Understanding Chinese Perceptions of India and Indians


After two months of conducting research in China, I have honestly understood and learned a lot from the people here. This research started off as mere study of my interactions with the Chinese people, but it turned into an elaborate study of where their perceptions of India originated and why these perceptions are being held. I believe that in a couple decades, the international political system will be in the hands of two states: India and China. But looking at the current situation, the two countries have very indifferent and nonchalant views about each other. While many articles have been published about the Indian perception of China, little to none have been produced from the Chinese. But the relationship between these two countries is more complex and connected than that and their cooperation is imperative for the welfare of these two states. While the topics of Tibet, border control, and the nuclear issue have annoyed them, they rendezvous enthusiastically on economic issues. Understanding this dyad is beneficial as the perceptions of these two countries impact bilateral trade and business between the two countries.

Current literature of Sino-Indian relationship, has been very one sided with the Indians producing more English-based papers than the Chinese. American scholar Robert Jervis argued that the citizens’ perceptions were key to a state’s policy making (Jervis, 1976). In Renaud Egreteau’s paper, he interviews retired Chinese diplomats who have served in India about their opinions. His results show that there were four types of negative perceptions from these interviews. Most of his interviews showed that even diplomats still hadn’t fully understood India’s culture and society (Egreteau, 2012). Since the 2000s, both countries have made efforts to understand each other and have encourage more diplomatic and commercial networks. But the overall understanding is one of mistrust, ambivalence, and lack of knowledge from both societies (Singh, 2008). Decades ago, the perception of India was a state stuck in poverty and a failing democracy, but as of late, these perceptions have changed. The perceptions of Indians mostly came from the Sino-India War of 1962 which was a border dispute in Aksai Chin in Northern India. India lost this war and the Indian congress even passed a resolution (later removed) to not open relations with China until all land was recovered (Singh, 2008). Except for this period, Sino-India relations haven’t been confrontational. If at all, they have been a little passive-aggressive. China recently bid to build a port in Sri Lanka, which Indian strategists believe is part of their ‘String of Pearls’ strategy (Bagchi, 2010). The area is primarily uninhabited, but this event set the tone for both nations. Moreover, sharing the border with China near Tibet has caused negative repercussions as many Tibetans, like the Dalai Lama, seek asylum in India. Lastly, tensions are rising as China is helping Pakistan, India’s foremost threat, build a nuclear plant (Singh, 2008).


In Randol’s paper on Sino-India relations, he mentions that further research needs to be conducted on all levels of society like students and ‘average citizens’ (Randol, 2008).  The objective of my project is to interview students here in Beijing on their opinions of India and Indians. As I was studying abroad at Tsinghua University, I decided to interview students at the cafeteria on campus. Tsinghua University is famous for producing leaders in every sector, including politics. The students here, in a couple decades, will be leaders as well, whether it be engineering or politics and interviewing this group of students will show the views held now, and possibly in the future. Moreover, the Wudaokou area around Tsinghua University has a high student population, so impromptu interviews were also conducted when I would meet new students. In this paper, I argue that the interviews conducted with Chinese students and general observations show a different and changing perception of India and Indians. Initially, these perceptions, primarily held by diplomats, were negative; a majority of which have turned more neutral or positive.


The interviewees were randomly selected and given ten questions to answer about Sina-India relations. The interviewees could respond in either English or Chinese which gave this research a lot of flexibility. I also gathered data from my personal experiences and observations, in Beijing, Shanxi Province, and Inner Mongolia and from casual conversations with Chinese friends and citizens. Most interviews were held in the cafeteria, with an exception of a few at coffee shops nearby. In order to protect interviewees’ identity, all personal information are kept confidential. Moreover, since sensitive topics were brought up during these interviews, ensuring confidentiality is important to prevent negative consequences.


Overall, twenty-three interviews were conducted of Chinese students at Tsinghua and one was of an Indian student working and studying in China. The interviews provided a wide variety of opinions to analyze and differed from literature results I had read. The interview questions asked what they thought about India, their opinion of Sino-India relations, and their views on Indians.


