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A Journey to Chindia at the Asia Society

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The geopolitical axis that was once Eurocentric and then spun towards the dominant U.S. has now been once again reset by the growing global importance of China and India, the two largest developing nations, which are often characterized as “the battling tigers.”

To explore the sometimes problematic confluence of the two countries, the Asia Society will launch its new Asian Arts & Ideas series with a forum called “The ‘Chindia’ Dialogues.” It will run from Thursday through Sunday.

“The notion is that we should bring the point of view of arts and culture across the media to bear on global challenges that are typically examined in the policy arena, providing a human perspective,” said Michael Roberts, Executive Director of Public Programs for the Asia Society.

The term “Chindia” was coined by Jairum Ramesh, who is now India’s Minister for Rural Affairs. It’s a tongue-in-cheek way of reminding us, noted Roberts, of the tendency to conflate the two nations, which have a long mutual history that was fractured by the Sino-Indian War of 1962.

Events like "The 'Chindia' Dialogues" are a way to “put the pieces back together.”

One challenge to creating authentic interaction is that it is difficult to get a representative sampling of artists from these two cultures who are actually living in their countries of origin. The expense and administrative hurdles involved, said Roberts, who was the Executive Director of the PEN American Center for a time, mean that many festivals rely heavily on the expatriate community.

"The 'Chindia' Dialogues” forum does indeed have some of the usual suspects, like writer Ha Jin, but Roberts is pleased that the Society was able to invite a handful of artists from abroad who are making a significant impact in Asia but are virtually unknown here. He cited by way of example the writer Murong Xuecun, whose Internet-distributed work “Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu,” has been read by “millions of Chinese.”

Two participants who are locally based are author and media critic Zha Jianying and writer Amitava Kumar. 

Zha is the China representative at the New School’s India/China Institute and the author of “Tide Players: Movers and Shakers of a Rising China.”

She said there was “woefully little mutual understanding,” between the India and China, and hopes that attendees at the forum will “get a sense of the possibilities [of connection and communication] from a cultural angle — a real picture of what’s happened, not something to be reduced to a few sound bites by Western media.”

“Here are real players and actors from those two places, in direct conversation with each other,” she said.

Zha is co-chairing the panel “Cyberwriters and Cybercoolies: China’s Changing Literary Space,” and noted that the Internet has been a real game changer in the notoriously restrictive world of Chinese publishing.

She cites ginormous figures: China has seventy million bloggers, and they are using the Web “not just for business and entertainment but for political action.”

The web offers writers a new way to engage the public, speed social protest, and circumvent official censors. There are 40,000 of these, according to Zha, desperately trying to delete anything offensive or not state sanctioned, but their lot is not a happy one: “The volume is so huge that by the time some post disappears it might already have been sent to 500 other locations!”

(She herself discovered that two of her “New Yorker” articles, banned in China, had been unofficially translated into Chinese, and distributed online to a larger audience than the originals reached.)

This type of viral dissemination of ideas has altered the idea of marketplace strategy, according to Zha. A new, younger generation of writers, even those not directly dissident, are “so savvy with the Internet and have such contempt for going the official route of state sanctioning that they are going directly to the web,” connecting with a huge potential public, and then sometimes getting picked up by more traditional publishers.

Writer Amitava Kumar, who teaches at Vassar.Amitava Kumar teaches at Vassar, and presents himself as a bit of an agent provocateur: “Indian and China are often mentioned in [the] same breath and there are obvious similarities, but the forum will also illuminate differences — for example, how living with a dictatorship on the one hand, and an unequal form of democracy on the other, has shaped writers’ sensibilities.” 

Kumar is chairing a panel on migratory writing — “The Literature of Migration: Where Do the Birds Fly?” — by which he means not only movement back and forth between the two countries and the U.S. But also, in the case of India, the pattern of migration from the “rural hinterlands to metropolitan centers like Mumbai.”

He hopes that there will be an investigation not only of such tropes as a sense of identity, but the ironic parallels between the Western-educated professional classes, and the exploited underclasses in each country.

Ultimately, Kumar is interested in “candid dialogue” and perhaps a little “friction, as well as fiction” he acknowledged wryly. He’d like to see the various conversations move beyond “comfortable clichés” to the heart of, “What do we really think about each other?"

"I think if we can get to those matters the conversations can be more revealing than [just] the genteel pleasure of reading from our books,” he said.

"The 'Chindia' Diaglogues" forum will open with one of India’s most widely known writers, Amitav Ghosh, in conversation with Yale history profession Jonathan Spence about his new book “River of Smoke,” and the legacy of capitalism and colonialism. Other talks will focus on reportage, the writer as traveler, common legacies and challenges in India and China, the “literature of lamentation," and the works of Bengali Nobel laureate and polymath Rabindranath Tagore in honor of the 150th anniversary of his birth. His legacy will be explored in two panels guided by Radio Open Source’s Christopher Lydon.

The Forum will also include performances by the Shanghai Restoration Project, the Amit Chaudhuri Band, and Kunqu opera star Qian Yi. 

Michael Roberts hopes that the event will “engender a continuing dialogue.”

“I am a New York chauvinist,” he said, “bringing diverse cultures together is something we do well here.”

Photos courtesy of the Asia Society