The young Chinese beauty queen sat at the dimly-lit Buddhist restaurant in Beijing, chatting about her trip to New York. Then she uttered a word you'd last expect to hear from the woman who last year wore the crown of Miss Jiangsu. “Ahimsa”.
Zheng Yan (25) is an unlikely Gandhian — one of a growing number of Chinese followers of the Indian nonviolence icon — in a country where Bollywood and the border dispute seem to be the only talking points about India. Zheng goes by the name Michelle and works as a project manager in an American company in southern Nanjing, a former capital of China and the capital of Jiangsu province.
All Chinese professionals and students have international names but Zheng started calling herself Shanti last year. She avoids alcohol, meat and ‘loud bars’, and meets with 30 Chinese professionals regularly in Nanjing to discuss the relevance of Mahatma Gandhi in their changing lives. Many Chinese, brought up on an officially atheist tradition, are turning to yoga and best-selling self-help books for spiritual guidance in an increasingly materialistic nation with a booming economy.
"We are modern Chinese who believe in simplicity, vegetarianism and ahimsa, (non-violence),'' Shanti told the Hindustan Times. "Hate doesn't exist in our dictionary.'' She has pasted her name on a silver framed photograph of her in a black outfit in which she could pass off as one of the Chinese girls who splurge on nail colours, Starbucks coffee and Gucci bags. But Shanti couldn't get over Gandhi after studying him in school.
Two years ago, Shanti and history schoolteacher Hu Yujuan, who arranges Gandhi awareness seminars, formed the Nanjing group to discuss Gandhi and Chinese philosopher Confucius who would have been 2,559 years old this year.
It's a curious trend in a land where young Chinese aspire to live like * Friends* in the popular American series. The Chinese call him *lao* (old) Gandhi to avoid confusing him with ruling coalition leader Sonia Gandhi. "Gandhi is to India what Chairman Mao is to China,'' says Susie, a graduate in English. "We criticise Mao for the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), but Gandhi's like God!''
In August, Gandhi was a 'new arrival' in China's busiest and biggest bookstore, the Beijing Books Building, with his Chinese biography ending up in a blood-red cover on a shelf titled Biographies of Military Leaders. "The best-sellers are on the top two racks,'' Emily Zhang, the store's vice-president (marketing) told HT. Adolf Hitler was on the rack above Gandhi.
Modern Chinese parents encourage children to read books on leadership and Gandhi was sold-out in the children's category. "The last six Gandhi copies sold this morning,'' an employee told HT.
In 2005, Indian diplomatic efforts escorted Mahatma Gandhi to Beijing's best lakeside park in the form of a bronze statue. "At first, only the embassy staff would visit,'' says Yuan Xikun (65) the sculptor and curator of the Beijing Jintai Art Museum in the park. "Now Chinese school groups visit the statue once a fortnight. The Chinese bring flowers on tomb sweeping day in April.''
Ma Chengming calls himself Murali, practices yoga, wakes up early, paints Indian art, and converted to vegetarianism 15 years ago. "My friends are rich but I don't believe in spending beyond needs,'' says the Beijing-based freelance artist. "I'm guided by the idea of Gandhi and discuss him with friends."
Zhang Mingyu of the Peking University was among the first international recruits to the Mahatma Gandhi International Hindi University in Wardha in 2006-07. He plans to research Gandhi's influence on Hindi.
In an 11th floor Beijing apartment, a retired couple lives with books on India and memories of Delhi diplomacy during India's 1998 nuclear test. In August, Deng Junbing, wife of former ambassador to India Zhou Gang, (1998-2001) released the Chinese version of Rajmohan Gandhi's *The Good Boatman: A portrait of Gandhi*. Diplomats say Beijing's political slogan of a 'harmonious society' echoes Gandhiism. "The Chinese take Gandhi's message of non-violence and harmony to heart,'' says Deng. Several Communist Party members have booked orders for My Grandfather, the Mahatma.
Businessman Li Jian Lin read Gandhi while studying management. "I want to publish a Chinese book on Gandhi next year to mark 60 years of bilateral relations,' says Li. "Can you tell me how to get copyright for Indian books?''