In many great travelogues, it is the seemingly casual observation that when reflected upon yields a profound truth. And so it is in Romila Thapar’s Gazing Eastwards, an account of a few months she spent in China in 1957, studying Buddhist sites. In a foreshadowing of the US-China ping-pong diplomacy of 1971, Thapar recounts how she impulsively asked Chinese soldiers guarding the extraordinary Maijishan cave grottoes in Gansu province if she could join their table tennis games on a repurposed kitchen table in a courtyard. After the first game, the soldiers invited her to play again another time.
She realises that “Chinese men…accept women as more or less equals”, possibly as a by-product of the Communist revolution of 1949 that created an esprit de corps. “I thought then that if they had been a group of British or French or even Indian soldiers, I would have hesitated to ask if I could join them in a game of ping-pong,” she observes. “I’ve noticed the same with Chinese women—they are friendlier and less on edge.”
Long after Mao Zedong, a serial womaniser, colourfully observed that “women hold up half the sky”, the effects of this equality are to be seen everywhere in China. An article a couple of years ago observed that the heads of all the top advertising and media agencies in the country were women, the founder editor of the hardest-hitting financial publication is a woman, and owners of factories of southern China bemoan the shortage of women employees after they were lured away to jobs in retailing and financial services.
A book written as a diary of a journey in 1957 is by definition a period piece, but Gazing Eastwards also offers a window on contemporary China—the reluctance of intellectuals to meet outsiders in Xi Jinping’s China is perhaps even more acute than when Thapar visited. She had arrived in the aftermath of what would be the first of a series of mind games that Mao played with cadres of the party and Chinese society at large. The campaign encouraging criticism of the Communist Party, under the slogan “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom and a Hundred Schools of Thought Contend”, had run its course by the middle of 1957. In June, an amended version of a Mao speech from earlier that year was published to signal that criticism of the party had gone too far; by July, an anti-rightist campaign, which led to many intellectuals losing their jobs and being sent to the countryside to do manual labour, had started—a pattern repeated during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. Thapar expresses disquiet at the way China’s communism appears to adopt some of the sinister aspects of Russia’s.
For an academic researcher who had at the time taken leave from her studies at London’s School of Oriental and Asiatic Studies, however, the reluctance of Chinese academics to allow free-flowing discussions is a perpetual frustration. When she meets two professors and wishes to discuss the Romanisation of the Chinese script, she receives an answer “in the briefest possible way” about the popularisation of Mandarin Chinese and the move to simplified Chinese. Both were central to achieving the widespread literacy that China enjoys and Thapar’s questions were prescient in trying to understand that. “Yet they seemed content to go on sipping Chinese green tea and talking about nothing in particular,” she writes. “I don’t think they want to necessarily hide things from those visiting, but they require permission for every move.”
Befitting a travelogue, there are many light-hearted moments that again tell a larger story. Her visit to a tailor with a Sri Lankan woman colleague to have clothes made for crawling around dusty caves, looking at Buddhist statues and artefacts, that were more practical than the saris they had brought is told with comic flair. Coming from India, she is also amazed that in her travels of a few months she encounters only a single fly. Studying basic Mandarin in Beijing for three months half a century after she travelled in China, I was as impressed by their trains as she was. Thapar recounts that railway staff in China cleaned the trains as they did their rounds. In 2010, I was on a bullet train between Shanghai and Beijing. I gawped with amazement as the ticket conductor swept the aisles with a long-handed broom and pan.
Throughout her travels, Thapar remains alert to the Maoist politics swirling around her. “To be called a Rightist has now become a convenient term of abuse, applied to anyone almost without specific meaning. Any controversy in any field can lead to a person being dubbed a Rightist,” she writes. “Does there always have to be a scapegoat?” In an eerie way, that period in China is not dissimilar to the terrible year that 2020 was in India. The use of that catch-all “anti-national” to suppress dissent and to imprison even ailing, elderly, allegedly “urban Naxals” is rife. The right to dissent is the subject of Thapar’s other book published this year. She identifies figures as diverse as Mirabai, from the 16th century, and the heroic women of Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh as being among many conscientious dissenters in India’s history, striving to make their voices heard. She likens Shaheen Bagh to Mahatma Gandhi’s satyagraha, but unique in that it was organised and led by women. “That women should speak up on an issue tied to birth and citizenship makes perfectly good sense. We know that only the mother can speak with authority about the identity of the child and the place of its birth.”
At the end of her visit to China, Thapar finds herself shaking hands with Mao at an Indian embassy dinner. There is the hint of being awestruck. “It was like shaking hands with history!” she exults, but returns quickly enough to the cool, dispassionate observation that makes this book such a pleasure to read. She recounts sitting at a table with a Reuters correspondent who spoke no Mandarin but confidently regarded himself as a China expert: “Unmistakably an English person in speech and manner, he has been in China for eighteen months, and is writing two books on China simultaneously.” She is concerned about the cult of personality surrounding Mao and reflects that China is seeing “the systematic building up of a movement based on hate, another requirement of dictatorship”.
Reading these passages, it is difficult to believe that Thapar was then in her 20s. Looking at photographs on Twitter of her beaming with delight as she joined the Shaheen Bagh protests in January last year, it seems equally implausible that she turned 89 in November. In these two books, she seems akin to the Greek mythological figure Janus, simultaneously looking to the past for lessons and warning us about the future. But for the occasional use of a walking stick, Thapar remains as much at ease navigating the world as she was when she challenged Chinese soldiers to a game of table tennis decades ago—and every bit as energetic calling out political falsehoods dressed up as nationalism.
Rahul Jacob was a South China correspondent for the Financial Times between 2010-13.