IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF XUANZANG: TAN YUN-SHAN AND INDIA
was born in the same province, Hunan, as Tan Yun-shan was. But, his birth
place was Chaling, a county at the eastern edge of the province while my
County ,Xiangyin, was in the middle section. Our home village, though a
part of the Xiangyin Country, was only some 30 miles away from Changsha,
the capital city of Hunan Province. (Today, it is a part of the now much
enlarged Changsha City). Tan Yun-shan who was senior to me by sixteen
years was married to my first cousin sister, Chen Nai-wei. Sister Chen was
a very brave woman. She belonged to almost the first generation of the
Chinese women who broke the age-old tradition of keeping unmarried girls
away from career-seeking ventures. She started studying at a very young
age in a modern-type of school in Changsha as a hosteller. After
graduation from the school but still in her teenage, she went to teach the
primary school kids in Xiangxing more than a hundred miles away from home.
Then, she went out of the countrytoteachthe children of the overseas
Chinese in the “South Ocean”(Nanyang) which was what Singapore,
Malaya, Indonesia and other parts of the mainland and islands of southeast
Asia were called by the Chinese at the time. In 1931, she returned to her
home village with her bridegroom -- Prof. Tan Yun-shan (already so
designated by the famous
Indian poet and Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, after the young Tan
had had a stint at Tagore’s university called Visva-Bharati). It was
first visit to our native place.
That time, I was still in my teenage
-- a country lad who
had seen very little of the outside world, nor met any outsider from afar.
I developed a great fascination towards my new realative from Chaling. My
father was a Confucian scholar and middle school teacher. He, too, was
quite cut off from the modern world. But my father had a hobby -- playing
Chinese chess. Prof. Tan was also good at it. Thus before they could get
along in common conversation they had quite an encounter at a Chinese
chess table. (This turned out to be the first and also the last time I saw
Prof. Tan playing Chiness chess.) Then, my father and the guest who was
not much younger than him became endeared to each other. He took Tan
around in the countryside, showed him the hilly charm, lectured to him
about the traditional Chinese geomancy. For, to my father’s generation,
the landscape inherited by men had a decisive influence on their fortunes.
As a lad, I was keenly watching the reactions from Prof. Tan who listened
attentively to my father without any comment.
My maternal grandfather, I. e. Tan’s father-in law’s father, and his two sons lived in the Eastern Hills while my parents lived in the plain by the side of many rice fields.It was comparatively quiet and cooler in summer on the small hill top, and I took great delight to go there. Much of my childhood I spent in my maternal uncle’s house. The arrival of Prof. and Mrs. Tan with their first and second sons to spend some time was an exciting event among all of us. The lifestyle of a traditional Chinese scholar he carried with him, Prof. Tan set up his own study room in the cottage. When he inaugurated the study, he wrote a poetic couplet on two sheets with his beautiful cllligraphy and displayed them. Hunan was a province quite strong in classical Chinese culture, and kids of my generation had a good exposure to good and simple poetic compliments. I could comprehend the couplet that he had pasted on both sides of the entrance to his study and immediately liked it. Since this never entered into the curricula of my long academic career, I never had the compulsion to memorize it. yet, even after nearly 70 years, after a lot of memory has escaped my head, I can still vividly recall what he had composed. The couplet reads:
Dongshan Zhanji er san yue
Shushi changliu qianwan chun
Just a brief sojourn
of two three moons
At these East Hills.
Forever to endure,
A thousand springs or more,
My study will grow.
Though already an accomplished
“Mandarin”, Tan did not give up his innate
peasant nature. Every day he carried home
from a well outside the house, with a pole on his shoulders,
buckets of water for the large family. This he did to share the burden of
household chore, and also to faithfully carry out the duty of a devout
Buddhist according to the age-old Chinese Chan (Zen) Buddhist tradition
(enjoying daily life by fetching water and cutting firewood).
