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HISTORY AND LITERATURE

Tagore and China

THE CONTROVERSlAL GUEST: TAGORE IN CHINA 

Part 2

SISIR KUMAR DAS

33...

-Tagore: "First Talk at Shanghai", Talks in China (1924)...

We believe in the power of poetry and we admire the works of Tagore, which are expressions of a long and untiring struggle. We also join our voice to the chorus of welcome to the great poet.  We want to tell the youth of this country that it is their duty in inviting Tagore who works for the peasant, the Tagore who inspires patriotism and the Tagore who urges the Indian youth to oppose British imperialism. We also want the youth of China to know that the gift we expect from Tagore is not a spiritual realization of life, not an empty Gitanjali, but a gift of those words that arouse agony and enthusiasm, words such as ‘March alone’...”

Within five days of the publication of Mao Dun’s impassioned appeal Yun Daiying (1895-1931), one of the founders of the Communist Party of China, who was the editor of Xin Qingnian (The New Youth) and also the director of the department of propaganda of the Communist Youth League, wrote, “We will not attack Tagore personally out of any malice. But there is a possibility that he will be used by others. We, therefore, have no option but to oppose him.”[37]

Howsoever well-intentioned and cautious these words of Mao Dun and Yun Daiying, the militants did not think it wise to wait any longer. A group of students began to distribute leaflets against Tagore in Shanghai on 17 April, three days after his arrival in China, and were very active at the meeting at Nanjing on 20 April.

What did Tagore speak at Nanjing? Did he try to tempt the youth to believe in an empty spirutalism? Dit he sing loudly the praises of the ancient civilizations of the Orient? Tagore addressed a gathering of thousand students who listened to him without any interruption.Tagore said, ‘You are here with the gift of your young life which like the morning star, shines with hope for the unborn day of your country’s future. I am here to sing the hymn of praise to youth, I who am your poet, the poet of youth.”[38] He reminded them of the fairy-tale of the princess taken captive by a giant, who was rescued by a young prince.  He expanded the metaphor by identifying the princess with the human soul and the giant with machine.  He appealed: “I ask you, my young princes, to feel this enthusiasm in your hearts and to be willing to rescue the human soul from the grip of greed which keeps it chained.” Tagore went on to describe the different stages of man’s.progress and concluded that a “combination of brute and intellect has given rise to a terror which is stupid in its passion and yet cunning in its weapons; it is blindness made efficient and, therefore, more destructive than all other forces in the world.” He declared:

“But a new time has come, the time to discover another great power, the power that gives us strength to suffer and not merely to cause suffering, the immense power of sacrifice ... Come to the rescue and free the human soul from the dungeon of the Machine.  Proclaim the Spirit of Man and prove that it lies not in machine guns and cleverness, but in a simple faith.”

It is unnecessary to go into the details to Tagore’s itinerary which included visits to several educational institutions and Buddhist organisations.  But his visit to Qufu to pay homage to the tomb of Confucius as well as his meeting with Qi Xieyuan, the warlord controlling Jiangsu, Jiangxi and Anhui must have raised many eyebrows.  His meeting with the deposed Emperor Puyi at the Forbidden city,[39] first time by any foreigner since 1912, added fuel to the fire of criticism that had been spreading.  Before he reached Beijing, Tagore must have come to realise the feelings of antagonism towards him, though he was not aware of the magnitude and intensity of these feelings.

In the first public meeting at Beijing, near Zhonghai, the Middle Lake of the Imperial Palace, where Liang Qichao introduced him formally to the leading intellectuals of China, Tagore mused again on his favourite theme, faith in the spiritual perfection of life. In a talk to the boys and girls at Beihai, another scenic spot of the erstwhile palace, he talked about Asian unity, but admitted that “We have a great thing to accept from the people of the West their treasure of intellect, which is immense and whose superiority we must acknowledge.” In the same breath he reminded his audience that “it would be degradation on our past; and an insult to our ancestors, if we forget our own moral wealth of wisdom, which is of far greater value than a system that produces endless materials and a physical power that is always on the warpath.”[40]

This lecture could have been easily misconstrued as a defence of Liang’s views on the western civilisation.  Tagore certainly did share his view of the western civilisation and the role of science without abandoning what was best in one’s own traditions. Tagore said very emphatically, “We must accept truth when it comes from the West ... unless we accept it our civilization will be one-sided, it will remain stagnant. Science gives us the power of reason, enabling us to be actively conscious of the worth of our own ideals.” One section of the Chinese intellectuals, however, was determined by then to oppose Tagore at all cost.  His words fell on deaf ears.

Liang in his welcome address explained the reasons for inviting Tagore. He reminded the audience that Tagore came from a “country which is our nearest and dearest brother - India.” He talked about the history of India-China relationship from the ancient days in the fields of religion and philosophy, music, painting and architecture, sculpture, drama and poetry, astronomy and calendar, medicine and education. ‘Rabindranath Tagore is as important to us as Asvaghosha,” he said, “.... and we hope the influence he is going to exert on China will not in any way be inferior to that of Kumarajiva and Cheng Ti.” Despite the storm of hostility that was gathering momentum, Liang spoke with emotion, “the responsibility that we bear to the whole mankind is great indeed, and there should be, I think, a warm spirit of cooperation between India and China.”

