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The Great Scholar Prof. Tan Yun-Shan 


 Bina Roy Burman 

Prof. Tan Yun-shan can be described as the modern Xuanzang. As Xuanzang spent a considerable part of his life learning Indian religion, specially Buddhism and visited and stayed in Indian Buddhist universities, similarly Prof. Tan has done his best to promote Chinese studies in India and spread Indian thoughts in China through various means.

My first encounter with him took place when as a post-doctoral fellow I had joined Cheena-Bhavana of Visva-Bharati University at Santiniketan.

I was proceeding to attend a reception of the visiting Chinese delegaton. Though I had not been formally introduced earlier to Prof. Tan and Madam Tan, I recognised them very well. Prof. Tan was walking with the help of his walking stick towards the meeting place - the Uttarayan. I went to Prof. Tan and Madam Tan and said, "Uncle, please wait. "Soon a car of the West Bengal government was coming by the road, towards us. Without asking anything, I stopped the car and put Prof. Tan and Mrs. Tan inside the car and told the driver to take them to Uttarayan. The driver replied that he was from Calcutta and he did not have any idea regarding the place of the meeting. Prof. Tan who was sitting in the car held my hand and said, "Neice, you also come with us." Thus we went to the reception ground, and though he was ushered into the enclosure for the distinguished guests, he made me sit in between himself and Madam Tan. Thus our association started.

Rabindranath Tagore invited a good number of eminent scholars both Indian and foreign, to build up Visva-Bharati. Prof. Tan was one of them who had lifelong association with Visva-Bharati and who had dedicated his life, time and energy to build up the Cheena-Bhavana of Visva-Bharati.

Tagore first met Prof. Tan in Singapore in 1927. Prof. Tan was a brilliant and scholarly young teacher in Singapore at that time. Tagore was so impressed, that he invited Prof. Tan to come to Visva-Bharati and teach Chinese language. Of course, teaching of Chinese had started earlier there and Dr. Lin Wujiang taught Chinese, Silvain Levi and Tucci also had joined. But the Cheena-Bhavana was not born till then.

In 1928 Prof. Tan came to Santiniketan. In his own country he was a meritorious student of traditional Chinese literature and culture. He was born on 10th October in 1898. After the completion of traditional Chinese courses, he made a comparative study of methods in the sphere of traditional Chinese teaching, and western methods of teaching. Later he took up research in western culture, philosophy and thoughts which was completed in 1924.

As Prof. Tan was coming to India in the month of September, in 1928, his ship was caught in a storm. Then he wrote a poem on the Indian ocean and its fury. In another poem he expressed his respect and love for India. As he reached Santiniketan he expressed his joy in a third poem.

In Santiniketan Prof. Tan was called "Tan Saheb" by the Visva-Bharati community. He spent his life in constructive work, teaching, studying Indian culture and writing. The Cheena-Bhavana and the Sine-Indian Cultural Society became his centres of activities. When Tagore visited China in 1924, discussions had taken place there about exchange of scholars between India and China. For building a guest house for the visiting Chinese scholars, Yugal Kishore Birla was to donate Rupees twenty thousand to Visva-Bharati. But nothing happened. At his arrival, Prof. Tan was till enthusiastic about the programme. Prof. Tan went back to China in 1931 and he met important persons, who could help him for making this plan a success. Due to their help and co-operation at Nanking [Nanjing] the Sino-Indian Cultural Society was established in 1933. Thereafter in 1934 the Society was formed in India by Prof. Tan and Tagore became its president. Prof. Tan again went to China and started collecting funds for construction of buildings which were needed at Cheena-Bhavana for its library, guest house, hostels for teachers and researchers. He was successful in collecting funds and at the same time he collected a good number of books on traditional literature of China, Buddhism, philosophy and religion, literature and history. In 1936, the construction of Cheena-Bhavana was started and in 1937 it was completed. Apart from the hostels, a few quarters for the teachers were also built.

Prof. Tan was not only the founder-Director of the Cheena-Bhavana, he was also the Professor of Chinese Studies. He visited many institutions in India, where he delivered lectures on Chinese culture and philosophy. He placed emphasis on synthesis of Confucian ethics with the tenets of Buddhism. He highlighted the values of human kindness, righteousness, Karuna or compassion, Prajna or wisdom, and tolerance. He wished that the people of China and India would set a good example by showing these virtues even in the modern world, and should work jointly for world peace. He always spoke about these ideas.

With Prof. Tan heading Cheena-Bhavana, Santiniketan could attract many tens of scholars from China. Afterwards many of them returned to China to become the mainstay of Indian studies in China. Pachow and Jan Yun-hua distinguished themselves as authorities in Buddhism in North America. They all felt indebted to Prof. Tan. Several good will missions came from China to Visva-Bharati and Cheena-Bhavana. In 1940 the Buddhist mission came, and another good will mission came. In 1943, the cultural and educational mission from China visited the Cheena-Bhavana. Chiang Kai-shek visited it when he came to India in 1942. Later, Zhou Enlai also came and received Deshikottama from Visva-Bharati in 1957.

Prof. Tan did not stay uninterruptedly at Santiniketan. He had to visit China many times, for collecting funds, books, manuscripts etc. and arrange for guest-scholars. Even when Dr. Kotnis, and the Indian medical team had visited China during China's peril, Prof. Tan looked after this team there. He was like an ambassador. In India also he had to give lectures in different institutes or universities. He was busy in organisational work as well as teaching, writing, publishing etc. Through the Sino-Indian Cultural Society he published books and bulletins, where he mostly wrote about cultural traditions of China, unity of all nations, equality and friendship and about similar ideas.

He was a quite, dignified, dutibound, just and affectionate person, Cheena-Bhavana generally had paucity of funds. Prof. Tan led a very simple life, completely dedicated to the cause of spread of education and the ideals of Sino-Indian friendship and enhancement of positive thoughts among mankind.

Madam Tan was with him in his efforts. Prof. Tan brought up his children in that atmosphere in such a way that all of them are following the path shown by their great father.

Though Prof. Tan did not join any political activity in India, during the 1941 movement he apealed to the Indian political activists to avoid violence. At the same time he appealed to the British government that India must be given freedom. According to him there was no power which could refuse the right to India to regain her independence.

Times have changed. Visva-Bharati became a central university. Secondly, Sino-Indian relations suffered a lot due to harsh political situation. In 1959 Prof. Tan went to China, and he tried to ease the situation, But there was no improvement. Both Cheena-Bhavana and the Cultural Society had to suffer. As financial resources dried up, enthusiasm of some scholars also became reduced. It became difficult even to pay Prof. Tan's salary. Finally Visva-Bharati fixed an honorarium for him. But the institute became reduced to the status of a language teaching institute only. Gradually it lost its glory.

From 1971 Prof. Tan spent his time and energy to build the World Buddhist Academy at Bodhgaya. At first the temple was constructed and he had a plan to build it as an institute for study and research. Unfortunately he could not complete the work in his life time. He expired on 12th February in 1983.

I shall never forget that this eminent scholar and a great soul with a kind heart had to come to receive me at the Gaya railway station. But we could not find each other. When I wrote to him, he replied in such a way -I felt both sad and happy. I was very fortunate as I could maintain sych a close contact with this great scholar who was like a saint. Madam Tan used to see me with a bunch of flowers or a few fruits,

It is not possible for anyone to forget him, who had been in close contact with him, such was his personality. His ex-students, and a few persons who had worked under him cherished him with great regard and reverence. It is not possible to describe adequately, his life and his work in these few words.


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