India and China were never adjacent countries as there were two impregnable barriers between them. The first was the buffer state of Tibet and then there were the lofty Himalayas. Thus people to people contact between Chinese and Indian civilizations was minimal.
But from the 19th century onwards unknown to most of the world there is an Indian connection with China. This is the forgotten association of the Indian soldiery notably the Sikhs with China.
The Boxer rebellion where the rebels, mainly young Chinese farmers and workers, kept more than 400 foreigners holed up in Beijing’s Foreign Legation Quarter is one of the more dramatic cases of the involvement of Indian troops. This was a period when a wave of anti west and anti Christian thought spread in China. Though the boxer rebellion is well documented, what is not so well known is that Indian troops played a significant part in its crushing.
The British shipped Indian troops from India to crush the boxer rebellion. The Indian regiments made their way to the foreign quarter in hand to hand fighting on Aug 04, 1900. Some troops made use of the Imperial sewage canals to reach the foreign quarter. The siege was lifted by the Indian relief force that numbered 3000 soldiers, composed mainly of the Sikh and Punjab regiments. After the lifting of the siege Indian troops were also used to guard the churches and foreign missionaries who were the main target of the Boxer uprising. By all accounts the Punjab and Sikh soldiers acquitted themselves honorably in these battles and duties. The British Indian army also looted a large bell from Peking’s Temple of Heaven and took it to India. The same bell was returned by the Indian army to China in 1994.
Much earlier in 1842 the British who were then the rulers of India sent Indian troops to crush the Chinese in the Opium wars. The Indian troops returned after China agreed to the British terms in the treaty of Nanking in 1842.
The British also employed Sikh soldiers as policemen in Shanghai. Many photos of the Sikhs as Shanghai policemen are available in the Beijing Museum. It is now known that the Sikhs with their beards and imposing turbans were feared by the Chinese and most of them patrolled Shanghai without arms because of the fear and awe they inspired.
The British had also garrisoned Hongkong with Sikh and Punjabi troops. In the battle of Hongkong the Japanese launched violent attacks and it is on record that 558 Indian soldiers (Mostly Sikhs) died fighting the Japanese. There names are still remembered in Hongkong war cemeteries.
But in the present age the involvement of Indian troops in suppression of the Boxer rebellion and the policing of Hongkong are down played for political reasons as it shows that Indian fought fought at the behest of the British against the Chinese. But facts of history cannot be brushed under the carpet.