How modern history was invented in India and China

The making of modern India.
The making of modern India.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain
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Although the specific contexts were very different, the development of “modern” history in both India and China was spurred to some extent by the kind of historical force that so challenged Chinese literati of the late seventeenth century: conquest—or, in the case of China, the threat of conquest.

In India, British colonisers initiated the move toward historiographical modernity in the nineteenth century both practically, with the reform of Indian education, and conceptually, since the British presence itself and colonial officers’ reconstructions of Indian history spurred Muslims and Hindus alike to reflect upon the putative weakness that had brought them to this impasse of subjection by a foreign power.

The early colonial state drew on many of the resources—record keeping, revenue collection, a Persian-style bureaucracy—that had already been in place since the early days of the Mughal Empire. Like their Mughal predecessors, the British wanted to know their Indian subjects, and turned their attention to history. They combed Persian, Sanskrit, and vernacular texts; they studied inscriptions and mounted archaeological digs; they wrote learned articles in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society. Doubtless, scholarly values drove some of this spirit of inquiry, but the enterprise as a whole could hardly be called value neutral. One of the more damaging historiographical paradigms of colonial history, consistent with a belief in the “white man’s burden” and its so-called civilising mission, was that a great (if history-averse) Classical Hindu society had been weakened and overrun by rapacious Muslims whose supposed tyranny brought India to its present state of decline. By occupying India the British saw themselves as fostering the country’s uplift. This tripartite division of Indian history into Hindu, Muslim, and British periods pitted the two most prominent religious communities against each other. The lead-up to Indian independence was accompanied by massive bloodshed and, eventually, the partition of the country in 1947. Colonial constructions of premodern Indian weakness contributed to a climate where Hindu nationalists felt the need for a militant response to two perceived slights: British occupation and previous centuries of Muslim rule. Here we see some grounds for comparison with China, where a need to understand the Manchu conquest coloured Qing-period historiographical inquiry.

Still, there were many different layers to nineteenth-century Indian historiography. Only a few can be signalled here. One towering figure is the Scotsman Colonel James Tod, who served as the British political agent in the Rajput state of Mewar from 1818 to 1822. Tod developed a great affection for Rajput traditions, which culminated in the publication of his influential Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan (1829-32). He is certainly guilty of romanticising the Rajputs—more than one scholar has suggested that some of his views were conditioned by an appreciation for the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott—but whereas mainstream colonial historiography gave more credence to Muslim historians writing in Persian, Tod was arguably the first to emphasise the importance of the vernacular traditions in Hindi. More problematic, however, was Tod’s tendency to present the Mewar Rajputs’ oppositional stance against the Mughal Empire in starkly religious terms, as a Hindu dynasty warding off a Muslim threat. This notion of a fundamental Hindu-Muslim enmity between Rajputs and Mughals remains dominant in popular history today.

Another noteworthy historian from the nineteenth century is Shyamaldas, whose Virvinod (compiled in the 1870s and 1880s) is an interesting blend of earlier Rajput historiographical thinking with the modern conventions of history writing. Hailing from a family of carans, a caste of traditional bardic professionals, Shyamaldas had been educated in the customary Indian subjects (including itihasa-purana) but also became familiar with some of the more modern evidentiary methods of British historiography. Shyamaldas compiled various records and sources, both Indian and British, to compose a new history of the Rajput state of Mewar. He was aware of Tod, his seventeenth-century Jain predecessor Nainsi, British findings, and a plethora of more traditional genres, like the caritas. As had become customary in his day, he decried the exaggeration that was held to have distorted much of premodern Indic historiography. This was about as close to Rankean history (the nineteenth-century German intellectual Leopold van Ranke is often considered the founder of modern academic history) as it was possible to come, although the institutional context and conceptualisation of the project remained more traditional than the product itself: Shyamaldas was still fully reliant on the patronage of a regional Hindu court, and the title of his book, Virvinod (“the joyful exuberances of heroes”), reflects a much earlier textual worldview rather than a self-conscious historian’s endeavour.

The academic practice of history—sustained not by courtly patronage but by scholarly institutions—was new to India and a direct product of the colonial education system. History departments began to appear in Indian universities from the 1920s. The Bengali intellectual Jadunath Sarkar (1870– 1958) was a pioneering figure in interpreting India’s past through the modern techniques of historiography. Sarkar was especially conversant with the Mughal period and produced several influential works that sifted Persian sources but interpreted them in conformance with European methodologies. From then on it would no longer be said of Indians that they do not have “history,” at least as the West expected history to be written.


India and China took their own distinctive paths to the past, but they are not as incommensurable as Hegel once proposed. The differences—in language, conception of time, literary form, and the role of the state—are important. Early Indians wrote their histories in rock inscriptions and epic poetry, the Chinese in chronicles and topical histories. The (relatively) unified Chinese state quite early saw the advantages to governing in both the keeping of bureaucratic historical records and controlling the “national” historical narrative. India, without the same degree of centralised governance—or a single common written language—came later to this realisation.

Yet the similarities are equally striking. Both cultures believed that written records of past events had cosmological and ritual—and moral—meaning. History also functioned as a “mirror” to the ruler, as it reflected either his glory or his failure to live up to the principles of virtuous governance. Not surprisingly, then, biography was a major historical genre in both cultures. Perhaps because of this shared faith that writing history was a moral endeavor, historians in both cultures, when they disagreed with the governing authority, developed strategies—and, in China, new forms of historical writing—that allowed them to challenge or bypass, with varying degrees of subtlety, efforts at centralised historiographical control.

Well into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, history maintains its status in both China and India as an important—and contested—arena, as both a narrative subject to official oversight and control and a source of resistance and change. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) in its early years closely monitored the writing of history, imposing a Marxist-Leninist framework as rigid—albeit in very different ways—as the dynastic cycle framework of the standard histories. Yet in 1961, the historian Wu Han (1909-1969) famously used the history of the virtuous Ming official Hai Rui (1514-1587) to question Chairman Mao Zedong’s policies (although Wu Han suffered the consequences of this challenge with a long prison term that terminated only with his death). The PRC has turned more recently to other ways of shaping history—for example, through the regulation of textbooks and classroom instruction and through the sponsorship of a massive new state-funded “dynastic history” of the Qing. Chinese academic historians routinely produce sophisticated works of “modern” critical history modeled on the evidential research tradition and Western historiography. But the awareness of history as both a mirror for and a political tool of the ruler is still powerful.

History remains too a vital subject in democratic India today, as the country’s postcolonial citizens continue to grapple with the complexities of their past. New voices are being heard, as India’s feminists, Dalits (formerly known as “untouchables”), and social historians generally bring attention to neglected pasts. Engagement with the past, whatever form it takes, remains vital. The capital of one of Emperor Ashoka’s pillars is enshrined on Indian currency notes, a constant reminder to Indians of a revered Buddhist king from the classical period. The state has rarely exerted the same kind of control over the historical record found in modern China, although there have been contestations over what can and cannot be included in history textbooks as well as academic books, particularly on topics to which today’s Hindu majority is sensitive. Some politicians have successfully campaigned on a platform of “Rama-rajya,” the ideal rule of Rama—not exactly an inclusive platform for a modern pluralistic state, but certainly one that illustrates the ongoing presence of the past in everyday life.

Excerpted with the permission of Penguin Random House India from What China and India Once Were, edited by Sheldon Pollock and Benjamin Elman. We welcome your comments at