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Colonialism and the Discourse in India and China 


Manoranjan Mohanty


This year is the birth centenary of Prof. Tan Yun-shan, the savant and pioneer in Sino-Indian studies. I had the privilege of seeing him when he visited the Centre for Chinese Studies of the University of Delhi in 1965, when the centre was under the charge of Dr. Tan Chung, the eldest son of Prof. Tan Yun-shan. As Dr. Tan Chung was my teacher, I can claim affinity with the senior Prof. Tan according to the traditions of both India and China, Furthermore, both Prof. Tan Chung (who has inherited his father's dedication to Sino-Indian studies) and I have been colleagues and friends, sharing a comradeship in promoting friendship and understanding between India and China in the last thirty years. In deference to his wishes, I contribute this article to the commemorative volume that he is editing in fond memory of Prof. Tan Yun-shan.

"China Can Say No" is the title of a book published in 1995 which challenges the West and records Chinese determination to withstand Western pressures, Even in the height of economic reforms in China and spread of Western technology as well as cultural forms in recent years the Chinese elite has emphasized "Chinese characteristics" on every front. On the other hand, the Indian elite has smoothly assimilated itself with the various waves of Westernization in the spheres of culture, economy and politics. The way the latest phase of liberalisation and globalization has been accepted in India confirms the trend of the last two centuries. A look at the cultural and intellectual responses to colonialism in Asia, especially in India and China shows this contrast to be conspicuous. Colonialism successfully determined the terms of discourse in India but failed to conclusively shape the discourse in China.

In this paper an attempt is made to explore the reasons behind this divergence in the struggle over terms of discourse in India and China. Why is it that the struggle was so easily won by the colonial forces in India who succeeded in institutionalising their values about civilization and human conditions which got consolidated after independence through the policies of the post colonial state. British rule in India claimed the role of a "civilizing mission". It established institutions of the state which included civil service, judicial magistrates, police and clerks for managing the organisation of society. It introduced European educational system to promote European ideas of arts and sciences. Imposition of English language through the educational institutions and operations of governmental machinery and especially in the realm of culture and media finally shaped the terms of discourse in favour of the interest of the colonial power. Indigenous institutions of politics, economy and culture were by no means ideal. They were also arenas of struggle as evident in course of many uprisings and cultural and religious reform movements. But colonial regime subdued these struggles and declared its view of the world as modern, scientific and rational, therefore bearer of advanced civilization. That it had a certain class, race and ethnic basis and was subject to struggle in Europe itself was not conveyed to the colonial society. The struggle against the colonial imposition continued to erupt from time to time in India but it lost the battle each time.

In China however the story was different. The early contacts between the European missionaries and traders on the one hand and the Chinese emperors and the officials on the other clearly recognised the high status of the Chinese. Even after China was defeated in the Opium War in 1840, the Chinese rulers as well as masses consistently nurtured the idea of regaining China's honour. Each war, even when the Chinese were defeated produced greater nationalist consciousness of the Chinese. Even when they were influenced by Japan's modernization after Meiji Restoration of 1868, they made a distinction between techniques for use and basic values. "Taking Chinese tradition as the basis and applying Western techniques for application" (Zhongxue Wei Ti, Xixue WeiYong) was a perspective advanced by some Chinese thinkers in the late nineteenth century. In many ways the Ti-Yang perspective was modified during the May Fourth movement. The developments after 1919 during the Chinese Revolution proved that all foreign influences were discriminatingly integrated into the internal struggies producing unique Chinese strategies and experiments. The fifty years of the Communist Party rule in the People's Republic of China during the leadership of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping have continued this trend of terms of discourse being mainly set by Chinese people themselves, Whether it was the Yan'an model of people's democratic revolution, the Chinese socialist experiments under Mao or socialism with Chinese characteristics under Deng, they had emerged through domestic struggles rather than as a result of colonial imposition. Even when the Chinese chose to adopt Western theories and techniques, ideas about society and nature they did it from a position of autonomy and self-confidence, in course of fair negotiations and objective evaluation rather than as a derivative from colonial knowledge which embody a relationship of political domination.

This contrast needs to be nuanced in several ways. But for our purposes in this exercise we can take the difference in the experience of the two countries as an assumption. Our main purpose is to seek explanations for this divergent pattern of intellectual responses and their consequences. That in turn will give some evidence to measure this contrast. It is argued here that the nature of the political movements in twentieth century in the two countries made the critical difference in the evolution of the terms of discourse in India and China. This is also significantly related to the distinct features of state formation in China since its unification in 221 B.C. as against India's dispersed political existence, the scholar bureaucrat class of the gentry as against India's caste based social order, the unifying role of the Chinese language as against the plurality of developed languages in the subcontinent and the fact that China was not a colony like India but a semi-colony under multiple domination by European powers and the Japanese.

Moving the centre in terms of discourse:

Let us identify the political question that we are dealing with. Attention is drawn here to the fact that frameworks of knowledge embody a political relationship: ideas, concepts and theories carry meanings which have a political history. Even when they seek to explain reality or truth about the world they do it from some vantage points. Thus terms of discourse like terms of trade are favourable to some and unfavourable to others1. Meaning systems are constructed in the context of power relationships.

Terms of discourse are used in two senses. Firstly, in the sense of terms as words which may be concepts and ideas. A great deal of literature exists on terms of discourse arising in different periods of history. "Social justice", "sustainable development", for example are terms of recent political discourse in India. In the second sense, and that is the sense in which it is used here, it means governing conditions of knowledge. To take an example, the discourse on freedom for a long time was limited to defending the rights of entrepreneurs and the upper classes. Terms of discourse on freedom changed with the emergence of worker's movement and later with the dalit movement in India and more recently with the women's movement. Thus the word may be the same but the concept evolved with the changes in the terms of discourse was different.

Ngugi wa Thingo has contributed a powerful concept which clarifies terms of discourse. He talks about the need for moving the centre. First "from its assumed location in the West and from its assumed location in the minority social stratum in all societies to its creative base among the people".2 Ngugi has analysed in the African context how colonialism robbed the people of the colonies not only of natural resources and enslaved the human beings but "one of the worst robberies is that of the means of perceiving all that". It colonised the values of the local people by a variety of means including the most effective means of colonising the imagination by imposing the colonial language. Thus Africa was made speechless. A new class of elites with foreign tongues was nurtured as interpreters between Europe and Africa. The educational institutions produced this class to manage the new institutions of economy and the state. In the new markets and the courts the native turned into a foreigner in his/her own country. Even when the movements for change appeared on the scene often the peasantry did not know how they were being represented. Thus according to Ngugi the agenda of liberation has to contain the basic human right -- "the right to name the world".

Thus it is important to be conscious of the way the meanings of various notions came to be constructed. Colonialism snatched away the colonised people's right to imagination, rights to understand history in their own way, right to interpret nature from their vantage point. Upper class, upper caste, patriarchal, racial standpoints too denied similar rights. The struggle for liberation, therefore, entails removing the centre from Eurocentnic colonial vantage points to the Third World's own, and in the Third World itself from the dominant elite's to the vantage points of the oppressed people themselves. Thus the terms of discourse could change in favour of the  oppressed only through the process of struggle.

In China the political movements evolved in such a way that colonial worldview did not get internalised by the Chinese people and the struggle to move the centre from the elite to the masses made serious advances. In India the Eurocentnic worldview was adopted by the Indian elite in course of a century of colonial policies and though there are some gains in the democratic movement in favour of the oppressed classes, castes, tribes and women the struggle continues in a zigzag course. This is because of some significant differences in the environment of struggle, historical processes and ideological trends involving the elites and political groups in the two countries.


