Pakistan is geographically located at the crossroads of cultures and historic civilizations, some of which have turned into mighty nation states of the Twentieth century, such as China. Pakistan was among the first countries to recognize the People’s Republic of China as a sovereign state in the 50s. Over the years, Pakistan-China relationship has been graduated into ‘all-weather’ Sino-Pak friendship, but mostly it is limited to inter-governmental contact with selected people-to-people interaction. A sustained relationship between Pakistan and China requires a mutual understanding of cultures, traditions and language, which can take place only through a robust people-to-people contact. The number of Chinese tourists in Pakistan does not exceed beyond few thousands in any given year. Even during more peaceful decades of Pakistani history, the number of Chinese visiting Pakistan remained less than the European and American visitors.
The lack of cultural contact between the two countries is one of the key challenges that Pakistan and China have to address for a durable economic relationship.
Pakistan’s strategic planning shaped by the threats and opportunities of economic and military cooperation with its neighbours holds no special brief for understanding the cross cultural interactions taking place in Pakistan’s geographical neighbourhood in China, Iran, Afghanistan and India. At a time when Pakistan is entering into major economic relations with foreign countries in the region as well as globally, it is imperative to pay attention to the cultural dimensions of international relations by extending the scope of public diplomacy. The interactions between citizens of neighbouring countries, if based on an informed understanding of diverse cultural practices and aesthetic traditions, can engender a process of acculturation, which can help evolve transnational identities based on geo-cultural heritage of the region.
A quick overview of Pakistan’s cultural policy relations with its neighbouring countries presents a somewhat dismal scenario, where there is a disarray of state initiatives and practices, at loggerhead with each other, which continued to change with the change of the government. A holistic state policy towards culture which could guide the national cultural development as well as fill in the ranks for the cultural diplomacy through foreign cultural relations is yet to take shape. Moreover, Pakistan’s cultural policies do not reflect the changing geo-economic realities of the country. The very fact that the domain of culture is a relegated affair in the ministerial portfolios of the government, left at the mercy of bureaucratic inertia and reduced to the sectors of entertainment and national heritage, speaks volumes about the sagacity of Pakistan’s cultural managers’ vision of the future. The social and cultural consequences of the US $46 billion investment in the 3,000 kilometer long strategic China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that will connect Pakistan’s Arabian Sea port of Gwadar to China’s Xinjiang province, have not been fully anticipated. Given the likely cultural interaction between the citizens of Pakistan and China, it is imperative that we explore the avenues for renewed inter-cultural dialogue and revive the multi level links that are lying dormant in our shared cultural histories and regional biographies.
Cultural Treasures and Potentials for Cooperation
“Seek knowledge even though it be in China,” is the popular saying (Hadith) of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), read as a reflection of eminence of Chinese civilization, can still serve as a guiding light for the Pakistani knowledge bearers to learn from the Chinese culture. The modern day achievements of China are continuation of their historic past. In the ancient period, China is credited for a long list of inventions, like iron plough, hoe and wheelbarrow, which improved farming and increased food production, to other worth mentioning achievements, which changed the whole world such as the invention of gunpowder, compass, seismograph, crossbow, kite, printing machine, umbrella, papermaking, currency notes, silk making and preparing steel.
For Chinese, Pakistan is situated at a sacred site, which was once the heartland of Buddhism in Gandhara, an ancient kingdom, located mainly in Peshawar, Swat and the Pothohar with main cities as Purushapura (Peshawar) and Takshashila (Taxila). Over the course of two millennia, Buddhist ideas and practices have shaped Chinese culture in a wide variety of areas, informing its art, politics, literature, philosophy, medicine, and material culture. The translation and printing of a large body of Indian Buddhist scriptures into Chinese had far-reaching implications for the dissemination of Buddhism throughout the Chinese cultural sphere, including Korea, Japan, Ryukyu Islands and Vietnam. With Chinese Buddhist comprising more than 25 crores, which is equal to 18 % of the total population of China, the opportunities for Chinese spiritual tourism in Northern Pakistani regions of Gilgit-Baltistan, Peshawar and Swat are far too great to be missed out by the Pakistani policy makers.
