Dialogue January-March, 2007, Volume 8 No. 3
Tagore’s Role in Strengthening Sino-Indian Relations
Yukteshwar Kumar and Dhrity Roy
The first Asian and non-white Noble laureate Gurudeva1 Rabindranath Tagore attached great importance to the Chinese culture throughout his life and valued greatly the friendly and amicable bond between the peoples of two nations: India and China. Ever since his childhood he showed solicitude for China. In 1881, when he was just 20 years old, he wrote an article titled “The Death Trade”2. In this article, he severely denunciated the English colonialists for their opium trade that caused widespread harm to the innocent people of China. He also severely denounced and excoriated the atrocities being administered by these groups of sea-pirates in the name of Christianity. The article spontaneously and intrepidly revealed Tagore’s profound sympathy for the Chinese people. He wrote, “Such nefarious commercial activities along with scathing method of accumulating wealth can hardly be called trade. It is precisely an act of plunder and loot.” From this time onwards till he left this nether world, for a span of about sixty years, whether it be in the realm of literary creations or in the domain of political activities, Tagore incessantly maintained deep friendship with the people of China.
Through the annals of thousand years of history, Tagore perceived that Sino-Indian friendship dates back to ancient times and that the great achievements of Sino-Indian cultural exchanges are also unreckonable. It was the discovery of some extremely valuable aspects in the Chinese culture that made Tagore value it so much. India and China are neighboring countries with their territories lying adjacent to each other. For the past several thousand years, people of both the countries have co-existed in peace and harmony and have been exchanging their culture. This in turn has enriched the mutual cultural coordination and promoted the mutual growth and development of literature, art, science and technology. This fact has already become a much-told tale in the history of mankind. Moreover, it is this deep feeling and profound friendship that has all along been penetrating the hearts and minds of the peoples of our two nations till date. Tagore hoped that this friendship could remain fresh forever and that it did not wither away with the passage of time.
Being an erudite scholar and a poet rich in feelings, Tagore had a pronounced understanding of this point accompanied by sincere experiences. In his literary pieces and speeches, one may notice that a single reference about China or the Chinese people is immediately followed by an unreserved outflow of his cordial effusive feeling towards them. Such instances as these are extremely common. We can only select a few of them here and discuss. He has written, “The peoples of the two ancient civilized nations, India and China have all along exchanged love and friendship between themselves”.3 In 1924, when Tagore visited China, he raised the banner of Sino-Indian friendship almost everywhere. He said, “I do not know why but as soon as I alighted on the land of China, I felt that I have come to my motherland.”4 He added, “But I may put in this way, India feels that it bears an extremely close alliance with China. China and India are both very old and beloved brothers.” He further says in a meeting in China that “I am thinking of carrying forward all the unaccomplished task of great Indian monks who had visited China in the past.”5 While biding farewell, he again emphatically said that the purpose of his China visit had been to reopen the avenue of exchange between the great ancient civilizations. He said, “We can never forget the relationship that has been built since the very ancient times. This is a close and intimate friendly union. I had never before enjoyed myself so much with you as now, nor had I ever been in such close contact with other people.” Tagore was already a little over sixty when he went to China, he had by then traveled all around the world and had associated himself with many renowned personalities but still he spoke in such a high esteem for China and Chinese people.
Although it was under the British rule that his family had made huge fortune and that he himself had acquired English education but he loved his motherland and hoped that it would become independent very soon. This feeling of Gurudeva did not change till he breathed his last. Gurudeva felt that the other nations of the east were also facing the trauma like that of his motherland. That he would show his solicitude for the nations including China was but natural. Hence, if we say that the reason behind he juxtaposed east and west was first because of his emotional support for the east and then because of the political and social situation in the world, it would be not incorrect.
Many articles of Gurudeva reflect his ardent expectations: that the eastern nations can stand up once again conjointly as a distinguished cluster of nations. While delivering a speech in Japan on international relations, Tagore said, “My friends in India came to the harbor to bid me farewell and urgent repeatedly to convey their love and respect to the people of China and Japan. They also wanted to arouse your dormant spirit and consciousness.”6
“No matter whether the circumstances are convenient or not; we must prove the dignity of the east. They are all yearning for the rejuvenation of a majestic Asia with Japan as the center of initiation”, he further asserted. The feeling concealed in the above-mentioned paragraph speaks for themselves. We would now discuss Gurudeva’s appreciation for Chinese people and culture.
