A Nehruvian in China

Diversity and pluralism in two Asian giants

01 June, 2013

THE FIRST CHINESE INTELLECTUAL I knew of was named Fei Xiaotong. The year was 1980, and I was beginning a doctoral degree in sociology in Kolkata. The city was hostile to my discipline, largely because its intellectual culture was Marxist-dominated and Maoist-infested. Those who read Marxism mechanically allowed that the disciplines of history, economics, and political science had a place in scholarly enquiry. For Marx had spoken often of the practice of “political economy”, while his acolyte Engels had defined Marx’s method as “the materialist conception of history”. On the other hand, Marx had never spoken, so far as anyone in Kolkata knew, of “sociology” or “anthropology”. Meanwhile, Mao Zedong (a figure much admired among intellectuals in Kolkata) had condemned both sociology and anthropology as reactionary bourgeois disciplines.

My teacher at the time, a lovely and gentle man named Anjan Ghosh, was both a sociologist and a Marxist. Seeking to reconcile his profession with his politics, he lit upon the figure of Fei Xiaotong. Back in the 1930s, Fei had been a student in London of the great Bronislaw Malinowski, the founder of modern social anthropology. After completing his PhD, Fei had returned to China, where he taught and wrote during the turbulent decades of the 1930s and 1940s. He was his country’s most influential sociologist and social anthropologist, writing scholarly books and papers, guiding and mentoring students, and publishing prolifically in the press.

In 1949, the Communist Party came to power in China, and set about consolidating the territorial unity of a fragmented nation-state. Fei Xiaotong now realised that the time for pure research was over. Always a Chinese patriot, he sought to orient his scholarship towards the needs of the new nation. So he began fieldwork among the country’s minority communities, with a view to aiding their integration within the dominant Han culture.

The more time Fei Xiaotong spent with the minorities, the more he came to understand the depth of their commitment to their cultural traditions. He acknowledged the need for social reform and economic development, yet argued that these should always be guided by “the interest of the minority peoples” themselves. In the late 1950s, Fei fell foul of the political establishment. During the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957-8, he was attacked by his former colleagues for allegedly working against Socialism and the Party. He was not allowed to teach or travel.

Still later, Fei was sent for “re-education” during the Cultural Revolution, and made to work as a farm labourer. After Mao died in 1976, and the fanatical Gang of Four lost influence, Fei was rehabilitated. He was allowed once more to teach and to write. In 1979, he was made a member of the first delegation of the Chinese Academy of Sciences to visit universities in the West.

One January in the early 1980s, I went with Anjan Ghosh to the city’s annual boimela, then held in the great open Maidan, rather than (as now) in an enclosed space in the suburbs. There, in a stall owing allegiance to the Naxalites, we found some new books published in English by the Foreign Languages Press of Beijing. One title was by Fei Xiaotong. It was called Towards a Peoples’ Anthropology. It cost three (maybe five) rupees, but we would have bought it at ten times the price, for it represented our new calling card in the world we lived and worked in.

THIRTY YEARS AFTER I first read Fei Xiaotong, I heard his name come over the earphones at a seminar in China. A speaker working among upland communities was discussing the destructive impact of large dams. These projects were said to be in the national interest, whereas those who raised questions about them were dismissed as anti-nationals. Yet the truth was that the tribal people displaced by dams were never properly compensated. The land, the houses, the jobs promised them were never forthcoming. And there were serious questions about the environmental viability of these dams. Then the speaker said, in summing up: “As my teacher Fei Xiaotong used to say, we must practice the ‘beauty of compromise’. We must find ways of reconciling the claims of minority communities with the needs of the nation.”

The seminar was in southern China, in the town of Fuzhou, capital of the Fujian province. Its theme was nation-building and cultural diversity. The organisers were a small, progressive, German foundation named after the writer Heinrich Böll, here working with a Beijing think-tank grandly named the China Centre for Overseas Social and Philosophical Theories. This was the seventh such dialogue, but the first in which someone other than a Chinese or a German had participated.

In the early years of Communist rule, there was no political diversity, since China was ruled by a single Party. But even talk of cultural diversity was not encouraged. Regardless of one’s ethnic or linguistic background, all citizens were commanded to commit themselves to the strengthening of the Chinese state and the construction of an economic basis for socialism.

