Why Romila Thapar went to China in 1957: To study the history of Buddhism, not Communism


Romila Thapar at the entrance to a cave at the site of Maijishan, China. | Dominique Darbois / From the archives of the author.
The second interest [in this particular visit to China] came from the many discussions that I heard initially, and later participated in, during my late teens and early twenties. These discussions in the early and mid-fifties focused on contemporary China, an Asian society and civilisation that had undergone a revolution with the promise of establishing a socialist society. Many were interested to see what would be the shape of this new society and how this would differ from the earlier attempts in the USSR.

This became a crucial discussion in the light of the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the USSR, held in 1956, having revealed aspects of bureaucratic and political functioning in the USSR that had not been spoken of so far, and that were troubling those that had endorsed the revolution. Questions were raised as to whether the Soviet model, being so proximate to the Chinese, would become the earlier pattern to be repeated in the latter case.

There was at the same time much romanticism about Maoist China building an entirely new model of society that would bring about the many changes that had captured the imagination, especially of the young. So I was eager to see the reality.
Much had been written by journalists visiting China, some returning with a positive view of the change, and others presenting negative observations. In many ways it was, as the Chinese would say, a period of “interesting times”, in other words problematic times that had no easy solutions. Being China, the dimension of change was impressive, as for instance, in the collectivisation of agriculture. The question being asked was what would this lead to and would it solve China’s agrarian problems.

Then came other changes – liberalisation towards intellectuals followed by a reversal and a rectification campaign. Mao Zedong’s words resounded in his much-quoted sentence of 1957, “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend.” We arrived in China eager to witness the efflorescence, if there was one.

It is perhaps worth keeping in mind with hindsight that a few flowers might have bloomed but many would wilt or would be ploughed in by the end of that year. The Great Leap Forward, initiated by Mao Zedong and the Communist Party, was intended to accelerate the economy and give a new impetus to social change and the transformation of China into a Communist state. But the agrarian crisis resulted in the disastrous event of the long famine and put paid to many earlier explorations, with the final closure to the blooming of flowers being the taking over by the Cultural Revolution.

This was called the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, a movement that dominated Chinese politics and society during the 1960s and early ’70s. It was a movement intended to purge China of “bourgeois” elements plotting to bring back capitalism, but in fact it was a way of also bolstering the power of Mao. In the process both people and cultural items were silenced or physically removed.

The Little Red Book with fragments of Mao’s writing was made essential reading – young people were organised into Red Guards who frequently used violence to intimidate people at large. In later times, the Cultural Revolution was viewed as a major disaster by the Chinese Communist Party. Nevertheless, what is worth taking into account is the impact of these events on political and social thinking in other parts of the world.
It led to some rethinking about flexibility and openness in concepts and institutions emanating from socialist thinking, drawing legitimacy from more than one event. It also prodded the social sciences in academic programmes into investigating more expansively the many theories of knowledge and explanation that were being written about. These not only required the asking of questions but asking more pointed questions from what had been asked before. It was indeed in an inverse kind of way a creative period in many branches of thinking in the wider world, especially in the arts and humanities, some nudged by Maoism and some by other theories.

But these are not the central themes of this book since the period when we were in China was prior to the radical changes. I am mentioning them as ideas that were being discussed elsewhere, and that may have been germinating whilst we were in China but of which we were seldom made aware. We did try on occasion to politely ferret them out, but were not overly successful.

This narrative of a journey therefore has limited relevance. It is only an attempt to try and capture a moment in modern history. However, by extension, it was a moment that was to have ramifications and continues to have them, reaching into the wider world – perhaps more so later in terms of recognising the pre-modern contacts between various regions of Asia.

This becomes all the more important given that the areas under discussion are now independent nations focusing on their own histories. The project that took us to China touched on these histories, and being at the required locations we experienced the emergence of China. It no longer saw itself as “the Middle Kingdom”, the civilisation surrounded by barbarians, as it called itself in history, and isolated from the rest of the world. It now saw itself as entering the collective of Asian nations which in time was to expand in various ways to a wider collective.