State Formation and National Consciousness:

The fact that China was a unified political entity whereas India was not, had significant consequences for the Struggles taking place in India and China during the nineteenth century. Emperor Gin Shih Huang had defeated the feudal kingdoms and set up Zbongguo or Chinese state or the middle country in 221 B.C. Even though there were uprisings within inner China or invasions by Mongols, Manchu and others, the unified entity by and large continued. The emperor as the head of a bureaucratic state apparatus and an imperial army governed China for over two thousand years. It also perfcrmed certain welfare functions such as maintaining the grand canal for irrigation and narigation. When this imperial state was defeated in the Opium War and was forced to accept unequal treaties Chinese nationalism acquired a perspective to fight Western imperialism. A feeling of humiliation or hurting of national honour and the fast emergence of unequal relationship with the West were the fighting points which were built into Chinese nationalism. The Han elite also blamed the non-Han Manchu emperor's regime for this humiliation so the anti-imperialist consciousness was connected with a political campaign to overthrow the Manchu dynasty and establish a republic. Thus the concept of politics in the second half of the nineteenth century China centred on altering the power structure by defeating Western imperialism and Manchu monarchy.3

In India the picture was one of dispersed political power in eighteenth century when the East India Company expanded its influence. The Mughal empire had declined, some regions were under Maratha rule and there were numerous small and big kingdoms. The situation was very different from the political character of the subcontinent during Ashoka's rule in 4th Century B.C. or during Akbar's rule in the late 16th century. In the nineteenth century when the British evolved an integrated administration for maintaining their control and collecting revenue it was seen by the Indian elite as the first attempt at state formation. The British very cleverly maintained the princely states as separate entities with indirect control under the rule of paramountcy. After crushing the first war of independence in 1857 they set up direct administration making India part of the British empire in 1858. Thereafter started the step by step building of the state apparatus, the Indian civil service leading this process.

The two institutional interventions that had long term effects were introduction of the British education system and the legal system. The missionaries played a major role in setting up schools and colleges which were channels for introducing modern European knowledge system to India. Graduates from these schools and colleges were recruited as personnel in the offices of the government and companies. This was the beginning of the mass production of clerks at various levels. Since the economy had been plundered resulting in famines and destitution these were regarded as opportunities for making good in life. The introduction of the zamindari system and ryotwar system required an army of surveyors and record-keepers to demarcate agricultural land and legitimatise property rights so that the extent of revenue could be determined. This in turn required courts of law to settle property disputes hence the import of the British legal system. The new legal and judicial system gradually limited the operation of the prevailing systems of law in the Indian society. They were based on convention, customs as well as codes. Like the bourgeois system of law they too had discriminatory class, caste, and gender bias. But they also were based on centuries of experience and struggle.

The state formation in British India Military conquest, economic expropriation, educational and legal institution-building delegitimatized the local systems of knowledge. It shaped new terms of discourse about society and nature, what is good and what is bad. It moved the centre of discourse to Europe. Therefore, when reformers arrived on the scene, to begin with they saw these developments as positive for Indian people. They thought Indian people owed political unity to the British. They did not realise then that basis of state formation and its forms can vary and the fact of dispersed political power may actually be a positive heritage for building a decentralised, co-operative participatory and federal polity. Indian nationalists, discourse continues to debate these two perspectives on the legacy of state formation in India. The terms of discourse on nationalism shaped by colonial policies in the nineteenth century later on had the dominant section of the Indian National Congress subscribing to the centralistic view. Nehru's Discovery of India traced the roots of unity to Indus valley civilisation and Ashoka and unfurled a Unitarian, centralistic perspective on state formation. This view was in its peak during Indira Gandhi's regime when India saw the glimpses of an authoritarian centralised state. Mahatma Gandhi represented the alternative view of decentralised federal or even confederal relationship among political regions in the subcontinent - a view that has echoed again and again in the politics of autonomy groups throughout the subcontinent since the 1970s.

