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India Uses Yoga, Films, Gandhism to Win Chinese Hearts

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (C) gestures as he visits the Daxingshan Buddhist temple, in Xian, Shaanxi province, China, May 14, 2015.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken on the role of a yoga guru for Chinese Internet users. He is providing his followers on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, a daily lesson of yoga exercise complete with sketches about different poses, and a list of benefits.

Modi’s yoga posts are but the latest in a series of sweeping efforts by India to connect directly with the public in China, and try to capitalize on the two neighbors' shared links to Buddhism and other traditions in a bid to build sentimental bridges.

Cultural Connections

And Modi is not the only one trying to play up the two Asian giant’s cultural ties.

When Modi and Chinese president Xi Jinping visited a shrine in Xian in mid-May, the two exchanged gifts of Buddhist artifacts. The shrine in Xian is dedicated to Xuanzang, the 6th century monk who traveled to India and brought back the first set of Buddhist texts to China.

He also joined Premier Li Keqiang to watch a joint demonstration of the Chinese Tai Chi and Yoga at the Temple of Heavens in Beijing.

"People in China have respect for Indian culture and traditions. It is a good foundation to develop relationship between the two countries," said Ma Jiali, a professor at the Beijing based Central Party School of the Communist Party, and a South Asia expert.

Yoga University

China's first yoga college, a product of a cooperation agreement during the Modi visit, was launched at the Yunnan Kunming city last week. The idea is to standardize the teaching of yoga in China. Critics complain that the mushrooming yoga industry in China has many teachers with dubious credentials and inadequate knowledge of the subject.

"The university has confidence to build the college into an influential brand with its own characteristics, a platform for cultural exchange and a bridge for Sino-Indian friendship," Peng Jinhui, president of the university, said at the inaugural ceremony on Saturday.

Zubin Zarthoshtimanesh, a Mumbai based disciple of the late world renowned guru, B.K.S. Iyenger, said, "All over China, you see a rising enthusiasm for yoga. But there is a need to guide students to the proper way of practicing yoga."

Zarthoshtimanesh is among the 20 Indian teachers training about 1,000 Chinese students at a 5-day yoga training camp in Chengdu city, which will culminate on World Yoga Day on June 21.

Bollywood and Gandhi

And it is not just on the yoga mat where India is making inroads to building ties with China. The two recently agreed to push forward with three new joint production films. One is called Kung Fu Yoga and stars Jackie Chan.

Chinese theaters are now running a dubbed version of PK, a Bollywood film that proved to be hugely popular in different parts of the world including the United States. The film, which is a satire on religious practices expressed by an alien, took fourth place in terms of popularity in China. The Chinese-dubbed version grossed $19 million since its release in China on May 22. It's the first Indian movie to earn over $100 million in worldwide sales.

At Shanghai’s Fudan University, India has helped establish a Center of Gandhian Studies. This is the first time an attempt is being made to introduce Gandhian studies in China, which was engaged in a violent civil war when M.K. Gandhi ran his non-violent movement prior to India's independence in 1947. Xi visited Gandhi Ashram, his home in west Indian city of Ahmedabad, on Modi's invitation in September last year.

"Most Chinese have no religion. But there is a growing desire for spiritual life. I think Gandhism, with its focus on truth, would be a good starting point for many Chinese wanting to travel the road to spirituality," Liu Zhen, associate professor at Fudan University, and the new Dean of the Gandhian Center, told VOA.

Han Hua, a South Asia scholar at Peking University, said, "There is a growing sense of shared Asian identity in China. It is now possible to improve relationship between China and India more than in the past".

Bhai-bhai to Buy Buy

Modi's following on Weibo has risen to nearly 170,000 in a short period of five weeks, and he is frequently featured in the Chinese media.

Some observers wonder why it is that China is allowing such direct connectivity with its own people, especially with a country that is seen as a regional competitor and has a long-standing border dispute with Beijing.

Before 1962 when India and China engaged in a brief war, leaders on both sides proclaimed that the relationship was that of brothers, bhai-bhai, in Hindi. Using the Hindi phrase, Li Li, a scholar at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, said, "We have come a long way from the ‘bhai-bhai’ period to the situation today where what matters is ‘buy, buy.’"

India's vast market and preference for low-cost goods is an attractive proposition for China at a time when its exports have fallen sharply and economic growth slipped to seven percent of gross domestic product. It is also one of the biggest markets that Beijing sees as a part of its new Silk Road project, while nearly a dozen countries in South and Central Asia have little purchasing power.

"There are four pillars of our foreign policy: our neighbors, the major powers, the developing world and the various multilateral platforms. India has a role to play in all the four areas, which is why it matters to us," Li Li said.

Modi himself attempted an explanation after speaking to students of the Tsinghua University in Beijing and Fudan in Shanghai.

"If a country allows the leader of a foreign country to address its youth, it means that it wants to develop good relations with that foreign country. It is investing in faith in the foreign country on a long term basis," he told a gathering of Indians in Shanghai at the end of his China tour.

"The Arab Spring movement has taught China an important lesson. That it needs to have close relationship with developing countries, particularly India with its independent foreign policy and the influence that comes from its vast Muslim population," said Prem Shankar Jha, adviser to former Indian Prime Minister V.P. Singh.

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