How to write about China and India – Jahnavi Phalkey

As  BJHS Themes, the new, fully open access, peer-reviewed journal from the British Society for the History of Science, publishes its first issue, one of the volume’s editors, Jahnavi Phalkey, gives her observations on the opportunities and challenges on writing about China and India.

“Long before any clear idea of this volume on the history of science and technology in China and India took shape, we looked for ways to articulate the goals of what eventually became a four-year collaboration. My colleague Leon Rocha and I wanted to write an essay on “How to write about China and India,” following the two highly successful Granta essays on how to write about Africa and Pakistan. We had a long chat one afternoon with the ever patient writer and former editor of Granta, Ian Jack, who indulged our fancy. That piece never got written, but residues of that conversation are seen in the papers now published in Science of giants: China and India in the twentieth century, the inaugural volume of BJHS Themes.

Science of Giants is a coming together of two concerns. One of them is the ongoing struggle of the contributors of this volume with current historiographies to explain the experience of science and technology in twentieth century China and India; and the other is the concern of scholarly institutions, including journals, to become inclusive and, if you like, more global. We fully appreciate, therefore, the significance of being published as the inaugural volume of the newly launched prestigious BJHS Themes.

The world’s eyes are on China and India. This attention is of geopolitical origins and has consequences, also for history writing. It makes a volume like Science of Giants possible. At the same time, it creates – both within and outside these countries – portmanteaus like Chindia, and the desire for histories that either explain or undermine the proposed state of glory. For historians working on the two countries, this entails a dual responsibility: we must bracket the politics of attention even as we make full use of the opportunity. On the one hand we can visibly articulate the limits of Euro-American historical experience. On the other, we must remain alert to any impulse to essentialize difference or to marginalise the discussion of uncomfortable historical processes and episodes: discussions that likely don’t fit the moment.

The attention, of course, does not come uncontested. Within the concerns of our domain – of science and technology – The Royal Society might want us to keep an eye on science and engineering research in the two countries (among others). Magazines like Science and Nature might echo a similar excitement, anxiety, and expectation of the two countries.  The Economist is less forgiving. Some of these questions are repeated in a more nuanced form in academia. We have taken some of these concerns on board to write – collaboratively –  of the difficult transformations seen through the lens of science and technology in the two countries during the long and contentious twentieth century. Juxtaposing the two countries has opened up, for us, the space to discuss their experiences beyond current historiography. Our hope is that these questions from the two archives can transcend geography to also ask meaningful questions, more broadly, of the twentieth century.

In the meanwhile, could we please not say Chindia, please?”

Jahnavi Phalkey

India Institute, King’s College London

Images below are credited to Tong Lam.

D8H_6578 D7K_6365

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *