Monday, 21 April 2014

A Global Odyssey of Knowing China and India: Speech and Notes from Ma Yuge and Zhang Yang's talk and Performance at CU Jharkhand

A Global Odyssey of Knowing China and India
----Central University of Jharkhand’s 2014 Chinese New Year Lecture

Speech by Ma Yuge (University of Oxford, UK)
Music by Zhang Yang (Jawaharlal Nehru University, India)

13 Feb 2014, Auditorium, Central University of Jharkhand, Ranchi, India

Growing Up is after all only the understanding that one’s unique and incredible experience is what everyone shares.
Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook, 1971

The encounter with the Other, with other people, has always been a universal and fundamental experience for our species…People thus had three choices when they encounter the Other: They could choose war, they could build a wall around themselves, or they could enter into dialogue.
Ryszard Kapuscinski, The Other, 2005[i]

It is our great honour to come to the Central University of Jharkhand (CUJ), and be part of your first Chinese New Year Celebration. We would love to congratulate the Chinese Department of CUJ for successfully organising such a wonderful Chinese New Year Celebration. We are so amazed and proud to know that you are learning the Chinese language and the Chinese culture in Ranchi, the emerging capital of India’s most resourceful land. We also want to sincerely thank Mr Sandeep Biswas for facilitating the whole programme for this lecture.

Today, we will share with you our understanding about China and India based on our interaction with India for the past a few years. I will speak about my study, research and newly published book that talk about the bittersweet journey of bridging the two different cultures; my colleague Yang will present his composed music on the same theme.

An Entangling Story between China and India

China and India are Asia’s biggest neighbours and two of the oldest living civilisations. They have had exchange of people, ideas and goods for centuries. However, for the past century, China and India have frequently experienced rivalrous relations, and have chosen different pathways in many aspects of both domestic development and foreign policy. Those tensions and differences, despite of their increasing economic interests, have significantly reduced the frequency and depth of their mutual communication.

My entangling story with India dates back to 2009, when I came to India to be an MA student at the Centre for the Study of Regional Development (CSRD) at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Many Chinese people asked me why I was going to India. The university where I completed my undergraduate studies, Tsinghua University, is one of the best universities in China. The current President of China and his predecessor, both are alumni of my university and one third of the graduates continue their studies in top universities in the West. Chinese people believe that studying in ‘the more advanced and more developed countries’ can help us achieve the Chinese dream of prosperity, happiness and harmony. In people’s minds India was not part of that group. So my decision to embark on further postgraduate studies in India was hard for my peers to understand.

However, I did, get some support from Professor Xue Lan, the Dean of the School of Public Policy and Management at Tsinghua. He wrote the foreword to my newly published book Grow Up in India and mentioned how he felt about this decision, “When Yuge told me about her idea of going to India, I was truly thrilled. It has been quite a few years since China has embraced the global economy, and I am glad that Chinese students have finally started exploring the real world and the rich diversity it offers. Now that South Asian, African and Latin American students are increasingly studying on our campus, our own graduates are now thinking of discovering these emerging counterparts.”

Coming to India with a Dream

I came to India with a dream - a dream which is under a threat in the multi-polarising world.

Ever since the Chinese President Xi Jinping developed the idea of the China Dream as one of his key motifs, the international community, including India has been discussing and closely watching the actual content of China’s Dream, and what it will bring to the world. To my understanding, the China Dream is deeply rooted in the wisdom of the Chinese civilisation: Shi Jie Da Tong - global integration. In the past 20 years, the emergence of new economic powers is posing challenges to the existing international order-from development, trade, energy, nuclear disarmament, climate change, cyber security to international crime. In a multi-polar world, it is crucial to build mutual understanding and cooperation between emerging countries, as well as between the emerging countries and the rest of the world; because without it, the global integration and thereupon - the effective international cooperation essential for tackling pressing common challenges - is hard to achieve.

However, unlike the OECD countries, which share similarity in both economic systems and political ideologies, the emerging countries, for example each of the BRICS, though having common economic interests in general, has been practicing very different cultural, social and political values. This divergence in economic interests and kinds of soft power has created obstacles for collaboration among emerging countries and has also challenged the realisation of global integration.

Carrying the dream of an integrated world, where multi-stakeholders – cross-nationals, nationals, sub-nationals, and other kinds of organisations, as well as various individuals– despite of their different backgrounds, can equally voice and participate in global governance which brings common goods to all human kinds, and where cross-cultural relations are built on real understanding, instead of manipulated imagination, I went to India. I believe that collaboration and integration is built on trust, and that trust comes from authentic mutual understanding. While most Chinese students are looking at the West, there is a dangerous knowledge gap about ‘the rest’. India is not only one of the most important emerging powers, but also an unavoidable neighbour of China. More importantly, in many ways India has taken a different pathway in development compared to China. Facing similar challenges, the Indian experiences may inspire China’s reflection on itself.