The discouragement of minority aspirations led willy-nilly to a deepening of Han hegemony. This created discontent, especially among the Uyghurs and Tibetans, peoples with sophisticated written cultures and a proud sense of their religious heritage. In the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, both Tibet and Xinjiang witnessed violent clashes between local people and security forces. Now, some scholars, and even some party officials, had begun reflecting on the costs of imposing cultural uniformity on an extremely diverse nation.

Young men in Jiong Ku Shi Tai village, in the grasslands of Ili region in Xinjiang province, home to a large ethnic Kazakh population. © PATRICK ZACHMANN / MAGNUM PHOTOS

The Fuzhou conference was held in a building guarded by a statue of Confucius, a thinker once berated by Mao but now making an impressive comeback in China. The meeting had some 25 participants. There were four Germans, and one Indian. The rest were all Chinese. They included university professors, party officials, and NGO workers. About half were Han in origin, but—given the theme of the conference—ethnic minorities such as the Tibetans, the Yi, and the Mongols were also represented.

The conference began with a historical overview of the treatment of ethnic minorities in China, while later presentations were on specialised themes such as ethnic minorities and biodiversity conservation, ethnic minorities and large dams, ethnic minorities and language policy. The discussions were free-wheeling, and, at times, extremely frank. This was in part because the meeting was held outside Beijing. As the sole Indian, I could retreat for the most part into the background, allowing me to focus on the arguments, as conveyed by some extremely capable interpreters.

IN INDIA, ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity are part of the background noise. They are taken for granted. That people might speak their own languages and even insist on being educated in them, that people wear different kinds of clothes, eat different kinds of food, worship different gods, is not something Indians have to learn to see, stress, or accept. This is because there is no single national essence. Sonia Gandhi’s Italian (and Catholic) origins have not come in the way of her becoming the most powerful person in India. Nor is her case unique. Back in the 1960s, the most powerful person in the country spoke not a word of Hindi, and little English either. He was a Tamil named K Kamaraj.

‘Diversity’ is a social condition; ‘pluralism’ is a political programme. China is almost as diverse as India, but infinitely less plural. For in India, the diversity of languages, religions, and political ideologies has been encouraged since the birth of the nation-state. India is a multi-party democracy based on universal adult franchise. The Indian Constitution does not privilege a single religion. And it encourages each province to administer itself in the language of its choice.

Wherein lie the roots of Indian pluralism? One answer to this question privileges the country’s dominant religious tradition. From time immemorial, it is said, Hindus have been a tolerant people. Since they have always allowed each family—every individual even—to have its own deity, they have been happy enough to let citizens of a modern state exercise their personal (or community) preferences in matters of language, faith, dress, food, and political ideology.

A second answer sees the pluralism of the Indian Republic as a product not of the ancient Hindu past, but of the period between (roughly) the 12th and the 17th century, when (it is said) a ‘composite culture’ evolved in the north Indian heartland. This Ganga-Jumni tehzeeb saw Hindus and Muslims recognise and respect each other’s rituals and sacred texts, while forging a synthesis in the language they spoke, the clothes they wore, the food they ate, the poetry they composed and the songs they sung.

Both views are mistaken. There were savage sectarian wars in Hinduism (between Saivites and Vaishnavites in South India, for example), while the treatment of Dalits and women in traditional Hindu society rested on an intolerance completely at odds with modern ideas of democracy and pluralism. As for the composite culture, this existed in a significant sense only at the margins, among small groups of fakirs, mendicants, saints, and musicians. In the villages and towns of medieval India, Hindus and Muslims never even ate together. Their living quarters were strictly segregated. This was an uneasy co-existence, not an active or open-minded engagement for mutual benefit. Disparaging stereotypes about the religious or social practices of the other community were common. And there were bloody conflicts as well.

Indian pluralism is a modern phenomenon, forged in the crucible of colonialism. There was no ‘Indian nation’ until the British came. It was they who unified the territory that the Republic now claims and controls. The unity the rulers brought about was artificial, and accidental—until the national movement gave the people of what was now ‘British India’ a common political and (in time) moral purpose.

