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  • Hamsini Hariharan

Rabindranath Tagore's 159th anniversary: When Gurudev visited China

This article first appeared in CNBC TV-18 on May 11, 2020 and can be accessed here.

Tagore’s 159th birthday was celebrated on May 8, with the usual pomp taking to online celebrations. But did you know that 96 years ago, Tagore celebrated his birthday in Beijing? It was the year 1924 and Tagore had been invited to China by the Beijing Lecture Association (講學社 or Jiang Xue She). On his 64th birthday, some friends and young actors of the Crescent Moon Society staged the play Chitra in English as part of the celebrations.

Tagore was invited to China at a time when his popularity in the West had soared after receiving the Nobel Prize. According to Gal Gvili, between 1915 and 1929, approximately 90 Chinese writers (many of them famous in their own right) had translated his works and he was extensively written about in newspapers and journals.

Over six weeks, Tagore travelled to Shanghai, Hangzhou, Nanjing, Jinan, and Beijing, where he delivered a series of lectures and met with leaders and intellectuals. But during this time, China was a society that was emerging from the May Fourth Movement where young students looked to rejecting traditional ideas and embracing ones of science, modernism, and democracy.

Here, Tagore’s ideas of rejecting materialism and embracing Eastern spirituality did not sit well with revolutionaries like Chen Dixiu and Qu Quibai who went on to become the founders of the Communist Party of China. It also did not help that he was the first international guest since 1912 to visit Forbidden City and meet the deposed Emperor Pu Yi. Criticism against Tagore was so strong that he had to cancel the last three lectures that were organised in Beijing

He did visit China one more time in 1929 but this was a quiet, personal visit to Xu Zhimo (one of the most famous Chinese poets) on the way to Japan. But despite the criticisms he faced, Tagore’s legacy in Sino-Indian relations continues till today. Cheena Bhavan on the campus of Santiniketan was built to create relationships between the two countries and continues to remain the home for Chinese studies in the country. In 2013, on the occasion of his 150th birthday celebrations, the Chinese government contributed Rs. 56 lakhs to set up a gallery at Jorashanko Thakurbari (Tagore’s house in Kolkata) to chronicle Tagore’s links with China.

Despite all the opposite to his visit, Tagore’s ideas in poetry inspired a generation of Chinese poets like Xu Zhimo, Bing Xin, and Wang Tongzhao. He spoke about civilisation identities and beliefs at a time when there was little tolerance for such ideas among China’s young and restless. Now, however, his ideas about shared brotherhood and Pan-Asianism are more relevant than ever as China embraces its civilisational identity.

As Ambassador Nirupama Menon Rao noted in a lecture in 2011, “ Both India and China are today arguably more modern and confident in outlook than in Tagore’s days, although India, with its tradition of gradualism, is often accused of lagging in its drive towards modernity. Be that as it may, both India and China today have the maturity to admire our past, including the past of our contacts, without getting overwhelmed or swamped under its weight.”

In the present time of informal diplomacy where relations between the civilisational-states are emphasised, Tagore’s words are important and relevant. At the same time, he also reminds us of how easy it is for ideas to be misunderstood without context. And this, even with increased globalisation is just as important a feature of Sino-Indian relations.


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