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A Lesson In Chinese

We are here to meet members of four major institutions. But between the two Asian neighbours, nothing is that simple.

A Lesson In Chinese
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-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553
illustration by Saurabh Singh Going to China today is as exciting as it must have been in Marco Polo's time, for it is still a land of mystery with many areas closed even to their own people. As the plane flies east to Hong Kong past the tri-junction of India, Myanmar and Tibet, the high Himalayas descend into an impenetrable series of knotted low hills. The eastern watershed becomes apparent as within 15 minutes we overfly the Irrawady, the Salween and the Mekong in their upper reaches in adjacent valleys. We pass Kunming, the destination of the great wartime allied airlift that flew from eastern India, and the meandering southern tributaries of the Yangtse before descending into Hong Kong and a change of aircraft to Beijing. Northern China is shrouded in low cloud but the spectacular Beijing airport and the highways leaves the predominantly military delegation with the feeling that Indian democracy is going to, well, give Indians a long and hard road.

We are booked into one of Beijing's many 500-room five-star hotels and the impeccable embassy staff work, run by the defence attache's team, gives everyone hope that not all aspects of India are ragged and unplanned. In the next few days we are scheduled to meet members of four major Chinese institutions. Actually, we are in China to study the Chinese National Defence University (NDU), but between the two massive Asian neighbours, nothing is that simple. The Chinese NDU, we had heard, was a copy of Marshal Hall in the American NDU and this we found is true, but their atrium houses the most preposterously ugly 22-foot chandelier in the world—in the shape of China's Dong Feng 5 rocket (Long March). A query from one of our team members—"Is that your Long Dong?"—is met with a serious "yes". Instead of sitting 'around' a table in China, delegations sit around a hall in massive imperial chairs, sipping endless glasses of Chinese tea. It's probably something do with Feng Shui. The PLA computer projection system goes phut and we patronisingly soothe them with 'don't worry, it happens everywhere'. The Chinese NDU is obviously a massive PLA education programme and this time they really mean 'education' and not re-education. In the PLA, you either make it to the NDU or are written off. Although it is meant to be a tri-service college, there is no evidence of the navy or the air force. We ponder what this means. The only small evidence is a Chinese naval commander snoring his way through the presentation right in front of both his generals and the Indian delegation. It must be the revenge of the Chinese navy.

In the next three days, we meet members of five other institutions and I am flabbergasted at their strength. I have the rough figures. In Beijing alone there are about 4,500 researchers, both full- and part-time, working in the social sciences, and that includes 1,000 in the Chinese Institute of Contemporary International Relations, 400 in the Chinese Institute of International Strategic Studies and 3,000 in the remainder, most of them in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Many more Chinese scholars have visited India in the last five years than the traffic in the opposite direction. But their depth of knowledge seems questionable and all of them, bar none, are unwilling to argue. Our team is led by the formidable K. Subrahmanyam, whose memory of events often goes back to the days of the parents and grandparents of the bright young Chinese PhDs sitting in front of us.


There is a 12-course Chinese banquet.The three suspicious dishes—the snake with chicken shreds, the stir-fried white eels and crisp-fried pigeon—come in the wrong order and are eaten happily unrecognised, washed down by China's outstanding Great Wall red wine, reminiscent of a burgundy. I take time out for a foot massage and as I sink into a couch with a girl constantly replenishing the Chinese tea bowl and another working on my feet, I am convinced they have a great civilisation. Their ministry of culture is overactive but unlike our own ministry, they have solid achievements. The Peking symphony orchestra is scheduled to perform at the Tien-Anmen concert hall. I walk through the Imperial gardens, admiring the sheer immensity of the square's proportions. The concert begins with a violently discordant Prokofiev and I attribute this to a communist plot but the orchestra then makes up for it by a brilliant rendering of Beethoven's Eroica. The only indication that we are in China are the irritatingly frantic women waving programmes to tell their offspring in the orchestra that their mothers are watching. The concert hall is a masterpiece of acoustic design with huge sheets of plateglass hung from the ceiling to focus the sound. Used to making strategic predictions, I have no doubt the Peking symphony orchestra will be in the top five orchestras in a decade.

They appear to be growing into a formidable power in literature too. I am on the lookout for The Journey to the West, an allegorical version of the Chinese monk Hieun Tsang's visit to India in search of the Buddhist sutras. Out of print everywhere else, they are available in an English translation in what must be the biggest bookshop in the world, where shoppers use supermarket trollies to cart away their book purchases. Published in the 16th century, they are a compilation of the mythology and folklore that the monk's travel became in Chinese popular culture.

After five days in Beijing, there is some time to shop, for it too has its Karol Bagh, Lajpat Nagar and—more importantly—its Sarojini Nagar and Yashwant Place. Shopkeepers in both places speak Russian and prices are incredibly low if one offers roughly one-third of what is asked. The shopping lists are largely unfulfilled for we conclude sadly that Chinese and Indian women have vastly different proportions.

(Raja Menon, a former naval officer, writes on strategic affairs.)

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