Yang and Sheel and Sheel, Thirteen Months in China: A Subaltern Indian and the Colonial World, 2017

This review by Emily Whewell was originally published on the History of Asia discussion list and is reprinted here via Creative Commons license.

September 26, 2019

Anand A. Yang, Kamal Sheel, Ranjana Sheel.  Thirteen Months in China:

A Subaltern Indian and the Colonial World.  New Delhi  Oxford University Press, 2017.  ix + 326 pp.  $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-947646-6.

Thirteen Months in China is an annotated translation of Gadadhar Singh's 1902 self-published book, Chin Me Terah Mas, a British Indian soldier's perspective and experience in China during the Boxer Uprising. The Boxer Uprising at the turn of the twentieth century was a key moment in Sino-foreign relations. The rebellion ended with the suppression of the anti-foreign Boxers and the liberation of the foreign legations by a military force comprising of eight foreign nations. This "International Expedition" included British forces, with the majority of British soldiers belonging to Indian regiments. The uprising's suppression also came at a cost to lives, homes, and livelihoods. Singh's account gives an insight into how one Indian man understood his engagement with China.

The eyewitness account is a fascinating insight into the event and a description of China precisely because it is the voice of a somewhat ordinary Indian man. There have been many Western accounts of the Boxer Uprising and its suppression, as well as other key moments in modern Chinese history. Whether these were from missionaries, merchants, or government officials, they have provided a number of foreign perspectives. Yet Indian voices pale in comparison. From policemen to soldiers and merchants, Indians were a key part of the British presence in China. This text therefore adds another "on the ground" perspective, but one that appears to differ from other foreign accounts. For example, there appears to be a fuller detailing of atrocities--something that is often glossed over by other Western military accounts and which provides more insight into the potential nature and extent of the violence in the course of the military campaign.

Anand Yang provides an interesting and illuminating introduction.

Singh's Chin Me Terah Mas, as Yang reminds the nonspecialized reader, is often considered one of the first Hindi book-length overseas travel narratives. However, the text is not simply important because Singh was a pioneer. Aside from an account of the military campaign against the Boxers, Singh wrote the text intending it to be a commentary reflecting upon colonialism and what India could learn from China's predicament. The text is also important given the status of Singh. Yang proclaims that it is a "text written by a subaltern, about subaltern experiences, and intended for fellow subalterns and the emerging reading public" (p. 9). Certainly, Singh was an ordinary solider, although one would imagine that proficiency in English and his desire to write his experiences for an audience made Singh perhaps a little different from other "subalterns."

The text itself has been translated by Anand Yang, Kamal Sheel, and Ranjana Sheel. The first, slim part begins with his journey in June 1900 from Calcutta to China and the second focuses on war campaigns. The campaign starts from Dagu up toward the capital, ending with the liberation of the Foreign Legation. It is a fascinating narrative of the events, yet the last part, titled "miscellaneous accounts" is arguably even more intriguing. His account turns to a brief history of the foreign campaign suppressing the Boxers and a general history of China from the mid-nineteenth century until 1900. This is followed by descriptions of China, its people, and its customs. A large part is dedicated to region and religious customs. It is here that Singh draws many comparisons of India and China and proposes his ideas of how "Hindustan" should learn certain lessons from China's predicament.

The text has been translated in a way that appears to capture much of Singh's voice. In one instance, for example, he describes the potential of being crushed by a military force as being "made into chutney," bringing little flavors of Indian cultural expressions that light up his story in interesting ways (p. 80). The translators have been careful to keep in many original words, phrases, and idiosyncrasies, with English translations in parenthesis. It might have been interesting to have dedicated a little more in the introduction to the translation process, other than the general style and tone and specific points in footnotes. Given that the work is largely a translation of a text, an added section on the particularities of the approach to translation could have added more to the understanding of the original text.

Nevertheless, the translation of the text provides not only a rare glimpse of an Indian soldier's account of a key event in modern Chinese history. It is also an account of an Indian solider seeing India through China, and China through the eyes of India when many Indians were considering key political, social, religious, and cultural practices through the understanding of nationalism and colonialism. The publication of the text is also timely, as it adds to a growing scholarly interest in Sino-Indian relations, and how Indians in China understood their colonial world. As such, it will be an insightful text for to those who are interested in the ideas of reform and nationalism in the early twentieth century in India, those interested in a different perspective of the Boxer suppression, and, of course, those interested in the connection between India and China. Although Singh's text was not widely read at the time, and certainly not by English-speakers, one hopes it can be now.