We have 33 crore gods and goddesses—which is roughly one per every four Indians, take or leave a few decimal points. The Chinese have none. This absence of air cover, and the security it brings, is one of the fundamental ways in which the Chinese differ from us. The Chinese epics are devoid of divine intervention, unlike the Mahabharata, or the Iliad, where the gods can hardly sit still.
They—the Chinese—were heavily influenced by Buddhism, which flourished long after the Brahmins recaptured India. The Buddha’s Eight Fold Path echoes in today’s Four Modernisations (See “The New Gunpowder” in this issue). It vied for influence with Daoism, a collection of rituals and beliefs whose central purpose is not clearly defined. In the past few decades, millions in China have come to Christ.
But the Chinese Empire has never spent centuries in the grip of a God-fearing religion, like Christianity, or Islam, or Hinduism.
There has been an emptiness in their hearts. Their history is filled with powerful cults: the Yellow Eyebrows, the Red Turbans, the White Lotus Society, and the most ferocious of them all, the Red Guards of Chairman Mao.
As recently as the late 19th century, a man who thought he was the younger brother of Jesus came very close to capturing Beijing. Viewed in this context, the government suppression of the spiritual movement Falun Gong looks less like paranoia and more like good common sense. It also means that the yoga clubs currently mushrooming in Beijing need to be very, very careful.
We, on the other hand, still feel we lack enough gods, which is why we worship cricketers and film stars and politicians, and even people who behave like gods, just to be on the safe side. We are addicted to godliness.
The first thing to understand about the Chinese is that they are fundamentally godless.
They are also fundamentally incurious about things they cannot change. From the beginning of their history, and their history is long, they have rarely speculated about the origin of man, or the universe. Whereas, in our own case, during the Vedic era, we thought about little else. The earliest Chinese myths are about how the universe was arranged. There was heaven, and there was earth. They existed. The rest was a matter of organising things in the proper order, and determining who lived where.
The Chinese use language in a way that is completely different from us. Each element of their written script is a picture or symbol, with individual meaning. A person who knows 2,000 symbols is considered barely literate. Reading the average newspaper requires knowledge of around 3,000 symbols. The average literate person in China knows 5-6,000. Chinese dictionaries have listed as many as 40,000. This is very much harder than learning a few dozen letters.
This means that the average Chinese person is much better at memorizing things than most of us. Such a civilization is likely to develop a culture of rote learning, and perhaps a certain literal-mindedness, where meanings are rigid and fixed, and the scope for interpretation pretty limited.
On the other hand, Chinese is the only language with visual puns. Many of these symbols mean different things, but when spoken, sound the same. So the Chinese can pun by using one for the other.
In China, puns are not just practiced by a few widely-shunned desperadoes; they are integral to daily life. A newlywed couple is often blessed with the words “Zaosheng guizi” or “May you soon give birth to a son”. But, zao also means dates, while huasheng are peanuts, so they visit with gifts of dates and peanuts. Puns are also a preferred method of political satire. In India, we have nothing like it. Our humour is more direct, inflected with Persian and English irony.
This rich and complex written script has been put to good use. The Chinese have always been furious writers. From the dawn of their history, they have written down everything. They have a Book of Changes, and a Book of Songs, and a Book of Documents. They have Daily Calendars, Veritable Records, National Histories and Standard Histories.
All this has led to detailed documentation of the lives of every emperor for the past 3,000 years, especially from the era of the First Emperor. He united China for the first time, in the third century BC, while the Mauryas were uniting India. Neither Xinjiang nor Tibet were included at that time.
We are the exact opposite. We come from an oral tradition. We prefer not to put things down in writing. Our histories were passed from mouth to ear. Our knowledge was embodied in people. We realized better than anyone else that knowledge is the true source of power, and deserves to be restricted to the chosen few.
As any RTI activist who has approached the government can tell you, this approach has remained consistent.
The Chinese write things down, for public examination, for posterity, and as a matter of good order.
All this seems to point towards totalitarianism. It confirms our beliefs. We often contrast ourselves with China, saying we are democratic, while they are slaves. But it could be argued that the Chinese are more democratic than us.
In India, Jayaprakash Narayan once called for Total Revolution. In China, Mao provided it. He smashed the barriers between people with an iron fist. He made everyone ride bicycles and wear the same clothes. He raised the women of China up from millennia of suppression and 900 years of foot binding. He coined a strangely beautiful phrase for such a bloodthirsty madman: “Women hold up half the sky”.
Today, people see each other as more equal in China, in a way that all our elections have failed to achieve for us.
In its own way, China is a democracy. It’s just that Chinese democracy is different. In Chinese democracy, people are free, but some things are controlled, as they always have been.
One of these things is history. For the Chinese, history has always been like a carefully tended garden. Successive historians over centuries have maintained a consistent narrative, from the First Emperor in 246 BC to the Last Emperor in 1906.
Inconsistencies have been corrected and removed, as per requirement. For example, the narrative of a long unbroken history of unified China is a myth. The Warring States Period and the Period of Disunion alone cover close to 500 years. The later Tang or later Song emperors were no more rulers of their country than Bahadur Shah Zafar.
Neither the Manchus nor the Mongols were remotely Chinese. Yet Chinese historians have portrayed it as a neat passing of the baton, from dynasty to dynasty, over 2,000 years. Chinese history is constantly being rewritten, depending on the people in charge. In the last century alone, their standard history has been rewritten four times.
This flexible approach to history explains why their territorial claims keep changing.
It’s a hard thing to imagine, but the Chinese value human life even less than we do. At least once in every century, the Chinese erupt violently, and millions die.