Map of Location of Cafeteria


Inside the Zijing Cafeteria where I interviewed students



Ganges Restaurant

Before I came to China, I was told to expect a lot of attention from the people here because they saw foreigners with ‘awe.’ While I was mentally prepared for that, I never received the level of attention some of my friends got. People would not look at me twice when I went shopping or when I rode the public transport, and I would often get mistaken for an ethnic minority group. There were a couple times when Chinese people would ask me if I was from Tibet or Xinjiang, and I was surprised to see this. One of my interviewees felt that it was hard to differentiate Indians from ethnic minorities or other South East Asians. I also came to China not expecting Indian culture to be known or popular but I immediately realized that I was wrong. Indian movies and food is quite popular; the Indian movie 3 Idiots and the Indian restaurant chain, Ganges, are famous in China. The spices that are used in Chinese food also similar to the spices used in Indian cooking. One of the most glaring similarities between China and India is the population and how the metropolitan cities handle them. In both Beijing and New Delhi, the roads are wide and spacious, but it always seems like there are too many people at cross-walks and bus stops. The subways are crowded and pushing and shoving are expected, if not, necessary behaviors. The cultural and social rules and etiquette are also similar: while having a glass of milk or water is important for American culture, but in both India and China beverages are had after a meal. The beverages are also served hot and guests are encouraged to eat till they are stuffed. These small observations show how similar these countries are, yet when I asked my interviewees about them, they were unaware.


Inside a temple at WuTaiShan

One of the other significant observations were in Shanxi, when I visited WutaiShan. Buddhism originated in India, but there have been many changes over centuries and multiple sects. When I visited the many temples on WutaiShan, I felt I was back home going to a temple. The praying, bowing to the Bodhisattvas, the smell of incense, and the colorful decorations reminded me of the temples in India. Now, I am no expert in Hinduism or Buddhism, but there are striking similarities in the Bodhisattvas’ decorations and a Hindu Gods’ decorations. One of my other observation of Indian culture was in Inner Mongolia, especially in the Muslim themed street in Hohhot. The Islamic influences in the city reminded me of Hydrabad’s Charminar and the food stalls on the side of the road resembled New Delhi’s streets. The mosque in Hohhot, while in a Han Chinese styled building, still was painted green and gold.

The rest of the buildings resembled Arabic/Mughal architecture. The Hui men wore Taqiyahs and the women covered their heads. I was able to watch a performance near the Great Mosque, about the story of Aladdin. In one scene, they had a performer who was the Islamic princess from India with the background of the Taj Mahal. I was honestly very surprised by this. Of all the places in China, I was not expecting to see Indian culture represented in Inner Mongolia. The performance was very culturally diverse and included princesses from other nations. I am not sure why the performance was catered to so many nationalities especially when Hohhot is a small capital city with an infinitesimal population of foreigners. Their viewer base (from looking at the audience members) was mostly Chinese or Mongols. To me, this performance signifies the global view the director of the performance has- he realizes that Aladdin didn’t originate in China and has done his best to show the audience a global perspective. This liberal, secular view really does show that there are parts of China that are more aware of what is going on outside the Middle Kingdom.

Some of the key Chinese terms that I came across were 经济发展, meaning economic development. A lot of my interviewees would use this term to describe India. One of my friends described the word 阿三,which specifically referred to Indians. She couldn’t tell me what it meant, but that it was an identification Chinese people used. Some of the other phrases were, 三生有幸 and the scholar 唐僧,who traveled to India and explored the lands West of China. Lastly,《西游记》,Journey to the West, which is a Ming dynasty novel by 吴承恩 and is one of the four classic novels of Chinese literature. In this novel, a monk travels to the West and to India and the monkey represents a part of Indian culture.


The first question I asked my interviewees was: What is one word or activity that comes to you first about India? Fifteen of the twenty-three interviews mentioned, curry, Bollywood, and/or Buddhism. All of my interviewees’ opinions of India came from media sources for example movies, television shows, or from watching the news. None of the interviewees had read a modern book in school or picked up a novel referencing India, except for Journey to the West. But some didn’t even know that the monk in the story had travelled to India. Out of the twenty-three interviews of Chinese students, two did not know enough about India and didn’t care enough to answer most of the questions and only three interviewees have negative perceptions of India. The rest of the students had positive or neutral views. Surprisingly, the majority of them knew of the territorial dispute between India and China. Few hoped that the nations would set aside the territorial dispute and cooperate on economic development. Some also said that because China and India have developed similarly, they should learn from each other and cooperate more. But this interviewee’s contradictory response was very well said:

“I see that Indian businesses in China as a sign of strengthening relations between India and China. I have been to a lot of lectures about India and I have grown more interested since. I think the way India developed is very different from China. As you know, China has a centralization of state power. Almost like a dictatorship, where all industries are monopolized. In China, we put the economy first, and democracy second. But India puts democracy first and economy second. Maybe that is why I believe China’s economic development is better than India’s.”

He ended his response with the idea that now, India and China were getting more similar and they should cooperate more. All of the interviewees expressed interest that China should cooperate more with India and establish friendlier connections.

