External Affairs

Why Does India’s ‘Act East’ Policy Not Extend to China?

Does the wide linguistic gulf between India and China indicate that the two countries are doomed to live in a state of eternal contention?

The Indian and Chinese national flags. Credit: Reuters

The wide linguistic gulf between India and China is one factor that aggravates the general sense of incomprehension that the people of the two countries already have about the other. For the last ten centuries, India and China have been neighbours – yet strangers – to each other, though the thousand years before that saw a vibrant cultural interflow between them. However, travellers of that era, like Xuan Zang, Fa Xian, Kumarajiva and Bodhidharma, overcame the formidable obstacle of language, to achieve a high level of understanding of the life and culture of the other nation. But today’s science offers us a counter-intuitive insight – that the wide linguistic difference between the two nations can be an opportunity to create a partnership of creativity and innovation between them.

Whilst there is a range of languages in each country, the Chinese character script has been common across China for three millennia, mediating communication between, say, Mandarin and Cantonese speakers. This script has played a powerful unifying role in China throughout the ages. India has numerically greater diversity in its languages, but a broad linguistic and cultural base of Sanskrit underlies most of these languages. Accordingly, it would be a reasonable first approximation to consider Mandarin and Sanskrit as the root languages of at least 80% of the populations of China and India, respectively. At first sight, it is difficult to imagine two languages that are more dissimilar.

The ideographic and monosyllabic Chinese language has no singular or plural, no tenses, gender, moods, or cases. It is also tonal in nature. Yet, because of its ideographic nature, each character has great specificity of meaning, with the character being comprehended as an entire pattern in itself. The abundance of different words for the same concrete things can be quite striking: for example, different words describe the adjective ‘old’ depending on whether one refers to a person over 60 years of age, or over 70, etc. Indeed, Hajime Nakamura, the eminent Japanese Indologist and Sinologist, believed that the Chinese bias for understanding phenomena through direct perception is a consequence of the concrete and visual nature of the Chinese script. Even abstract and holistic concepts could be conveyed through subtle pictorial representations, such as the hexagrams of the Yi Jing, the Book of Changes.

On the other hand, Sanskrit as an alphabetic language could not be more different in its structure and complex grammar than ideographic Chinese. Nakamura shows how Sanskrit deals more efficiently than Chinese with concepts that involve change or transformation. Sanskrit lends itself to expressing ideas of great complexity through its simple principle of word agglomeration, for example from ‘nari’ to ‘ardhanari’ to ‘ardhanarisvara’ etc. Further, in Sanskrit, the addition of prefixes and suffixes can continue almost without end and the resulting mega-compound-word/sentence can be split up once again in multiple ways. These exercises introduce interesting intricacies and ambiguities in meaning, which can be generated by anyone with time on their hands and bestowed with a certain skilful playfulness in manipulating the language. Sanskrit grammarians and poets were adept at such feats: for example, poetry that reads front to back as well as vice versa. Similar capabilities have been identified as being instrumental in the work done by global software innovators today.

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Modern neurological research reveals that deciphering the ideographic Chinese script is akin to a pattern-recognition problem for the brain. The Chinese character patterns stimulate the right side of the brain, especially the parietal and occipital lobes where such processing takes place. Since speech functions are localised on the brain’s left, Chinese thus promotes more holistic utilisation of the brain. The great scientist and inventor of calculus, Gottfried Leibnitz, was so struck by the power and economy of Chinese that he remarked: “If God were to give man a language, that language would be Chinese!” But metaphysical speculation and elaborate deductive logic built on language were far more developed in India. Thus, Max Muller who was entranced by India – ‘a very paradise on earth’ – considered Panini as the greatest grammarian and logician ever born, and Sanskrit as a ‘bridge of thoughts and sighs’.

Indian linguistic abilities and ancient pedagogic practice gave rise to a strong oral tradition, with strengths in deductive logic and argumentation, capabilities for great abstraction, and the handling of uncertainty, complexity, and even chaos. Indian languages permit foreign imports, and change and transformation are expressed with ease. Mythology and legend remain important factors even in statecraft, since the boundaries between recorded history, collective belief and received knowledge can be flimsy. For China, written tradition and records were always key and so it is not surprising that the emphasis is on the concrete and the particular, with a continuous record of calligraphy, diaries and historical annals. Unity, harmony, practicality, and inductive logic emphasising the importance of human inter-relationships forms the basis of the strongly visual Chinese philosophic tradition. Ideographic Chinese deals clumsily with foreign words, and unlike Japanese, has not created a user-friendly alphabetic script to accommodate alien names, concepts, and expressions.

Current psycholinguistic thinking, drawing on the latest neuro-psychological research on how the brain processes thought and language, holds that the linguistic structure of different languages influences the ways one perceives and categorises the world. Though this is more a tendency and not a mechanistic rule, thought can be likened to water running down a hillside through channels carved out by language – the deepest and steepest channels will carry the most water, though others will have some flow as well, and water can even be pumped uphill through force. A more modern analogy would be to liken languages to computer operating systems – iOS, Microsoft and Android can each perform all the basic functions, but there are areas where each system has an edge, subtle as it might be. This differential capability is not surprising, since each language arises in a unique environment and is equipped to cope with its specific challenges. Therefore, if two languages are radically different, the more perceptibly different are the ways in which their speakers are likely to think.

