A China Guy Goes To India (1): Tradition and Modernity

Hello CDT readers. You may know me, Sam Crane, as the author of The Useless Tree blog. I teach Chinese politics and ancient philosophy at Williams College. But I have just returned from a trip to India and the CDT folks have invited me to guest blog here with some comparisons between China and India.

First, I must publicly recognize the limits of my ability to compare these two vast and complex countries. I am a China guy, trained in China studies with some facility in Chinese language, who has lived for fairly long stretches of time in the PRC. In contrast, this was my first trip to India, I do not speak or understand any South Asian language, and my experience was restricted to tourist sites and areas. I have some book learning on India – I have been reading secondary literature and lecturing on it for about eights years now – but I will not pretend to know as much about India as I do about China. Thus, any comparisons drawn here must be rudimentary. I welcome comments and criticisms, especially from people more knowledgeable about India than I.

With those reservations in mind, let me jump right in.

One of the most noticeable contrasts between China and India is the apparent persistence of tradition in the latter. This was most obvious in what I gleaned about the strength of family structures and, especially, the role of women in society. Rajasthan, where I spent most of my time (Udaipur, Jodhpur, Jaipur, Ranthambore) is (as one of my commenters has confirmed) a relatively conservative place by Indian standards. In talking to tour guides and some other folks, I came to understand that arranged marriage is widely practiced there still, to a greater degree than in other parts of the country. Our primary host, from a prominent Jodhpur family, said that he believed that virtually all marriages in that city were arranged. He mentioned that a maharaja’s daughter (in Jaipur, if I recall correctly) had defied her family and “married down” by her own volition, but that had turned out badly, confirming for him and others the wisdom of arranged unions. He also said that divorce was very, very rare. In other words, women have very little control over who they will spend their adult lives with or how they might get out of relationships gone wrong. That sounds rather traditional, in the old patriarchal sense of that term, to me.

Indian tradition is evident in other ways as well. The continuation of the aristocracy is striking. In Jodhpur, the maharaja’s palace, the place he lives in today, soars into the air above the dusty city. Although he, and other extent local kings in other major cities, has no formal political power, his social and economic influence is considerable. This might be comparable to the royal families of Europe, but in India there is the added effect of reproduction of the social power of caste: with such conspicuous wealth at the top end of the hierarchy, the conservative resolve of other high caste Rajasthanis may be strengthened; they benefit from the maharaja’s hand-outs (something that might also endear him to lower caste Indians as well) and gain a certain status if they have some familial tie or proximity to this traditional center of power.

All of this stands in stark contrast to China, where tradition was more thoroughly beaten down, though not wholly eradicated, by the traumas of the twentieth century. We could begin in 1898, with the “defection of the intellectuals,” when people like Kang Youwei and Liang Qiqiao pushed for reform of the traditional Confucian bureaucratic system. That push gradually evolved into a more thoroughgoing rejection of tradition with Chen Duxiu and others. The Communist Party grew out of that May 4th cultural iconoclasm and even the Nationalist Party embraced a modernizing project, albeit leavened with a dollop of traditional values. War and revolution uprooted society, and CCP power, deployed so brutally in the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, mercilessly and relentlessly attacked tradition. By the time of economic reform in the 1980’s and afterward, “tradition” has had to be reinvented as it has slowly reemerged from the Maoist assault.

Nothing like this happened in India. The struggle for independence was focused on an external enemy, the British, and drew upon ideas and practices drawn from Indian traditions. Gandhi’s nonviolence was refined from Hinduism’s general tolerance toward all forms of life and, especially, Jainism’s fervent embrace of ahimsa. Moreover, Nehru, when he came to power after 1947, was more willing to compromise with tradition than Mao. No doubt, his commitment to democracy limited Nehru’s impulse to impose his brand of Fabian socialist modernity on newly unified and liberated India. He worked hard, in his articulation of constitutional principles and economic policies, to guide India away from its agriculturally-bound, socially-immobile traditions and toward an industrial, socially mobile and scientifically rationalistic modernity. But he would not overtly crush traditions or violently enforce modernity. Instead of killing the old landed elite, he bought off the maharajas, allowing them to continue in their social and economic status while consolidating formal sovereignty in the new federal state. Instead of mobilizing political movements to transform marriage practices, he hoped for gradual change through education and economic improvement. He allowed tradition to persist, believing perhaps that the allure of modernity would ultimately win out.

Maybe he was right: modernity is winning out in the large metro areas of Mumbai and Delhi. In such places, images of women are quite different than the realities of Rajasthan. TV shows present female stories that traditionalists in the countryside must fine provocative and lewd. Stories abound of Bollywood starlets marrying for love, divorcing and marrying again. Money and fame and globalized fortune are changing Indian traditions; but, still, those traditions are more deeply rooted in Indian society outside the largest cities than is the case in China.

This is not to say that tradition is meaningless in China. The difficulty in moving the political system there in a genuinely democratic direction can be understood, in part at least, as an effect of traditional notions of authority (I would not push this point too far, but it is worthy of consideration). Rather, I am simply arguing that tradition is stronger in India than China because India never experienced as extensive a social revolution as did China.

If we accept that general point, the next question is: where is India headed? Three possibilities come to mind:

1) Modernity, fuelled by the rapid economic growth unleashed by the reforms of the 1990’s, will, in the not too distant future, simply overwhelm tradition.

2) Tradition will become a source of social and cultural and political backlash against modernity.

3) India will find a new and congenial balance between tradition and modernity.

As much as I want to believe that number 3 is most likely Indian future, I am afraid to say that we cannot completely discount the other two.

The first alternative is close to the China experience. Tradition was beaten down in the twentieth century and now, in the twenty-first, modernity runs rampant, leaving little room for a robust rearticulation of tradition. The Confucian revival is more a matter of ancient thought adapting itself to modern conditions, and less an example of modernity being limited by a reasserted tradition. The second possibility might be taken as the Iran model: the Shah’s modernization program alienated key sectors of the population (ironically including the bazaaris, who wrongly calculated that they could control religious fundamentalists), who reasserted a virulent traditionalism.

Of these two scenarios, the first, the overwhelming of tradition, strikes me as least likely. Tradition is just too strong in India and even though economic growth is spawning more rapid social and cultural change, that change may not be as thorough as has been the case in China. Hinduism is very flexible, offering countless possibilities for reformulation and adaptation to shifting historical circumstance, as it always has. And if that is true, it will never face the ignominious fate of Confucianism in China. But the other, less satisfying, possibility remains. Persistent tradition could be used as a basis to push back against modernity, unleashing a violent and repressive politics. I have long worried that the BJP might advance this kind of program more forcefully, though it seems this has been limited by the refracting effect of democratic politics. Still, conservative backlash remains a possibility, I believe.

To end on a more happy note, however, the chances are good that India will be able to find a more harmonious (and I use that term without the contemporary Chinese political connotations ) equilibrium between tradition and modernity. Some traditions will certainly have to give way. My own biases look forward to a transformation in gender relations and a reduction in social and economic inequality. But other traditions, the marvelous universe of Hindu thought and its potential for tolerance and humanity, could help us all cope with the impersonal and materialistic imperatives of modernity. In that regard, China could learn from India.


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