Before we move to the next step of the journey, I would like to share with you a piece of music composed by Yang. When we discuss about the journey of bridging China and India, we feel like something is difficult to describe with only language. Then we started to try to use music to express the unspeakable feelings gradually generated in this journey. The following music is one of the experiments.

Where Can China meet India

Lyric and Music: Zhang Yang

Where is the sun 
where is the love
where is the god

where is the way
where is the police
where is their mum

Where is the garden
where is the home
where is the shop

Where is the guru
where is the tree
where is the river

It's in your song
It's in your mind
It's in your eye

where is the change
where is the dream
where is the hope

where is the key
where is the bridge
where is the peace

It's in your mind
It's in your hand
It's in your eye

It's in your song
It's in your mind
It's in your eye

Bittersweet Journey of Knowing Each Other

As former Chinese Consul in Kolkata, Mr. Mao Siwei recently said in an interview,[ii]India has always been China’s teacher throughout history. It is well-known to the world that in the early Tang Dynasty (7th Century), Xuan Zang, the famous Chinese Buddhist monk, scholar, traveller and translator went to India and studied in Nalanda University for almost two decades. His writings and translations inspired by studies of India had greatly enriched the development of Buddhism in China. The flourishing of Buddhism, reflecting the openness and inclusiveness of the then Asian society, witnessed China’s reaching one of the climaxes of its civilisation – Tang Song culture.

It is also well recognised that studying in a country is the best way of understanding it, and modern transportation has made the journey between China and India much easier and faster compared to Xuan Zang’s time. However, when I really encountered India, a huge country with endless diversities, pursuing a clear route to understanding it seemed impossible. To get deep into Indian society, the classroom is necessary but not sufficient. So I started to learn the local language, make Indian friends, read extensively, travel and research across the country. I wrote about conversations, observations, questions and confusions, and published them on various media in China. From the intensive interactions with the Chinese public that resulted, I got to understand their growing interest to know India and at the same time, common misunderstandings and misinterpretations that are deeply rooted.

Slowly, my publications gained more and more interesting responses from Chinese audiences, reflecting the bittersweet process of getting to know one another. Someone wrote to me after reading my article on the human experiences of rapid urbanisation in Assam, “What Indians are experiencing sounds so similar to us. Why can’t we learn from each other’s experiences and try to avoid those tragedies in modernisation?” Someone else responded to my article on local democracy in Tamil Nadu, “It is hard to imagine that a country with so many poor and illiterate is really suitable for democracy. It seems that India is trying to break this curse! I get to know more about democracy from the Indian experience than from the West!” There are also people who do not quite agree with my writing, for example, “I read your article about the dilemma between economic growth and climate change in India. Obviously, China never wastes time on such unproductive discussion. India should learn something from us.”

During my year of study in India, I tried every means at my disposal to know about India and to look for a channel to rebuild the mutual understanding between the two. However, the more I experienced India, the more confused I became, because I did not have an efficient way of combining my enriching but fragmented local experience into an insightful and systematic understanding. Then, I was inspired by reading Journey to America, the notes of the pioneer French thinker Alexis De Tocqueville’s 9 months stay in America from 1831 to 1832. In contrast to the two masterpieces called Democracy in America (1 & 2) which came out in France 3 and 8 years after that journey, de Tocqueville’s first hand journal was fresh and original, but fragmented. Real understanding requires not only fresh experience, but also systematic thinking, intellectual debate, and comparative perspectives.  

So after one year of studying in India, in 2010, I went to Oxford to further my understanding and read for the MSc in Contemporary India. In 2011, I also had the opportunity to join the Brookings Institution as a Guest Researcher, conducting comparative research between China and India. The next year, I came back to Oxford, and with the support from my supervisor Professor Barbara Harriss-White and Wolfson College, my colleague Danielle de Feo Giet and I founded the Oxford Juxtapose Project-a multi-disciplinary platform for scholars to discuss China and India, and to promote mutual understanding through academic and cultural innovations. [iii]

This bittersweet journey of knowing one another gives us the courage and chance to grow up, and to realise the dream that we have been carrying from the very beginning. Here I would like to share with you a song, which tries to express the feeling of growing up from exploring the unknown.


