On a visit a decade ago to Nanniwan, a remote village in north-western Shaanxi Province in China, the reviewer was surprised to find a spinning wheel, charkha (much like the Gandhian model) in the museum there. Nanniwan, adjacent to the more well-known Yanan, the headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party after the Long March in 1935 till 1945, shot into fame for its self-sufficiency model of economic activity. The reviewer was also surprised recently to see coins of the Kushana period at the refurbished Shanghai Museum. Further, on a visit to Quanzhou in Fujian Province, the reviewer noted not only the extensive trade contacts between this coastal town with India in ancient times but also a Hindu temple with several statues of Hindu gods and goddesses and a functioning Islamic mosque. All these have something in common—that the interactions between India and far away places like even remote areas of China not only thrived but expanded to other areas in Central and West Asian regions.
The book under review is a tribute to such wider interactions, captured in detail and in the words of the editor A.Rahman, analysing these ‘Asian traditions, without the European framework and its projections.’ (p.9). Indeed, the volume under review treads into paths uncovered in the past—that of interactions among peoples in ideas related to science, technology, crafts, music, etc. This forms a unique contribution to our knowledge on such interactions. In the light of the multipolarity debate in the current world order and the coming together on selective areas of mutual concern, by India, Russia, China and some Central and West Asian countries, it would be interesting to see the contemporaneous value of this work given its avowed editorial agenda.
This work is part of a larger research project on the history of Indian science, philosophy and culture (PHISPC) undertaken by the Centre for Studies in Civilisation, New Delhi. Divided into 43 parts (of which 14 are published) in ten volumes, the work under review is the 2nd part of the 3rd volume. The current volume is divided into five sections and 23 chapters by different contributors who had experience in teaching/research for several decades in relevant fields. Led by D.P. Chattopadhyaya and A. Rahman, whose contributions to analysing Indian philosophical thought and science are well-known, the team included Tan Chung, the doyen of Indian Sinology, D. Devahuti, and Salim Kidwai, noted historians, C.K. Raju and W.H. Abdi, mathematicians, artist Roshan Alkazi and others. The result of this endeavour is a veritable treat of scholarship.
As the juggernaut of globalization spreads, a review and re-assessment of international historical interactions and changes is both instructive and worthwhile. Extensive research on the subject has been conducted by the doyens in the field. While Arnold Toynbee’s assumed that the decline of ancient civilizations was mainly due to their own internal causes rather than due to any major external stimuli, William H. McNeill contended that interactions did take place between the Greek, Indian, Chinese and West Asian civilizations, although one of the most significant reasons for the rise of the West is due to its instability factor. Nevertheless, McNeill argued that interactions between these civilizations, despite cultural diffusion, were restricted due to the presence of nomads. Michael Mann’s 1986 study traced social power from the beginning to the seventeenth century in terms of economic, political, ideological and military aspects, while Perry Anderson probed the structural conflict in feudal modes of production between serfs and nobility that was overcome by the establishment of the absolutist state. Apart from the French longue duree historical-structural approach, another school of relevance here is the world systems approach of Immanuel Wallerstein with emphasis on economic exchange relation-ships. Other major works include Joseph Needham’s classic work on science and civilization in China, Lynn Thorndike or Indian authors such as P.C. Ray, B.N. Seal and others.
The volume under discussion refreshingly distinguishes from the above in several ways, although the contributors to the volume make it a point to cite several of the western historians and scientists and their valuable contributions to human knowledge. Categorized as those exploring a ‘composite picture of civilisations’, in contrast to the ‘generalist’ or a ‘distinct’ school of historiography on civilizations, the agenda of this project differs from the above in several significant areas. First, the tool of enquiry is not a political state or political boundaries, although the authors are aware of geo-political realities of today. The focus of this volume is on various components of cultures and civilizational aspects, though it has portions on the impact of trade between the three broad ‘culture zones’ (p. 20) of study—Egyptian-Greek-Phoenician-Babylon; Arab and India-Central Asia-China. The selection of these areas also appear to be pragmatic as several dynasties were rising and collapsing over the timeframe covered in this volume, besides, several of these areas are not states as such in the modern post-Westphalian sense of the term.