1. According to Tagore, Chinese artists could find terrific vitality and spirit in the dead objects. In one of his books Human Nature he mentioned, “The greatness and magnificence of art in the oriental countries and particularly in China and Japan lies in the fact that the artists there could actually visualize the spirit of the object and moreover believed in them. The occidentals may believe in the spirit of man, but they definitely do not believe in the existence of a spirit in every objects of the world.”
2. The Chinese civilization has had a long-lasting characteristic of being in conformity with human feelings and emotions. In 1924, while delivering a speech in China, he said, “The durable characteristic of ancient civilization in conforming to human emotions exerts a vital influence on all objects dependent upon it. If this civilization would not have complied with human feelings in such a remarkable manner it would not have been permeated with such spiritual life and thus would not have continued to exist for so long.”
3. “Chinese literature and other forms of expression are satiated with the spirit of hospitality”, this was the deep conviction of Gurudeva Tagore.
4. The Chinese are not individual egoists. While delivering a speech in China, Gurudeva once remarked, “In China you are not individual egoists. Your society itself is a creation of your collectively owned soul.”
5. Chinese people never exerted any kind of brutality or practiced any kind of strong militarism against any country in the world.
6. Chinese people resolutely and persistently love this world. While delivering a speech in China, Gurudeva once said, “That you harbor a preserving attitude of loving this world and the material objects around you is true; however you do not reject and surround it with the external encirclement of monopoly.”
7. The Chinese people love and have esteem respect for life. Tagore said that whichever object is caressed by their love that turns out to be extremely beautiful.
8. The Chinese love material objects.
9. The Chinese people accept things as they are.
10. Chinese people instinctively grasp the mystery of the rhythm of objects—not only is it the mystery of ability amidst natural science but it also involves the secret of manifestation. This is a great innate ability in them because it is only the Almighty who can understand this secret. I am envious of this inborn quality embedded in them. I hope that our own citizens in India could learn this quality from them.
Gurudeva’s visit to China:
In April 1924, Tagore fulfilled his long cherished dream and visited China—something that he had been looking forward for many years. Chinese had invited Tagore a long time back, but it could not be realized at once. In the winter of 1923, Chinese literary circle once again renewed their invitation to Tagore. After a little hesitation, Gurudeva finally accepted the invitation and on 12th April 1924 he arrived in Shanghai. Accompanying him were famous painter Nandlal Bose, Kshitimohan Sen and Kalidas Nag. One British and an American journalist also joined him. Before his departure to China, Tagore in a letter expressed his physiological contradiction on his forthcoming visit to China. As an artist he must be solitary and calm, but again as a thinker he must integrate with a number of people. He says, “At the same time, I must go to China, in what capacity, I know not. Will it be as a poet or as one carrying noble and sincere advice along with some elementary knowledge?”
While Tagore was passing through Hong Kong, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen sent a person from Guangzhou to pay him a visit and convey that owing to his illness he would not be able to meet him in Guangzhou or Hong Kong. However, he expressed the hope that he might be able to meet him in Beijing, saying, “Beijing is the life center of China, the work of the Indian representatives must begin from Beijing. I will meet there at the first available opportunity.”
However, it was very unfortunate that Sun Yat-Sen and Gurudeva Tagore — the two towering literary personalities who bore special significance for their respective nations could not finally meet.
When Gurudeva arrived Shanghai, he received an unprecedented warm welcome. Among the organizers which sent representatives to welcome him at the port city were Shanghai Youth League, Jiangsu Educational Society and Current Affairs Reporting News Agency. Besides these organizations, Tagore was welcomed by many distinguished personalities from all walks of life. Among these personalities, each of them might had different views on Tagore, but despite having disparities in opinion all of them assembled at the bank of Huang Pu River to welcome the great genius who had arrived at Shanghai from a distant foreign land. It was from here that Gurudeva began his China-touring venture.