Indian pluralism, such as it is, is the product of the hard work and conscious choices of many individuals and many organisations. I suppose if one had to single out one of each, it would be Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and the Indian National Congress. Gandhi began expanding his horizons early. His best friend in school was a Muslim. As a young law student in London he mostly hung about with heterodox Christians. When he came back to India he acquired a Jain scholar as his preceptor.

Gandhi’s ecumenism was deepened and fully formed in South Africa, especially during the years between 1903 and 1912, when he was based in Johannesburg. Here, his clients included Gujarati merchants, Pathan soldiers, Hindi-speaking hawkers and Tamil-speaking workers. Kasturba and he shared a home with an English couple; the husband a radical Jew, the wife a Christian Socialist. Once, when Gandhi was attacked by his adversaries in Johannesburg and badly wounded, he was nursed back to health by a Baptist Minister and his wife. And the first and most steadfast supporter of his political work in South Africa was a Parsi merchant.

Life in the diaspora gave Gandhi an understanding of the social and cultural heterogeneity of India that he would never have acquired had he worked in Rajkot or even in Bombay. When he finally came back home and joined politics, he pushed the Congress towards an open recognition and avowal of this diversity. The party units were reorganised on linguistic lines. The party committed itself to the maintenance of religious harmony and to making women and low castes equal citizens in (and of) the nation.

The pluralism that Gandhi and company promoted was encoded in the Indian Constitution. Its most vigorous defender, post Independence, was the first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru and Gandhi might have disagreed on economic policy, in attitudes to modern science and to the West, but on this crucial question of national identity the younger man followed the older. In a chapter of his book The Good Boatman, Rajmohan Gandhi explains why the Mahatma chose Nehru rather than Vallabhbhai Patel as his political heir. After outlining Nehru’s appeal to the youth, the minorities, the peasants and the workers, Rajmohan writes that “for representing and uniting Indians of all ages, classes and religions, Jawaharlal seemed more suitable than Vallabhbhai”.

Rajmohan omits two other categories—gender and language. For Nehru was a politician who reached out to the young, a rich lawyer who identified with poor kisans, a Hindu who appealed to Muslims—and also a North Indian who was trusted by South Indians and a man keenly conscious of the suppression of women in traditional Indian society. The decision to adopt universal adult franchise was largely his. The reform of patriarchal personal laws was initiated by Ambedkar and carried forward by Nehru. Most crucially, Nehru stood against the idea of making India a ‘Hindu Pakistan’, and refused to impose the Hindi language on the people of southern and eastern India.

Like Gandhi, Nehru saw his country as a mix and a melange, which had no single essence. After a trip through India’s north-eastern borderlands in 1952, Nehru wrote to the chief ministers of states that the region “deserves our special attention, not only [of] the Governments, but of the people of India. … As one travels there, a new and vaster richness of India comes before the eyes and the narrowness of outlook which sometimes obsesses us, begins to fade away.” He went on: “Rabindranath Tagore wrote in one of his famous poems about India:—‘No one knows at whose call so many streams of men flowed in restless tides from places unknown and were lost in one sea: here Aryan and non-Aryan, Dravidian, Chinese, the bands of Saka and the Hunas and Pathan and Mogul, have become combined in one body.”’

After Nehru’s death, there have been periodic attempts to refashion India as a Hindu state and/or a Hindi-speaking nation. The Jana Sangh once swore by the slogan “Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan”. The first element was dropped by the 1960s, when the party realised this hindered its expansion outside the Indo-Gangetic Plain. And although many leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—which succeeded the Jana Sangh—probably do think in private that India is, or must be, a Hindu nation, they no longer dare say so in public. To the alleged ‘minority appeasement’ of the Congress Party they offer an alternative that they call ‘positive secularism’. The term would have been detested by those Hindutva ideologues Savarkar and Golwalkar, for whom secularism was an alien, Western, concept. That some BJP leaders feel compelled now to use it is a tacit acknowledgement of the power of the founding ideas of the Republic.