One day, suddenly, he decided to proceed on pilgrimage to the
Southern Holy Mountain (one of the five holy mountain shrines of China),
Heng Shan, which is situated within Hunan, south of Changsha. I was glad
that he took me in the trip. During the pilgrimage he observed that
according to the Chinese saying, “Wuyue guilai bu kan shan”. (After
ascending on the five holy moutains one finds no intereset in looking at
any other hill.) But, he had already climbed the Himalayas, the loftiest
mountains in the world. And this never diminished his interest in
ascending mountains and hills again and again. In fact, he made another
trip to Heng Shan soon after. I notices that pilgrimage to the Buddhist
shrines to him was perhaps not as important as availing of the opportunity
to distribute alms to the poor all along the way.
All this I still recall with
vivd pictures in my mind. After my first round of acquaintance with Prof.
Tan in my grandfather’s house, he left for India and returned to his
endeavour in developing Sino-Indian studies and the promotion of cultural
relations between India and China. I remained in my home provine to pursue
my future career. Though I continued to obtain tidings of Prof. Tan and
his family through the source of my maternal relatives, I missed him for
quite a long duration.
Like my cousin sister Chen, I,too went to Changsha as a hosteller,
first of the Changjun School, then of the First Normal School where Prof.
Tan and many famous modern leaders of China, like Mao Zedongm,had studied.
I then, got admission in the Central Political University in Nanjing which
was essentially the cradle for government officers. No sooner had I joined
this prestigeous institution than did Japan invade China in the fall of
1937, and the Sino-Japanese War broke out. Then the university moved to
Chongqing, the war capital. After gradution from the university, I got a
teaching assignment in Guiyang which was situated in southwest China.
There I started correspondence with Prof. Tan in India. In August, 1945
the Japanese surrendered and World War II came to an end. Prof. Tan was
awarded the victory medal by the National Government of China for his
contribution in mobilizing international support to China’s war efforts.
He went from Indiato Chongqing to receive the medal.
I was thrilled to know the news, and took a trip from Guiyang to
Chongqing to meet him. Apart from sharing his pride and jou, I was keen to
meet him for some personal resons. When I told him that I would like to
pursue research in India he showed great delight. He went out of his way
to help me to obtain permission
from Chinese authorities, and also a scholarship from the Ministry of
Education (which was meagre in sum though). Of course, the invitation to
me to go to India came from himself as the Director of Cheena-Bhavana of
I should like to record an improtant thing whichProf. Tan towards
the end of 1945 in Chongqing which, probably , has escaped notice by the
chroniclers. He took initiative to convene a conference on the Development
of Sino-India Cultural Relations which was attended. Dr.Tai Chi-tao, one
of the the top leadersof the Kuomintang government, addressed the
conference, and dwelt on Sino-Indian cultural affinity. Dr. Tai was not
only a devout Buddhist but also lent a powerful support to Prof. Tan to
help Rabindranath Tagore establih a permanent institution on Sino-Indian
studies in his university. He had travelled to India a few years
earlierand had pleasant meeting with Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharal al
While in Chongqing, Tan gave me opportunities to share some of his
itinerary. One evening he took me to see Rev. Taixu (or Tai Hsu), an
eminent Buddhist sage of modern China who had also led a Chinese Buddhist
delegation to India. One thing I vivdly remermber was to watch how Prof.
Tan knelt down before the patriarch to pay his respect. Tan was a man
always humble, never rest on his own laurels. It also reflected his
unbounded devotion to the high ideas and ideals of Lord Buddha of which
the Reverend was a symbol.
With the invitation from Prof. Tan behalf of a renowned Indian
university, the Visva-Bharati (a Sanskrit name meaning “International
University”), and with the blessings of my eminent relative who was
quite influential in the national government, I did not have much
difficulty in getting the green signal from the Chinese Ministryof
Education. I left Chongqing by a military plane available at the time,
flying over the Himalayas, and landed at Calcutta. Then, I took atrain to
Santiniketan (a very poetic Sanskrit name meaning “the abode of
peace”) which was a tiny village of serene atmosphere true to its name,
with many eminent sholars pursuing high academic activities quietly. I was
happy for many reasons. First, I had my reunion
with not onlyProf. Tan, but also my first cousin, Mrs. Tan who now
had many more children. admired the manner in which she had set up a happy
home far away from her homeland. The idea that I was in what the Chinese
literature used to describe as “Foguo” (the Buddha’s country) and
“Tianzhu” (Heavely India) made me very excited. India was a country
that I had been longing to see, a country with powerful spiritual values
and sophisticated philosophies. I was even more excited when I discovered
the presence of many famous and learned scholars of Indology and Buddhism
around the quarter I lived, and so easily accessible.
