Storytelling is etched into the DNA of human history. After the Bible, it’s Buddhism’s Jataka that is the second most widely spread narrative in the world.
Fables often draw their lessons from the natural world, using animals to illustrate human traits and characteristics. They are a timeless strategy of instilling values and morals in every generation of human history.
Storytelling is intrinsic to both Chinese and Indian culture. We share common narratives, myths and legends, which seamlessly flow into one another. Since time immemorial, the subcontinent and the Middle Kingdom have played a critical role in moulding the cultural motifs and narratives of Asia.
Socialist, poignant stories of struggle, grit and a poor man’s ambition tied together with family bonds are also the reason Bollywood, India’s latest and most successful soft export to China, is so popular. From the romaticism of Raj Kapoor’s Aawara Hoon Mein in the early 1950s to Aamir Khan’s steely portrayal of the struggle in the Indian education system in 3 Idiots more recently, Indian films and stories have resonated with Chinese audiences.
From spices, silks and cotton to modern-day electronics, mobile phones and 5G technology, India and China share a lot, which is why the current situation should not be seen as the only aspect of the relationship.
So intertwined are our nations that our languages borrow, blend and assist each other in creating a linguistically rich world. Language proficiency is key to doing business across borders—and never more so than between India and China. Indian languages are highly phonetic and, therefore, its speakers find it easier to pick up a foreign language like Mandarin. In fact, the root of “Mandarin", spoken across mainland China, lies in the Sanskrit word, “Mantrim" which means “counsellor".
Several Chinese words are rooted in Sanskrit etymology. For example, the Mandarin word ‘mò lì’ (茉莉) meaning jasmine originated in the Sanskrit Mallika. Buddhism’s Indian roots are evident in the Mandarin word ‘Niè pán’ (涅槃), which means nirvana.
It is because the border between India and China has been pourous for far longer than it’s been barbed and guarded by grenades that our understanding of each other’s languages as an extension of our cultures comes naturally to us.
Hailing from agricultural economies gives India and China more in common than our language and ways of life. It also translates into how we do business.
While China might have zoomed ahead at 5G speed, many of her core businesses still remain manufacturing. These age-old businesses rely on good old relationships that are built over time, many shared meals and cups of baijiu. So special are these relationships that are developed and meticulously maintained that the Chinese have a unique word for it—guan xi (关系).
In India, too, we believe in doing business or rather trust those more with whom we have built a relationship or those that are part of our friends and family network. This working amongst and predominantly with a circle of trusted people rather than the western concept of signing a contract and sticking to it, originates from us being agricultural societies. Living together in large families, gave both Indians and Chinese a huge network of different people with varied skill sets all of whom could be relied on to help each other.
Lastly, ensconced in our agricultural similarities is also the concept of saying goodbye. Both Indian and Chinese cultures don’t have a word to bid adieu. In Mandarin its zài jiàn (再见), while the Indians say phir milenge, both mean I will see you again. It is a Western concept to say goodbye, surmising you might never see the person again.
Language, whether consumed through stories, written characters or ways of doing business, emote the underlying rich fabric of cultural connectedness between India and China. These similarities that we share remain unique to our people for we are the product of millenia of bilateral exchanges—this is our secret code. We should use this to breathe new life into our common narrative for the 21st Century.
Nazia Vasi is the Founder & CEO, Inchin Closer, an India-China language and cultural consultancy