This speech was important if only because it was the first clear statement coming from Liang stating the main objective of Tagore’s visit to China. He expected Tagore’s visit to China would re-establish the age-old contacts between the two civilizations.  Tagore on his part repeatedly emphasised that his mission was to find out ways to re-establish the ancient contacts between India and China.  He talked of an Asian unity but not with any political motivation. “In Asia we must seek our strength in union, in an unwavering faith in righteousness, and never in the egotistic spirit of separateness and self assertion.”[41] If he mentioned Asia in particular it is because of his disillusionment with the war-ravaged Europe and partly because of his attitude towards the Westophiles both in India and China. But he never failed to affirm that the ideals of his institution, Visva-Bharati, stretched beyond all national frontiers. “No one nation today can progress,” he said, “if the others are left outside its boundaries.  Let us try to win the heart of the West with all that is beast and not in revenge or contempt, but with goodwill and understanding, in a spirit of mutual respect.”[42] He mentioned that Visva-Bharati represented that ideal of cooperation, of the spiritual unity of men and he made a fervent appeal to his Chinese “brothers and sisters” to take part in it, and thus fulfil a mission that began many centuries ago.  It is a travesty of truth to say that Tagore went to China to talk only about Asian brotherhood and to criticise the west.

In the next meeting on 26 April, Liang repeated his welcome address at the National Normal University obviously to stress that his invitation to Tagore was to provide an occasion to renew the relationship between the two countries and to establish a really “constructive scheme of cooperation.” Tagore, now more or less aware of the opposition to his visit, came out openly to respond to his opponents:[43]

“I even heard some were opposed to my coming, because it might check your special modern enthusiasm for western progress and force. True, if you want a man who will help you in these things you have mistaken in asking me. I have no help to give you here: you already have ten thousand able teachers: go to them.”

But he warned: “those who would have you rely on material force to make a strong nation, do not know history, or understand civilization either. Reliance on power is the characteristic of barbarism: nations that trusted to it have already been destroyed or have remained barbarous.”

This interpretation of history-reliance on power and the concomitant disaster - whatever be its worth, was undoubtedly a forthright condemnation of some of the leading politicians of Tagore’s time. Tagore had anticipated some of the arguments of his opponents, If power was so vicious and dangerous, how was it that the western countries were at the zenith of prosperity? Why was it that India with her rich spiritual heritage had been turned into a nation of hungry millions? “But many will point to the weakness of China and India,” Tagore said, “and tell you that thrown as we are among the strong and progressive people, it is necessary to emphasize power and progress in order to avoid destruction.” Tagore’s words failed to convince his critics.  He said, “Even at the cost of martyrdom and insult and suffering we must continue to believe in peace and love and kindness and idealism.” It is not that his opponents did not believe in the value of peace and love and kindness and idealism but they were more concerned about ways to relieve the people of their suffering and humiliation.  Tagore declared that:

“My enemtes may dominate and slay my body, but they cannot make me adopt their methods or hate them. The devil helps in the sphere in which he is master, but we must reject such aid if we want to save our life from utter destruction. Seek righteousness even though success be lost.”

These were noble words, words spoken with force and truth of experience. But the idea of “righteousness” based on certain principles, which Tagore believed to be valid for all time, appeared too vague and nebulous to the section of the Chinese youth committed to building a new China. Tagore’s words were of little use for them.

But Tagore was certainly not a puppet in the hands of Liang. He did not speak against material progress as such, nor did he eulogise poverty. What he urged was to take lessons from western civilization which was at the cross-roads of history. Power and material progress, Tagore asserted, could not be the ultimate goal of any civilization. Had there been a straightforward dialogue between Tagore and his critics much of the differences could have been resolved. Tagore’s frequent use of the terms “the soul” and the “spirit” made his critics more and more suspicious about his designs. They attacked him with greater ferocity.

In a meeting at the Navy Club, Tagore spoke for the first time about his literary career, the revolutionary role he had played in the growth of Bengali literature, the attempts he had made to modernise its style and the experiments he had carried out to break new grounds in respect of themes and forms and metres. He spoke about his songs, that they “have found their place in the heart of my land” and that “the folk of the future, in days of joy or sorrow or festival, will have to sing them.” Tagore claimed “this too is the work of a revolutionist,”

Hu Shi, who pioneered the movement towards the modernisation of the Chinese language and successfully replaced the rigorous and obsolete classical style by the vigorous and natural baihua l, immediately recognised the points of similarity between the experiments of Tagore and those of modern Chinese writers, Lin Changmin who was also present at the meeting spoke about the limitations of contemporary Chinese poetry caused by oversophistication and of the unsuccessful experiments to overcome the constraints of conventions. China was waiting for new poets, he said, ‘poets of revolutionary temper” who could break the chains of traditions. He described Tagore as an “arch-revolutionary” who could inspire Chinese poetry of the future.[44] In his reply Tagore, too, described himself as a “revolutionary” not to please his host but because he was just that. His audience in China had no opportunity to know - and Tagore did not tell them either - that in September-October of 1923 when the controversy about the news of his visit to China was raging he was busy writing a play - Rather Rashi.  One of the characters in it is a poet.  That poet says: “We obey the rules of rhythm, because there can’t be music without it.  We know that only Beauty can guide the ship of Power. You have faith only in austerity - austerity of cannons and of guns. That is the faith of the cowards and the weak.” Precisely that was what Tagore meant when he declared himself a “revolutionary.”