Gurudeva spent almost 50 days in China. During this period, he visited plethora of places, associated himself with numerous people, delivered countless speeches and toured umpteen numbers of historical places. The people with whom he established contacts and made friendship were from all walks of life, comprising older and younger people, Chinese and foreigners alike. From the surviving descendants of the Qing dynasty to the distinguished personages of the society—they were all there. In spite of being preoccupied with their work, all of them exerted themselves severely and performed the duties of the best as best they could do. All the leading newspapers and magazines in China published articles written in his honor, discussed the books composed by him and in addition published his photographs on their front pages. His literary masterpieces were widely introduced and circulated.
Gurudeva’s fifty days in China was like a grand majestic welcome meeting from north to south and east to west. His visit to China produced a great stir in the nation and it also aroused some controversy. Tagore himself was certainly aware of it. In this context, he said, “I have even heard, there are quite a few persons who have opposed my visit here because this may obstruct your western progress and forceful enthusiasm.” How must then we evaluate this visit of Gurudeva to China?
First of all, we must have a look at the situation of contemporary China and all the influences and impact that Gurudeva’s visit had brought about. From a world-view as it appeared to be, the period marked the commencement of a relatively stable period of capitalism. Superficially, there appeared to be no great storms of turbulence. However, in semi-colonial China, imperialistic aggression had become further aggravated. The entire nation was shrouded by the shadow of economic crisis and national calamity. Both the domestic and the foreign capitalists vigorously oppressed and exploited the workers. The tangling wars among the warlords withered the countryside, the village dwellers became destitute and homeless and their lives were being spent in an abyss of misery. The Chinese Communist Party had already been established for the past three years, the national revolutionary movement was then developing vigorously and class struggle was also becoming more acute day by day.
Amidst these circumstances, there was a group of people, who very vividly thought of utilizing Tagore as the force of backward and downtrodden people. During this time, there were some who expressed suspicion that some people have invited Tagore to assist Chinese in fighting the war between progressive scientific and orthodox metaphysical forces. Hu Shi was one of the leading personalities who had negated this view. This could be probably true, because in 1920, when an official invitation was extended to Tagore to visit China, the long-standing controversy between science and metaphysical had not yet flared up. But soon after Gurudeva went to China, the orthodox metaphysical forces and their followers intended to use him to boost their arrogance. These people shouted hoarse and propagated the unprogressive side of Tagore’s and portrayed him as a demeanor of a transcendental body, who was above the material attractions of the world, a supporter of metaphysical forces from head to toe and as one who mumbled incantations orally. He was also depicted as a living immortal who, advocated every aspect of the oriental spiritual civilization and opposed the occidental material civilization. However, they did not utter a single word about Gurudeva’s severe opposition to imperialism and feudalism.
There were some generous people also who hailed Tagore as one who brought with him love, glory, honor, consolation and joy for the Chinese people. In a world, overgrown with brambles, Tagore built for them a magnificent and tranquil garden endowed with the spirit of poetry. It was like a beam of sunlight, which was omnipresent and accommodated all the classes and the entire mankind. Anyone who was willing to stroll inside the garden was grandiosely and freely welcomed. There were many others who asserted, “Tagore courageously expounded the oriental civilization and spirit in revolting against the materialistic, practical and crass commercial civilization of occident.” These groups of people were little different from the former, as they had not forgotten to bring to light the fact that Tagore all along opposed British colonialists.7
The emergence of such influences when class struggle was intensifying in China can not be regarded as beneficial. In this regard, what responsibility might have Tagore taken up? That he could not be concerned about each and every class struggle that took place in the country is almost confirmed. We would be blamed if we had such kind of high expectation from him. But during the course of speeches he delivered in China, he did not comprehensibly express his own ideas on class struggle in China, this was also little unexpected from him. In some of his discourses in China, Tagore overemphasized the utility and significance of the oriental civilization and vehemently criticized the occidental civilization. However, a careful observation of his entire ideological system shows that he was definitely not against the western civilization completely. He cherished great respect for western science and technology. Occasionally, he would call upon the Indian people to learn some of these things. He often himself said that he did not oppose machinery as such but what he actually opposed was the principle of machine ruling the spirit of men. Whether this opinion of his is correct or not is a separate matter altogether. Anyway, his attitude in dealing with western material civilization possesses a dual dealing but the people who invited him to China either could not assess this or deliberately did not want to ponder over it. They intentionally added fuel to flames on a grand scale and misinterpreted it as “Wild Forest Civilization”. Even those distinguished scholars who often flaunt “Scientific Spirit” of the west and considered that the Orientals including Chinese did not had any substantial civilization or any valuable aspect within it suddenly changed their tunes and identities. They even transformed themselves as comrades in hands and gloves with Tagore and advocated oriental civilization effusively in accordance with his views.