Between 1850 and 1864, an estimated 20 to 40 million died during the Taiping Rebellion, led by the man who thought he was the brother of Jesus. Between 1958 and 1961, during the Great Leap Forward, about 18 and 45 million people are estimated to have died, many from starvation because their agricultural implements had been melted down to meet steel quotas.
Quotas were met but not many were left to celebrate them.
Periodically, a madness affects China. We should naturally try to cultivate good neighbourly relations, but it helps to remember that this is a neighbour with a tendency towards mass homicide.
We have had our own share of disasters, but nothing remotely of this scale. If this is how much they value their own lives, how much will they value ours? When evaluating the possibility of war, this is something to consider.
For the rulers of China, history has been a living thing. Mao used to sleep with history books by his bedside. It’s surprisingly easy to summarise. True order is established when the rest of the world knows its place, at the feet of China. Here is one articulation of Chinese policy, from more than 2,000 years ago.
All would be under us. According to Zhang Qian, an imperial envoy during the 2nd century BCE, all the kingdoms of the far west so valued the produce and political endorsement on offer from Han China that they could be induced to accept some kind of feudatory status.
The more martial peoples of Ferghana and other northern states would be keen to join the Han against their common Xiongnu enemy; and the more commercial peoples of Bactria, Parthia and India would comply with tributary conventions if they could be assured of Chinese trade. In this way, argued Zhang (or perhaps the Grand Historian on his behalf), all could be brought within the Han scheme of things.
The emperor would be gratified by a constant stream of exotic products and visitors, “his might would become known throughout all the lands within the four seas”, and in time, their rulers would “acknowledge themselves our foreign vassals”.
If we view current Chinese foreign policy through this lens, things become much clearer.
Their other guiding light is Sun Tzu’s Art of War, which has led to more military mishaps than any other book in history. Chinese history is full of bluff and counter-bluff, punctuated by bursts of violence. Not all these bluffs have been well-advised.
They displayed arrogance with Europeans in the 19th century, at a time when accommodation might have bought them time. In 1978, they attacked Vietnam, to teach them a lesson. The lesson was learnt by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Today, they are a nuclear-armed country with a history of misplaced confidence. In addition, they are a step away from being a military state.
Since the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square in June 1989, the PLA has held the upper hand, and the party has repaid it lavishly. Elements supported by the army are now in a majority in the Standing Committee.
To see how well things work out once the generals are in charge, all we have to do is look at Pakistan. Today, these generals may hesitate, because they want the good times to roll. But what if they stop rolling? What if the people become restless?
In 2013, there were over 150,000 mass incidents in China, as per official statistics. What if a declining economy makes it worse? The Party has used nationalism as a safety valve for decades now. The Angry Youth are ever ready to attack. If the economy is down, and the youth are restless, they will need a target.
Who would make a good enemy? The Japanese are always good candidates. The anti-Japanese war movie, in which heroic Chinese troops throw hand grenades at planes, is a thriving industry in China. But the Japanese are joined at the hip to America. Will the Chinese be confident enough to take them both on? The Pentagon is still the most powerful war machine the world has ever seen. An invasion of Taiwan would look good on paper, but would undo years of bridge-building, and leave China with a resentful and rebellious population of very rich people who are just as smart as them.
How about India?
Let’s look at the facts. Since Independence, the Chinese have blocked us at the UN, fought us in 1962, given nuclear arms to Pakistan, opposed us in every international forum, and today recognize neither Kashmir nor Arunachal Pradesh as Indian territory. Their troops were crossing the border while their President was eating our food. The fact that all the food was vegetarian is no excuse. “Rival” is just a polite euphemism. Every action of China towards us has been the action of an enemy.
Meanwhile, we keep making the same mistake that every victim makes. We’ve been asking for it. We have neglected defence for years, just as we did in the 1950s. We have allowed them to surround us with bases. Every time the Chinese challenge us, we back away.
Sometimes we even back away voluntarily. Just before the PM’s visit to China, we cancelled joint naval exercises with the Japanese, because this would have annoyed them. This approach can only lead to one thing. A longer list of demands.
This is because the long history of China has come full circle. It was Mao who closed it. The First Emperor Qin brought China together through force, and ruled it strictly. All citizens were listed, and punishment for transgressions was swift. His word was law, and his power absolute. In China, this is known as the Legalist approach.
Throughout history, the followers of Confucius have opposed it, arguing for a gentler form of governance, where the Mandate of Heaven is a mutual compact between the ruler and the ruled. By the 1960s, Mao was arguing that the Communist Party should be like the First Emperor, and follow the Legalist approach.
By all accounts, Chinese President Xi Jinping is a Legalist. His first and foremost priority is to ensure supreme power in the hands of the Party. His authority is based on force. This means that the China we are currently dealing with believes in a simple principle. A common saying from Haryana describes it. Who has the stick, he owns the buffalo. We demonstrate weakness to them at our peril. We may already have demonstrated too much.
None of this is an indictment of ordinary Chinese. We have no reason to hate each other. They may think of democracy differently, but their impulse for freedom is strong. George Orwell’s 1984 has gone through 13 different translations in China since 1985. He is much read and highly respected.
If the will of the Chinese people is one day expressed through their government, there is hope. But until then, all the evidence indicates that their ruling classes will behave like all the other ruling classes in Chinese history, especially in the area of foreign policy. We should probably begin to worry.
As you are no doubt aware, Swarajya is a media product that is directly dependent on support from its readers in the form of subscriptions. We do not have the muscle and backing of a large media conglomerate nor are we playing for the large advertisement sweep-stake.
Our business model is you and your subscription. And in challenging times like these, we need your support now more than ever.
We deliver over 10 - 15 high quality articles with expert insights and views. From 7AM in the morning to 10PM late night we operate to ensure you, the reader, get to see what is just right.
Becoming a Patron or a subscriber for as little as Rs 1200/year is the best way you can support our efforts.