Mei Lanfang (1894-1961) an outstanding Beijing Opera artist who visited the Soviet Union early in life, in one of his articles on Tagore,[45] mentions an incident worth recalling.  When he was in Hangzhou, Tagore was presented with a seal on which were inscribed three words -Tai ge er.  Tagore was reported to have said that the two important ceremonies in the life of an Indian child were namakarana (naming) and annaprasana (taking of rice). The word Tai which happened to be the first letter of Tagore’s name, was the name of one of the five sacred hills of China. Tagore said, “I thought as if I too, following the footsteps of Buddha, had got the right of access into the life and into the experience of the Chinese people. My life had got entwined with theirs.”

The similarity between the name of Tagore and the Mount Taishan is a mere coincidence. He, however, was given a Chinese name, and that too on his birthday. The Crescent Moon Society arranged a function to celebrate the sixty-fourth birthday of the poet. In the presence of 400 distinguished citizens, Liang Qichao presented the poet with a stone-tablet inscribed on it in beautiful calligraphy: Zhu Zbendan, a Chinese name for Rabindranath. Contrary to the common practice of phonetic translation of foreign words, Liang chose Zhen which means a sudden flash out of the cloudy sky, implying the thunder god Indra, and dan (literally, dawn) indicating the sun, to translate the word Rabindra.  Zhu is a shortened form of Tianzhu (meaning ‘heavenly India”), traditionally used as a surname for all those who came to China from India in ancient times. Liang said on this occasion:

“The two characters, Zhen and dan have profound symbolic significance. Zhen means a sudden shock out of the cloudy atmosphere and dim sky. Then there is clearness. The beautiful sun which had just appeared in Japan emerges of the horizon (that is what the character dan signifies).  What a scene! The original meaning of “Rabindranath” is contained in it. There would be no more apt rendering of the world than Zhendan. In ancient times from Han to Jin dynasty, all eminent monks arriving from the west had Chniese names, In most of the cases their surnames represented countries from which they came. All those who came from India had the surname Zhu ... Today our respected and beloved Indian poet celebrates his sixty fourth birthday. With all sincerity and great joy I offer him this name Zhou Zhendan, which joins both countries.[46] I wish that with this name, a token of our warm affection for him, our love will remain imprinted for ever in his heart, I wish the revival of the old friendship between the Indian and the Chinese peoples in this person whose name is Zhu Zhendan.”[47]

Hu Shi offered the poet a scroll containing a poem of his own, Parinaman, as a memento of the close historical and cultural relationship between China and India. He hoped that the relationship would be renewed through the visit of the Indian poet. Tagore also spoke with emotion about Sino-lndian friendship. After the speeches were over, Chitra was staged in which both Xu Zhimo and Lin Huiyin played the roles of the god of love and princess Chitra respectively.

Present in the audience on this Occasion was the most celebrated Chinese writer Lu Xun. His views on the value of tradition were radically opposed to those of Tagore and there is very little evidence of his familiarity with Tagore’s writings.  Most probably he was present at the birthday celebrations at the instance of his friend Hu Shi. In a letter to Hu Shi dated 27 May 1924 he mentioned about this function at the auditorium of Xiehe (Concord) and described Tagore’s speech as a “grand discourse.”[48] Three years later in his famous speech delivered at the Hong Kong YMCA he said that all the ancient civilisations of the world, Chinese and Egyptian included, had lost their voices. Nor was there any voice in Annam and Korea. There was only one voice still living and that was the voice of Tagore in India.[49] On the occasion of the birthday celebration of Tagore, however, Lu Xun was far from happy with Tagore’s hosts.  They tried to create a mystical atmosphere with burning incense. Some of them appeared with “Indian caps” on the stage. That also repelled Lu Xun. He wrote in disgust: The way Xu Zhimo introduced the poet was as if he was a living god.”[50] Later he wrote, “had not Xu Zhimo and his friends tried to idolize Tagore, our youth would not have felt so alienated from the respected poet.”[51]