Kong Qui, better known as Confucius, is the most influential Chinese philosopher in the world history who is relevant for Pakistani audience, given his philosophy of which emphasized personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice and sincerity. Confucianism, later became the official imperial philosophy of China, and is still deemed influential in shaping Chinese culture and values. Despite obvious religious differences, the value systems of Chinese and Pakistani society resonates with similar ideals and concerns, such as respect for tradition, family honour, deference for women and elderly. Such traditional norms of propriety, based on Buddhism and Confucianism, also inform the modern Chinese corporations and state institutions. Traditional Chinese culture, unlike Pakistan, is not seen as a sign of decadence, but promoted as icon of modern Chinese cultural identity. For instance, traditional Chinese architecture adorns the cultural landscape of Chinese towns and villages alike, with Western-trained Chinese architects attempting to combine traditional Chinese designs into modern architecture.
Given the shared cultural histories of China and Pakistan, the cultural links should extend beyond the traditional modes of inter-state contacts. It may include student and faculty exchange programmes between universities, academic conferences and professional associations of Chinese and Pakistani experts, and civil society collaborations. The interactions between Pakistani and Chinese media should be encouraged along with joint ventures in creative arts like cinema, theatre and music, led by inter-governmental collaborations. A fusion of Chinese and Pakistani classical music is possible, along the same lines as Chinese have evolved their Chinese orchestra, an art form that is based on the structure and principles of a Western symphony orchestra but using Chinese instruments.
Pakistani folk arts of paper, kite flying and puppetry stand in comparison to traditional Chinese paper arts, kite flying and puppetry, which can provide a perfect combination for travelling exhibitions and theatrical performances all over the world, as emblem of Pak-China friendship. From traditional Chinese medicine, cuisine to calligraphy, kungfu and martial arts, a wide range of cultural expressions can be promoted in Pakistan for better understanding of Chinese culture. Traditional Chinese festival such as Spring festivals, Mid-Autumn Day, etc. can also be celebrated in Pakistan, along with Pakistani local festivals, such as Shindoor Mela, Mela Chiraghan, and Jashn-e-Baharaan. Senator Mushahid Hussain’s non-governmental initiative of turning economic corridor into cultural corridor, such as Salam Confucius needs to be officially adopted as part of track II diplomacy to foster cultural contact with China. The activities of the Confucius Institutes in educational institutions in Pakistan, set up by Chinese government needs to be multiplied at a grand scale, including the classes in Chinese language, to overcome what seems like a forbidding communication barrier, to help create mutual understanding of cultures, as the two countries share a common destiny.
Iran – an Additional Jewel in Cultural Necklace
Our regional connections with China and Iran date back to ancient times, when Persian and Chinese dynasties enjoyed active trade linkages through the famous Silk Route passing through Gandhara. For some, the Silk Route mainly became established in the wake of splendid diplomatic relations between regions comprising Pakistan, China and Iran, leading to not only exchange of goods, but art and ideas, traditions and knowledge, customs and practices. The revival of ancient Silk Road that connected India, China, Iran, Central Asia to Europe under Chinese ‘One Road, One Belt’ project initiative will reinforce the latent potential of strong cultural ties between the neighbourly nations. As we would like to move towards cultural exchanges and integration with Chinese culture, China would appreciate and support enhanced cultural ties between Pakistan and Iran. Pakistan’s better relations with Iran add strength to China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. If Pakistan, Iran and China are brought further closer by enhanced cultural ties and expanded people-to-people contacts, that would have far-reaching effects on overall peace, prosperity and stability in the region.
