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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 6, January 30, 2010

Bringing Great Wall and Taj Mahal Closer

Monday 8 February 2010, by Ravindra Sharma

TRIBUTE

Famous Indologist Ji Xianlin and noted China scholar Mira Sinha Bhattacharjea’s departure from the scene in 2009 may be recorded in the “creative history” of India and China as a grievous loss. While Prof Ji passed away on July 11, 2009, Prof Mira died on December 13, 2009, leaving a deep void in China-India relations. Prof Ji was 98 and Prof Mira 80; yet both were “active and alert”. Scholars of Indian Studies in China and Chinese Studies in India know that “passion conquers” the age. A metaphor which Mao very often used may be mentioned here to bring out the scholarly commitments of Prof Ji and Mira: “a life may be lighter than the feather, a life may be heavier than the mountain”.

Biographically, Prof Ji was born (1911) during the peak of the 1911 Revolution and Prof Mira was born during the hard days of India’s freedom struggle. Both followed their in-born ideologies throughout their life. While Buddha and Gandhi were the mentors of Prof Ji, Mao and Gandhi were the ideals of Prof Mira; more importantly, while Prof Ji had lifelong contacts with India through Sanskrit, Hindu texts and Buddhism, Prof Mira had deeply studied Chinese civilisation, history and foreign policy. While Prof Ji had romantic notions of India, Prof Mira had a soft corner for the Chinese Revolution. Honestly, despite the 1962 episode, both tirelessly and fearlessly worked to bring the Great Wall and Taj Mahal closer. Neither was Ji a Communist, nor was Mira; yet, Communists in China held Ji in deep esteem; and so was the case with Mira in India.

Academically, Prof Ji and Mira were brilliant scholars and institution-builders. Ji was an outstanding student of Qinghua University, had obtained his Ph.D degree from Germany and started teaching at Beijing University in the aftermath of World War II; similarly, Mira Sinha resigned from the prestigious IFS job and began to teach Chinese politics at the University of Delhi in the 1960s. Teaching was a mission for both. While Ji founded the Department of Eastern Languages at the Beijing University, Mira was the first Director of the Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS) in India.

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Culturally, Prof Ji and Prof Mira were unique combinations of “tradition and modernity”. Born in the Confucius tradition, Ji had enormous interest in Western literature and philosophy; likewise, born in a liberal family, charming Mira wore Indian dress, with red bindi on the forhead, very often smoked in the classroom. Language was taboo neither for Ji, nor for Mira. Both were eloquent and impressive teachers. A well-built and soft spoken Ji in China and a sharp-minded and chirping Mira in India drew the attention of the audience at seminars and conferences.

Objectively, Prof Ji’s monumental work on The History of Indian Buddhism and Comparative Linguistics has been recognised the world over; however, Prof Mira’s books, China, the World and India and Security, and Science in China and India (co-edited), are yet to be reviewed properly. Finally, Prof Ji and Mira lived in a specific phase of history, leaving enormous impact on academia, in different political systems. It needs to be pointed out that both were also victims of their respective systems. While Prof Ji was harassed during the Cultural Revolution in China, Prof Mira’s proper due was denied in India. Both remained “passers-by” throughout. Fortunately, I had a brief conversation with Ji in China in April 2006 on several issues, and I had a brief discussion with Prof Mira Sinha Bhattacharjea on October 7, 2009 at the ICS where she chaired a session at a seminar, assessing the achievements of the PRC’s 60-year journey.

Prof Ji and Prof Mira were the products of the anti-colonial era and they passed away at a time when colonialism has re-visited India and China in the form of globalisation. A fast-paced material hysteria is dominating both states.

Prof Ji and Mira’s “magnanimous academic contributions” may be a guide for those “utopians” who still work in the darkness of night for a better tomorrow.

Dr Ravindra Sharma is a noted China scholar. His latest book on China, Paradoxes of Chinese Socialism (2007), was widely acclaimed. Recently, he visited China under the India-China Cultural exchange programme. He also closely follows the developments in South Asia.

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