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22 May 2013, Gateway House

The Hindi-Mandarin bridge

A Chinese professor who brought Hindi studies to China’s top university in Beijing and across the mainland, writes on the power of language to build bridges across borders

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You may not have heard of the encyclopedia of Cindustan, a research project that is keeping the Chinese students of Hindi busy at Peking University in Beijing.

At the university, we call our work on India and China a Cindustan exchange, short for Cin and Hindustan. This exchange shares a time-honoured history of over 2,000 years. There have rarely been deep troughs during this period of time. The phenomenal exchange between China and India has accomplished a unique stroke in the historic scroll of human civilisational development.

Now, in the 21st century, China and India face similar challenges. It is urgent for the two countries to cooperate and understand one another. Language is the soul of a civilisation, as well as the spirit of a nation. This makes it especially important for China and India to have in-depth communication with each other in our own languages.

India has done a relatively better job. Chinese language teaching programmes are widespread and taught in Indian schools. Several scholars working in think tanks and diplomats at the Embassy of India and its consulates in China are reasonably proficient in the Chinese language, and have sound knowledge about China.

But only a few universities teach Indian languages in China. The number of Chinese students learning Indian languages is limited. Moreover, scholars of think tanks and diplomats of the Chinese Embassy and consulates in India use English as the working language. Their knowledge of India is far from enough.

There is no doubt that language plays an extremely important role in the Cindustan exchange. It was language that our predecessors learned from each other in ancient times. This is reflected in the exchanges of various aspects of Buddhism between China and India, and in the large number of Indian Buddhist scriptures translated into Chinese and Tibetan languages. It is precisely because Chinese and Indian scholars were well-versed in each other’s language that the Cindustan relation entered a golden era from 6-13 A.D. However, since the end of the 11th century, language-learning between China and India almost stopped, and the cultural exchange greatly reduced after state-run translation institutes were closed down.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Cindustan exchange was regenerated under the efforts of Cai Yuanpei (the former president of PekingUniversity), Rabindranath Tagore and many other great figures. In 1917, Cai invited Liang Shuming, the famous intellectual, to teach Indian philosophy and pioneer modern Indian studies in China. After that, Peking University hired Alexander von Stael-Holstein, a Russian professor, to teach Sanskrit.

In 1942, the Central Government of China established the National Institute of Eastern languages ​​in Yunnan and officially initiated modern Indian language (Hindi) teaching in China. In 1946, Ji Xianlin completed his education in Germany and came back to teach in Peking University. He set up a Department of Eastern Languages and courses in Sanskrit and Pali. In 1949, the National Institute of Eastern languages merged into the Department of Eastern Languages at PekingUniversity.

Meanwhile, Indian languages such as Sanskrit, Pali, Hindi and, later, Urdu and Bengali, became some of the majors offered at Peking University. With this, Indian language teaching and Indian studies became an important component of research at the university. However, the overall quality of Indian language teaching in China in the 20th century was not up to expectations because of the instability of Cindustan relations.

Since the ice-breaking visit of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1988 and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to India in 2005, Sino-Indian exchanges in the domains of the economy, politics, and culture have dramatically increased. But cultural and educational understanding between China and India is still stagnating at a basic level because of a lack of language fluency in Hindi and Mandarin.

Language teaching and cultural exchange at the non-governmental level must catch up on both sides of the border. Hindi professionals in Peking University have made considerable efforts and started Hindi programmes at educational centres, including at the Beijing Foreign Studies University, the Xi’an International Studies University, the Communication University of China, Guangdong University of Foreign Studies, Yunnan Nationalities University, and Shanghai International Studies University. So far, 10 universities teach Hindi in China and more universities plan to join the list.

But it is not easy for Chinese universities to teach Hindi. First, there is a severe shortage of Hindi teachers. Only PekingUniversity is qualified to confer a doctoral degree in Indian Languages. The number of students enrolled in PekingUniversity is quite limited every year, thus limiting the number of doctoral degree holders who are qualified to teach Hindi in universities.

Second, job opportunities are also a challenge. Third, the fact that Indian people prefer to speak English and attach comparatively less importance to Hindi is also an issue.

Fortunately, with the increasing interaction between China and India, many Chinese private enterprises have begun to employ Hindi graduates. The training of professionals in Indian languages will certainly foster better Sino-Indian relations.

Recently, Peking University stepped up its efforts in personnel-training, scientific research and the promotion of Cindustan exchanges. The frequency and scale of student enrolment has increased. Teachers and postgraduates of Hindi are jointly working on some major projects, such as a compilation of the Encyclopedia of Cindustan Cultural Exchange and the translation and research of medieval Indian classics.

The faculties and students of Hindi organised the first and second Cindustan University Students Forum in 2009 and 2013, which greatly enhanced the understanding and connection between university students of the two countries. The Centre for India Studies and the Centre for South Asian Studies at PekingUniversity have hosted a number of academic conferences, including an event to commemorate the 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore.

The absence of in-depth mutual understanding is one of the key factors affecting Sino-Indian relations. We expect the Chinese and Indian governments to pay more attention to promoting studies in Hindi and Mandarin respectively, especially to train manpower for posts in foreign policy think tanks and diplomacy. We believe that the Cindustan relationship will inevitably revive and a golden age awaits us.

Jiang Jingkui is Director, Centre for South-Asian Studies, and Chairman, Department of South-Asian Studies, at Peking University in Beijing, China.

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