Secondly, unlike Toynbee or McNeill, the contributors to this volume are unwilling to enter into a debate on which of these earliest civilizations contributed to the origin of a set/sets of ideas, technologies, etc. but emphasized the continuous and cooperative interactions between these areas. They are also unwilling to probe the causes for the decline of these civilizations and the rise of the West. Although an element of conflict is reflected in the treatment of various subjects—such as the Arabs and Abyssinians attacking ships or coasts in Rahman’s article or seeming Turkish ‘invasions’ in Devahuti’s article—it appears that overall the contributors intended to downplay this conflict. In this connection Devahuti is more explicit: he explores factors ‘which led to adjustment rather than headlong collision’ (p. 46). Such a thesis reaches its peak in Tan Chung’s conception of a ‘Himalayo-centric perspective’ in chapter 4. Utilizing recent archaeological findings at Yuanmou in Yunnan province, Tan argued that the trans-Himalayan region could be considered to be ‘an important cradle of human civilisation.’ And further that both Indian and Chinese civilizations are ‘twins emerging from this cradle’ (p. 127). He linked archaeological finds of Wushan County (Sichuan Province), Yuanmou (Yunnan Province), Lantian Man (Shaanxi Province), Peking Man with Hoshangabad (Madhya Pradesh) fossils to arrive at such a picture, although many other factors such as spread of Buddhism, visits of monks, legends, silk route, learning between each other in sciences, etc., were also identified in this connection.
Thirdly, related to the second, the contributors are aware of the current globalization project and its deleterious effects on the cultural and civilizational legacy of these areas under study. Thus while religion, traders or even invaders provided for diffusion of ideas and thus contributed to the processes of ‘universalization’ in these cultural zones, globalization of today is a ‘means of domination’, indeed leading to ‘dehumanization of society’. In the words of A. Rahman, ‘A critical study of the past may helping developing a framework for finding alternatives, taking into account the contemporary development of knowledge and the civilisational value of our culture’ (p. 3). Fourthly, the contributors to this volume have avoided political narratives in the sense of enlisting dynasties and other related events. Monumental compendia of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan and others do exist on studies on political histories from the ancient to modern times, but as the general editor points out, the focus of the current volume is on integrating different aspects of science, technology, philosophy and culture, besides attempting to arrive at an organic explanation of the past interactions. Thus, the contributors to this volume attempted to analyse the interactions between India, China, West and Central Asia through several areas including mathematics, astronomy, medicine, technology, art forms such as crafts, costumes, music, etc. Nevertheless, although not following Toynbee’s emphasis on myths and mythologies in unravelling the past, the editorial emphasis of this volume has been on exploring ‘spiritual network’.
A major methodological issue that has been considered in this volume, as mentioned above, is the focus uniformly on uninterrupted interactions, cultural diffusion, and assimilation of ideas between India, West and Central Asia and China over a period of centuries. To a large extent the contributors to the volume have made efforts to prove this point through primary and secondary sources. Nevertheless, it would be ahistorical to assume and view all such interactions in a positive framework and as devoid of any conflict between interacting subjects and objects. Again, although dichotomies of the elite-popular are mentioned by several contributors to the volume, this needs further analyses.
Since a majority of the volumes of the PHISPC research project are yet to be published, the value of the subsequent volumes would increase considerably if conscious editorial interventions are made for pinyin transliterations of Chinese words (instead of the out-dated Wade-Giles system) and a more politically neutral terminology could be expressed for the frequent categorizations of historical events or persons as man/him/his, etc.
Srikanth Kondapalli is an Associate Professor of Chinese Studies at the Centre for East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is the author of two books, two monographs and has co-edited a volume, all on China.