INDIAN PLURALISM was hard won and remains fragile. Linguistic and religious chauvinists are at work to undermine it. However, while the practice of pluralism remains flawed or incomplete, in theory the idea is widely accepted. The major political parties, and most ordinary citizens, do not think that a single religion or a single language are central to the nation’s identity or mandatory for its unity.

In China, on the other hand, national identity has been massively defined by a single ethnicity and a single language. In numbers, economic power, and political and military influence, the Han dominate China. If one is not Han, the slog to the top in most—if not all—professions is much harder. Meanwhile, as in the United States and in most European countries (but unlike India), the ability to speak and read a single language, in this case Mandarin, has become a precondition for membership of the national community. Different dialects are spoken in different parts of China, but the official school and college system, and the state-controlled media, all emphasise a single, standard (or standardised) language, knowledge of which is key to both professional success and political conformity.

In modern China, the experience of Western colonialism, Japanese aggression, civil war and Communist revolution made the idea of a national essence even more compelling than it might otherwise have been. In the early decades after liberation, the other ethnicities had to approximate—in large and small ways—to the norms laid down by the Han. And everybody had to speak and study in Mandarin.

Now, six decades after Mao Zedong’s forces marched into Beijing, it appears that the Han are slightly less insecure about China’s national unity. The more far-seeing scholars now see dangers to the imposition of a single culture or language on all citizens. The protests in minority regions have made them more alert to the need to protect, and perhaps even revive, ways of living and thinking alien to, or at least different from, the Han.

The conference I was part of exhibited these new, pluralist tendencies. One speaker thus urged his countrymen to learn from Latin America. There, the tango and the samba, which originated in the once despised African community, had been made part of the national narrative. Brazil, which once saw itself as a European nation, was, the speaker noted, now proud of upholding, as its own, cultural forms formerly associated with black slaves. Why couldn’t the Chinese, he said, likewise incorporate the more attractive elements in Uyghur and Tibetan culture?

A second speaker criticised Han migration into minority areas. A third went so far as to speak of the “cultural hegemony” of the Han. A fourth asked whether there was even a “mainstream Han culture”, given the enormous diversity—of dialect, dress and cuisine—within people who consider themselves Han.

A presentation that deeply impressed me was made by a scholar whose responsibilities included educating party cadres who worked in Tibet. She spoke of the massive infusion of funds into a border region that had once been semi-independent and which still harboured a secessionist movement. Did throwing money at minority communities really help them or the nation, asked the scholar? Or did it create, on the part of the donor, a sort of “assistance anxiety”, an expectation, rarely met, that the Tibetans would express a due gratefulness? And, from the viewpoint of the recipient, did it not lead to a high level of dependence on the state? Was it not better to deepen local autonomy and enterprise instead? The scholar illustrated her case by speaking of a small but successful unit in Tibet that marketed incense and scarves made by local craftsmen from local materials.

The parallels with India were not hard to see. There is now, in New Delhi, a Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region, abbreviated in everyday language as DONER. The substitution of an ‘e’ for an ‘o’ does not materially change the way the word is rendered in everyday speech. Travelling through Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh some years ago, I heard sarkari officials and NGO workers speak of how DONER might be asked to do this or that. For in some states of the North-east there is still an active movement for national independence, for the creation of ethnic homelands distinct from the Indian Republic. As with China and Tibet, here too an anxious Centre has unsuccessfully sought to buy social peace and political compliance by bribery.

SO FAR AS I COULD TELL, there are three competing perspectives among Chinese intellectuals on how the State should treat minority cultures. One view is that the minorities must approximate to the Han, and that they must make Mandarin their primary and even sole language. This view, of a thoroughgoing Han hegemony, was without any adherents in the meeting I attended, although of course it is quite widespread among decision-makers in Beijing, who remain anxious that conceding too much, in cultural terms, to the Tibetans and the Uyghurs (among others) would encourage them to make unreasonable political demands on the State.

The second perspective I call Han Big Brotherliness. The term is used here not in the darker Orwellian sense, but in the softer, more benign sense of the Hindustani phrase, ‘bade bhaiyya’. One speaker in the seminar said the Han should show “more of a sense of responsibility” towards ethnic minorities. Another advocated the creation of museums where the best aspects of minority art, dress, music, could be preserved and showcased. From this perspective, as the older, more powerful, and more economically secure big brother, the Han were obliged to use their superior wealth and social skills to gently guide their younger brothers towards modernity. The minorities were encouraged to retain some (but perhaps not all) of their cultural traits, while embracing the common national ideal of economic prosperity and civilisational greatness.