Tagore arrived at Zhenguang, the largest theatre hall in Beijing, the next morning to deliver his first formal lecture under the auspices of the Beijing Lecture Association. Tagore took this opportunity to make a strong rebuttal against his critics who considered him “out of date in this modern age”.  In India, Tagore said, he had been often condemned as “too crassly modern”, as some one who had “missed all the great lessons from the past.” He noted with a touch of sadness, “For your people I am obsolete, and therefore useless, and for mine new fangled and therefore obnoxious.” He asked, why had he been so continually suspected to be contraband - smuggled on to the wrong shore of time? This also gave him an opportunity for introspection and to tell his audience about his background and his relation with the forces of social change in India. He talked about the movement launched by Rammohun Roy to reform the religious life of Bengal, of the literary movement initiated by Bankim Chandra Chatteji, and also of the “national movements” which gave confidence to the people in asserting their own personality.  And all these movements, he asserted, were revolutionary in character. These movements, as all great human movements are, according to him, were related to some great ideal - the ideal of revelation of the spirit in man.  If he was criticised as a pedlar of dreams and spirituality or as an obsolete specimen of the past, his reply would be : “the revelation of spirit in man is truly modem, I am on its side, for I am modern.” He concluded his talk with an open challenge to his critics: “If you want to reject me, you are free to do so.  But I have my right as a revolutionary to carry the flag of freedom of spirit into the shrine of your idols - material power and accumulation.”[52]

These words were spoken with anger but not without conviction. Tagore did realise that the propaganda against him was too well-organised to be ignored.  And the best thing for him was to face it with courage. This, however, provoked his critics to launch a counter-attack with greater ferocity, Next morning a group of young men was seen distributing handbills before he started his second lecture. He announced that he was combining two lectures into one.[53]

In this lecture Tagore used the story of “Jack the Giant Killer” to identify the monstrosities of modem civilisation with the giant, and the spirit of life with Jack.  He had been condemned as a reactionary and a fanatical conservative, he mentioned, by men who had confused ideas about modernity and progress, and were unable to distinguish between truth and superstition:

“I preach the freedom of man from the servitude of the fetish of hugeness, the non-human. I refuse to be styled an enemy of enlightenment because I do not stand on the side of the giant who swallows life, but on the side of Jack, the human, who defies the big, the gross, and wins victory at the end.”

Soon after the lecture Tagore inquired about the contents of the leaflets he saw being distributed in the hall. His embarrassed hosts gave a brief and diluted version of the contents. Tagore, however, was not satisfied.  Thanks to a group of Japanese visitors, he came to know of the full text what was actually a series of victriolic indictments against him. Even before he came to know of this, he wanted to talk to his critics; Hu Shi promised to arrange a meeting which did not take place.

The leaflets charged Tagore with the attempt to “indoctrinate” the Chinese youth. It was also alleged that he wanted China to go back to her inhuman ancient civilization and that he reproached the Chinese youth for their attempt to improve the material conditions of their society; his theory of soul and Brahma preached inaction and passivity and his defence of the spiritual aspects of the Chinese civilization was actually a defense of the barbarity of the ruling class throughout the ages.[54] Tagore felt that “these people are determined to misunderstand me” and decided to deliver only one more talk.

Word spread quickly. Nearly 2,000 young men and women came to listen. to him on 12 May. Xu Zhimo delivered an eloquent speech on Tagore’s thought and personality:

“He advocates creative life, spiritual freedom, internal peace, educational progress, and the realisation of universal love. But they say he is a spy for the imperialists, an agent of capitalism, an exile from the endowed people of conquered country, a madman who advocates foot binding! There is filth in the hearts of our politicians and bandits, but what has this [to] do with our poet? There is confusion in the brains of our would-be scholars and men of letters, but what has this to do with our poet?”[55]

Hu Shi also appealed to the audience to listen to the gest with courtesy and toleration. Tagore in his speech, again asked his audience not to confuse between westernisation and modernisation. All that was western was not necessarily modern.  All that was western must not be accepted uncritically.[56]

The lecture series came to an abrupt end. Tagore left Beijing for the Western Hills but he returned to the city after four days to attend a farewell party. On the morning of 18 May there was an unexpected gathering of students at the National Peking University. Withdrawn and dejected as he was, Tagore spoke with pain: “What do you want from me? .,. You may call me uneducated, uncultured, just a foolish poet; you may grow great as scholars and philosophers, and yet I think I would still retain the right to laugh at your prudent scholarship.” He regretted that he could not present himself as his true self, Had they known his poems, they would not have come to listen to his lectures, but his poetry. Then he went on, as if he was talking to himself. “I have come to the secret of existence in some other way - not through analysis, but as the mother’s chamber can be approached by a child. I had kept the spirit of the child fresh within me; because of this I have found entry to my mother’s chamber wherein a symphony of awakening light sang to me from the distant horizon, in response to which I also sing, because of this I stand close to you, the young hearts of a foreign country whom my heart recognises as its fellow voyagers in the path of dreamland.”[57]

These words must have had their desired impact on the young minds. Tagore realised that the gap between him and his audience was not unbridgeable. He could speak effectively and beautifully through his poems and plays, but “languages are jealous” and “poems are not like gold or other substantial things that are transferable.”

