Let’s Talk About Asia

UC Irvine’s history department hosted “Religion and Nationalism in Twentieth-Century Asia,” a dialogue between Professor Vinayak Chaturvedi and St. Joseph University’s James Carter. The two professors discussed the role that faith played in developing a national identity for two of Asia’s most celebrated economies, India and China.

Chaturvedi, an associate professor of history at UCI, said that the dialogue was part of a continuing attempt by UCI to bring something new to the topic of Indo-Chinese relations. He mentioned that, while other organizations were attempting to discuss the two nations’ similarities economically, UCI was trying to do so from a world history viewpoint. UCI had done similarly in the past already, with its 2009 roundtable on “Intellectuals and the Nation in India and China,” which Chaturvedi had also participated in.

Carter, a professor of history and director of international relations at St. Joseph  University in Pennsylvania, opened the discussion after a brief introduction by UCI’s Ken Pomeranz. He began with a brief anecdote about a statue of Confucius in Tiananmen Square, noting the contradiction that its presence made with the Chinese Communist Party’s previous anti-Confucian stance.

“Religion in China is very much in the press… very much part of what is Chinese,” Carter said.

He acknowledged that one of modern China’s struggles has been to negotiate its relationship to faith and secularism.

Chaturvedi also opened with an anecdote. He spoke of a letter he received from a priest he met who had written hopes that he had not been forgotten, and requesting donations for a religious festival. Amidst some giggles from the crowd, Chaturvedi began to discuss what he saw as significant shifts in how historians viewed Indian history, such as the need to discuss Indian religious violence in the last decade and the inclusion of faith in the making of a modern, secular, Indian identity.

Both professors began their conversation about faith and nationalism in earnest. Two aspects of this topic that Chaturvedi focused on were India’s move towards secularization from roots of religious nationalism, and the role of Buddhism in Indian nationalism.

In this latter subject, he cited the mass conversions of untouchables to Buddhism in order to escape what they saw as an oppressive caste system perpetuated by some Hindu nationalists. He also discussed the question of, “Who owns the Buddha?” with Carter, noting that both Hindus and Indian Buddhists claimed ownership of the religious figure.

Carter’s response noted that many Chinese Buddhists also claimed similar ownership. He cited the nationalist missionary Tanxu, the subject of Carter’s latest book, in support of this point, noting that Tanxu claimed Buddhism as both inherently Chinese and as the moral core of Chinese society. According to Tanxu, China at the turn of the century had to embrace this center, lest it continue to be dominated by foreign powers.

However, many other nationalists at the time were having much different conversations about the role of religion in modern China. Carter noted that many other groups were attempting to secularize China, including the CCP, which declared China a secular state upon its rise to power.

One thing that both professors believed was the importance of individuals as participants in history. Chaturvedi noted in a prior interview that all individuals not only made history but were part of the process, where “they represent a moment in time.” Of special interest to Chaturvedi in this area was the main question that he believed was the focus of both Tanxu and Indian nationalists, like Gandhi and V.D. Savarkar, held — namely, on trying to improve the world they inhabited.

When asked what he wanted attendees to take home with them, Chaturvedi added that these thinkers had both local and global aspirations, and hoped that they would, “help us think about how we can improve humanity as well.”