The third perspective is one of a deeper cultural pluralism. This, certainly absent in official government propaganda, found striking effect in some of the statements in the seminar. A Tibetan participant spoke of how, when students demanded schools in their mother tongue, the police came down harshly on them. “The government’s policies do not reflect the public’s needs,” he said. He added that while he could frankly discuss these issues in a meeting of intellectuals along the coast, he would never be able to say this even in private in Tibet (nor, of course, in Beijing). A Han participant endorsed this view. “In Beijing, you can’t discuss Xinjiang or Tibet. They are off the table. But how can you solve problems if you can’t even talk of them?”

Within the higher reaches of the Party hierarchy the subject of cultural pluralism is scarcely discussed. But as I found, among intellectuals, at any rate, there is an active debate on the subject. Consider these remarks, made by three different individuals, and conveyed to me over the earphones by the hardworking interpreter:

“We use the term ‘people’ without considering ‘individuals’. We use the word ‘nation’ without considering provinces or regions.”

“In the West, racism is a bad word, a dirty word. But we practice Han chauvinism, which is not discussed. We need to be more self-aware, more self-critical.”

“We need a new social imaginary. We must not be afraid of a multi-ethnic or multi-cultural China.”

These sentiments were deeply felt, although I might have played some role in bringing them out. I had spoken, in the first session, of how India had, from its beginnings as an independent Republic, sought to promote religious harmony as well as linguistic pluralism, adding that while in the first respect its record was mixed, in the second it had been substantially successful. (As proof, I displayed the rupee note, which, with its 17 languages and 17 scripts, is always Exhibit A of the Nehruvian Indian.) Now, towards the end of the conference, I heard a half-Han, half-Tibetan activist accost one of the Germans present, who served as the director of the (Chinese government-funded) Confucius Institute in his university. “Why do you teach only Mandarin in your institute?” asked the activist of the professor. “Why can’t you teach Tibetan or the Uyghur language as well?”

In the chair was a sagacious and very calm scholar, Lai Hairong, the executive director of the aforementioned China Centre for Overseas Social and Philosophical Theories. Educated in Europe, Professor Lai was extremely learned, a man who had immersed himself in Western social science while maintaining a poetry blog in classical Chinese. Now, hearing these passionate statements in favour of multilingualism, he remarked: “All my life, I have sought instruction in foreign languages to expand my mind. I have tried to learn Russian, Japanese, German, English. Perhaps I should now learn Tibetan or the Uyghur language.”

As Lai well knew, his case was emblematic of a larger trend. From the late 19th century, ambitious Chinese intellectuals have acquainted themselves with the languages of nations they considered (temporarily) more advanced than theirs. So they have learnt Japanese, Russian, and English—in that historical sequence. But few of these intellectuals thought it necessary to learn Mongolian or Tibetan or Uyghur, since it was assumed that those peoples would rather learn Mandarin instead.

In India, ambitious intellectuals have likewise wished to learn a foreign tongue to advance their scholarship and their career. This has almost always been English—once the language of the colonial rulers, now the language of the global marketplace. The spread of English among the intelligentsia has been extremely rapid, so much so that many Indian writers and professors are now more comfortable in that language than in their own mother tongue. Even so, bilingualism and multilingualism are ubiquitous in India—particularly in towns and cities. Telugu and Tamil speakers are a large presence in Bangalore, in theory the capital of a Kannada-speaking state. Gujarati and Hindi speakers each number in their millions in Mumbai. Most Indians are entirely adjusted to, and comfortable with, their fellow citizens speaking, reading, or writing Indian languages other than their own.

For all the homogenising impulses generated by globalisation, this still seems to be a genuine point of difference between China and India. In theory and more so in practice, we remain a linguistically plural society and state.