Tagore was certainly happy to watch his play Sannyasi staged at Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi - where he went soon after his unpleasant stay in Beijing - before an audience of 3,000 men and women. Here he met General Yan Xishan, known as the Model Governor, who expressed enthusiasm in Tagore’s programmed of Sino-Indian understanding. His critics, however, were still active and spared no opportunity to malign him. On his way to Shanghai, Tagore stopped at Hankou. In the course of his lecture there he met a vociferous group which shouted “Go bade slave from a lost country” with such fury that friends of Tagore ran towards him to prevent the possibility of a physical assault. “My enemies may dominate and slay my body” Tagore said at Beijing, “but they cannot make me adopt their methods, or hate them.” He remained composed and true to his faith, That very afternoon he spoke again on the same theme: moral force and physical power, to another audience al the nearby town of Wuchang. Voices of opposition dogged him till the day he left the shares of China.

A farewell meeting was arranged in the same garden in Shanghai where the Chinese had welcomed Tagore only a few weeks ago in April.  The tempestous trip had ended and the poet was exhausted and tired. When his host Zhang Junmai requested him to offer some frank criticism of China Tagore declined to do so.  He said,

“I absolutely refuse to accede to your request.You have critics innumerable, and I do not want to be added to their ranks. Being human myself, I can make allowances for your shortcomings, and I love you in spite of them... I have done what was possible - I have made friends.”

Tagore did not criticise anyone but at the same time he rebutted the charges of his opponents with a gentle irony:

“Some of your patriots were afraid that, carrying from India spiritual contagion, I might weaken your vigorous faith in money and materialism. I assure those who thus feel nervous that I am entirely inoffensive; I am powerless to impair the career of progress, to hold them back from rushing to the market place to sell the soul in which they do not believe. I can even assure them that I have not convinced a single sceptic that he has a soul, or that moral beauty has greater value than material power. I am certain that they will forgive me when they know the result.”[58]

These were his last words in China. On 30 May 1924 Tagore sailed from Shanghai to Japan.

Lu Xun complained that Xu Zhimo and his group had projected Tagore as a living idol and that had alienated him from the younger generation, Such criticism must have reached Tagore’s ears too. He said in his farewell speech:

‘There are so many who would deprive me of the contact of reality by trying to turn me into an idol. I feel certain that God himself is hurt because men keep their daily love for fellow beings in their homes, and only their weekly worship for Him in the Church. I am glad that my young friends in China never made these mistakes but treated me as their fellow human being.”

Several intellectuals, however, felt unhappy with the nature of remonstrance against Tagore. Mao Dun, Qu Qiubai, Yun Daiying -all of them criticised certain aspect of Tagore’s thought but all of them had special regard for him. But the movement that they initiated went beyond their control and assumed a proportion they had hardly anticipated. Mao Zemin (l896-1943), the younger brother of Mao Zedong, found Tagore’s poems endearfng and his essays and short stories delightful, although he considered Tagore’s thought an impediment to the development of the youth of China. Qu Qiubai rated The Home and the World very high as a work of art, and thought it was unfair to crtticise Tagore personally. A month after Tagore had left China, Zhou Zuoren, the brother of Lu Xun felt obliged to denounce the anti-Tagore agitation in strong terms, though he was totally indifferent to Tagore’s works. He wrote: “Its (Oppose Tagore Movement) followers think they are scientific thinkers and Westernizers, but they lack the spirit of scepticism and toleration. Actually they are still the kind of Orientals who persecute heretics.   If Eastern civitlsatton contains poisons of the worst kind, then this sort of authoritarian fanaticism is one.”[59]

Five years later Tian Han, the author of the national anthem of China, admitted that the opponents of Tagore were mistaken. And the irony of fate is that Tagore who was considered anti-modern, anti-progress, reactionary and obsolete by the young communists, was also dreaded by the Shanghai District Kuomintang in 1929 for his views, The Kuomintang District office had issued instructions to all public situations that year when Tagore stopped at Shanghai on his way to Japan, not to welcome the Indian poet whose doctrines were “just as dangerous and poisonous as those of Karl Marx.”[60]

It is worth quoting a few passages from an article[61] by Tan Chung as it summarises the main features of the anti-Tagore agitation led by Chen Duxiu during Tagore’s stay in China:

“Xangdao, the first mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party followed Tagore’s itinerary in China with short snippets written by Chen Duxiu and an unidentified pseudonym, “Shi’an”, in 10 one-paragraph comments (a total of about 900 words) from 23 April to 10 July 1924. Chen Duxiu was an exponent of the May Fourth Movement and had the dubious honour of being the founder of the Chinese Communist Party only to be expelled by it after six years. Interestingly, he was probably the first to translate Tagore into Chinese….

However, Chen Duxiu and his colleagues viewed Tagore’s proceedings in China in 1924 with dismay. In the first place, as Shi’an confessed, they were concerned that such a giant figure as Tagore would bring unhealthy ideological influences to the youth of China on whom the Chinese Communist Party depended to launch a great revolution. It was for this reason that the Guide Weekly published in April 1924 an article written by the party leader Qu Qiubai to comment on Tagore’s perception of the state and criticised his “Oriental culiure”. The article ended with a sarcastic remark : “Thank you, Mr. Tagore! But we have already had too may Confuciuses and Menciuses in China!”

