Kulkarni

I went around the temple and stood awe-struck in front of a stone tortoise, a common sight in Hindu temples of India. It represents “Kurma Avatar”, the second incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. A tortoise’s strong back is believed to serve as the foundation for the edifice of the cosmos. Another example of sinification: in a souvenir shop outside the temple, I brought a beautiful brass tortoise with the head of a dragon, a quintessential symbol of Chinese mythology. Aping the westerners, the Indian media frequently uses dragon to symbolise Chinese aggressiveness. However, for all its fire-breathing looks, this mythical animal stands for harmony and heavenly virtues. In some ways, the Chinese dragon looks similar to the Indian “makara” (Capricorn), a sea-creature sign in the Hindu zodiac, which is also believed to be the vehicle of the river goddess Ganga and the sea god Varuna.

A carving of the god Narasimha at Kaiyuan Temple. Photo credit: Sudheendra Kulkarni

Throughout history, myths have travelled all around the world, influencing, and in turn being influenced by, alien cultures and spiritual traditions. When myths are deciphered and cultural-spiritual exchanges decoded, prejudices evaporate and misunderstandings melt away. What emerges is mutual goodwill, trust and common bonds of kinship. Doklam-like crises can be nipped in the bud when the peoples and leaders of India and China have an adequate level of goodwill and trust.

“The Hindu gods and goddesses entered China in a peaceful way without conflict and violence of any kind along the Silk Road and the Maritime Silk Road,” opines Qiu Yonghui, a renowned scholar on Hinduism at the Institute of World Religions, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “Hinduism in China is inspiration for Chindia.” When I had met her earlier this year in Beijing, she had said Hinduism in China was a largely unexplored area in need of in-depth study. “India is China’s west and there is a need to learn from India,” Qui had said. “Hindu gods and goddesses in contemporary China show they have fitted into Chinese Buddhism or folk religions and are likely to have a permanent existence. Hinduism in China has enriched Buddhism in China. Yoga has become a new link between India and China after the Silk Road and Buddhism. India and China should together work for a ‘Buddhist globalisation’.”

The stone tortoise at the entrance to a Buddhist temple in Quanzhou. Photo credit: Sudheendra Kulkarni

I stepped out of Kaiyuan Temple into a long street lined by quaint-looking single-storied shops and houses. “It’s called the Asian Street,” Caishun Guo, or Charles, as he was called, a young guide-interpreter working as a volunteer for the BRICS seminar, told me. “This is where families from South Asia [India and Sri Lanka] and Southeast Asia came and settled many centuries ago. Some of their descendants still live there.” As I explored the back alleys of the Asian Street, what struck me was the utmost care with which the city authorities had preserved it. For their efforts, they have won a Unesco prize for heritage protection. At the entrance to many houses and temples, I found QR codes, which, when scanned, presented their oral history. Do we have anything like this in India?

After the two-day seminar was over, Charles offered to take me around Quanzhou to show its other attractions. I was touched because it was not obligatory for him to do so. Having studied law at the prestigious National University of Singapore, he is now a judge in a city court. “I have extended my leave by a day because I want to be with my Indian friend,” he said.

Our first stop was Luoyang Bridge, a 1,000-year-old marvel of ancient Chinese civil engineering. Built only with stone slabs without mortar, it is still in use, as robust as ever. At the entrance to the bridge stands a pillar with a large image of the Buddha, and with inscriptions in both Chinese and Sanskrit.

We then went to a Buddhist temple and a Confucius temple, the largest in South China. Three things struck me. One, I saw many peepul trees (one of them 800 years old), regarded as sacred in both Hinduism and Buddhism. Gautam Buddha attained bodhi (enlightenment) while meditating under this tree. The Bhagwad Gita describes the peepul tree as a manifestation of Krishna, who left his mortal remains under this tree. Two, there was beauty and divinity everywhere, and everything was spotlessly clean. Unlike in India, where encroachments, disharmonious constructions, and noise pollution are commonplace near many Hindu temple sites, these temples in Quanzhou presented a completely contrasting picture. (This is true of all the temples I have seen in China.) Third, who says there is no religious practice in China? Despite the ruling Communist Party’s espousal of atheism, both the old and the young can be seen burning incense sticks and kneeling down with folded hands, like we do in India, to pray in front of beautiful icons of the Buddha and other deities, many of whom have equivalents in Indian mythology.

As I stepped out of the Confucius temple, I saw, at a distance, a church with a bright red cross on top. Christianity too has many adherents in China, especially in the coastal provinces. Obviously, China is far more spiritually diverse than most Indians imagine it to be.

