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Roundtable Highlights Chinese and Indian History

Cathereen Lim | Staff Photographer
Cathereen Lim | Staff Photographer
2009 marks the anniversary of many events in both countries’ history.
UC Irvine’s Center for Asian Studies hosted “Intellectuals and the Nation in China and India,” a public roundtable on the history of nationalism and scholarship last Friday that focused on the two most populous and high profile developing countries, China and India.

The roundtable was held in conjunction with the UCI International Center for Writing and Translation’s “The China Beat,” a UCI-based blog.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a history professor who specializes in modern Chinese history, noted in his introduction that 2009 marks the anniversaries of numerous relevant events in the history of China and India. He joked, “If only India had waited two more years to declare independence, they could also be celebrating their 60th anniversary this year.” The panel members were then invited to comment on any of these anniversaries.

UCI’s Vinayak Chaturvedi, an associate history professor, chose to speak about 1909, the year that the two most influential texts on Indian independence, Mohandas Gandhi’s “Hind Swaraj” (“Indian Home Rule”) and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s “1857 – The First War of Independence,” were published.

“[The two works] lay the foundation for 20th-century Indian nationalism,” Chaturvedi said.

However, Chaturvedi also mentioned that they present diametrically opposite visions of Indian nationalism. In fact, each of the two works was written in response to the other. Gandhi envisioned Indian nationalism as a rejection of the West and the materialist values the West embodied. It was not an ethnically or even religiously based nationalism. Ultimately, Chatuverdi continued, though Gandhi is popularly known as the father of India, his ideas have not been adopted, especially among the ruling class. On the other hand, Savarkar, who was the mastermind behind Gandhi’s assassination, laid the foundations of modern Hindu nationalism.

The next speaker, Wang Chaohua, who served as a student leader during the Tiananmen uprising, is currently a doctoral candidate at UCLA. She focused on the implication of China’s rapid economic growth for democracy. She called 1989 a unique year in history, when the rulers were disoriented as to which way to go. She also noted that this was a peak for when students and intellectuals could make a change in the country.

Professor Perry Link also spoke about China. A literature professor at UC Riverside, Link focused on the evolution of language. Chinese intellectuals, in the spirit of nationalism, tried to create a common language that would be accessible to the common man. Unfortunately, they were not successful. Perry cites one academic who wrote a treatise on common language in the highly stylized language of traditional Chinese scholarship.

The last panelist, Pankaj Mishra, is an Indian essayist and novelist whose pieces have been published in The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker, among others. He said that India’s nationalist imagination received a serious blow when China hosted the summer Olympics last August.

“It became very clear that China had reached a state which India could not even think about aspiring to at this time,” Mishra said.

According to Mishra, since then Indian nationalism took another blow when it became clear that President Barack Obama did not think of India as a strategic counter to China. It thus became clear that unlike what the mass media had perpetuated, India and China were not equals.

After the panel, Wang stated that she believes that democracy is both possible and inevitable in China. Speaking in Chinese, Wang pointed to the increasing individualism that has accompanied the transition to a capitalist system.

“People have more and more disparate wants now, and it will be impossible for one person to decide their future for them without internal unrest,” Wang explained. “In fact, it would be dangerous.”