By the end of May, when Tagore was leaving Shanghai, Shi’an remarked that they had over-estimated Tagore’s spiritual influence, and noted that the poet had not lived up to his saintly reputation and had mixed with unworthy companions such as the deposed Chinese emperor, diplomats of the imperialist powers, Buddhist monks and female Buddhist followers, and the well known Beijing Opera maestro, Mei Lanfang.  He also quoted someone in Beijing commenting that Tagore was “no poet, but a politician.” He observed that Tagore never talked about poetry during the entire course of his visit. Shi’an also quoted the advice of the eminent Kuomintang leader, Wu Zhihui. ‘Tagore, Compose your poems. When you can’t manage someone else’s country don’t discuss world affairs.” Chen Duxiu viewed Tagore’s peace movement as advice to the Chinese to be servile to the imperialists. 

Tagore’s spiritualism became an object of the duo’s attack. Shi’an commented that the “representative of Oriental Culture” in Tagore had degenerated into a “heartless” person when he hobnobbed with ex-Finance Minister, Liang Oichao, forgetting about the starving millions of the world. Chen Duxiu wanted to expose the hypocrisy of Tagore’s “spiritual life” by pointing out that Tagore accepted donations in Hong Kong for Visva-Bharati. Shi’an contested Tagore’s self-proclaimed opposition to materialism and challenged the poet to distribute the money he received with the Nobel prize among the Indians who had no food and clothing.

According to some critics, Tagore’s mission to China had failed. But what was his mission? If we believe Tagore, his mission was to explore the possibility of cooperation between India and China. At the farewell address in Beijing Tagore said that he had accepted the Chinese invitation with a hope to “reopen the ancient channel of spiritual communication once again.“The response of the Chinese intellectuals, however, was not warm. Lu Xun wrote sarcastically in November 1924 that Tagore’s visit was like a giant bottle of superior scent which fumigated several gentlemen with literary and metaphysical flavour.’ But soon after he left, We have seldom seen the Indian caps on our Cinasthana poets’ heads any more nor were there news dispatches about Tagore’. While Chen Duxiu and Shi’an were obviously uncharitable to Tagore, Lu Xun’s sarcasm revealed some truth about the whole controversy which was actually between two groups of Chinese intellectuals. Not only was he an international figure of repute but Tagore had cast his “magical spell” (moli)-as described by some contemporary Chinese commentators-on some young intellectuals long before he had set foot on Chinese soil. The whole episode resembled the appearance of a comet in ancient China. Whenever it was sighted the comet became the central topic of speculation with baseless rumours about the possible fall of the government or the break out of a natural calamity. For Chinese political astrologers Tagore had assumed the proportion of a comet, which in a way is an acknowledgement of his importance in modern intellectual history of China.”

Ji Xianlm has tried to give a more or less authoritative assessment of the controversial Tagore visit to China in his article “Tagore and China” (Tiage’er yu Zhongguo). He makes the following points:

1. It can be asserted that some interested groups in China wanted to play up Tagore’s visit for the  “backward influence” (luohou shili,) lobby despite Hu Shi’s contradiction. The Chinese hosts of Tagore never projected his anti-feudal and anti-imperialist dimensions.

2. At a time when class struggle was intensified in China the wrong projection of Tagore would naturally have a negative effect.  And Tagore on his part “cannot but share the responsibility of not expressing his views in a balanced manner. He had over-stressed the role and significance of the Oriental culture and severely criticized the materialistic culture of the West in his China speeches.” At no point was it clarified to his audience that Tagore never negated western modern science and technology and that he had appealed to the Indian people to acquire them.

3. There was a duality in Tagore’s character and writings. “He had one face, that of a sage and another that of a warrior.” He could lead a secluded life in the countryside and create poems out of his meditations amidst nature, but when he had seen the demoiac designs of the fascists, the militants and other devils he flared up with anger and created poems and essays as sharp as swords. It was the lapse of his hosts to project both sides of the poet. And that is why Lu Xun blamed the “Cinasthanis (Chinese) clad in Indian caps” (i.e., the hosts of Tagore) for their failure.

4. On the whole, however, Tagore’s visit was a success as it promoted Chinese translations of his works and enlarged the area of their influence on Chinese life and it certainly strengthened the friendship between the two countries and reopened the avenues of Sino-Indian cultural intercourse.[62]

Despite all misunderstandings and hostilities, Tagore, too, felt “some path has been opened.” He talked of his institution where men of different countries speaking different languages could come together. His mission was to establish ‘the spiritual unity of man.” In his final lecture in China he said, “I have done what was possible - I have made friends.’ An anecdote related by Sing Xin in 1961 is worth recalling: “In 1924 when Tagore visited China, I was a student in the USA.  Later I heard this from one who was with him at that time. When Tagore was leaving Beijing somebody asked him: ‘I hope you have not left anything.’ Tagore shook his head gently and said in a sad voice, ‘Nothing except a portion of my heart!”[63]