Elite power and political movements:

China's gentry was a unique social stratum combining wealth, knowledge, status and power in one class. These were landowning families who trained their children with years of tutoring to take the imperial examination. So the officials of the imperial government, the provincial government as well as the county government came from the gentry class. No other class-the peasants, artisans and traders had the resources or the perspective which could afford decades of preparation for the public examination. The examination system was such that only the gentry's children had the family culture and environment to study and qualify. Therefore, they are called the scholar bureaucrats who mastered the literary techniques. They were based in the rural economy dominating over the peasantry and other classes. They were the official class which ran the state apparatus. The dominant ideology of Confucianism was internalised by this class which practised the "Three guiding principles and five virtuous relationships". The economic, political and cultural dimensions of power reinforced one another. No doubt Confucianism had to contend with Taoism and Buddhism producing new elements of the value system, and value movement went on in Chinese history involving diverse trends often conflicting with one another. But on the whole the gentry determined the terms of discourse in imperial China.

When contacts with the West increased and ideas about Western science and democracy spread in China the gentry reacted sharply to their challenge. The first set of reactions belonged to the Ti-yong framework. The idea was to learns the enemy's techniques to fight the enemy. This developed into a new stage when attempts were made to reform the Manchu monarchical government since that was blamed for China's humiliations and weaknesses. After China's defeat in the Sine-Japanese War of 1894-95, there was a serious attempt for constitutional reforms in 1898. It was an internal response of the gentry to adjust with the new situation. Meantime Japan had emerged as an inspiration to China and the rest of Asia because of her modernising experience. Many Chinese students studying in Tokyo got together under the leadership of Sun Yat Sen's Tong Meng Hui. Gradually Tong Meng Hui became the rallying point for many revolutionary groups who sought to overthrow the Manchu monarchy, set up a republic and expel foreign powers who had by then controlled vast sectors of Chinese economy. Kuomintang under Sun Yat Sen's leadership represented a radical democratic element which grow out of the gentry framework. The 1911 Revolution was led by a section of the Han gentry, therefore. It had its limitations. Only under the impact of the Bolshevik Revolution when a stream of new youth emerged in China the domination by the gentry class was challenged. The new youth saw the relationship between the gentry class, old political institutions and colonialism through which it could enter and build up its presence with the help of the gentry. The May 4th movement in 1919 was the first major challenge to gentry domination as well as imperialism. The political struggle against gentry feudalism and Western colonialism thus got intensified. Meantime warlords had emerged in various parts of China presenting an unprecedented disintegration of the Chinese state. This too was attributed to manoeuvres of the gentry forces and colonial powers. Thus the agenda of reunification got built into the emerging democratic agenda. The Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-shek sought to defend Confucian ideology and assimilate Western science into it in collusion with the West. The Chinese Communist Party especially under Mao Zedong's leadership used Marxism-Leninism to fight feudalism as well as colonialism. It built upon Sun Yat-sen's Three People's Principles, namely, People's Nationalism, People's Rights and People's Livelihood to evolve its ideological perspective in course of a number of struggles with tials and errors. The CPC acquired mass support of the Chinese peasantry who were suffering the oppression of the gentry for centuries. Thus the people's democratic revolution significantly altered the terms of discourse. Mao Zedong's on New Democracy with its politics, economics and Culture and the Talks at the Yanan forum of art and culture effectively initiated currents of new knowledge.The new discourse strongly repudiated feudal elements of Chinese culture but inherited the popular, democratic and humanist currents, It denounced exploitative, bourgeois and colonial elements of the Western culture but opened gates to democratic ideas and modern science. The power of evaluation was acquired.

In a sense, China had only a brief period when a section of the gentry had moved the centre of knowledge to the West during the first two decades of this century. Before that the gentry had stoutly guarded its centre of discourse and after the May 4th movement and especially through the writings of Lu Xun and others and through the political struggle during the anti-Japanese War, the centre of discourse was moved in the direction of the common people of China. Chinese nationalist discourse thus took a people's democratic turn with the help of Marxism. In other words, Marxism did not push Chinese discourse closer to dominant western discourse as was the case in India when Nehru and Indira Gandhi supported then by the CPI adopted Western industrialisation model and the knowledge system underlying it.

