16 April 2019

How the Hans met the Hindus.


China has 55 distinct ethnic groups such as Tibetan, Uighur, Manchu, Zhuang, Mongol, Kazakh and Tujia. But its diversity is swamped by 1.2 billion Han Chinese who comprise 92% of the population. Han Chinese are the majority in every province, region or municipality except for the autonomous regions of Xinjiang (41%) and Tibet (6%). Xinjiang and Tibet occupy 1.6 and 1.2 million square kilometers respectively of China’s 9.6 million square kilometers, and are its two biggest regions. The minority homelands are mostly at its extremities and the empire quite literally holds on to them by its claws.

Mao Zedong is quoted to have said in a 1956 speech published in the fifth volume of his selected works: “We say China is a country vast in territory, rich in resources and large in population. As a matter of fact, it is the Han nationality whose population is large and the minority nationalities whose territory is vast and whose resources are rich.”

This mentality is at the core of the problem. The problem being clash between the struggles to preserve identities, protect geography and conserve resources with the attitudes and wants of the majority. Is it any different in India where the Adivasi’s are battling to keep their homelands, identity and natural wealth? China’s solution to this is typical. It makes them Han. Like it did to the Manchu’s, who till the early years of the last century ruled China. Today there are only eighteen Manchu language speakers left in China. Not all of China’s nationalities are willing to undergo such transfusion without resistance. The Tibetans and Uighurs are among the most notable.

The northern frontiers of India are defined largely by the Himalayan mountain range, where the country borders China, Bhutan, and Nepal. It traverses 4,057 km along the Indian states of Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. Add to this Nepal’s border with the Tibet region of China, which measures 1,415 kilometers along the Himalayan range. Only the district of Ladakh shares a border with Xinjiang.

Consequently Tibet’s influence is seen all over India’s Himalayan region where the Tibetan strain of Mahayana Buddhism predominates. There are over 120 Buddhist monasteries in India’s Himalayan region where the Dalai Lama is venerated as the head of the faith. The languages of Ladakh, Sikkim and Bhutan are variants of Tibetan.

Buddhism went to Tibet from India and with it went the best impulses of India’s traditions, philosophy and folklore. Even the Tibetan script is derived from ancient Pali, which was the dominant language of upper India during the period of Gautama Buddha. Lake Mansarovar and Mount Kailash the holiest lake and mountain of the Hindu folklore and tradition, the abode of Shiva, lie in Tibet. Even today the parikrama of Kailas is the highest ritual duty a Hindu can perform in one lifetime, or for that matter even in several.

The Indian relationship with Xinjiang is also an old one. The Kushans were one of five branches of the Yuezhi confederation, an Indo-European nomadic people who had migrated from the Tarim Basin, now in central Xinjiang, and settled in ancient Bactria. They reached their peak under the Buddhist emperor Kanishka, whose realm stretched from Turfan in the Tarim Basin to Pataliputra on the Gangetic Plain. Kanishka was of Turushka or Turkestani origin. Kanishka later made Mathura his capital and is now celebrated as one of India’s greatest emperors.

The name "Xinjiang", which literally means "New Frontier," was given during the Qing dynasty. Xinjiang consists of two main geographically, historically, and ethnically distinct regions with different historical names, Dzungaria north of the Tianshan Mountains and the Tarim Basin to the south, before Qing China unified them into one political entity called Xinjiang province in 1884.

Like Tibet, Xinjiang also had a troubled relationship with China. Chinese dominance waxed and waned with the ebbs and tides of imperial power in Beijing. After 1912 when Sun Yat Sen proclaimed a republic, the by now enfeebled China lost all authority in Tibet and Xinjiang. Chinese garrisons were driven out and local leaderships assumed complete authority. While Tibet was securely under the control of the Buddhist theocracy, Xinjiang came under the sway of several warlords till 1941 when a renegade KMT general turned warlord, Sheng Tsi Tsai, established a Soviet Republic under the close guidance of the Comintern in Moscow. In 1949 Stalin handed over Xinjiang to the newly established Peoples Republic of China of Mao Zedong.

In 1949 the population of Xinjiang was comprised almost entirely of various Turkic nationalities of which the Uighurs were the largest. Han Chinese only accounted for 6%. Thanks to a continuous migration sanctioned and blessed by the authorities in Beijing that proportion has now gone up to almost 48%. Much of this is centered in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, which is over 80% Han. The Uighurs are still the majority in the region below the Khotan and Kashgar line. This is the region that abuts India.

The view from the Chinese side about what exactly constitutes China is no less confused. Apparently like the British, the Manchu’s who ruled China from the seventeenth to the early twentieth century had a policy of staking claim to the lands that lay ahead of their frontiers in order to provide themselves with military buffers.

However, as a leading Chinese historian, Ge Jianxiong, Director of the Institute of Chinese Historical Geography at Fudan University in Shanghai has recently noted in an article titled ‘How big was ancient China?’ published in China Review, that to claim that the ancient Buddhist kingdom ‘has always been a part of China’ would be a ‘defiance of history’. Ge also notes that prior to 1912 when the Republic of China was established the idea of China was not clearly conceptualized.

But despite this old and well-recorded relationship, few in India seem aware of the ties our forefathers had with the regions to our north. It is as if the mighty Himalaya’s don’t let us see beyond them anymore? It was after the victory of Mao Zedong in China in 1949 and the establishment of Chinese communist control over Tibet and Xinjiang, that India and China finally became neighbors. It’s when the world’s two biggest nationalities, the Hans and Hindus met for the first time. As a consequence the Tibetan and Uighur homelands that were supposed to be India’s buffer against China have now become China’s buffer against India.

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