Since 1912 Tagore had visited many countries and everywhere he spoke on a few recurrent themes with remarkable consistency. During his first visit to America (1912.13), for example, he delivered lectures on “World Realization”, “Self Realization” “Ideals of the Ancient Civilization of India” and The Problem of Evil”[64] On his second visit (1916-17) he spoke mostly against the cult of nationalism. On his third visit he spoke about the meeting of East and West and his religious experience. Any one familiar with Sadhana (1913), Nationalism (1917), Personality (1917) and Creative Unity (1922) will hardly find any departure from the basic issues in his Talks in China. His essential faith in the spiritual unity of man, his deep-rooted prejudices against materialism, his passionate attraction towards nature and veneration for the forest civilisation of ancient India and some of the doctrines of the Upanisads regulated all the activities of his life. “Men have been born in this world of nature, with our human limitations and appetites, and yet proved that they breathed in the world of spirit”, wrote Tagore in an essay, “The Second Birth” included in Personality and this had been a guiding thought for Tagore. Regarding Western civilisation he thought that the West with its “cult of power” and “idolatry of money” had in a great measure reverted man ‘to his primitive barbarism, a barbarism whose path is lit up by the lurid light of intellect.”[65] He condemned the West, not because he was anti-progress or anti-science, but because he found that the “ideal of whole” had lost its force there, and he had seen in the recent events of history how individuals “freed from moral and spiritual bonds” found “a boisterous joy in a debauchery of destruction.” He may have found a few sympathetic listeners in the West but in the long run he had to accept the fact that his was a voice in the wilderness. His Chinese experience was not basically different from his experiences in America, Europe and Japan. The hostility in China was more pronounced and well organised but that does not mean that Tagore was not criticised in other countries or that his ideas were welcomed. Stephen Hay in his summing up of Tagore’s impact on Chinese youth writes that “nothing the Indian poet said could divert these ardent patriots from their pursuit of a new and more viable political order.” Tagore certainly did not oppose the pursuit of “a new and more viable political order” either in China or in any other country. The enthusiasm with which Tagore hailed the new social experiments in Soviet Russia -me cry of the Russian Revolution is also the cry of the world” - gives lie to all suspicions about Tagore, that he was impatient with the younger generation of China for their radicalism. Tagore’s message was ignored by China and by the west and indeed also by his own country. It was not because it was false but because it was too demanding. China did not accept John Dewy or Bertrand Russell either but there were no organised demonstrations against them. In the case of Tagore, the leaders of the new generation perceived Tagore to be a serious threat and hence there were loud protests. Tagore in his capacity as an artist and thinker could only warn against the course of the modern civilization. He carried out his responsibility splendidly without fear or hesitation. When others did not respond to him, he marched alone.

Hay has tried to give an impression that Tagore asked the Chinese to “accept another wave of cultural influence from India” and the “possibility that China might contribute to an equal degree to the development of Indian culture.”[66] Tagore mentioned several times that scholars from India came to China, and Liang certainly talked about Indian influence on Chinese thought. But it is ridiculous to suggest that Tagore persuaded China to “accept another wave of cultural influence from India.” He asked for a closer relationship, a better understanding, not for a one-sided flow of thought. Comparing Chinese civilization

with others Tagore found in it (particularly in its literature) a ‘spirit of hospitality” and he felt he had “drunk from its cup some draught of amrita, of deathlessness, because of which we who come from another land feel at home in this land of ancient civilization.”[67] In his first “public lecture” he said how he had been fascinated by the quality of Chinese poetry: “I have not seen anything like it in any other literature that I know of.”[68] Tagore did not ask the Chinese to accept another wave of Indian influence but to join him in his experiment of building institutions based on “the ideal of the spiritual unity of all races.” He was fascinated by individualities of any race: “Let all human races keep their own personalities,” he wrote, “and yet come together, not in a uniformity that is dead, but in a unity that is living.”[69] Tagore mentions a picture, carved upon a rock, of an Indian monk whom a Chinese was offering food. Tagore saw in it “a most beautiful piece of symbolism.” It was a symbol, he thought, of love and hospitality, not of domination or hegemony.

Tagore raised two basic questions, one about the relation between tradition and modernity, and the other about the usual identification of modernisation with westernisation. Since the May Fourth Movement, China was also concerned with these questions and Chinese intellectuals came out with different answers. If the essence of the ancient Chinese civilization was responsible for China’s material degradation, as it was thought by many, it was most natural to question its relevance. If materialism was so degrading, as claimed by Tagore, his audience had a right to ask for the ways and means to reduce human suffering. Tagore did not give any practical programme, nor could he convince any one how to reconcile the spirit of the ancient culture with the forces of modernisation. He only intensified the crisis by raising questions. These questions could be ignored for some time, but not for all time. These questions were important not only for China but for India as well. “I have done what was possible - I have made friends”, said Tagore before leaving China. He continued to do what was possible for him. He devoted much of his energy in the last decade of his life to establishing Sino-Indian contacts, Cheena-Ehavana was founded in 1937; it flourished under the guidance of Tan Yun-shan, a native of Hunan province and a school-mate of Mao Zedong. The great Chinese painter Xu Beihong came to Santiniketan in 1940. Tagore urged Indians to learn the Chinese language and history and painting to live up to the spirit of the symbolism he witnessed in China: an Indian monk accepting offerings from a Chinese. It is significant that in 1941, six months before his death, Tagore celebrated the day he was given the new name “Zhu Zhendan” in a poem concluding with the sentence: “Wherever we find friends there begins a new life .”