I arrived in India to become a visiting scholar of Visva-Bharati
Cheena-Bhavana, an insititution that was created jointly by the founder of
the university, Chancellor Tagore and Prof. Tan in 1937. I joined it in
early 1946, five years after the great poet had passed away. As soon as I
joined the Cheena-Bhavana, I became a part of the international fraternity
in which Chinese scholars met Indian scholars and assisted each other
likebrothers. The mutual feeling of brotherhood was spontaneous, this was
not to be compare with the slogan, “Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai” (Indians
and Chinese are brothers), coined by an Indian poet and much trumpeted by
the Chinese government in the 1950s.
I can never forget my associations with some Indian pundits at
Santiniketan, many of whom were outstanding scholars trained both in India
and abroad. Dr. P. C. Bagchi was then giving a series of lectures on the
cultural relations between India and China.I was happy to attend his
lectures. He was latter to be visitng professor of Indian Studies at
Beijing University, China. His most important publications was India
and China: A Thousand Years of Sino-Indian Cultural Contacts.
Another professor of Sanskrit was Dr. P. V. Bapat who, like Bagchi,
also had a good command of Chinese language. He was always intimate and
homorous especially towards Chinese scholars. To Chinese beginners
Sanskrit it a very hard language to learn. But Bapat had enormous patience
with us. Later, during the year of Buddha Jayanti (celebrating the 2,
500th Anniversary of Lord) in 1956, Prime Minister Nehru appointed him as
the founder-head of the Department of Buddhist Studies in Delhi
University. I was, then , working in Delhim and had more interactions with
him. My wife was asked by Prof. Bapat to teach Chinese language to the
students of the Department. Dr.
Bapat’s personal friends with Prof. Tan had, thus, extended to me and my
wife who were related to the Tans.
Among the Chinese scholars there were two professors from China.
One was XuHu (or Hsu Hu), who had studied in Germany. He was well versed
in Chinese classics and preferred to write Chinese in its old literary
style. He had also learned much Sanskrit. Another Professor from China,
Chang Renxia (or Jen-hsia) specialized in archaeology and ancient Chinese
art Prof.Xu was very close to me. In a way I respected him even as my
teacher. After leaving Cheena-Bhavana later, I met Prof. Chang in New
Delhi once, but never Prof. Xu. He went to the ashram of Sri Aurobindo at
Pondicherry and translated a large number of the modern Indian sage’s
writing into Chinese. In late 1970s he returned to China and joined the
Chinese Academy of Social Sciences as an India expert. With regret I came
to know that both of them had passed away.
Two disciples of Reverend Taixu also joined Cheen-Bhavan, both
having returned, to the mundane world form priesthood. Ond of them, Pachow,
has become the renowed authority on Chinese Buddhism (now settled down in
USA), after a fruitful teaching career in the universities of Allahabad.
Candi (in Sri Lanka), and lowa. He was a favourite disciple of Prof. Tan,
and had been very attached to the Tan family ever since. Another ex-Taixu
disciple, Xulu, taught Chinese in Cheena-Bhavana for many decades, leading
a simple and singular life, and passed away in Uttar Pradesh.
We also had a lady scholar from China living in Cheena-Bhavana who
was a painter. Her name, then, was You Yun-shan, sharing personal name
with Prof. Tan. She is a leading Buddhist priest and educationist is
Taiwan now -- the renowned Rev. Hsiao-yun (Xiaoyun). Not far away from
Taipei, Rev Hsiao-yun has carved out a hill into a campus resembling
Santiniketan. She named her higher educational institiution “Hua-fan”,
meaning “China -India”. We see the spirit of Sino-Indian fraternity of
Gurudeva Tagore first extended to Prof. Tan, and then to Rev. Hsiao-yun.