Lyrics: Zhang Yang, Ma Yuge
Music: Zhang Yang

Ganga, are you asleep
Have you forgotten me

Ganga, have you had a dream
I was coming to meet you

You gave me a chance to grow up
You gave my soul a place, to stay
Ganga, have you forgotten the memories we have made
Ganga, do you still continue your dream

You lead me to the unknown, and make me brave
无数次我曾回望  陷入众人的引力
But I used to look the way back, driven by the common
你用温热的光芒 等待着我迷途的归期
Your lights silence in warm, shed my lost and waited for me
终于听到你的呼唤 黑夜里再次奔向你
In dream I hear the call rang, coming back was my only last will

The heated China Debate in India

Last year, I came back to India for field research. In the two months, I was associated with Aspen Institute India as an Avantha International Fellow. The most impressive part of my stay in Aspen was the heated and intensive debate about China in the Indian policy cohort as well as among the general public. Nearly every public event held I participated, though not directly relate to China, would develop into a serious debate on how China will make an influence to the discussed topic, and what India should do to engage with it.

The first two weeks of my tenure coincidentally overlapped with the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to China: 22-26 October 2013.Accordingly, my assignment was to prepare the background paper for the then forthcoming Aspen China Strategic Dialogue to be jointly held with the China Reform Forum in Beijing. To write the paper, I went through published reports and news coverage of the China-India relationship in different perspectives – security, economic, military, energy, global governance, and social challenges - from China, India, US, and the UK, in both English and Chinese, for the previous six months in 2013.This intensive reading showed that the majority of the reports did not hold positive views about the China-India relationship. Interestingly, the two most positive pieces of coverage on this front came from Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s official speech during his visit to India in May 2013, and Indian Premier Manmohan Singh’s speech delivered in his China visit. Apart from these two official gestures of friendliness, the distrust between the two set the dominant tone for this relationship.

The escalating tension in the Chinese and Indian media and think tanks to a large extend, reflects people’s opinions towards each other. Several published surveys and academic papers seem to buttress these negative public opinions with more solid data –in one study conducted by Pew Research Global Attitude Project in 2013, 83% of Indians surveyed consider China as a threat to Indian security[iv]; an earlier piece of research published in 2011, focused on the Chinese online forum participants, shows that90% of the studied hold negative perspectives toward India in general.[v] In both countries, with their different political systems, public opinions more and more engaged in the discussion of their foreign policy. The active engagement of the educated public, which is equipped by the flourishing usage of the internet and social media, is no longer an easily ignored factor by the governments in making foreign policy. Therefore the increasingly negative public opinions among Chinese and Indians, that are largely based on lack of mutual understanding and long-lasting distrust, are obviously not healthy for a peaceful and prosperous China-India relationship.

People-to-people contact

Public opinion is formed by exposure to information and discussions. Though the coverage of the other country is emerging in both China and India, information based on first-hand data is still limited. Analysis solely relying on second-hand information is embedded with unknown bias and often leads to rush judgements. To overcome this challenge, more people-to-people contact is in urgent demand.

Promoting people-to-people contact recently has got more and more attention from both sides. During Premier Manmohan Singh’s visit to China, I was asked by China Youth Daily - one of the most influential Chinese newspapers to interview leaders from the Indian industry on recent progress in China-India’s economic relationship. Mr Tarun Das, funding trustee of Aspen India, who leads the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) for 40 years kindly accepted my interview request. When asked about the perspective on the future of China-India relations, he argued strongly:“The most important agenda is for the people of China and India to know each other. There had been a huge information and communications gap over decades, which has led to a lack of mutual understanding. Increased people-to-people interaction and economic cooperation will help to address this problem.”When this interview, titled 'China-India Relationship: the next 50 years will be VERY DIFFERENT from the last 50 years', was published on the last day of the Indian Premier’s visit, Oct 26 2013,[vi] this argument on promoting people-to-people contact between the two as the key for a brand new China-India relationship was quoted by many major media outlets in China.

Nowadays, China-India communication is not only limited, but also imbalanced. In 2012, 610,200 Indians visited mainland China, while only 169,000 Chinese visited India, barely a quarter of the Indian visitors to China.[vii] A few years ago, the difference was even larger, when 500,000 Indians visited China and merely 100,000 made the reverse. India’s strict visa policy is one of the most complained reasons from the Chinese side. Apart from the policy obstacles, further reasons lie in mentalities.

Last summer, before the trip to India, I toured China on book launches with widely ranging Chinese audiences. We had many interesting discussions about the complexity of Indian society, the controversial relationship between China and India, and the bittersweet journey of getting to know people from another culture and more about oneself as a result. I had personally always believed that there was a yet-to-be-explored interest in knowing India, the mysterious and unavoidable neighbour. I knew that this interest was just around the corner. The passionate audiences full of inquiring minds exceeded my expectations. Their criticisms and sophisticated questions surprised me but I was conscious at the same time of the fact that their deep-rooted concerns about the topic were not sufficiently reflected in the public and political spheres. We, both China and India, still have a long way to go on this front.

