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Rites of passage: early visitors from the subcontinent
(China Daily)
Updated: 2008-07-11 07:53

Kolkata is not just the city with the largest Chinese community in India. It also sent out the first Indian travelers to China in the early 20th century. One reason was the presence of Chinese settlers in the city.

Tansen Sen says there were three waves of Chinese migration to Bengal, the province of which Kolkata was the capital, between the second half 19th century and the first of the 20th. Major turmoils in China, such as the Japanese invasion and the civil wars, saw thousands of Chinese fleeing to other shores - for safety and for jobs.

Kolkata, then one of the richest cities in the East, was an obvious destination. The eastern Indian city was the closest in India to Chinese shores. And, as the capital of the British Empire in India until 1911, the city attracted merchants, entrepreneurs and even laborers from different parts of the world. The Baptist Mission Press in Calcutta published Chinese translations of the Bible as far back as 1805.

But the two Bengalis who came to China between 1905 and 1915 had nothing to do with trade or diplomacy. They were travelers par excellence.

Indumadhav Mullick traveled in China in the early years of the 20th century. His book, Travels in China, published in 1911, does not mention dates but the accounts suggest he was in China in 1904-05. It has interesting descriptions of the Chinese communities in Burma (Myanmar) and Malaya (Malaysia) as well as cities in the Chinese mainland. But a more detailed and scholarly account is Chinese Empire in the Present Age by Benoy Kumar Sarkar, a sociologist who spent a longer time in China in 1915. He also had easy access to social and intellectual circles in Shanghai and Beijing.

He was invited to lecture at elite institutions, including Fudan University in Shanghai and Tsinghua University in Beijing. He dedicated his 1922 book to leading Chinese intellectuals of the time, Kang Youwei (1858-1927) and Liang Qichao (1873-1929), whom he describes as the "first architects of modern China".

(China Daily 07/11/2008 page19)