The talks with the Chinese during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to China have been dominated by contentious issues: stapled visas, border and river management but both sides have reiterated the importance of a close relationship, one that looks to the future. Indeed, the Chinese President Xi Jinping called for grasping the unique moment that the two countries face today. This call to ‘seize the day’, or carpe diem, was used to buttress an argument that the two countries had much in common and could work together rather than confront each other.
Perhaps, to carry this argument forward the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang took the unusual step of taking time off to show Prime Minister Manmohan Singh the pavilion of the emperor Qianlong in the Forbidden City, and other Indian-origin artifacts from the past.
The pavilion and garden designed by the emperor Qianlong is an outstanding example of craftsmanship and design displaying both Qianlong’s own sophisticated tastes and the exquisite craftsmanship of 18th century China. But who is Qianlong and what is his importance in India-China relations? Unfortunately, though changing gradually, the general awareness of the educated in India does not extend to an understanding of Asian history. Napoleon or Elizabeth I may evoke an image of imperial power but names from China’s past lack equal resonance. The Chinese with a sharp sense of their history are always drawing analogies and it may help to think of Qianlong in the context of India-China relations today.
Qianlong was the sixth Qing or Manchu emperor to rule China. The Manchus, much as the Mongols had done, earlier established their power in Beijing in 1644, and though a minority group, ruled China through a long and tumultuous period till 1911 when a republic was established. It was Qianlong who, in his remarkably long rule of 60 years from 1736-1795, expanded the boundaries of China to more or less what they are today. His empire covered an area of 4.6 million sq miles. In comparison, India is just 1.2 million sq miles.
Qianlong’s achievement was not just on the battlefield, but also in the arts. He combined both literary and military, ‘wen and wu’ in Chinese. This ideal has been central to Chinese culture and continues to shape its present thinking.
A sophisticated scholar, emperor Qianlong was rigorously trained and assiduously cultivated his image of a cultural sophisticate. Poet, musician, painter and scholar, his prodigious output was brought together in 30 substantial volumes. Even more importantly he was a voracious collector of art and books. The collection he built in the Imperial Palace Museum was unrivalled, and he had the Complete Library of the Four Treasures compiled, which with 10,000 titles was one of the biggest collections then. He was particularly fond of the visual arts, and, in particular, European painting techniques that helped to create a new Sino-European style of painting.
Qianlong, a Manchu ruling over an empire, where the majority was ethnic Han, became proficient in Chinese and the majority culture but as a Manchu he always worked to strengthen the group identity. A devout Buddhist of the Tibetan Gelug sect (the same the Dalai Lama follows), he not only undertook pilgrimages, but was the driving force to have the Buddhist canon translated into Manchu (it was already available in Tibetan, Mongolian and Chinese).
It was during his reign that China entered into a period of close contact with the world of Islam.
Qianlong, as a recognition of the importance of Islam and as a way to bind his Turkic subjects to him, took a Muslim concubine, often referred to as the ‘Fragrant Concubine’.
Qianlong, as a military commander, led the frontier campaigns, which extended the boundaries of empire. He saw this as his great achievement, even calling himself the ‘old man of the ten perfect victories’. Overcoming the Dsungars, he brought modern-day Xinjiang under Chinese control, subjugated Taiwan, Burma and Vietnam and defeated the Gurkhas, bringing him to the borders of the Indian subcontinent.
Public discourse is still heavily shaped by the old cliché of China as the ‘Middle Kingdom’, blissfully unaware of the outside world and smug in its contempt of dealing with others. In fact it was not so.
China was not an isolated country cut off from global contacts, rather Qing China had extensive global contacts, through the usual diplomatic and missionary channels but above all through its vast commercial networks. Trade in Chinese tea and porcelain, to name the staples of China’s foreign trade, contributed to economic growth and prosperity and built private fortunes. Its port cities and trading centres thronged with foreign merchants creating a vigorous economic and cultural climate.
It was during Qianlong’s reign that the Qing empire extended its imperial reach and came into closer contact with the Indian subcontinent. Despite the historical links through Buddhism and trade the Chinese knew little of the area. The name Hindustan occurs rarely in Chinese texts; they were even unfamiliar with the term Mughal. Qianlong took a lively and appreciative interest in ‘Hindustani jade’. Jade was transported from the Kunlun Mountains to India, where after being worked upon, it was sent back to China. Jade, it should be noted, is as important as gold is for Indians. Qianlong writes that Hindustani jade workers produced jade that is ‘delicate and marvellous, far beyond the reach of the jade craftsmen of Suzhou’.
I think the visit to Qianlong’s pavilion is perhaps a reminder not just of the grandeur of the Qing empire but a display of the other connections that have bound India and China through history; connections built on trade, cultural exchange and an appreciation of each other’s dreams.
The author is Professor of Modern Japanese History, University of Delhi (Retd)
Qianlong took a lively and appreciative interest in ‘Hindustani jade’. Jade was transported from the Kunlun Mountains to India, where it was worked upon and then sent back to China. Jade is as important to the Chinese as gold is for Indians.