AFTER OUR CONFERENCE WAS OVER, we were taken on an excursion to some Hakka villages recently (in 2008) designated as a World Heritage Site. We drove out of the town, away from the factories and through the countryside. Everywhere, we saw signs of a growing prosperity, with small, dark, village homes giving way to three and four storey modern structures. Then we left the plains, and started climbing. The landscape now reminded me of parts of Meghalaya and Assam—hills, a winding river, clumps of bamboo, and fields of tea, the last however grown in smallholder farms rather than in large company estates.

In Mao’s time there was a systematic attempt to erase the past. The architectural brutalisation of cities like Beijing and Shanghai was one manifestation of this. Now, however, the Chinese are anxious to stress the depth and continuity of their culture and their nation. There has been an extraordinary revival of interest in archaeology, in discovering scripts, artefacts, stones and bones that can show the world how old and how glorious their civilisation once was.

The Hakka, the people we were going to see, defy easy classification. They are both Han and not-Han. Their culture (and especially architecture) are quite distinct from the peasant villages of mainland China. On the other hand, they have a long history of trade and entrepreneurship, and were early and prominent members of the Chinese diaspora. This distinguishes them from the Uyghurs or the Tibetans, more conservative, homebound peoples whose lives and languages mark them out as ethnically distinct from the Han. And so it has come to pass that while the Tibetans and Uyghurs are officially and administratively classified as minorities, the Hakka are not.

The Hakka villages we saw consisted of massive circular homes. They were built of wood and mud alone. The oldest dated to the 13th century. The structures ran to several floors, with bathrooms and kitchens at the bottom, storage spaces in the middle, and living rooms right at the top. Each housing a single clan, these communal buildings were known locally as ‘Tulou’. They were very impressive indeed, made more striking by the gorgeous landscape in which they were set.

Our guide, a girl in her twenties, presented to us the communist-nationalist narrative of the (re)discovery of these villages. Back in the 1960s, these Tulou had been located by an American satellite, prompting fears that the Chinese Communists had built these strange, circular structures to launch rockets or even missiles. Then, in the 1980s, after the thawing of relations between the two countries, the first American visitor came to the Hakka country. He claimed to be an anthropologist, but was more likely a spy.

These Hakka villages were now visited by a stream of (mostly) Chinese visitors, those with time and money to spare, and a keen and ever growing interest in discovering the cultural and architectural heritage that Mao and his comrades had tried so hard to obliterate. This rediscovery of the past has both aesthetic and political dimensions. The Hakka villages are beautiful. But that they existed before the Mayflower sailed provides consolation and pride. In the view of some Chinese, their economic surge puts them in front of ossified, ageing Europe; their possession of terracotta soldiers and the Tulou, ahead of that young and immature nation, the United States.

To satisfy this search for Chinese tradition, a clean, airy, professionally run tourist centre had been built at the foot of the hills where the three largest villages were located. Here were parked smart, modern buses, with smart, modern guides. Here was a decent restaurant, and a new hotel under construction, a mock Hakka village itself, built in a circular shape but with concrete rather than wood.

At the tourist centre I was handed a pamphlet, mostly in Chinese, but with one long paragraph in (locally idiomatic) English. The villages we were about to see, it said, contained “the largest, the highest, the oldest, the peculiarest Tulou”. The pamphlet went on:

A famous Japanese Architectural Giant praised Tulou as UFOs from the sky and the mushroom out from the ground. Stevens, an official came from the UNESCO, called Tulou was the unique and mythical country architecture pattern in the world. An American Expert, who came here to do the previous period research for the Tulou’s application for the world Cultural Heritage thought Tulou was the kind of folk houses which could be harmonious with the nature since he had ever seen. Luo Zhewen, the official came from Chinese State Bureau of Cultural Relics and also an expert for the protection of the ancient architectures, said each Tulou had its own style though they looked the same and Tulou was a miracle in the history of the architectures of the world.

The clustering of accreditations was perhaps not accidental. A certificate from an expert from Japan, commonly considered the most technologically advanced as well as most culturally sophisticated country in Asia; another from America, the country considered to have the same status in the West; a third from the prestigious United Nations; a fourth from a scholar based in Beijing, the capital of China and the epicentre of its politics, its civilisation, and its intellectual life.