One of the participants who I interviewed on the street had been to India. She recently graduated from a university in Beijing and is coming to the United States. She went to India for one month where she traveled around to many cities in South India. She, compared to my other participants, loved India. She showed me her pictures and could not stop talking about her trip. Her perceptions of Indians were that they were very welcoming, nice, and extremely helpful. She gave multiple anecdotes of how Indians would help her book her bus tickets, and help her with food and directions. She would talk about her host family in India and the different experiences she had. She commented on a lot of the Indian traditions like the way women dressed, with flowers in their hair, and the way temples were decorates, the India dances she saw. She felt that the lack of communication between the two countries has obviously led to misconceptions about them. From a political standpoint, she said it was sad that the government of China isn’t more interested in the culture and people of India and vise versa.

An interview I had with an Indian businessman and student also proved to be very resourceful. I saw him at the coffee shop and noticed that he was watching an Indian movie on his computer and I decided to interview him. He currently works for an Indian company based in Beijing and learns Chinese on the weekends. He was one of the more interesting participants because I was getting an Indian perspective on China and Chinese. He believes that in terms of business relations, China and India are on a good track. He says that both countries are providing jobs and businesses are going to both countries to do work. He says that Indians don’t think about coming to China because Chinese and Indians want to go West. He mentioned that the gap between the rich and poor is getting larger and both Indians and Chinese are not interested in learning about each other. Politically, he believes that India and China are in a very bad position; he says war in not possible, but frictions on border issues and Pakistan have caused tensions. He, surprisingly, also mentioned that he faced racism in China. Maybe I haven’t been here long, but I haven’t faced any sort of racism in China. I asked him: what are some of the significant differences between India and China. He said that while the crime rate is really low because of capital punishment in China, the access of information to people is not there. Whereas in India, people have the right to express their views and they can access information about the government anytime. He mentioned that one thing these two countries have in common is the high levels of corruption in the government. He believes that the future of India-China relations is dependent on the future of the leader.

Notes from Interview with Indian Businessman

Notes from Interview with Indian Businessman

Although he didn’t know much about Xi JinPing, he believes that that Narendra Modi, who has been the Chief Minister of Gujarat, can lead India to have better relations with China. Modi had lead the state of Gujarat to have exponential growth in the last decade and his administrative success can definitely be useful in forming stronger ties with China. One thing my participant mentioned was that the unity among the Chinese is much stronger than in India. Both have multiple ethnic, religious, and regional groups, but China’s CCP puts in great effort in bringing unity, while the Indian government has a hard time unifying the southern cities with the northern ones. One last thing that this participant said was that the Chinese government offers 400 scholarships to Pakistani students every year but only gives 10 scholarships to Indian students. Why? Maybe the strong relations between Pakistan and China are holding back the relations between China and India. My participant’s explanation for this was, “An enemy’s enemy is your friend.” He was very open about his views on China and his interview answered my questions but also gave me more questions to think about. My participant left me with one final statement, “China needs India.”

Previously, as written by Egreteau, Chinese diplomats had negative perceptions of India; they called Indians naïve, dirty, and corrupt. Diplomats felt that India was unsuited to be a real challenge for China and felt that understanding India was too much effort. The complex multi-cultural regions and multiple religious definitely confused Chinese diplomats. While the diplomats tried to create positive interactions with Indians, stories of such are few (Egreteau, 2012). But these diplomats worked in India, when India was still growing in the 1980s. China, at this time was starting to flourish and grow, while India stuck in a different time. But times have changed now, and India has caught up to China. The transformations that have occurred in India boosted the economy and India has gained respect for what it has to offer. Of all people, students and businessmen realize this the most. And with that, the perceptions of India are slowly changing.

In addition to my gratefulness to all interviewees, I am greatly indebted to many others for assisting with my work on this paper. These include: Cai Weiyu, Vikram Dabola, Philip Fang Jun, Li Lin Xiao, and Coco Yu. Without these wonderful teachers, friends, and colleagues, this project would have been impossible. I am also grateful to Roy R. Charles Center for International Studies at the College of William & Mary for providing me with the opportunity to study abroad and conduct this research. Finally, I would also like to express my deepest gratitude to Professor Emily Wilcox and Professor T.J. Cheng, both of whom were especially instrumental in my work on this project and many others throughout my education.


Bagchi, I. (2010, September 17). China to build another port in Sri Lanka. Retrieved from Time of India: http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2010-09-17/india/28271297_1_colombo-port-indian-ports-chinese-consortium

Egreteau, R. (2012). ‘Are we (Really) Brothers?’: Contemporary India as Observed by Chinese Diplomats. Journal of Asian and African Studies, 695-709.

Jervis, R. (1976). Perception and Misperception in International Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Randol, S. (2008). How to Approach the Elephant: Chinese Perceptions of Indian in the Twenty First Century. Asian Affairs, 211-226.

Singh, S. (2008). India-China Relations: Perception, Problem, Potential. South Asian Survey, 83-98.


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