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India-China: Intersecting Universalities

Anne Cheng
Sanchit Kumar

Sino-Indian Cultural Diffusion through Trade in the Nineteenth Century

Madhavi Thampi

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1This study focuses on an aspect of the historical relations between India and China that has not received much attention, scholarly or otherwise. It examines the traces of Chinese art that can be found in India, which had their origin in the nineteenth century China Trade. Borrowing and adaptation have been an intrinsic part of the long interaction between India and China over the centuries. However, in the discourse on cultural transmission between India and China, it is often made out that this process was largely one-way –from India to China. This is mainly, though not entirely, due to the profound impact of Buddhism, which originated in South Asia, on China and Chinese culture. What we find in the nineteenth century, however, is the transmission of cultural products and cultural influences in the reverse direction, from China to India –not nearly on the same scale as the earlier influence of Indic culture on China, but nonetheless clearly identifiable and many-hued. Acknowledging this cultural transmission from China and exploring it is necessary, both to have a balanced perspective on India-China historical relations, and also to enrich our understanding of the development of Indian art and craftsmanship in the modern era.

2First, it would be instructive to consider the context in which transmission of cultural objects and influences from China to India took place in the nineteenth century. As is well known, for centuries China had been renowned for her products –particularly silk, porcelain and tea– which were exported to different corners of the world. From the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the growing tea trade with Europe, and especially with Britain, greatly expanded the volume of China’s external trade and added immensely to its attraction for a host of traders from around the world. Those who came to China by sea to engage in commerce ranged from powerful commercial monopolies like the British and Dutch East India companies to small private traders. Products from India, such as raw cotton and opium, played an important role in paying for the exports of Chinese tea to the West (Thampi and Saksena 2009: 15-27). Moreover, Indian traders, and in particular Parsi traders from the west coast of India, acted as a major conduit of this trade, particularly from the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Hundreds of Parsi traders made their way to the southern coast of China on huge sailing ships, undeterred by the many perils of the voyage including typhoons, pirates and shipwrecks. It is a fact, though one rarely acknowledged in the voluminous Western literature on the old China Trade from Canton, that Parsis at Canton (Guangzhou) often outnumbered their British and other Western counterparts in the early decades of the nineteenth century (Morse 1926: 103, 254, 346).

3The world of the foreign traders at Canton, which was centered on the area known as that of the “Thirteen Factories” on the Canton waterfront, was designed to provide for all the residential as well as commercial needs of the foreign traders. Out of the cloistered world of the Thirteen Factories, and located within it, emerged a flourishing industry of “export art”, which encompassed items as varied as watercolours and oil paintings, jade items, porcelain, silk, silk embroidery, furniture, enamel, lacquer ware and silver (Jiang 2007; Mok 2018). The trade in objets d’art was never the main stuff of the China Trade, but there was nevertheless a lively demand for the products of Chinese artists and craftsmen. The production of these cultural items for export in fact achieved a level of organisation and efficiency that paralleled the trade in tea and other commodities, and a large number of workshops sprang up in Guangzhou for this purpose –as many as 5000 according to one estimate (Peabody Essex Museum).

4Parsi and other Indian traders at Canton, with a few notable exceptions, were mostly small time traders operating on the margins of the legal trade. They constantly faced the problem of finding suitable commodities to ship back home after they had unloaded their opium, raw cotton and other items of import. In theory, all foreign traders had to purchase all the goods they needed from the licensed Chinese merchants and compradores. In reality many of the smaller traders found it more convenient and cheaper to deal directly with the unlicensed merchants, also known as “outside merchants” or “shopmen”. These Chinese merchants maintained their shops in the crowded bylanes between and just behind the factories, where the export art workshops were also located. Among the early art items purchased by Indian traders were porcelain vases, plates and other objects. Chinese porcelain items, besides being appreciated for their beauty, were a useful form of ballast. They were regularly shipped back home, to adorn the sumptuous homes of the wealthy in Bombay, where they can still be found. Paintings and furniture, along with pearls and other forms of jewelry, were also shipped home –both as commodities to sell and as gifts for family members and friends.