Tagore’s temperaments as well as his literary creations have also manifested his dual nature. On one hand, he seems to be liberal and receptive to the new ideas while on the other hand, he appears to be stern and uncompromising. He could retire to the countryside, be lost in deep thoughts amidst the natural surroundings and create poems reflecting his love for nature, mankind, the star-studded sky, the moon-lit nights and thus provided aesthetic pleasure to his readers. But he could also resolutely wipe away tears and express his opinions in a gathering and at the same time recite his patriotic poems each brimming as flame of fire. Again as soon as he would see fascism, militarism and other evils riding roughshod over the people, he would rise to his feet in anger and with darting fierce looks of hatred, would compose poems and articles as fierce and sharp as dagger and sword.
However, the Chinese hosts who invited Tagore did not see or rather intentionally did not want to see these two aspects of his. They exerted their utmost in highlighting his open and aboveboard nature—a unilateral facet of his personality. All his nature works including Gitanjali, Gardener, The New Crescent Moon and many others were chosen to be translated into Chinese and it appeared as though Tagore throughout his life had composed literary pieces of these kinds only and that literary creations having close proximity with reality did not exist at all. It implied as if Tagore had all his life been associated with only the spring flowers and the autumn moon, was far removed from reality and toured the land of the rainbow and clouds.
Though there arose some conflicts and debate on the writing and philosophy of Tagore but he was widely respected in China and was give huge welcome in China. In a journal Conscience Yan Bing wrote in April 1924, “We respect Tagore because he is a genuine and pious poet; we respect him because he sympathizes with oppressed and poor strata of the society; we revere him because he is a poet who helps the poor peasants; we respect him more because he is a poet who encourages patriotism and inspires youths to fight against the British colonialism.”
His visit to China also resulted in translation of his literary creations, which made deep influence on the Chinese society and culture. Tagore visited China in the fifth year of May Fourth Revolution, which was a period of burgeoning and shaping up of new literature in the country and it was but natural to have the influence of Tagore’s writing on Chinese literature. Guo Moruo, Xu Zhimo, Bing Xin and many other writers were highly inspired by his writings. Guo Moruo has written that because of his liking of Tagore’s writings, he became nearer to the philosophy of pantheism. He further says that because of reading of Tagore’s poems, he came to know about Kabir8 and understood the tenets of Upanishad9.
The biggest impact of Tagore’s visit to China was strengthening of bilateral friendly and brotherly relationship between the two countries. His visit also opened a new vista for furthering of cultural exchanges and through his visit people remembered the old forgotten steps of several hundred Buddhist scholars and monks who had frequented both the countries in the past. His love for Chinese culture and literature made him establish “Cheena-Bhavana” in 1937 with the help of Prof. Tan Yun-Shan at Visva-Bharati University, which burgeoned into a premier center for learning Chinese language and researching Chinese culture, history, Buddhism and literature. Some Chinese scholars even say that in those days when Japanese colonists were decimating Chinese culture and literature, Tagore’s propagation for Chinese culture and literature was highly commendable.
1. Mahatma Gandhi gave Rabindranath Tagore the title of “ Gurudeva”.
2. He wrote this article in Bengali, which was translated into Chinese and English later on.
3. In the preface of the book Chinese monastery in Deer park, Sarnath, 1928.
4. During his speech in Beijing, April 1924.
5. In an article “Meeting of Brothers” in “Sino-Indian Journal, No. 1, Volume 1, page 9.
6. During his speech in Tokyo in 1924.7 “Welcome Tagore” in the journal Short Story Monthly Vol. 15, No. 04, Beijing, 1924.
8. Kabir was one of the most famous poets of India. He wrote during 15th century but his writings have great influence on Indian society and culture.
9. Upanishads are ancient sacred books of Hindus.