Pakistan-China cultural relations are the continuation of the great ancient civilisational bonds that existed centuries ago between the two nations. Close geographical contiguity and the ancient Silk Road inspired the flow of goods and exchange of ideas between the two great Asian civilisations – Buddhism and Islam. The Silk Route transformed the foundations of China and became a source of interaction with ancient and present-day Pakistan. The economic strength of modern China since the Communist Revolution has been greatly influencing and reshaping the patterns of Pakistan’s economy by making it self-reliant. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) would bring about a phenomenal growth in people-to-people contacts when modern road and railway connections would be operationalised, and air links will be strengthened.
Pakistan-China relations are based upon idealism as well as realism of today’s geo-politics. Civilisations are the historical heritage of people. And thus promote cultural dialogue, foster understanding, and promote people-to-people dialogue. Promotion of peace depends on civilisational values and norms.
Both Pakistanis and Chinese belong to ancient civilisations. The great Indus Civilisations of Mohenjodaro, Gandhara, Harappa, and Taxila flourished on the lower Indus basin originated five thousand years ago (The flow of Indus River originates Chinese Tibetan mountains). Similarly, at the same time, Chinese civilisation was flourished at the upper basin of the Yellow River. Both Indus and Yellow River civilisations have had lasting impact on modern human living such as architecture and scientific discoveries.
In ancient time they also learnt from each other. Famous Chinese scholars such as Fa Xian in the 4th century, Xuan Zang in 7th century, and Yijing in the same century traversed the Silk Route to the oldest university in Taxila and other Buddhist places in Peshawar and Dergai in ancient Pakistan. According to French historian, Émmanuel-Édouard Chavannes, Song Yun travelled through Chitral and met with the kings of the Swat Valley. At one point in time, Gandhara was controlled by Chinese rulers. Buddhism was introduced into China in Ghandhari language and literature in the 2nd century. Gandhari was a north-western Middle Indo‐Aryan language closely related to Sanskrit and Pali. There is a need to explore these hidden historical links to know more about Chinese-Gandhara interactions. Research institutions in archaeology and ancient history in Pakistan and China should explore this field.
Mohenjodaro civilisation introduced architecture, cotton, textiles, and mathematics, while the Yellow River civilisation introduced medicine, paper, and gun powder to the outside world. Chinese embraced Buddhism with Chinese characteristics originated in ancient India and flourished in Taxila under Gandhara civilisation, which also had influenced Confucius-dominated Korean Peninsula and Japanese archipelago in the 8th century. Islam also influenced western China via the Silk Road by the end of the 7th century.
Historically, there had been no rivalry developed between the Indus and Yellow River civilisations. They were great sources of inspiration and interaction. By the discovery of the Silk Road 2,500 years ago, starting from the Chinese Province of Shaanxi, they promoted barter trade, which was more people-to-people oriented. The Indus and Yellow River civilisations were inclusive and absorbed ideas along the Silk Road for commerce and ancient civilisational consciousness that exist in the minds of modern Pakistanis and Chinese even today.
When modern Pakistan and China were re-created in 1947 and 1949 respectively, the pattern of civilisational bonds continued. Soon after the establishment of the diplomatic relations in 1951, both countries desired to promote cultural and economic ties and this process continued until 1960s. When the first Ambassador of Pakistan, Major General N. A. M. Raza presented his credentials to the People’s Republic of China Government on November 12, 1951, Chairman Mao Zedong talked about the significance of cultural relations between the two countries. Premier and the then Foreign Minister Zhuo Enlai also stressed upon the necessity of cultural relations when he delivered a speech at Pakistan’s Embassy in Peking on August 14, 1954. In a message broadcast by Radio Pakistan on January 29, 1956, Vice Chairperson of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, Madame Soong Ching-ling stated:
“Your [Pakistan’s] ancient civilisation in the lower valley of the River Indus flourished at about the same time as the original Chinese culture in the upper Yellow River basin. We both have had a long cultural heritage. We have always lived as peaceful neighbours.”
The first-ever official delegation that came from Peking was women’s goodwill delegation led by Li Teh-chuan at the invitation of the All-Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA) in November 1955. Political parties, labour leaders, journalists, parliamentarians, artists, dancers, singers, sports teams (such as badminton, football, volleyball, table tennis), scientists, educationists, writers, tourists, youth-related exchange visits, goodwill and friendship delegations since the mid 1950s. Both countries signed the Cultural Agreement on March 25, 1965. As relations further stabilised by the late 1960s, the first-ever Chinese cultural troupe comprising 54 members visited Lahore, Peshawar, and Dhaka in January-February 1968. Interaction with cultural troupes was much increased in the 1970s and continued into the 1980s and 1990s. Agreements were signed in the field of radio, television, and film exchanges to make joint productions and documentaries. Chinese art troupes including folk singers and demos visited Pakistan many times including folk song and dance troupe, traditional instrumental music troupes and acrobatic troupes etc. and exchanges also took place in the areas like painting, handicrafts, relics as well as puppet shows.
Language, Youth, and Educational Programmes
In order to promote linguistic interaction and understanding the first-ever Urdu-Chinese dictionary compiled by Professor Kong Julan, an expert on Urdu and Head of Department of Urdu at Peking University, and contributions made by Su Yuheng. “The dictionary tries to bridge two languages with distinct roots and traditions and different syntax and grammar, and in social and political sense, it strengthens linkages between people of Pakistan and China” was stated by President Mamnoon Hussain while addressing at launching ceremony of the dictionary at Fudan University in Shanghai on 19 May 2014. He further commented, “The first Urdu-Chinese dictionary has reinforced his optimism for the future and would help the people of the two countries further improve their contacts and promote understanding of their distinct languages and cultures.”
