The book brings to light the ethos of Chinese society highlighting the realities of life in today’s China. Not only is this book a search for historical, personal and societal identities but it also delves into the past, exploring the links between India and China from ancient times to the present, moving across time lines. It sets out to find links from the time of the Silk Road to the Tang Dynasty, to the Cultural Revolution, to the lives of the people the author comes into contact with in contemporary China.
An economist by training from the Delhi School of Economics, Poonam Surie, the author of the book, has spent the better part of the last thirty years living across four continents. In the book, she begins her journey with a quest: to understand China and search for its soul. While doing so, her personal voyage takes us into the heart of the “Middle Kingdom”, exploring the beauty of the land whether through a cruise along the Yangtze river, a walk in the amazing Stone Forest in the Yunan Province, journeying through the deserts of Xinjiang in Western China or yet again through Buddhist and Taoist temples into the streets of busy, commercial, present-day Beijing.
During the author’s stay in China, she tried to observe the people of that enchanting land. What were they like? Did they think like us or did the path that China followed make them completely different? According to the author, the spirit or soul of a country or a people is something that is deeper than the history, politics or the custom of a people. In fact, the book is a study of their mindsets, intrinsic characteristics, beliefs, faith, religion, spirituality and their approach to the problems confronting them.
The book brings out the cultural and historical commonalities and differences between the people of the two countries. What was the interflow of culture between India and its neighbour like? Has China influenced India and, if so, in what ways? Any attempt to comprehend these questions would perhaps benefit both the countries and make for a better understanding of our two cultures. Further, the book has tried to see whether the trials of modern living have created a need for a deeper understanding of religion, the need for that certain something from which human beings can draw strength.
Further, in her quest, as the author discovers more about China, she finds inextricable link with an important neighbour–India. In China, a number of tales are based on Indian stories. One of the most well-known and well-red Chinese classics, “The Journey of the West”, is the story of Shenzang, a monk who travels to the Western Land, in this case India, in search of the Buddhist sutras. The book shows another aspect of Buddhist practice. The version of Buddhism in China, manner in which it travelled along is something that is educative.
The book brings out the cultural and historical commonalities and differences between the people of the two countries. The Great Wall of China reportedly has one of the longest Sanskrit inscriptions in the world carved across one of its ancient doorways. The inscriptions mention Ashoka, Kublai Khan and descendants who strove for the happiness of all being. It was surprises such as these that prompted the author to delve deeper and deeper into her search of China.
Finally, in the avalanche of books on China, Poonam Surie’s work stands out. Its great merit is that it steers clear of geo-strategy and economic evolution but concentrates on the lives of ordinary Chinese people. It also gives fascinating glimpses of historic and lovely Chinese places that also underscore wide cultural contacts between India and China since ancient times.
By Ashok Kumar