The buses we boarded at the tourist centre took us to the villages. After an introduction as to what we were to see, the guide allowed us to walk around, unescorted. We saw stalks of freshly plucked celery, washed and now drying on a wooden staircase; later, they would be cooked with pork. We saw fresh, succulent radishes also being cleaned. The fields nearby had sweet potato as well as tea. The residents however were mostly women, small children, and elderly men. The young men were away, working or studying in towns and cities, seeking freedom and what by their light constituted progress.

Walking around the Tulou, we discovered elements of what one might call ‘a subaltern counter-narrative’. A German colleague, fluent in Chinese, pointed out a faded slogan from the Cultural Revolution days. Running across the arched main entrance of a Tulou, it read: “Long Live Chairman Mao”. This, my colleague explained, was most likely put up during the Cultural Revolution, as a profession of fealty and loyalty that aimed to keep Mao’s marauders away from the villages.

After going in and out of this Tulou we walked up the hill, along a fine stream that seemed quite unpolluted. We came across a beautiful temple, syncretic, mixing ancestor worship with Buddhist elements. It was small and tasteful, with a fabulous location—beside the stream, and below a sacred forest with luxurious undergrowth. At the entrance to the temple, under the arch this time, and amidst the various gods and fairies, my alert friend spied a male and female Red Guard. Both were sculpted in wood, wearing their uniforms. The woman soldier was on one side of the arch, the man soldier on the other side, the two pre-emptively installed by the Hakka to protect themselves from the destructive, nihilistic tendencies of the Red Guards’ own Revolution.

BETWEEN 1950 AND 1980 there was little contact between Chinese scholars and the outside world. Even afterwards, the process of engagement has been slow. Fei Xiaotong was famous in the West before the Revolution, so when its excesses faded away he was invited to travel there again. For lesser known scholars the engagement took more time to mature. Then, in 1989, the massacre in Tianammen Square once more set back the opening out of China. Indeed, it is only in the last decade that the work of Chinese intellectuals has become somewhat known in the West.

Even so, this knowledge remains highly selective. Some Chinese scholars based in Beijing have had their work translated or summarised into English. They include the neo-Marxist Wang Hui, the neo-Confucian Chen Lai, and the liberal Yu Keping. But these three scholars, often featured in essays with titles like “What China Thinks”, as much represent the diversity of Chinese intellectual thought as would an indigenist, a Maoist fellow traveller, and a free-market liberal, all based in New Delhi, represent the diversity of Indian intellectual life.

The conference I attended in southern China was more representative. The scholars came from all parts of the country. In age they ranged from the early thirties to the late sixties. Some had university positions, some party affiliations, some were genuinely freelance. They spoke on the basis of their experiences, not from prepared texts. And they were conducting a conversation among themselves. This sole Indian was mostly silent—as were the Germans. Our presence was incidental, accidental, and utterly non-threatening (since we were neither Americans nor Japanese). More or less ignoring us, the Chinese spoke to one another spontaneously, from the heart.

What conclusions might I draw from my (unusual, even privileged) experience? First, among scholars and NGO workers there is the emergence of a more reflective patriotism, somewhat at odds with the competitive nationalism more often on display in China. For the urban middle class and for the ruling Communist Party, the depth of history is easier to accept (and proclaim) than the diversity of culture and geography. Hence the paranoia about Tibetan autonomy and the demonisation of the Dalai Lama. However, the patriotism of the people I met in Fuzhou was certainly not uncritical. They saw that the unifying, homogenising model of Han nationalism was no longer necessary to keep the country together. Minority rights over land, minority cultures, even, at a pinch, minority languages—these all could be protected and sustained without any loss to national unity.

Tibetan Catholics pray at a church in Cizhong village, in Yunnan province, in 2009. © PATRICK ZACHMANN / MAGNUM PHOTOS

The increasing sensitivity to minority rights went hand-in-hand with a greater awareness of environmental sustainability. One speaker at the seminar spoke of the need to build what he called an “eco-civilisation”. Another said that unbridled market-led growth had destroyed human dignity, the environment, and moral values. “It has destroyed even more than the Cultural Revolution,” he remarked.