Lam Qua at his studio

Public domain

5In many respects, Indian traders followed the tastes of their European counterparts in their choice of art items to take from China back to India. However, in certain respects, particularly in their appreciation of Chinese silk and embroidery, their choices were clearly influenced more by Indian aesthetic values and the requirements of Indian clothing. By focusing on the kind of art and cultural products that were imported into India from China, and then examining how these influenced Indian traditions and Indian workmanship, we can expand the extensive discussion that already exists on the subject of Chinese export art. Chinese export art has been recognised as a distinct genre of art emanating from the seventeenth century that catered to foreign consumers, but the discussion has almost always been centred on the production of art for the European and American markets. Nevertheless, we know that Chinese export art was also produced with the Indian consumer in mind. Chinese artistic techniques and motifs were adapted to Indian tastes and requirements to produce unique examples of Sino-Indian cultural fusion.

6Painting and textiles are two areas in which we can see the interest of Indian consumers in Chinese export art, and in which Chinese art and craftsmanship influenced Indian artistic traditions. We will examine this with respect to the art of reverse glass painting, and also with respect to the tradition of silk embroidery and silk weaving.

7Reverse glass painting actually originated in central and eastern Europe, from where it came to China, although the manner and timing of its introduction into China is disputed (Beggerow). Nevertheless, by the eighteenth century, glass painting was a well-established tradition in China, centred in Canton. It was not much esteemed as art by the Chinese themselves, but was in great demand among foreign buyers. Since the painting was done on the reverse side of a sheet of glass, and then given a wooden backing, it could be sold soon after completion without having to wait for the painting to dry. For the seller, this meant more rapid sales, while for the purchaser, glass paintings were cheaper than oils, and the glass protection meant that the painting could be kept clean and free of scratches during the journey to distant markets.

8Initially, glass paintings were produced in the Canton workshops and imported into India. However, in due course glass paintings also came to be painted in India by Chinese artists who were brought to India for the purpose. Portraits were particularly favoured by status-conscious Bombay merchants, who commissioned these Chinese artists to paint them and their families. It is interesting that the demand for this new and unusual form of painting was not confined only to those involved with the China trade. It also became popular among the royalty and elite of various princely states in India, who emerged as major patrons of artists and craftsmen, including foreign artists, particularly following the decline of the Mughal court. Chinese painters were in residence at the courts of the rulers of the princely states of Satara, Kutch and Mysore. Apart from portraits of the rulers and the nobility, idealised portraits of courtesans, dancers and other beautiful women were also favoured. Portraits of Indian gods and goddesses and themes from Indian mythology were also undertaken by Chinese artists, even though the lack of feeling of the Chinese painters for their subject in this case is sometimes noticeable (Appasamy 1980: 8). More than forty paintings done by Chinese artists under the patronage of the ruler of Mysore, Tipu Sultan, are lodged in the Jaganmohan Palace Art Gallery in Mysore.

Portrait of Maratha leader Nana Phadnavis from the studio of Chinese artist Lamqua

© Karen Taylor Fine Arts

Dr. Burjorji Dorabji Cooper (1825-1887). First Parsi to obtain medical degree from GMC, Bombay. He was the first Parsi to obtain a medical degree in Bombay and later moved to England where he ran an export-import business under the name of Burjorji & Sons. After the American Civil war of 1864, he returned to Bombay. Oil on canvas, 24.4 x 18.5 in. (62 x 47 cm) by Chinese artist, circa 1860.

© Manan Relia, The Indian Portrait IX – A Parsi Delight: Paintings, Photographs, Prints and Collectibles (Ahmedabad, 2018)

9The popularity of glass painting, a completely new form of art in India, is an example of the broadening of aesthetic tastes among Indians on account of exposure to foreign cultural traditions and art forms through trade. The technique of glass painting was adopted by Indian craftsmen and spread widely through India, as far as Thanjavur in the South, Hyderabad and the Deccan region in central India, Delhi and Awadh in the North, and Bihar and Bengal in eastern India. The adoption of religious themes and its relatively inexpensive nature led to this particular art form becoming a form of popular art that appealed not just to the upper and middle classes but also to a broader section of the population. The noted artist and art historian Jaya Appasamy has noted that “although the technique was adopted from foreign sources it became the vehicle of a popular art”, and that “it was used to produce Indian pictures for an Indian audience” (Appasamy 1980: 9,6).

