How to improve China studies in Tagore's land

Updated: 2011-11-05 08:22

By Tansen Sen (China Daily)

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It took Rabindranath Tagore several years to set up the first China studies center in India. In this endeavor Tagore received help from the French scholar Sylvain Lvi and a Chinese schoolteacher from Malay called Tan Yunshan, whom the Nobel laureate first met in Singapore in 1927. Cheena-Bhavan, or China Hall, formally opened at Visva-Bharati University in Santiniketan, near Kolkata, in 1937.

Cheena-Bhavan had six main objects: To conduct research studies in Indian and Chinese learning; to promote the interchange of Indian and Chinese cultures; to cultivate friendship and fraternity between the two nations; to unite the two peoples; to promote, jointly, universal peace and harmony; and to help in building up "The Great Unity" of the world.

Although the above objectives may seem vague and idealistic - perhaps because they were formulated during a period when colonial regimes dictated the interactions between India and China - Cheena-Bhavan became one of the most vibrant centers for China studies in Asia.

The India-China conflict of 1962 terminated the scholarly and educational exchanges between the two countries. It also led to the rapid decline of Cheena-Bhavan, key funding and support for which came from the Chinese government. The demise of this renowned institution is very visible today, not least because of the poor maintenance of the extremely valuable collection of Chinese books and journals in its library, many of which were donated by Chiang Kai-shek and Zhou Enlai. These books are severely damaged, stored without proper cataloging, shelving or casing. More disconcerting, however, is the fact that hardly any faculty or students have the ability to use these works because of their lack of training in classical Chinese.

While there are universities and institutions elsewhere in India that offer courses in Chinese language, the study of China is now centered at the University of Delhi and Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. And despite the efforts of a small group of scholars at these institutions in the 1970s and 1980s, the field is now in an appalling state.

Several steps need to be taken to rectify the situation. Strong Chinese language and studies programs have to be developed at all major Indian universities. The faculty at these universities must possess advanced language skills as well as training in research methodology and the curricula must be revamped for students to pursue rigorous post-graduate training. Opportunities to study abroad and collaborations with Chinese and foreign institutions should be encouraged. It must be recognized that since China studies continues to be more advanced in Europe, the United States and Australia, a good program in India requires input from Sinologists from around the world. It cannot restrict itself to the nationals of India and China, as some government-sponsored India-China projects attempt to do. In fact, the role of the government should be limited to funding and facilitating the exchange of scholars and students and not dictating the intellectual content or sources of research and teaching programs.

One such collaboration could perhaps be initiated at Nalanda University. Supported by the East Asia Summit countries, Nalanda University is going to be a distinctive institution. Similar to its ancient predecessor, international collaboration and innovative research and higher learning are its core missions. A China studies center, perhaps called the Xuanzang Center for China Studies, after Nalanda's most illustrious Chinese student, could offer classical and modern Chinese language programs, as well as courses in methodology, history, religions, politics and economics. The center should give special attention to the study of traditional China and Chinese religions, since no other institution in India seems to have the capacity to develop these sub-fields. Such a center, developed through international, public-private partnerships, would not only contribute to the revival of China studies in India, but could also serve as a focal point for collaborative research on China in Asia.

Despite 2,000 years of interactions, the rapid growth in business ties during the past two decades and the reemergence of India and China in the global arena, India has failed to produce first-class institutions and scholars of China. The time has come to rectify this situation because the demand for such institutions and scholars will only grow in the coming years.

The author is an associate professor of Asian History and Religions at Baruch College, City University of New York.

(China Daily 11/05/2011 page5)