There was an intricate network of contacts in pre-modern times of which we today need to be aware. The past does not always fade away, it occasionally persists but in new guises. The extent to which we recognise this can go into the making of the present. My interest was more in the Asia-wide networks of early times and how these were expressed through the spread of Buddhism as evident in the texts, shrines and monasteries that it inspired.
From the Indian perspective, at the time of our visit, the Asian world was just starting to open up to some of the connections that it had had in precolonial times. Overland there had been in the past, both confrontations between peoples, as well as peaceful exchanges of material goods and ideas, across the expanse of the continent and beyond.

Maritime connections and exchanges, occasionally conflicting, were generally peaceful. Both kinds of connections led to migrations, settlements in new locations, and intermingling of ideas. Weaving their way through these connections were the institutions that evolved from a variety of religions. Confucianism and Hinduism tended to be rather stay-at-home religions, although the latter did venture out into some new areas. The two religions that travelled through and settled in many parts of Asia were Buddhism and, later, Islam.

There was a bewildering multiplicity of objects and ideas available to us from pre-modern Asia. Colonialism divided Asia into disparate compartments as each European power established its control over a different region and these were artificially cut off from each other. From the 1950s, some of the past experience was being rediscovered and subjected to explanations different from those of colonial scholarship, and some who remained loyal to colonial readings of their past created new divisions among themselves in accordance with the colonial readings of their past.

One example of this was the early connection between India and China. In terms of our visit in 1957 to the two Buddhist cave sites, I saw both of these as historical links of earlier times evolving in the milieu of Chinese cultures but they also reflected, although more faintly, possible explorations of contemporary times. Looking back on our visit from the current perspective, one realises that the explanations of the past, made half a century ago, had their own anxieties and aspirations.

Having reread the diary I now feel that it does perhaps carry a faint aroma of what China was like, but seen through my eyes, and seen in a very different moment sixty-two years ago. Being there in the early years of a revolutionary change and observing some of the elements of what were to evolve into powerful dictatorial ideologies and practices, such as those that took form as the Cultural Revolution, one can’t help but feel that the experience of that historical juncture may attune one to recognising other dictatorial changes that overwhelm societies of our times – even if the changes emanate not from a socialist revolution but from its reverse, namely, ideologies drawn from exclusive majoritarian nationalisms deriving from a single identity and set in the economy of neoliberalism.

Of course, at the same time, one also has to think of these elements in their relation to the other more simple and direct changes, particularly of improvements in standards of living for the many. These may not have been a universal achievement but held out hope for the many, and it was a hope that was not altogether belied, as in some other cases.

My own perceptions of China naturally changed over the years. As a child I grew up, as I have often said, in the cantonment culture of the British Raj that inevitably influenced to some degree our ways of looking at people and cultures that were dissimilar to our own. Hence the view both limited and stilted of things Chinese. We had little access to things Chinese.
Through my teenage years China took on the contours of yet another Asian country struggling to disentangle itself from European bindings of various kinds. The awareness of the struggle found its echoes in events in India and brought about in us a less unfamiliar attitude towards China, and a lessening of the strangeness that had existed previously. There developed a sense of seeing them as a part of Asian nationalism even if we barely knew them.

The revolution revealed yet another aspect that led to a variety of attempts to understand the reasons for it. For me the revelation of the more traditional Chinese cultures and the earlier pre-modern past came initially with the course that I studied at London University. The visit to China answered some of my questions that had surfaced in these early readings, and at the same time raised many more.

Historical patterns are sometimes repeated but the form differs. One has to be wary of the undesirable ones and learn of their causation from past experience. This is when history can provide some insights, provided it remains history and is not converted into mythology.

Gazing Eastwards
Excerpted with permission from Gazing Eastwards: Of Buddhist Monks and Revolutionaries in China, Romila Thapar, Aleph Book Company

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