International Relations and Global Governance

Book Launch - India, China, and the World: A Connected History by Tansen Sen

23 Nov 2017


Ambassador K Kesavapany (L) with Professor Tansen Sen (R) at the book launch

On 23 November, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy hosted the launch of India, China, and the World: A Connected History, which examines India-China interactions in the broader contexts of Asian and world history. The book is authored by Professor Tansen Sen, Director of the Center for Global Asia and Professor of History at New York University’s Shanghai campus.

The session began with a short introduction by chair Ambassador K Kesavapany, Adjunct Professor at LKYSPP; Non-Resident Ambassador, Jordan; President, Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO). This was followed by an in-depth discussion of the book by the author.

Discussion highlights

Challenging the narrative: In his presentation, Sen noted that the political leaders of both the Republic of India (ROI) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have, on occasion, made deeply flawed claims regarding two millennia of connections and cultural exchanges. As Westphalian nation-states, the ROI and PRC are modern concepts that only emerged in the last 70 years. Prior to this, the constructs ‘India’ and ‘China’ were unknown in the modern sense.

Circulation of knowledge: Historically, cross-regional connections between India and China were driven by a wide variety of mechanisms which included travels by Buddhist monks, traders, diplomatic exchanges, migration, etc. These connections led to the circulation of knowledge in areas like geography, astronomy, medicine, manufacturing techniques, etc. However, the haphazard and scattered pattern of these interactions meant that much of this knowledge inevitably deteriorated or was lost over time. This loss of knowledge was reflected in how Yuan and Ming dynasty writers frequently confused geographical locations in the South Asian landmass.

Spread of Buddhism: The spread of Buddhism to China was influenced by factors like geographical terrain, political patronage, economic feasibility, social or cultural relationship, among others. Hence, it occurred in a multidirectional, almost circulatory manner and often overlapped with other existing trade networks and routes. The movement of Buddhist monks and pilgrims, trading of religious objects and the transmission of ideas along these routes further enhanced the linkages between these two regions.

Expeditions of Zheng He: The expeditions of the Ming admiral Zheng He created new hubs in the Indian Ocean, fostering linkages between coastal South Asia and Ming China. This stimulated the circulation of goods and set in motion maritime connections between Chinese and Indian traders.

European colonialism: Rather than a phase of disconnect, the colonial period witnessed the development of new networks and a significant diversification of exchange between China and India. The early Portuguese and the Dutch colonialists established networks that resulted in extensive commercial and missionary exchanges between India and China. The British further expanded on these linkages with its trade in tea and opium between the two regions. The result was the unprecedented circulation of goods, knowledge, and people.

Diasporic Networks: Migration of people between the two regions led to the formation of diasporic networks. These overseas communities set up schools, cultural institutions and remittance networks that created and diversified connections between people from the two lands.