So, if Sanskrit and Mandarin are so different, then the way Indians and Chinese think must differ in some significant ways, at least at the margin. Does this finding not add strength – and scientific validity – to the realist geopolitical theory that rising powers like India and China are doomed to live in a state of eternal contention with each other? Not so, for both science and modern enterprise offer striking proof that a confluence of diversity can be the source of great creativity.

The progress of science over the last 500 years has taken place in an atmosphere where – by and large – scepticism, rationality, contestation and argumentation were given full rein. This does not necessarily imply that all the political regimes in those times were anything like democratic let alone liberal; only that the space made available for academic discourse and scientific/commercial innovation was distinctly greater than the leeway permitted to those who – by thought, word or deed – defied the ruling dispensation, of whatever hue. It is difficult to estimate the negative impact of a repressive regime on the creative reservoir of a country. For example, we know that Galileo was forced to recant by the Church, but we do not have any idea of how many scientists and inventors before him had been discouraged or dissuaded by the prevailing religious orthodoxy. The Soviet Union was a great powerhouse of science and medicine. Yet, Trofim Lysenko, who came down heavily in favour of nurture in the nature vs. nurture debate – a politically savvy stand in those days – caused enormous damage to the development of modern genetics in that country. So overall, one could draw a common-sense conclusion that open political regimes are more likely to support innovation and creativity over the long term. The Communist Party in China is surely cognisant of this correlation and it will be interesting to see how they attempt to marry their instinct for political control with the need to provide the space for creative disputation. Illiberal regimes everywhere, and not only in China, will need to reflect on this matter, if at all they place their hopes on scientific innovation to solve the pressing problems of the times.

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Following this logic, creative disputation is much more productive if the range of the contending ideas is as wide as possible. To quote Mao (who borrowed the phrase from an aphorism prevalent in China’s ‘Warring States’ era): “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend”. Modern multinational corporations and global universities have found that the best way to get ‘a hundred schools of thought’ to contend, is to encourage wide diversity in their work force and student body. It is not a coincidence that Silicon Valley – a hotbed of new ideas and innovation in many fields – is an environment with people from all over the world, amongst whom Indians and Chinese form large segments. The irony is that Indians and Chinese work together – and highly productively – in teams around the world, but how many examples are there within India or China of direct collaboration in research between the two countries?

Since the reasoning earlier in this essay showed that Mandarin and Sanskrit speakers have the potential to develop certain distinctive and differentiated competences, what could be a set of Indian and Chinese attributes which are mutually complementary and stimulate creative development when brought together? Indeed, the imaginative combination of such complementary skills is much sought after by entrepreneurs, as the magic formula to create comparative advantage and rapid growth. The prime example is of course the Indian software-Chinese hardware story, though this is now wearing thin.

Perhaps there are other areas ripe for investigation. Psycholinguistic theory would predict that verbal/deductive/computational based knowledge would have an India bias, whilst visual/inductive/holistic pattern-based skills should find a higher prevalence in China. To see if this hypothesis works, we can test the following attribute-pairs (in the order of India and China): Design (India) and manufacturing scale (China); management/consulting and projects/infrastructure; marketing/management and technology/process; health care delivery and biomedical sciences; music and choreography (viz. A.R. Rahman in Warriors of Heaven and Earth); English competence and educational pedagogy; individual and team; chess & weiqi; improvisation and long-term planning… The list can go on. Which attributes are ‘better’ is not the question – what matters is the choice of problem and the skill-sets chosen to solve them.

If the two countries can reconnect in this spirit, whilst managing their differences at other levels, it could lead to a creative reconnection of the two large Asian economies with potentially massive benefits to the peoples of both nations, even the entire planet. We can envision, perhaps, grand joint projects which address the problem of conserving the Himalayan ecology whilst making water available to all, ending poverty and infectious disease, battling climate change, creating a zero-pollution car, a $20 computer, a $1000 dollar house….

Finally, what is even more relevant for India, is that this psycholinguistic hypothesis is not limited only to China. Its logical argument would include Korea and Japan as well, since their languages are structurally derived from ancient Chinese. So far, the Indian outreach for science and innovation has been largely confined to the West, with the occasional nod to Japan and Korea. Now, this hypothesis holds out the possibility – and indeed the probability – that innovative connections with the entire East might be even more productive. It will also restore a certain geographical wholeness to India’s ‘Act East’ policy, which so far has a somewhat contrived angularity through the conspicuous omission of China. It is wholly apposite if India achieves this realisation now, almost exactly a hundred years after Kakuzo Okakura declared that ‘Asia is one’, with Rabindranath Tagore and Sun Yatsen joining him in articulating their vision of a new, humanist, and resurgent Asia.

Ravi Bhoothalingam is an independent director on corporate boards and Honorary Fellow of the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.


    Language might be a barrier but more than linguistic obstacles, there are many other socio – cultural aspects. China has many followers of Buddhism which originated in India. The brahminical hindutva replaced Buddhism in most parts of India but it flourished in China. It is a more open religion with strong unifying cultural base. India remained with archaic caste system of hindutva. This may be the cause of maladjustment between both nations. Moreover, world outlook, approach towards international problems, etc might also come in the way of unity of ideology of China and india