A peepul tree at a Buddhist Temple in Quanzhou. Photo credit: Sudheendra Kulkarni

Master and disciple

Charles then took me to Mount Qingyuan to see a huge stone statue of Lao-tze, one of the world’s greatest philosophers and founder of Taoism, who lived in the 6th century BC. Many myths have grown around this Master. One is that he once mysteriously disappeared, travelled to India, and became a teacher of the Buddha. Some believe he became the Buddha himself. True or not, one thing is certain. There is deep underlying resonance in the teachings of Lao-tze, Buddha, and also Krishna. The main teaching of the Buddha is desireless action, since he regards desire as the root of all suffering. It echoes with what the Gita says: “Perform actions without desire for the fruits thereof.” And this is Lao-tze’s philosophy of Karma Yoga:

The Tao abides in non-action,
Yet nothing is left undone.
If kings and lords observed this,
The ten thousand things would develop naturally.
If they still desired to act,
They would return to the simplicity of formless substance.
Without form there is no desire.
Without desire there is tranquility.
In this way all things would be at peace.

Confucius, the other great Chinese philosopher, is said to have been his pupil. Indeed, on Mount Qingyuan, along the winding path to the main statue, there is a serene sculptural ensemble in stone showing Lao-tze teaching his disciple Confucius.

Lao-tze teaching his disciple Confucius. Photo credit: Sudheendra Kulkarni

Carved out of a natural rock over a thousand years ago, the statue of Lao-tze is awe-inspiring for its sheer size and its setting against a thickly forested mountain where nothing but tranquillity reigns. While the rest of the statue is finely featured, the eyes are vacant – no eyeballs. I kept gazing at the sage’s eyeless gaze into eternity. The more I looked, the more I felt he was “seeing” more of life and the cosmos without his eyes because his vision lay in his meditative mind. When I looked even more closely, it seemed the Master was disillusioned with the human race. “Even after over 2,600 years, the basic human condition is still the same – greed, conflict and exploitation of the weak by the strong.”

The relationship between communism and traditional Chinese philosophies and religious traditions has not been a happy one. Confucianism, for one, was sought to be discredited after the 1949 communist revolution led by Mao Zedong. Anti-Confucianism became more virulent during the chaotic and highly destructive Cultural Revolution (1966-76). President Xi appears keen to reverse this trend. On several occasions, he has stressed the importance of the Confucian tradition for China’s development. He has urged Communist Party officials to seriously study ancient Chinese philosophers. In his words, “Classics should be embedded into students’ minds, and become the ‘genes’ of Chinese culture.”

Lao-tze's statue on Mount Qingyuan is over a thousand years old. Photo credit: Sudheendra Kulkarni

Islam as a link

Lest my narrative convey a misleading impression that Hinduism and Buddhism are the only historical links between India and China, I should hasten to mention the other important link: Islam. We in India, and also people in the Muslim world, do not know much about the Islamic heritage in China. It is in Fujian that Islam first arrived in China, and there can be little doubt that since the earliest Muslim preachers or traders came from Arabia by sea, they must have initially touched Indian shores. It is well known that Islam reached many Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia through India and, therefore, bears a distinct stamp of Indian civilisation. Coastal China is no exception.

My first exposure to Quanzhou’s Islamic heritage was when I visited Qingjing Mosque on the main Tumen Street. It is over 1,000 years old. It was rebuilt recently with great care. “Would you like to see Muslim tombs in in our city?” Charles asked me. “Of course,” I said, with enthusiasm. We went to Lingshan Mountain, which has the tombs of two disciples of Prophet Muhammed, who reportedly sent them to China as missionaries. Remember the Prophet’s famous saying, “You should seek knowledge even if you have to go as far as China?” The dome over the tombs exhibits both Chinese and Arabic architectural styles. Unbelievably, many tombs in the Lingshan Islamic Cemetery are shaped like a tortoise, suggesting the influence of Buddhism and Hinduism on local Muslims.

The tombs of two Arab missionaries who were reportedly sent to China by Prophet Muhammed at the Lingshan Islamic Cemetery in Quanzhou. Photo credit: Sudheendra Kulkarni
A tortoise tomb at the Lingshan Islamic Cemetery. Photo credit: Sudheendra Kulkarni

What caught my eye at Lingshan Mountain was a stone tablet bearing an inscription that Admiral Zheng He (1371–1433 CE), China’s greatest Muslim explorer, prayed at the tombs of Prophet Muhammed’s envoys before he set out on his epic seven voyages to countries near and far, all the way up to Africa. Zheng also visited India’s Malabar coast, where Cochin became his second home. A stone tablet preserved in the Colombo National Museum, Sri Lanka, has an amazing trilingual inscription – in Chinese, Tamil and Persian – showing that Zheng offered prayers to Allah, Buddha and Shiva-Vishnu, seeking their protection, and blessings for peace and harmony in the world.

The Chinese Muslim admiral Zheng He led several fabled voyages, including to India's Malabar coast.