The patriotism of these Chinese intellectuals did not imply a defence of Han hegemony, or of the policies of the Chinese state. One speaker complained that after the Yushu earthquake of 2010, the army took the credit for the work of rescue and rehabilitation. In fact, local people, including at times religiously minded folk, had contributed a great deal too. Yet these helpers remained nameless, while the government and the army garnered all the praise.

China is still, in formal terms, an authoritarian society. Its political culture is not as free as India’s (or that of the United States), but it is freer and more argumentative than is commonly believed. In the seminar, words like ‘accountability’ and ‘transparency’ were commonly used, further confirming that Chinese intellectuals tend to make similar sorts of demands on their government as we do on ours.

AT A DINNER BEFORE THE CONFERENCE, Professor Lai Hairong told me about the few days he had once spent in India. “I know you are lagging behind us in infrastructure,” Lai said, “but we can learn from you as regards liberty and freedom of expression.” In the spirit of his statement, he invited me to speak to his institute when I came to Beijing.

So I did. My talk here focused on India’s nation-building experience, with the contrasts to China kept implicit (if hard to miss). In the discussion that followed, there was some scepticism of my claim that linguistic pluralism was a precondition of India’s unity and survival. Too many languages were a threat to national solidarity, said one young scholar. Even if a minority group insisted on speaking its mother tongue, said another, the nation had to promote a single language, as a link between regions, and as a vehicle of economic prosperity and professional advancement. Surely there was one language which provided the best economic opportunities in India? I answered that my command of English had helped me become a successful intellectual, but if I now wanted to enter politics it would be a positive disadvantage. In that field, while Hindi would help, if some other language was dominant in my state I’d better master that, too. Nor was proficiency in English, or even Hindi, a guarantor of economic or political success. For instance, if one wanted to succeed in the diamond trade, a knowledge of Gujarati was more or less de rigeur.

This discussion was in Beijing, where the climate—political as well as intellectual—was less congenial to the promotion of pluralism than it had been on the coast. So I was now told that linguistic diversity reduced administrative efficiency. Was it not the case in India that government circulars had to be printed in all the 17 languages on the currency note? I answered that in fact official materials were printed only in the language of the state concerned. If it was issued by the Central Government, however, then it had to be printed in two languages, English and Hindi.

Unlike his colleagues, Lai was more easily persuaded of my argument. He was much taken by the contrast between India and its neighbours, by the suggestion that Pakistan had broken up, and Sri Lanka been mired in an endless civil war, because the state and the political elite had sought to impose a single national language. Later, he took me out for lunch, where I met my last Chinese surprise—the quality and variety of vegetarian food on offer. Almost the last thing Lai said to me, at the end of a week spent together in the south and in the capital, was: “If India was not so economically backward, it would persuade the world more easily about how it has nurtured democracy and diversity.”

Back home in Bangalore, seeking to make sense of my experiences, I searched my shelves for a copy of the book by the first Chinese intellectual I had heard of. I could not find it. Fei Xiaotong’s Towards a Peoples’ Anthropology had become a casualty of the many moves I have made since I left Kolkata in 1985. So I trawled the net, where I found the book’s title essay, which had originated as a Malinowski Lecture, delivered in Denver in January 1980.

Fei began his lecture by delicately referring to the “vicissitudes of life” by which he had been lost to the academic world for decades. Now, back in circulation, he had come to the West “to dredge up, so to speak, channels of thought to prepare the way for our future academic exchanges”. Fei then described his research among the minority communities of China. As he saw it, minorities had also to make economic progress, but only through projects “carried out by themselves of their own accord”. This was not easy, for, as Fei found during his own fieldwork, some minorities had “still had not gotten over the wounds caused by Han racial discrimination”. The anthropologist was clear in his own mind that China was a multi-national country, in which “each nationality was entitled to use a language, written and oral, of its own” and to have “its customs, habits, and religious beliefs … respected”.

China is still ruled by a single Party. Political pluralism is out of the question. Still, in the realm of cultural rights there have been slow moves towards a loosening of Han hegemony. Persecuted in his prime, pardoned as an old man, the good anthropologist Fei Xiaotong has many followers in China today, who vigorously pursue his ideas in such spaces as their state will allow.