The five years long bilateral ‘Youth Exchange Programme’ aimed at fostering friendship was finalised during Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to Pakistan undertaken in 2006 and accomplished in 2012. The programme was launched in 2007. Under this agreement, Chinese Government invited 500 youths from Pakistan to visit China and similarly, 500 Chinese visited Pakistan on the invitation by government of Pakistan.
A large number of students from Pakistan are studying in universities and colleges in China as undergraduates, graduates, post-graduates, and PhD students including post-doctoral fellowships. Most of students prefer to study medicine, engineering, basic sciences, and social sciences. Majority of students go on their own expense but there are extensive scholarship programmes offered by Chinese government through the Higher Education Commission (HEC). Approximately 220 students go for higher studies in Chinese universities annually under these scholarship programmes administered by Chinese Government. Pakistan ranks high among China’s international scholarship programmes. There are exchange programmes for middle and high school students between the two countries. Over 8,000 Pakistani students were enrolled in China’s educational institutions as of 2013 and the number is constantly increasing. In return, there are over 6,000 Chinese students in Pakistan. The number of Chinese teachers in Pakistan is also on the rise.
Three Pakistani universities have housed Confucius Institutes to promote Chinese language and culture. The National University of Modern Languages (NUML) at Islamabad set up the first Confucius Institute in 2004 to teach Chinese language, history and other aspects. Another Confucius Institute was set up at the University of Karachi in 2012. The third Confucius Institute was founded at the University of Faisalabad in 2015. These centres and institutes have frequent student exchanges. Teaching Chinese language has picked up pace. Many public and private schools are teaching Chinese language and the number of students has increased to thousands throughout Pakistan.
There are four Pakistan Study Centres in Chinese universities such as Peking University, Tsinghua University, Fudan University, and Sichuan University where a number of students are studying history, culture, language, politics, and economy of Pakistan. Programmes are also launched via video conferences across many universities in Pakistan to learn simple Chinese language and culture.
A China Study Centre at the COMSATS Institute of Information Technology (CIIT) was set up to facilitate promotion of trade and business between Pakistan and China by providing a platform for cooperation to their entrepreneurs. CIIT also established the Pakistan-China Business Forum (PCBF) in 2013 to promote university-industry collaboration. Over 80 faculty members of the CIIT hold PhD degrees from Chinese universities and over 35 faculty members are currently pursuing their PhDs in different Chinese universities. A Centre of Excellence for China Studies was also inaugurated at the Government College University (GCU) in Lahore in November 2014.
The century long direction of ‘educational Pakistan’ would change from the West to the East in coming days. Pakistanis must prepare for a cultural exchange comprising more interactions with eastern countries with China on the leading position. The new ‘orientalism’ is shining within the rise of an Asian century.
In February 2014, after a meeting between President Xi Jinping and President Mamnoon Hussain, the Joint Statement on “Deepening China-Pakistan Strategic and Economic Cooperation” emphasised on designating 2015 as the China-Pakistan Year of Friendly Exchanges. In a move, Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao inaugurated the “Year of Friendly Exchanges” on January 28, 2015.
The Joint Statement issued on April 20, 2015 during President Xi Jinping visit to Pakistan also had a cultural touch:
“Pakistan and China agreed to elevate their relation to ‘all-weather strategic cooperation partnership’ enriching the Pakistan-China community of shared destiny, to ensure the perpetual continuity in friendship from generation to generation…. Pakistan supported China in elevating its relations with the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, commended the China-South Asia People-to-People and Cultural Exchanges Plan, the China-South Asia Science and Technology Partnership Plan and other initiatives put forward by the Chinese side, and is ready to participate in these initiatives actively.”
President Xi also announced the establishment of the Chinese Cultural Centre in Islamabad, which was enthusiastically welcomed by Pakistan. Therefore, there is enormous room for future cultural and people-to-people cooperation between Pakistan and China.
There is a regular exchange of delegations of think tanks and intellectual fora between the two countries. A number of conferences and seminars are organised by public and private sector of the two countries. Moreover, there are friendship associations such as the Pakistan-China Friendship Association (PCFA) and the China-Pakistan Friendship Association (CPFA) in Pakistan and China that provide a platform to bring the people of the two countries together in all areas of human endeavours. The CPFA was created within the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC) based in Beijing. These associations were created in the 1950s. There is also the All-Pakistan China Friendship Association (APCFA).
Against the largely misunderstood notion of not-so-close people-to-people interaction between Pakistanis and Chinese, the all-weather friendship is clearly visualised in cultural sphere as this work has realised. The wisdom of great Asian civilisations continues to grow uninterruptedly. People-to-people contact is a historical, vast, highly beneficial, and a continued process between the citizens of the two countries. As bilateral relations have been ever-expanding in multiple areas, especially after the introduction of the CPEC, the process of people-to-people contact will be having enormous room for future cooperation depending on fast emerging needs and challenges they face. Youth programmes and Chinese educational institutions are now a powerful source of attraction for Pakistani students and researchers.
The writer is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies (ISS), Islamabad. [email protected]
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