China and India share what can be called a complicated relationship. The two nations are separated by the snow-bound Himalayas. However, they have a history of cultural and commercial exchange reaching back thousands of years. An aspect that has flourished despite the hostility generated by war and border disputes. Walking through the markets in any sizable Indian city, one would sooner rather than later stumble upon stores selling Chinese smartphones  – Oppo, Vivo, Xiaomi, Lenovo, Gionee. For the first four decades of their existence, the two Republics were considered close rivals. But China has leapfrogged in terms of development (since Deng Xiaoping’s watershed reforms), leaving India far behind. The rapid military, economic and social development of the People’s Republic of China has generated a certain amount of suspicion and envy among the Indian elite.

Indian publications characterize their giant trans-Himalayan neighbor as a major threat. China dominates the global manufacturing and export business, and has outstripped India in terms of military power. Chinese corporations dominate the Indian market and the country, like many others across the world, has a big trade deficit with regard to China. Chinese investment and infrastructure projects (like One Belt One Road) in Africa and Asia have sent the alarm bells ringing for the Indian intelligentsia. Many believe that they represent a Chinese attempt to squeeze India out of  its own backyard – South Asia. This suspicion is a product of several factors – India’s unresolved border dispute with China; China’s proximity to India’s traditional enemy, Pakistan; American and British influence on the Indian elite’s worldview (due to the presence of a large number of Indians in those countries and India’s continued membership of the British Commonwealth).

The one sphere where several Indians believe themselves to be better off than the Chinese is soft power. Many produce approving quotes about Indian democracy from Westerners and disapprove of the Chinese Communist Party’s strong arm tactics in dealing with smaller nations, ethnic minorities and the political opposition. Others think that Bollywood (a moniker used for India’s Hindi film industry), Indian spirituality (symbolized by Buddhism and Yoga), and South Asian cuisine (a fluid category bringing together diverse culinary traditions) give them an edge over their northern neighbor. That could be contested given the immense popularity of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Tai Chi and Sichuan cooking across the globe. However, the People’s Republic might be stealing a march over India in soft power projection through an unlikely figure, the ancient sage Confucius (551-479 BCE), associated with the earliest phase of Chinese civilization. Once upon a time the Chinese Communist Party was highly critical of his teachings but the current leadership has adopted him as the face of China.

Hanban or the Office of Chinese Language Council International, a non-profit associated with the Chinese government, has set up more than four hundred Confucius Institutes across the world to promote Chinese language and culture. No initiative by the Indian government comes close to matching this program. Though portrayed as an attempt at propaganda, the setting up of these institutes reflects China’s growing stature. There is great interest in the country, and in Chinese society. Europeans, Africans and Asians are eager to be a part of the Chinese growth story, and many are learning Mandarin. India is no exception. Despite the objections of India’s right-wing nationalists (who perceive Communism as an existential threat) and Anglophone elite (who echo American perceptions of China’s rise), a number of Chinese language courses have been started (in Delhi, Mumbai and Vellore). Given below is an excerpt from an article in ‘The Hindu’ newspaper about the setting up of a Confucius School in the city of Kolkata (capital of the state of West Bengal), dated November 29, 2017:

India’s first Confucius Classroom, a centre for teaching Chinese language and culture, was inaugurated by the Consul General of China in Kolkata Ma Zhanwu on Tuesday. The centre is a joint venture between the Yunan Normal University of China and a Kolkata-based private institute that has been receiving support from the Consulate General of China in terms of student exchange programmes with Chinese schools and universities. 

“We have worked closely with the School of Chinese Language, a private institution. We encourage them to take care of the Chinese language courses and the Chinese language tests here in this part of India,” the Consul General of China in Kolkata Mr. Ma said. Besides language teaching, training in dance and martial arts will also be offered.

Mr. Ma said that the Confucius Classroom will help job seekers find lucrative opportunities. “Those who have studied Chinese will be able to find better paying jobs and those who want to engage in business with China and visit the country will want to grasp the language,” said Mr. Ma. Beijing is pushing Confucius institutes across the world to promote cultural diplomacy.

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows a Ming era Chinese painting of Confucius dating back to the period between 1449-1552. It was taken from an article appearing in the China Times.