Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (C) visit an exhibition at Hubei Provincial museum in Wuhan, China, April 27, 2018. India's Press Information Bureau/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE. - RC1D8D327030
Narendra Modi, centre, and Xi Jinping, to his left, regard themselves as strongmen chosen to oversee the rejuvenation of ancient civilisations © Reuters

When the leaders of India and China met late last month, their gathering place, a museum in the Chinese city of Wuhan, drew attention to a new source of tension between the Asian superpowers.

Officially, the “informal” meeting between Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping achieved its objective of repairing strained relations in the aftermath of a tense military stand-off last year.

But another, more fundamental, conflict is brewing, one that the backdrop of ancient Chinese artefacts brought into sharp relief: the battle over history and civilisation.

The Marxist British historian Eric Hobsbawm once said that “historians are to nationalism what poppy-growers in Pakistan are to heroin addicts: we supply the essential raw material for the market.” That is especially true for the leaders of the world’s two most populous countries. Each regards himself as a strongman chosen to oversee the rejuvenation of an ancient civilisation.

Both Mr Xi and Mr Modi are far more nationalistic than their predecessors and both have encouraged the politicised twisting of history to the detriment of serious scientific scholarship.

The Neolithic period has become the crucial battleground in this arms race of antiquities, because both countries seek to claim the mantle as the cradle of civilisation.

Most serious historians agree that the first human civilisation emerged in the Levant and Mesopotamia in what is today the Middle East. But its influence on other societies is disputed. Prominent state-supported “experts” in China and India often claim that the focus on the Middle East is a western plot to deny their countries their rightful place.

In India, these historical revisionists are unnaturally obsessed by horses. This is because the oldest sacred Hindu texts are full of references to horses and chariots, but the earliest archaeological evidence of horses in the Indus Valley dates to around 1700BC.

That is a problem for the Hindu nationalists who form Mr Modi’s core support base. They insist modern India is the birthplace of Hinduism and that civilisation began there long before anywhere else and then spread to the rest of the Eurasian landmass. But 1700BC is about 200 years after the end of the indigenous Indus Valley civilisation and after an influx of horseriding settlers from Central Asia.

Unless earlier evidence of horses can be found in India, the writers of the early Hindu texts would appear to hail at least partly from outside India’s modern borders. “In terms of history and culture, Modi and his followers are illiterate,” one well respected Indian historian told me recently. This person asked not to be named because of several recent assassinations carried out by Hindu nationalists against perceived enemies of the faith.

Revisionist interpretations of Indian history often seek to marginalise the country’s large Muslim minority, the historian argued. By contrast, in China, historical record inflation is all about bolstering claims of Chinese exceptionalism and the legitimacy of the authoritarian Communist party.

Since coming to office in 2012, Mr Xi has made the “great rejuvenation” of China his primary policy objective and positioned his presidency as a natural continuation of ancient imperial rule.

When he spoke to the British parliament in 2015, Mr Xi acknowledged it was the oldest such body in the world. But he prompted titters from his UK audience by insisting that China had in fact invented the concept of “putting people first and following the rule of law” — about 4,000 years ago under the reign of “Yu the Great”.

Mr Xi was not joking, even though there is not a single shred of archaeological evidence for the existence of Yu the Great. The supposed period of his reign predates the earliest written records in China by almost 1,000 years.

Yu’s mythical status as the ruler who tamed China’s floods — in some stories with the help of a yellow dragon and a black turtle — makes him an historical figure in the same vein as Noah and his ark. But to the Communist party, Yu’s existence as a real person helps to legitimise the claim that every citizen is taught from early childhood — that China has 5,000 years of continuous cultural history, making it the world’s oldest unbroken civilisation.

At times these battles over antiquity can seem comical and irrelevant, but in both India and China the tendency to rewrite, erase or invent history keeps growing and creeping closer to the present. One Chinese historian puts a particularly disturbing interpretation on this twisting of history to support the political and ideological goals of nationalist leaders. He says it is akin to raising children on “wolf’s milk” — and the more a nation subsists on such a volatile diet, the more likely it is to lash out at others.

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