The West has built a lot of myths about China that we’ve all swallowed without demur. That China was for centuries the dominant Asian power and is now merely trying to recover that lost status is one such. What is this if not a self-serving distortion—a way to cloak new hegemonic ambitions in victim tones! Pray, in what way did China ever ‘dominate’ India? And if it never did so, how was it the dominant Asian power? Surely, India is a part of Asia, though now ‘Asian’ in popular parlance excludes those from the subcontinent.
In reality, Indian civilisation owes nothing to China, whereas China is heavily marked by a reverse civilisational flow. Years ago, on my first visit to New York’s Metropolitan Museum, I was struck by some magnificent Buddhist art, and mused wonderingly about their provenance, until I discovered it was Chinese art! Even in Southeast Asia, the Indian imprint is far more marked than the Chinese, despite the geographical contiguity. At the Musee Guimet in Paris, which houses art from Thailand, Cambodia, Burma, Laos et al, one immediately enters the Indian civilisational world—Hindu or Buddhist or a curious admixture of the two. Where is a ‘Chinese’ equivalent of Angkor Vat or Borobudur? In my own visits to Beijing, Luoyang and so on, the India connection is palpable. There’s no such legacy of Han China in India.
The Chinese swallow all sorts of things, including, as in the Doklam plateau, land belonging to others, believing perhaps that creepy-crawlies are abundant there! It’s a teasing question whether societies that observe many food taboos are not more evolved civilisationally. And conversely, whether those that lean towards culinary laissez-faire are somehow closer to a primordial state. By this metric, China doesn’t seem very high up on the civilisational ladder.
On earlier visits, I’d missed visiting the open market close to the Imperial Palace in the heart of Beijing, where a long line of stalls—a few hundred metres in length—offers you choice Chinese delicacies like scorpions, snakes, silkworms, centipedes, crickets and such like for your delectation. My son, on temporary assignment in Beijing, is the one who told me of these al fresco goodies. He’d recced them for what he could swallow without puking and had chosen a scorpion—these, incidentally, are alive and moving their limbs in slow-motion before being roasted—and pronounced the morsel was not without taste. Well, the young are more open and curious and willing to be adventurous. The older you get, the more circumspect you become. Even the idea of visiting the place seemed a bit revolting, but the grotesque does fascinate—which is why many people like horror films—so I went.
I was truly surprised this kind of fare was available in the city centre and not confined to some inner city hangouts, hidden from the judgemental gaze of foreigners. But no, it’s there—virtually rubbing shoulders with Tiananmen Square. For the Olympics, they’d made a special effort to get folks to stop spitting in public and erase dog-meat from restaurant menus. The Chinese are so image-conscious that they banned a James Bond film just because a sequence was filmed in the old quarters of Shanghai and not around its glossy skyscrapers that probably create traffic jams for the local avian population. How come the ban didn’t extend to the creepy-crawlies?
Years of tremendous growth means China’s vast population eats to its fill—scorpions and centipedes are hardly needed to augment the protein intake. Judged by the overflowing Peking Duck restaurants, one wouldn’t think protein deficiency is a problem in China. We had some difficulty in getting a table, but leaving Beijing without savouring lacquered duck garnished with spring onions, smeared with plum sauce and wrapped in thin crepes would have been like leaving Athens without seeing the Parthenon. Actually, I’ve had better Peking Duck outside China. One eats better Chinese food outside China, period. My last sojourn here, we were incessantly plied with Chinese food. I do like it, but after three or four bouts it ceases to flatter the taste buds. I don’t mean absence of spices…it just gets boring. The owners of the Chinese shoe shop in my area in Delhi visited their home town in southern China recently for the first time. They were greatly impressed by the cleanliness, but just couldn’t stomach the food and soon longed for the flavours back “home”!
On one of my visits, a rendezvous at the Museum of Food figured in the programme. I was wondering how a museum of food was relevant to foreign policy, until I figured that it was a restaurant reviving traditional Chinese dishes. The presentation was superb, the first dish was offered in a carved wooden container, which I was asked to open as the senior guest present. Slugs too were offered, but their gluey texture required a palate more responsive than mine. We all have our McMahon lines.
The writer is a former foreign secretary of India