The Persian civilizational influences have shaped the cultural aesthetics of Muslims in India for centuries. One of the Iran’s greatest medieval poet of the classical literary tradition, Muslih al-Din bin Abdallah Shirazi (1210-1292), better known by his pen-name Sheikh Saadi, was widely known in the literary circles of North India since the 13th century. His best known works Bostan (The Orchard) and Gulistan (The Rose Garden) continued to enjoy enormous popularity among the Muslims in India for more than six hundred years. His books remained part of the curriculum of local schools in Northwestern India till the advent of British colonialism in the 19th century. From the imperial architecture to the illustrated manuscripts of Mughal Period, the Persian arts and belle letters have groomed the illustrious Indo-Persian civilization in India. It is all but forgotten that for more than seven hundred years, Persian was the language of the Indian courts and the cultural elite, from the Great Mughals to the Maharaja Ranjit Singh in Punjab. Even the 19th century British administration had to learn the Persian language before Urdu was adopted as the language of the administration.
Pakistan owes its greatest debt to the Iranian civilization in the form of Sufi thought, which introduced Iranian flavoured Sufi Islam to the Indian subcontinent during the 10th and 11th centuries of the Delhi Sultanate. By focusing on the more spiritual aspects of religion, based on the universal message of love, unity, tolerance and brotherhood, Sufis from Central Asia were able to unite people irrespective of their caste, culture, creed and religion. One of Pakistan’s most celebrated saints, Abul Hassan Ali Hajveri, popularly known as Data Ganj Bakhsh of Lahore, was an 11th century Persian scholar, who has significantly contributed to the spread of Islam in South Asia. His most famous work Kashf Al Mahjoob (Revelation of the Veiled) was written in the Persian language and is considered as one of the earliest and most respected treatises of Sufism in Pakistan. The teachings of Sufi saints based on tolerance and peace should be widely promoted as a panacea for getting rid the society of extremism and sectarianism, which is crippling the country and marring its international image. Revered both by Sunnis and Shias, the Sufi festivals held throughout the year, drawing large crowds of devotees, can be turned into a tremendous opportunity for spiritual tourism and a well publicized international showcase for inter faith harmony in Pakistan.
From government initiatives to socially responsible business practices, the ability to understand and embrace the different values and needs of diverse cultures and societies becomes critical to the success in both, the inter-governmental relations and corporate affairs. In the world of international politics, the role of ‘soft power’ or the ability to persuade through culture, values and ideas, as opposed to ‘hard power’, which conquers or coerces through military might has gained significance. The disproportionate cultural influence of Pakistan’s archrival India on Pakistani public culture, in contrast to China or Iran, points to the sources of soft power that India exercises over Pakistan. It is partly due to the successful deployment of culture industry by India to mass produce and sell to the world the images of rising and shining India. It must be remembered that a mere media management will not soften up Pakistan’s image, as the world is not only watching our news footage, but also screening our creative endeavours. In contemporary Iran, the art films have exploded on to the world stage, receiving critical attention from the international audience. Cinema is a powerful medium to project soft power onto the world stage through creative engagement with neighbouring countries, such as Iran with a thriving film industry under the patronage of the state. Pakistan-Iran relations have the greatest cultural depth. Its citizens share a common taste in art, architecture, cuisine, dance, music, poetry, drama, and literature, which is inspired by Iranian culture. The staging of Iranian popular culture in Pakistan can affect both a cultural renaissance but also an interfaith understanding to promote international peace and reconciliation.
The cultural links between Pakistan and China (including Iran appropriately to make a stable triangle) should be extended beyond the traditional mode of inter-state contacts. Pakistan and China have much common in culture, arts and crafts to further deepen the relations at societal level. It is only through further strengthening the people-to-people contacts that actually we would be transforming CPEC from a governmental project to an economic venture espousing grass-root affinities at much deeper level. Iran’s inclusion in the equation would further add to the strengthened relations among societies of these three important countries; countering Indian cultural influence would be an additional flavour to the stew.
The writer is an anthropologist, former Director of National College of Arts, Rawalpindi campus, currently working for the Center for Culture and Development (C2D), Islamabad & Vice President of the Council of Social Sciences.