10The influence on Indian traditions of artistic forms transmitted from China is perhaps even better exemplified in the case of textiles. This is not surprising. For many centuries, there had been a flourishing intra-Asian trade in textiles, and different Asian textile traditions had over a long period of time considerably influenced each other, even while retaining their own uniqueness. Both Chinese and Indian textiles traditionally were embellished with a considerable amount of embroidery. Western India had a particularly rich tradition of embroidery, so it is perhaps no wonder that Chinese silk embroidery particularly attracted the attention of Parsi and other traders from Bombay and this region of India. From their fascination with Chinese embroidery developed the beautiful gara, the heavily embroidered thick silk saree worn by Parsi women on festive occasions such as weddings and for important religious ceremonies, and much prized by them (Gill 2003; Desai 2002; Mani 2003).

11On their arrival in China for the trading season, Parsi merchants would place orders for embroidered lengths of cloth to be made into sarees, and also into saree blouses and borders (kors), children's jackets (jabhlas), and edging for trousers (ijars). Traditional Chinese hand embroidery required very fine, detailed work, involving painstaking labour. Nevertheless, it was possible for Chinese craftsmen to produce the finished products on time, before the Parsi merchants set sail for home at the end of the trading season, because of the practice of several artisans working together simultaneously on a particular piece in the workshops set up for this purpose.

12Gara embroidery, in white or light coloured threads, was usually done on a dark background of red, purple or black silk, using a very fine satin stitch, known as the kha-kha stitch, which gave the impression of the cloth being covered with tiny seed pearls. The work would sometimes be done only on the borders or pallu (the displayed end) of the saree, while in the more elaborate garas, the entire field would be covered with embroidery. This was done so neatly that it often gave the impression of the saree being painted or woven rather than embroidered.

13A variety of typically Chinese motifs can be found on the garas. These included flowers representative of the seasons, such as peonies, plum blossoms, chrysanthemums and lotuses. Also very common were bamboo, pomegranates, peaches, and animals and birds of all descriptions, such as the pheasant, wild geese and the crane. In some, typical scenes of Chinese life, including representations of Chinese men and women, pagodas and pavilions, were also worked in. The embroiderers also at times used symbols from Chinese mythology, such as the Eight Immortals, the Heavenly Fungus and the dragon.

A Gara sari, a heavily embroidered silk garment that represents a fusion of Chinese and Indian cultural traditions

Courtesy: The Trustees, The K R Cama Oriental Institute, Mumbai

14However over time the gara came to represent, not a direct import of a Chinese cultural tradition, but its skillful adaptation to Indian requirements and tastes. For instance, to suit the preferences of Parsi women, the larger Chinese motifs such as the dragon were gradually discarded in favour of flowers, birds and similar motifs. The typically Indian symbol of the peacock was mastered by the Chinese craftsmen, as was the Indian ambi (mango) or paisley motif. Yet another example of adaptation was what came to be known as the do-patti or dodh-pat sarees. These were made by stitching a regular length of Chinese silk to another length of half the width, since Chinese looms, being narrower than Indian looms, could not produce the required width for Indian sarees.

15Due to the popularity of Chinese embroidery, Chinese embroiderers were brought to Surat and other Indian towns to practise their art. They gave rise to a tradition of embroidery known in India appropriately as “chinai”. Even as late as the early twentieth century, Chinese peddlers could be found on the streets of Bombay going from house to house displaying their highly prized embroidered silks and cottons. However, it was not long before garas on the same lines as those from China began to be copied and produced in India by Indian embroiderers.