Our Common Destiny

During my this stay in India, I used to take the Delhi metro as part of my daily transport. When I crossed a tributary of the holy Yamuna River, right beside my then residence to the nearby metro station, the strong and stinking smell of the drying river and the accumulating garbage floating in it made every passenger cover their nose immediately and tightly. Moving between the two cities with equally smoky skies[viii], Beijing and Delhi, and watching them exhaust every piece of energy to chase each other’s pace in both developing and polluting, sometimes I would wonder: while this fast modernising process makes human life more convenient and efficient, will our life become more enjoyable with the disappearing animals and biodiversity and decaying nature?

Whenever I think of this common destiny of India and China, which is also the paradox of the whole (developing) world today, the need for us to collaborate in tackling these challenges becomes urgently pressing. Meanwhile I wonder whether our common destiny lays down more commonalities, instead of differences for us to face each other and the future?

A Common Dream of China, India and the world

After 4 years of my first visit to India, my first book, Grow Up in India based on one year of study and research in India (2009-2010) came out coincidentally with the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to India in late May 2013. Li wrote in his famous speech ‘A Handshake across the Himalayas’[ix]on his first foreign visit as Premier:

“An Asian century that people expect would not come if China and India, the two most populous countries in the world, failed to live in harmony and achieve common development…Our common development will benefit people of the two countries and offer the world more and better opportunities.”

Our entangling story with India is just personal experiment of the long process in mutual understanding between India and China, learning from each other, and getting to know oneself more. Mutual understanding is a continuous endeavour and a strategic investment. With this endeavour, we invest in the solid foundation of trust-building for a great dream. An integrated world is not only a dream of Chinese destiny, but also a dream for India, Asia and the world.

In the end, we would love to conclude this lecture with a song. This song is inspired by the journey of knowing the other and oneself, and the journey of realising a dream together. I will join Yang for the singing this time.

To be Close to You and Freedom
Lyric: Zhang Yang (Chinese), Tsetan Dolkar (English)
Music: Zhang Yang

It might have been that I lived partly,
It might be that pains make me rise higher,
When I look at the sunset quietly,
每当望着夕阳 低下头
I wonder if I am same as before or wiser.

It seems as a moment of awakening,
梦召唤我  来到陌生的河
With a note where my pains are trickling,
虚无在音符上  得到解脱
It turned into a beautiful song
把梦想化作  美丽的歌
With forgetting all those wounds and wrong.
回头看时  曾经是那样

True there you and me,
真实的  存在着   你和我
Longing kids to be free.
向往着 自由的孩子
Could not suppress the tears welling
Unshackling the tied heart set free.
眼泪抑不住 夺眶而出

I am aspiring to move higher
是什么 在前方闪烁
To realise my own dreams lucidly
让我疲惫的心  挣脱枷锁
I greet this moment of awakening
受伤的做错的 醒悟的时刻
To be closed to you and freedom.
一直往前走  只为接近 你和自由

About the speakers:

Ma Yuge is DPhil Candidate in Environmental Change Institute (ECI), University of Oxford. She is now doing research with The Energy and Resource Institute (TERI) and the Institute for Economic Growth (IEG) in New Delhi. Before that, she was a guest researcher with the Brookings Institution in Washington DC and Beijing (2011-2012), a GG2022 fellow (, and an Avantha International Fellow 2013 with Aspen Institute India. She is co-founder of the Oxford Juxtapose Project, which is a multi-disciplinary platform for comparative studies on contemporary China and India. Her first book Grow Up in India is published in China in 2013 (the photo is the book cover).

Zhang Yang is an MPhil researcher from the School of International Studies (SIS), Jawaharlal Nehru University. He got the MA in Buddhist Studies from Delhi University and his Bachelor Degree in Musicology from Capital Normal University (Beijing). He composed music with his experience of 3 years study in India, combining the Indian musical elements, such as the Indian traditional music instrument Sitar and Tagore's poem, as well as his feelings about knowing the Indian civilisation. He also composes music for Chinese ancient poems and shares the Chinese Culture with people from other cultures. Now he is working with Ma Yuge and composing music related with her book Grow Up in India, to explore the meaning of growing up in a different culture and to know oneself better by communicating with the people from the other culture through the plural ways.

The opinions expressed in this lecture are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any of their affiliations. For any question, please contact Ma Yuge via and, and Zhang Yang via

[i] KAPUSCINSKI, R. (2005), Encountering the Other: The Challenge for the 21st Century. New Perspectives Quarterly, 22: 6–13. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-5842.2005.00759.x

[ii]Mao Siwei on China-India Communication, (2013):

[iii]Website of Wolfson College, University of Oxford (2013):

[iv]PewReserch Global Attitude Project (2013)

[v] Simon Shen (2011). Exploring the Neglected Constraints on Chindia: Analysing the Online Chinese Perception of India and its Interaction with China's Indian Policy. The China Quarterly, 207, pp 541-560. doi:10.1017/S0305741011000646.

[vii]Data from the Chinese and Indian Foreign Ministries

No comments:

Post a Comment