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 My Tribute to Tan Yun-Shan 


 K.P.S. Menon

The hall mark of intercourse of Sino-Indian relations is cultural intercourse and affinity. The two great peoples, wedded to civilized living in the ways of peace, naturally find in the exchange of culture the truest expression of their being. Not for them the covetous eyes of rapacious plunder nor territorial aggrandizement.

Jawaharlal Nehru had this description for Sino-Indian relations in his broadcast from London on January 12, 1951 : "When we hark back to that long past [of Sino-Indian friendship] something of the wisdom of that past also helps us to understand each other." On another occasion, Nehru talked about the "thousands of golden links" that had bound the two peoples in the past.

Some of the actors of this moving history are well known, such as the legendary Chinese pilgrims Faxian and Xuanzang: some, such as Bodhidharma, deserve to be better-known; but one name stands out in contemporary history, and will become still better known as India and China settle down after their present years of social and economic transformation, that of Professor Tan Yun-Shan, the revered Director of Cheena-Bhavana at Santiniketan for more than thirty eventful years, from 1937 till 1967.

Professor Tan was not only the Director of Visva-Bharati Cheena-Bhavana:  he was its inspiration and founder; it would not be too much to say that but for him it would not have come into being. Tan had been "discovered" by Tagore in Singapore in 1927. He was then only 29 years old, but Tagore saw in him the dedication, the empathy he was looking for; and at the young age of 30 Tan came to Visva-Bharati without his bride of two years to take over as Professor in charge of Chinese studies. Young in years he might have been, but he had already been teaching and writing in Malaya for more than four years. It was in Malaya that he had met his bride to be, Chen Naiwai, who had also come out from Hunan, Tan's own province, to serve as a teacher and principal of a school in Malaya. Except for brief interludes, Tan was to remain at Santiniketan for the next forty-four years.

During his absence from Santiniketan Tan was increasingly ocupied with affairs of state, but running through all his activity one senses the leit-motif of Sino-Indian friendship. In 1931 he accompanied a special Chinese government  mission to Tibet when he delivered letters from that government to the 13th Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama asked him to convey his blessings to Mahatma Gandhi. This Tan did in person when he met Gandhiji in Sabarmati in April the same year. Tan and the Mahatma talked about India and China; and the subject of India-China relations was also the subject he was to discuss subsequently with other leaders of India, such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, Dr. S. Radhakrishnan and of course, Rabindranath Tagore.

For some time, Tan shuttled between Shanghai and Nanjing (the Chinese capital), putting into service all his persuasive power, calling on his compatriots to reenact the historic pilgrimage that saw eminent Chinese monk-scholars in their quest for Buddha Dharma from the "Western Heaven" i.e. India. 1933 saw the light of realization of one of Tagore's dreams when Tan was able to report that, after two years of shuttling back and forth between Shanghai and the capital Nanjing, he was in a position to establish formally the Sino-Indian Cultural Society in Nanjing. This had won the powerful support of Tsai Yuan-Pei, President of the Academia Sinica, and Tai Chi Tao, President of the Examination Yuan, equivalent to India's UPSC. In fact, Tsai Yuan-Pei was the first President of the Society with Tan as its Secretary.

But Tan did not rest on his laurels. After a brief visit to Santiniketan in 1934, he returned to China and for the next two years gathered support there for the Cheena Bhavana to be established in Santiniketan. His efforts were marked with success for he returned to Santiniketan in 1936 with Rs. 50,000, a not inconsiderable sum those days, and one hundred thousand books for Cheena Bhavana. Tagore was thrilled, allotted the best plot of land for Cheena-Bhavana and requested Tan to have it built. This Tan did, personally supervising every detail, from the blueprint to the laying of bricks and the planting of trees. This hallowed testimony to Sino-Indian friendship, one of the most impressive buildings in Santiniketan, was completed with frescoes painted by Nandalal Bose and inscribed with Chinese calligraphy by the President of China, Lin Sen, to which was added, a few years later, the fine specimen of Chinese writing of Tai Chi Tao. The Bhavana was inaugurated by Tagore. Nehru could not attend on account of illness, but Gandhiji sent a message: "May the Chinese Hall be a symbol of living contact between China and India." This it truely became, with Tan, its first Director, continuing to collect support and funds from China for salaries and scholarships.

With the naked Japanese aggression unleashed upon China, Tan's role in public affairs became evern more exigent. Towards the end of 1937 Nehru wrote to him that the Congress would boycott Japanese goods in India; in 1938, just before Tan left on a visit to China, Nehru wrote him again, asking him to convey India's support to the Chinese people during the anti-Japanese war. This was followed by a letter from Tagore to Chiang Kai-shek, to be delivered in person by Tan, assuring Chiang  Indiaís support to China in resisting Japanese aggression, and a letter from Subhas Chandra Bose, asking Tan to convey Congress' support to China in the war. Tagore's letter was delivered directly by Tan to Chiang; and within a week a letter of thanks from Chiang was despatched to Tagore.