16Silk weaving was another sphere in which Chinese textile traditions had some impact on India in the modern era. As we know from various references in early Indian works, Chinese silk has been known and prized in India from ancient times. Bolts of Chinese silk were imported into India as part of the nineteenth century China Trade as well. A by-product of this was the birth and development of the art of tanchoi silk weaving in India. Tanchoi silk is well known in India and usually identified with the famous weaving centers of Varanasi in northern India; but the art of tanchoi weaving in fact arrived in India from China via the west coast. Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy, the nineteenth century Parsi opium tycoon who carried on an extensive trade with China, is said to have been responsible for sending Indian weavers to China to learn the art of producing the fine satin brocade for which China was famous (Desai 2002: 577). As the story goes, three (“tran” in Gujarati) brothers from the Joshi family of the town of Surat went to Shanghai to learn the art from a master weaver whose name has come down to us as “Choi”. The material they produced after they returned to India consequently came to be known as tan-choi.

17The tanchoi is usually a dark satin weave of purple, red, blue or green. Floral patterns interspersed with birds and creepers are woven into the entire body. As in the case of the gara, the motifs are recognizably Chinese in inspiration. However, Indian weavers gradually introduced typically Indian motifs, such as the mango or ambi. Although the Joshi family in Surat continued to produce the tanchoi sarees well into the twentieth century, the headquarters of tanchoi-weaving in India shifted to Varanasi after its famed silk weavers learned the art and succeeded in producing it at a lower cost. Today, tanchoi silk weaving in India has been indigenised to such an extent that few in India are aware of its Chinese origins and inspiration.

Tanchoi silk saree

© Textiles Committee, Ministry of Textiles, Government of India

18In conclusion, we can see that cultural interaction between India and China, which began around two thousand years ago, continued to flourish in the early modern era, although perhaps on a less dramatic and inspired scale than during the Buddhist era. The process of cultural diffusion from China to India in the nineteenth century took place through the most unlikely medium of a trade that was dominated by the sale of Indian raw cotton and opium in China. The cold calculation of profit involved in this trade perhaps contrasts strangely with the genuine appreciation of artistic skill represented not only by the import of Chinese cultural objects but also by the welcome extended to Chinese artists and craftsmen to practice their skills in India. However, trade and the exchange of cultural influences between different societies have always gone hand in hand and should not be seen as mutually exclusive phenomena. This was especially true among Asian societies where, particularly in the case of the traditional trade in textiles, both the economic and the cultural impact were significant.

19It is no surprise that the trade at Guangzhou in the early modern era, which knitted together several diverse and far-flung regions of the world, should have served as a transmitter of material culture and have influenced lifestyles and tastes across several countries. The production of Chinese export art at Guangzhou was an astounding phenomenon in the way that it was organized and streamlined to meet the demands of a steadily widening class of consumers around the globe with a taste for the new and the exotic. But the identification of Chinese export art solely with the Western market is not justifiable, as it does not take into account the fact that it also catered to the Indian market. As we have seen, the Indian demand for Chinese art in this period did not merely ape Western fashions, but also emerged from Indian tastes and values. The export art workshops at Guangzhou became experts at producing designs and textures and art work favoured by Indian customers, just as they did for Western customers.

20In the examples highlighted above, we can distinguish various stages in the process of cultural transmission from China to India. One is the importation by Indian merchants of cultural products made in China by Chinese artists and craftsmen. In the next stage, we have cultural products being made by Chinese artists and craftsmen, but in India and catering exclusively to Indian consumers. We have the adaptation of skills, designs and motifs derived from China to suit Indian aesthetic values and cultural preferences. This can be seen in the adaptation of embroidery to suit Indian sarees and clothing, in the adoption of typically Indian motifs such as the mango and the peacock, and, in the case of glass painting, the adoption of Indian religious themes. This kind of adaptation enabled Chinese cultural influences to penetrate more widely and deeply into Indian society. They were not confined only to the elite or to those who had direct contact with the China trade, but also spread to different parts of India and among the wider public as well. Finally, we have the Chinese art forms being studied and mastered by Indian artists and craftsmen in India and then further developed by them in accordance with their own genius. The tanchoi silk weaving carried out in Varanasi and the different schools of glass painting that developed in India from the nineteenth century represent this kind of “import substitution”, to borrow a contemporary formulation. Ultimately, we can argue that this process resulted in altogether new, hybrid forms of art and crafts in India, which, while they were undoubtedly Chinese in origin and inspiration, nevertheless have become an enduring part of the Indian cultural tradition.


