ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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An Indian Adrift in the Qing Empire

Gadadhar Singh

Thirteen Months in China: A Subaltern Indian and the Colonial World (Annotated Translation of Thakur Gadadhar Singh’s Chin Me Terah Mas [1902]) edited by Anand A Yang, Kamal Sheel and Ranjana Sheel, Delhi: Oxford ₹ 950.

On 6 March 1901, a most unexpected rhythm began reverberating around the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. This imposing complex of buildings was the ritual heart of the Qing Dynasty, where the emperor performed ceremonies to maintain a harmonious balance between heaven and earth, ensuring a plentiful harvest for all his subjects. Now, with the capital under foreign occupation and the emperor in exile, in place of sombre state rituals a group of Rajput soldiers had gathered to celebrate the Holi festival. An improvised percussion section welcomed the new year with Chinese gongs, drums and empty oil cans, while others offered enthusiastic bursts of dancing and singing. Presently, an American tourist joined the celebrations, eagerly accepting cigarettes and cigars proffered by his new friends. He repaid these generous gifts with a lengthy lecture on the inherent problems of Indian culture. Quite where he had gleaned his insights is never explained. Nevertheless, he proceeded to pontificate about how Indians had a mentality of dependence and an obsession with caste that had prevented them from following their American counterparts to independence. Gadadhar Singh, the soldier who recorded this exchange for posterity, politely rebuffed his American friend, informing him that none of his countrymen would ever dream of seeking independence. All they wanted, he concluded, was “British rule to remain in Hindustan forever.”

This cosmopolitan scene is one of many fascinating vignettes captured in Gadadhar Singh’s memoir Thirteen Months in China (Chin Me Terah Mas). Originally self-published in 1902, this seminal work in modern Hindi travel literature has now been translated into English by Anand A Yang, Kamal Sheel and Ranjana Sheel. If readers are surprised by scenes of Hindu revelry at the heart of the Qing Empire, then this is testament to the extent to which Indians have been written out of the history of modern China. With the notable exception of the Sikh policemen who were used by the British to project imperial power to the citizens of Shanghai, the significant Indian presence that existed in the empire and later the republic, has been largely forgotten (Jackson 2012).

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Updated On : 7th Sep, 2018

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