As we climbed down the mountain, Charles told me his own family descended from Arabs who came to China. “Over a period of time, my ancestors got assimilated into Chinese society and adopted Chinese names.” Interestingly, many educated Chinese now adopt English names!

Charles and I then went to see the Maritime Silk Road Museum. I was disappointed that it was closed for renovation. However, a visit to the adjoining Islamic Cultural Centre was another eye-opener. Visitors are welcomed by a long mural and a statue of Ibn Battuta. The legendary 14th century voyager from Morocco sailed to over 40 modern-day countries, including China, where he spent a year. He described Quanzhou as simply “the greatest port in the world”. Before visiting China, he spent six years in India during the reign of Muhammad bin Tughluq in Delhi. His accounts of India and China, though not regarded as entirely accurate by later scholars, nevertheless give a unique description of the life and times in the two countries.

Ibn Battuta's statue at the Islamic Cultural Centre in Quanzhou. Photo credit: Sudheendra Kulkarni

Much to learn from China

It was time for me to bid goodbye to Quanzhou and head to Xiamen. Charles was kind enough, again, to accompany me to my hotel in Xiamen. I asked him, “Can you, as a judge, name one change you would like to see in China?” He replied: “The rule of law. Especially to fight corruption. I admire President Xi Jinping especially because he is fighting corruption in the government.”

Xiamen’s links with India are both ancient (through the maritime silk route trade) and modern. Ever wondered where the popular China-made polyresin statuettes of Hindu gods and goddesses – Ganesh, Laxmi, Durga, Shiva, Saraswati, Ram-Sita-Hanuman, Krishna even Saibaba – come from? Chances are, they are from the manufacturers and traders in Xiamen.

But there is another connection. Nearly 500 Indian students have been studying at Xiamen University, one of the best in China. It was set up in 1921 by Tan Kah Kee, a legendary Chinese businessman. He made a fortune from his rubber business in Malaysia, but donated most of his wealth to philanthropy. A strong supporter of the 1911 Democratic Revolution in China, led by Sun Yat Sen, Tan Kah Kee was also a great admirer of Nehru and supported India’s independence movement.

I have been to many university campuses in China. My visit to the main campus of Xiamen University (it has four, including one in Malaysia) reinforced my observation that China cares for, and financially supports, its higher education system far more than India does. One sees a single-minded pursuit of global excellence in Chinese universities. Of the 40,000 students at Xiamen University, over 4,000 are foreigners representing over 100 countries. Nearly a 10th of its teaching and research faculty is international. Which Indian university has such diversity and global focus? Xiamen University’s campus, with the ocean on one side and a forest on the other, is among the best in the world. Furthermore, Chinese universities have a far greater focus on Indian studies than vice versa. Professor Xu Ke from the School of International Relations, who took me around the campus, is a keen student of the Gita, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra and the Sanskrit language.

Since I am from Mumbai, I could not help contrast the university campus in Xiamen with the unbearably ill-planned and poorly maintained Kalina campus of the much older University of Mumbai (established in 1857). I also contrasted the quality of Xiamen’s infrastructure and its many attractions with those of Mumbai. For example, even though both the picturesque Gulangyu Island near Xiamen and the Elephanta Caves Island near Mumbai (featuring Shiva and Buddha statues from 6th century) are Unesco World Heritage Sites, the former attracts over 10 million visitors each year whereas the much larger island near Mumbai gets only 7,00,000 visitors annually. Surely, we in India have a lot to learn from China.

Xiamen University campus. Photo credit: Sudheendra Kulkarni

The point of this travelogue is this: the recent stand-off at Doklam has caused a lot of hostility and bitterness in India-China relations, but that should now become our buried past. Rather, it is the long history of friendly civilisational exchanges between India and China that should guide our present and future ties. Both Indians and Chinese should recall the words of Hu Shih (1891-1962), a towering intellectual and diplomat, in his celebrated article “Indianisation of China”:

“India conquered and dominated China culturally for 20 centuries without ever having to send a single soldier across her border.”  

Now our two countries should resolve that never again will Indian or Chinese soldiers cross their – as yet, sadly, undemarcated – border. The only “soldiers” who should enter each other’s territory, frequently and in large numbers, are those engaged in the battle for peace, friendship and mutually beneficial cooperation for development – philosophers, monks, scholars, writers, artists and cultural personalities, film-makers, journalists, scientists, sportspersons, innovators, tourists, traders, businesspeople and, of course, politicians with positive thoughts.

One hopes Modi and Xi will harken to the call of the India-China civilisational wisdom to open a new chapter of good neighbourliness, which is necessary not only for our two great nations, but also for peace and progress in Asia and the world.

Sudheendra Kulkarni is Chairman, Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai. He was an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and is the author of Music of the Spinning Wheel: Mahatma Gandhi’s Manifesto for the Internet Age.