Prof. Tan lived wholesomely in his idealism of universalism, and
his path was shone upon by the noble ideas of both China and India. This
was enshrined in the “Sino-India Motto” composed by him. The Motto has
32 Chinese characters, beginning with “li de li yan”. All Chinese
scholars of Confucian tradition in the past had a task set for themselves
to achieve three things: “li de” (to attain a moral character), “li
gong” (to achieve a meritorious feat), and “liYan” (to perfect a
speech which can propagate truth and noble ideas). Prof. Tan dropped the
second as if to say: “I must cultivate my character and perfect my
speech to set an example for posterity.”
Then, the next four characters to follow in the Motto are “Jiu
ren Jiu shi”
The next eight characters of Prof. Tan’s Sino-Indian Motto are:
“Zhi gamg zhi da” -- To be extremely strong and grand;
“You shou you wei” -- To
contribute but adhere to Principle.
The second part of the Motto is in keeping with the Confucian norm
the there are things which a gentleman will do, and things which a
gentleman will not do. Judging from this light, the concept of “Zhida”
(extremely grand) should be understood as “Zhi gong da yi” i.e.,
extremely selfless and grand righteousness.
The last half of Tan’s Motto is more transparently a Buddhist
“Nan xing neng xing”-- To be able to do what is diffecult to do;
“Nan ren reng ren” -- To be able to tolerate what is difficult to tolerate;
“Sui yuan bu bian” -- Adaptable to circumstances yet remanining unchangeable;
“Bu bian sui yuan” -- Remaining unchangeable while adapting to circumstances.
In later prof. Tan self-styled
himself as “Renxian”which is the Chinese rendering of the Sanskrit
term “Ksantirishi”-- the
saint who suffers insult patiently. Prof. Tan was the last human
being on earth on whom anyone might like to hurl insult, perhaps.
His self-styled title of “Renxian” was just in keeping with his
Sino-Indian Motto to set an example of noble and magnanimous behaviour.
Knowing that I, too, had a smattering of classical
Chinese poetry which I had inherited from my family background,
Prof. Tan, time and again, presented me with verses which he had made it a
point to pen with his calligraphy. I particularly remember the four pieces
he sent to me in September, 1958, in reply to my offer of poetry to him,
after he had made a brief visit to New Delhi and been entertained by my
wife and me in my house. Let me quote what he has composed:
I visited the ancestral house
Eight and twenty yearsfrom now.
You were just a bud, and
I, not much older a man.
Memories of the Eastern Hills
As if gathered only yesterday,
A happy though that thrills
new achievements already made.
I have from the inception
Adopted the world as home.
What a rare fortune to share here
My years with the near and dear!
I owe you and family many thanks
For delicious eats and amrita drinds,
And momentarily excited and happy
become guest while in a great country.
Riding on the white horse I head
Towards the path trodden by old sages.
My great ambition yet to manifest.
Gone are the Tripitakas into antiquity,
Supplemementaries necessary for posterity.
Who’s ready to execute such task
see moderns exceed men of the past?
Exciting moments atop holy mountains,
Long ago event now I reckon.
How many times have I stood on High
All surrounding scenes before the prying eyes?
Ler our Ssha-lokadhatu metamorphosize
Into the Pure-land sukavati paradise.
where the Western Wind may succumb
There the Eastern Wind blows strong.
When I go through these verses once again, memories of half a
century emerges beginning from the beginning of the 1930s when I first met
him in the Eastern Hills, When I accompanied him to the holy mountain of
HengShen That time, I was just a “bus”, beginning to see the contours
of the brave new world. The prying eyes
of this marvellous young man had already visualized the Pureland sukavati.
That was the kind of man Prof. Tan was. He was the rider of the “white
horse” -- a metaphor that can trace its genesis to the stories about
Buddha’s life with a white horse carring Prince Siddhartha into the womb
of Mayadevi, and once again carring him out of the palace in quest of
enlightenment. It was by no accident that the two first eminent Indian
monks arrived in the Han imperial capital, Luoyang, by white horse during
the reign of Han Emperor Ming in the first century. By identifying himself
with this white horse image Tan Yun-shan had unmistakably placed himself
among the ranks of idealists. It was his quest for sukavati
that had build up his life and career in India where he also brethed his
last -- a great fortune and honour cherished by many among his and my
generations. Unfortunately, his ambition about adding supplementaries to
make the Tripitaka relevant to the modern age has remained unfulfilled.
©1999 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced any manner without written permission of the publisher.