Appasamy, Jaya. 1980. Indian Paintings on Glass. New Delhi: Indian Council for Cultural Relations.

Beggerow, Alan. “Reverse glass painting – Centuries-old art form”, Accessed 9 Oct 2008.

Desai, Kalpana. 2002. “The Tanchoi and the Garo: Parsi Textiles and Embroidery”, in Pheroza J. Godrej and Firoza Punthakey Mistree (eds), A Zoroastrian Tapestry: Art, Religion and Culture. Ahmedabad: Mapin Publishing.

Gill, Brinda. 2003. “Silken Connections: Threads from Indo-Chinese Trade”, in Embroidery, Vol.54, No.3.

Jiang Yinghe 江滢河. 2007. Qingdai yanghua yu Guangzhou kou’an 清代洋画與廣州口岸 (Western painting and Canton port during the Qing period). Beijing: Zhonghua shuju.

Mani, Priya. 2003. “Painting with a Needle”, in 3000th Anniversary of Zoroastrian Culture. UNESCO Parzor (The UNESCO Parsi Zoroastrian Project).

Mok, Maria Kar-wing. 2018. “Trading with Traders: The Wonders of Cantonese Shopkeepers”, in Paul Arthur Van Dyke and Susan E. Schopp (eds), The Private Side of the Canton Trade, 1700-1840: Beyond the Companies. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Morse, H.B. 1926. Chronicles of the East India Company Trading to China, Vol.III. Oxford: The Clarendon Press.

Peabody Essex Museum. “Chinese export art at Canton”. Accessed Sept 10, 2005.

Thampi, Madhavi, and Shalini Saksena. 2009. China and the Making of Bombay. Mumbai, KR Cama Oriental Institute.

Table des illustrations

Légende Lam Qua at his studio
Crédits Public domain
Fichier image/jpeg, 377k
Légende Portrait of Maratha leader Nana Phadnavis from the studio of Chinese artist Lamqua
Crédits © Karen Taylor Fine Arts
Fichier image/jpeg, 118k
Légende Dr. Burjorji Dorabji Cooper (1825-1887). First Parsi to obtain medical degree from GMC, Bombay. He was the first Parsi to obtain a medical degree in Bombay and later moved to England where he ran an export-import business under the name of Burjorji & Sons. After the American Civil war of 1864, he returned to Bombay. Oil on canvas, 24.4 x 18.5 in. (62 x 47 cm) by Chinese artist, circa 1860.
Crédits © Manan Relia, The Indian Portrait IX – A Parsi Delight: Paintings, Photographs, Prints and Collectibles (Ahmedabad, 2018)
Fichier image/jpeg, 200k
Légende A Gara sari, a heavily embroidered silk garment that represents a fusion of Chinese and Indian cultural traditions
Crédits Courtesy: The Trustees, The K R Cama Oriental Institute, Mumbai
Fichier image/jpeg, 156k
Légende Tanchoi silk saree
Crédits © Textiles Committee, Ministry of Textiles, Government of India
Fichier image/jpeg, 247k


Madhavi Thampi is an Honorary Fellow of the Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi, and till recently Editor of the journal China Report. She taught at the Department of East Asian Studies of the University of Delhi until 2014. Her major publications include Indians in China, 1800-1949 (2005) and China and the Making of Bombay (2010, co-authored with Shalini Saksena). She also edited the volume India and China in the Colonial World (2005). Her area of interest has been the less studied aspects of the interactions between India and China in the colonial era. She has also been involved in initiatives to catalogue materials related to modern China in the National Archives of India.

© Collège de France, 2020

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