Why is India's Dr Kotnis revered in China?

This picture taken on May 20, 2013 shows the statue in Shijiazhuang, central China's Hebei province of Indian doctor Dwarkanath Shantaram Kotnis, one of five Indian physicians dispatched to China to provide medical assistance during the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1938 Image copyright AFP
Image caption Dr Kotnis is revered in China for treating wounded Chinese soldiers

Every time a Chinese leader visits India, he usually meets the family of an Indian doctor who died while treating wounded Chinese soldiers in the conflict with Japan in the 1940s.

Dwarkanath S Kotnis was sent to China in 1938 as part of an Indian medical mission after China was invaded by Japan. He served on the frontline and saved the lives of many Chinese soldiers. After four years in China, he fell ill and died at the age of 32.

In China, Dr Kotnis fell in love and married a Chinese nurse who worked with him. Quo Qinglan, who remained in China, died last year in the city of Dalian. They had a son, who was studying to become a doctor but he died when he was 24.

"The army has lost of a helping hand, the nation a friend. Let us always bear in mind his international spirit," China's former communist leader and revolutionary hero Mao Zedong reportedly said in a tribute.

Following a long tradition, Premier Li Keqiang will visit the doctor's family in Mumbai, where his 92-year-old sister will receive him. "We are overwhelmed that even after so many years, my brother is remembered and loved by the Chinese and that the premier is taking pains to meet us," Manorama Kotnis, who has met three Chinese leaders, told the Indian Express.

At home, Dr Kotnis appears to be a little-known figure these days, although he was immortalised in a 1946 film and is still mentioned in text books.

In China, he is revered as a hero to this day: stamps bearing his picture have been printed and there is a memorial to him in Hebei province. Dr Kotnis was chosen as one of the "top 10 foreigners" in a 2009 internet poll of China's foreign friends in a century. The doctor "continues to be revered by the Chinese people," says China Daily.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Dr Kotnis's sister, Manorama, has visited China

What accounts for Dr Kotnis's popularity in China and why have the country's leaders felt the need to visit his family since 1950?

China experts like Srikanth Kondapalli say a visit to the Kotnis family by Chinese leaders is loaded with symbolism of a shared history of anti-imperial and colonial struggles long before border disputes led to a full-blown war in 1962 and soured ties between the two countries.

"By visiting the family, they are harking back to the solidarity between the two countries when both India and China were fighting colonialism and imperialism," says Prof Kondapalli.

In 1924, India's first Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore visited China and spoke about his admiration for "its world of beauty", "wisdom" and "touch of the human". He spoke about the need for "eternally revealing a joyous relationship unforeseen" between the two countries.

In 1940 - seven years before India's independence and nine years before the Chinese revolution - Mao wrote to the man who would become independent India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and said that "our emancipation, the emancipation of the Indian people and the Chinese, will be the signal of the emancipation of all down-trodden and oppressed".

And in 1942, Mahatma Gandhi wrote to late Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek saying that he had "always felt drawn towards you in your fight for freedom, and that contact and our conversation brought China and her problems still nearer to me".

Prof Kondapalli says when Chinese leaders pay homage to Dr Kotnis they evoke the bonhomie of the high noon of Sino-Indian relations.

The world has changed since then.

China and Japan are two of the world's three biggest economies, and India does business with both. Japan's relations with China are repeatedly strained over a deadlocked territorial dispute and historical grievances. India's relations with China come under strain over the ill-defined border they share.

Through all this the memory of Dr Kotnis endures.