On his return to India in 1939, Tan busied himself in promoting visits between the two countries. With the help of the Sino-Indian Cultural Society, Nehru's visit to China was organised between the 20th August and the 6th September. On the eve of Nehruís departure Tan had sent a telegram to Chiang informing him of the exact date of Nehruís arrival. In 1940 and 1941 Tan was instrumental in arranging visits to India of a Chinese Buddhist delegation led by the Rev. Tai Hsu and the visit of Dr. Tai Chi Tao. In 1942 came the visit to India of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and Madam Chiang. They visited Santiniketan and made a donation to Cheena Bhavana; and, although India was not yet free of British rule, Tan was able to arrange a series of meetings between Chiang and Nehru. This could not but have a profound influence on the thinking of both men, on the one about India's independence and on the other about China and the war. Lest Chiang harboured any fears that India's struggle for independence would impede the war effort, Nehru got Gandhiji to send Chiang the assurance that "whatever action I may recommend will be governed by the consideration that it should not injure China ..... and ..... must lead to the strengthening of India's and China's defence."

For his tireless efforts, Tan was awarded the Victory Medal in 1945 by the Chinese government. The same year he went back to China with his wife to found the Datong school at Changsha, but he was back again in Santiniketan in 1948 in continuous pursuance of the added responsibility which had come to him with the eminently appropriate title of China's "Cultural Representative", already bestowed on him at the time when China appointed its first ambassador to independent India. Why not "Cultural ambassador," one wonders. Perhaps protocol came in the way but, protocol or no protocol, Nehru, now Prime Minister, wrote to Tan, "I hope that with your assistance and advice we shall develop further cultural contacts with China."

But it was more than cultural affairs that Tan found himself drawn into. Years earlier, in the days of his youth in the early 1920s in Changsha, he had joined the progressive students' movement when he was pursuing his studies both at the first Normal School and at the Chuanshan Academy. The movement had been led by Mao Zedong, several years his senior at both the Normal School and Chuanshan. Now, almost three decades later, Tan wrote to his former acquaintance Mao, advising, firstly, that China should not lean to one side or the other; secondly, that Sino-Indian friendship be strengthened; and, thirdly, that the Taiwan issue be settled peacefully. As, unfortunately, the border situation between India and China took a turn for the worse, one notices a flurry of activity on Tan's part. In September 1956 he was invited to visit China where he met in Beijing Mao and other Chinese leaders, former teachers and fellow-students. In January 1957 he was instrumental in getting Premier Zhou Enlai to visit santiniketan where Zhou received an honorary degree. Zhou also visited Cheena Bhavana and decided on a donation of funds and books. Early in 1958 Tan was received by President Dr. Rajendra Prasad in Delhi and again in September, 1959, just before Tan left for China at the invitation of the Chinese government. In his 1959 visit, he had several rounds of discussion with Premier Zhou and followed these up with discussions with Prime Minister Nehru on his return to India in 1960. But political events moved to their tragic denouement and when, at the santiniketan Convocation in December 1962, Nehru spoke about the border-war but, seeing Tan, added immediately that the people of China would always be India's friends, Tan was overcome by emotion and could not withhold his tears.

In 1967 Tan retired from Visva-Bharati but continued to live at Santiniketan. In the twelve yeras left to him he still busied himself with matters close to his heart, for we find him engaged in preparations for the establishment of the World Buddhist Academy at Bodhgaya and he visited Hong Kong and Singapore to collect donations for this purpose. His work at Visva-Bharati, already acclaimed by those who knew, found formal recognition in the award to him in 1979 of Visva-Bharati's highest  academic award Deshikottama. Perhaps it was political vicissitudes that had delayed an honour which, one feels, should have been his much earlier, but at least one must be glad that his wife lived to see it, before her death in 1980.

Professor Tan Yuan-shan passed away at Bodhgaya in 1983. Fate, one thinks, showed a nice sense of understanding in choosing Bodhgaya as the final resting-place of one who had studied Buddhism under the Rev Tai-hsu, the leading Chinese exponent of Buddhism in his time, and who had spent so much of his life in sylvan Santiniketan. As a matter of fact, when Tan first saw the sacred seat where Gautama Buddha had attained Bodhi under the Bodhi-Tree behind the impsing Mahabodhi Temple at Bodhgaya in 1931, he could not suppress his excitement, and violated the decorum by sitting on it with closed eyes, praying for a long while. Inspite his frail health in his last years, of nothing could separate him from Bodhgaya, and his eldest son, Prof. Tan Chung, had a tough time to take him away to Santiniketan and Delhi to replenish his much exhausted body. On his death Prime Minister Indira Gandhi said in her condolence message, "Gurudeva and my father had affection and regards for him. He identified himself with Santiniketan and contributed immensely to a better understanding between the civilisations of India and China." This was the least that could be said of one who devoted his life to understanding between the two countries. Both countries must regard it as most fortunate that they have in his son, Dr. Tan Chung, now Professor-Consultant at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in New Delhi after his retirement from Jawaharlal Nehru University as Professor of Chinese, one who carries on that proud legacy.


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