Indian elite had a disjunction between land, knowledge and political governance. They had no doubt complementary roles: Shudras cultivating land, Brahmins specialising in knowledge, Kshatriyas by and large ruling the kingdom and organising the army and Vaishyas doing trade. Together they exploited the majority of the people namely the service castes which included manp lower castes and the so-called untouchables and the tribes were kept separate from the caste order. Much churning in the varna and later jati system took place through centuries. During the Mughal rule there was a certain standardization in upper caste elite formation. The British used them in the respective feudatory states and their administrative zones thus maintaining the caste system. In course of building the political and economic institutions they recruited from these upper castes. They added a legal economic basis through the zamindari and ryotwar systems so that these elites now came from land - owning families. Modern India's first wave of elite formation thus owed a great deal to the British initiative. It was now rooted in feudal agriculture and it was nurtured though modern schools and colleges. In the process the section of the elite which got trained in the traditional Sanskrit education systems, the gurukuls, ashrams, tols and Islamic institutions such as Madarsas and other centres slowly became the second class academics not needed by the modern state. This never took place in China. There was no great divide among the educated. Those who got education in Japan in the early part of the twentieth century, those who went to school in France and Germany in the 1920's did have some advantage in skills. But their privileges and their role in the national political and economic process were not comparable to the English speaking elite in India. The fact that India was colonised by one European power and China had several European countries and Japan indirectly controlling various sectors of economy, cultural society made a great deal of difference.

In the field of technical education this divide became more conspicuous in India. Western medical education entered India under colonial auspices, Western engineering knowledge replaced local knowledge very fast. The learning of English distinguished this section of the Indian elite from the rest. Whereas in China the Chinese language got simplified after the May Fourth movement and was made accessible to the ordinary Chinese. In India the local languages were pushed behind since the elite made English an instrument of power. In other words, the Indian elite now became the interpreters for the people-of India who were rendered speechless, to use the words of Ngugi. But they interpreted it using Western theories and concepts. Because they had lost the moorings of local culture. They knew very little about their own history. They know more about the history of Western political thought than about Indian political thought. Whereas a Chinese child can recite the dynasties and their dates and the principles of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism with ease, Indian child's awareness of India's history and philosophy is almost non-existent. The Indian elite grew up with a colonised mind suitably permeated by the local class caste race patriarchal outlook. It is this elite which was put in charge of running independent India under Nehru and his successors. It is an elite which perpetuates the colonial terms of discourse.

The Struggle continues : New experiences of struggle in China and India no doubt present a contrast. The Chinese revolution created people's democratic terms of discourse. Whether the terms have been retained and further democratised or new sources of hegemonic terms have emerged in the context of the reforms of the past two decades has to be further examined4. Whether a new Chinese bourgeoisie has emerged which has opted for Western capitalist values in course of recent economic developments in China has to be investigated. The liberation (Jiefang) discourse of the people's democratic revolution in China which sought to gain liberation from alien rule as well as from class, ethnic, racial, patriarchal and other forms of oppression continues to be on the agenda of the Chinese people. Similarly the swaraj, (self rule) agenda that Gandhi had laid down for Indian people continues to acquire new meaning and in course of the many social struggles of peasants, workers, women, dalits and adivasis in recent decades continues to challenge the dominant terms of discourse which colonialism together with local power structures had laid down. Thus struggle of the Vasco da Gama epoch is not over.

1. Manoranjan Mohanty, 'Changing Terms of Discourse', Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. XXIV, No. 37 (September 16, 1989).

2. Ngugi wa Thiongo, 'Decolonising the Means of Imagination' in Syrnphony of Freedom (Hyderabad : AIPRF, 1996).

3. Gong Shuduo, 'Chinese Revolution and Culture' in Manoranjan Mohanty (ed) Chinese Revolution Comparative Perspectives on Transformation of Non-Westen Societies (Delhi: Ajanta 1992).

4 Manoranjan Mohanty, 'Swaraj and Jiefang : Freedom Discourse in India and China's in Neera Chandhoke (ed), Understanding the Post-Colonial World- Theory and Method (Delhi : NMML & Sterling, 1994).

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