[37] I am indebted to Tan Chung for giving me this piece of information. Italics mine.

[38] “To Students at Nanking”, TC (1924), pp. 26-31; 70 Students III, JC (1925), pp. 80-66.

[39] Many years later Tagore remembered this visit in his Galpa Salpa, a collection of stories for children: “There was a wonderful palace in the city of Beijing.”

[40] For the full text of the talk, TC (1924), pp. 33-39; TC (192.5), pp. 65-69.

[41] To the Boys and Girls at Pei Hai” (Beihai), JC (1924), p. 36; TC (1925). p. 66.

[42] Ibid.

[43] For the full text see “First Public Talk in Peking”, TC (1924), p. 79f; “To My Hosts, v”. TC (1925). p. 73f.

[44] “At the Scholar’s Dinner, Peking”, Mr Lin’s Opening Speech, TC (1924), pp. 57-67. This has been left out in TC (1925). For Tagore’s reply see TC (1924), pp. 9-69; TC (1925). “Autobiographical II’, pp. 33-43.

[45]  “Yi Taige’e” (Reminiscences of Tagore), Renmin Wenxue [People’s Literature), May 1961. (Translated by Tan Wen.)

[46] In the past Indians called China “Cinasthan” which was in turn transliterated into Chinese as Zhendan. Liang Qichao in his speech rather mistakenly asserted that the word Zhendan was the transliteration of the word Cina.

[47] This speech was quoted by Mei Lanfang in his article “Yi Taige’er”.

[48] lu Xun Ouanji, Vol. XI. p. 427.

[49]  “Wushengde Zhongguo” (The Voiceless China), Lu Xun Quanji, Vol. IV, p. 15

[50] Ibid., Vol. V, p. 57.

[51] Ibid., Vol. V, pp. 595-66.

[52]  “First Public Talk in Peking”, TC (1924), p. 94; TC (1925), p. 33.

[53] The lectures are “The Rule of the Giant” and “Giant Killer”. The combined talk was published in Visva Bharati Quarterly July 1926.

Needless to say, they were not included in Talks in China. In a letter to Pratima Tagore, on his way to China. Tagore wrote that he had to write six lectures. of which two he had written on the boat. The lecture delivered an 9 May, i.e. the first formal lecture, was undoubtedly written a few days before that date. In all probability the two lectures written on his way to China were never delivered.

[54] For the full text see Hay, op. cit.. pp. 170-71.

[55]  “Taige’er”, Chenbao (Morning Daily), 19 May 1924, quoted in Hay, op. cit., p. 193.

[56]  “Judgment”, Visva-Bharafi Quarterly, October 1925.

[57] TC (1924). pp. 134-37; TC (1925) To Students [I, pp. 76-79. The 1925 edition omits the first part, as well as a few passages, in the original talk.

[58] TC (1924), pp. 95-101; TC (1925), pp. 114.40.

[59] Quoted in Hay, op. cit, p. 199.

[60] Ibid, p. 323

[61] Tan Chung. “Tagore in China”, The Sunday Sfafesman, Miscellany, 20 July 1966, pp. 2-3.

[62] Tan Chung has summarised the essay of Ji Xianlin.

[63] Lun ki ge’er; op. cit., pp. 180-81

[64] All of them are to be found in Sadhana. The Realisation of Life (1913).

[65]  “The Modern Age”, Creative Unity (1922, reprinted Macmillan, 196O), p. 121

[66] Hay, op. cif., p. 242

[67]  “Reply to the Scholars, Peking”, TC (1924), p. 60; “Autobiographical II”, TC (1925), p. 34.

[68] Tagore’s admiration for Chinese poetry found its most eloquent expression in his controversial but seminal article ‘Adhunik Sahitya” (included in Sabifyer Pathe, 1937). The English translation, “Modern Poetry”, in Amiya Chakravarti (Ed.), A Tagore Reader (Boston, 1961), pp. 241-53. In support of his view of modernity he quotes from Li Bai and adds. the joy of a natural and detached way of looking at things belongs to no particular age. It belongs to everyone whose eyes know how to wonder over the naked earth. It is over thousand years since the Chinese poet Li Bai wrote his verses, but being a moderner, Tagore looked upon the universe with freshly opened eyes.

[69] “To Students at Hangchow”, TC (1924), p. 25; “To My Hosts II”, TC (1925), p. 65.

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© 1998 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi

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