Romit Bagchi – Tagore and China

Romit Bagchi - Tagore and China

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Tagore and China by Romit Bagchi, author and veteran Indian journalist

Long before the Communist rule was established in China, Rabindranath Tagore warned the country against deviating from the deeper civilization ethos of the East.

A spiritual visionary wedded to the eternal values as contrasted against the evanescent glitz, Tagore said in one of his lectures while in China in 1924: “I hope that some dreamer will spring from among you and preach a message of love and, therewith overcoming all differences, bridge the chasm of passions which has been widening for ages.”

His stress on the spiritual essence involving the civilizations of both the ancient Oriental countries during his 49-day tour (12 April to 30 May) endeared him to a few while the majority criticized his message, dubbing it as one full of soporific nonsense.

When he was about to deliver his speech at Zhenguang in Beijing, he found some students distributing leaflets among those who came to listen to him. Later he came to know that the leaflets had charged him 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.” Touched to the quick, Tagore decided to cut short his visit.

Amartya Sen, the Nobel Laureate, wrote: “… it is particularly important to pay attention to the timing of Tagore’s grand visit to China in 1924. This came shortly after the end of the First World War (1914-1918) fought in Europe with unbelievable brutality, and also just after the triumphant reception that Tagore received in Europe, especially as a ‘sage’ from the East… Tagore had, by then, persuaded himself-and a lot of others too-that there was something deeply incomplete in the priorities of the Western world, a gap in the closing of which eastern thought, from India and China and elsewhere, had something constructive to offer…while Tagore received invitations to visit China, shortly after receiving his Nobel award, and by the time he actually he came to China in 1924, the internal climate in the country itself was rapidly changing, with political engagement  that focused on radical causes geared to the present, rather than to the past. The admiration for China’s glorious past, while still present, was being strongly supplemented -and to some extent supplanted-by radical political demands related to here and now…By the time Tagore came to China, among the debates that animated China was that between those focusing on China’s traditional culture and the new activists concerned deeply with changing the modern world, rather than remaining focused on the past. The timing of Tagore’s grand visit had the effect of making an agitated Tagore arrive in an agitated country with two types of agitation not rhyming with each other in a harmonious way”.

The internal situation in China then was chaotic. While the people, the peasants, in particular, were grappling with poverty the warlords were dog-fighting for supremacy. The Communist Party of China, in its infancy, had influenced Dr. Sun Yat-sen in reforming the Kuomintang and adopting policies of friendship with Russia. Dr. Sun Yat-sen was for making India an ally because of the commonness of the cultural ethos of China and India.  There are thus reasons to think that he thought Tagore was visiting China responding to his invitation. He seemed to be convinced that the objective behind the visit was ‘promoting the rebirth of the traditional cultures of the East as well as the unity of the Asian nations’. When Tagore was in Hong Kong on his way to China, an emissary was sent to him, telling him that as Dr. Yat-sen was unwell he could not meet him personally. It was stressed that he was welcome in China. “Tagore could not figure out Sun’s politics at once, so he did not positively respond to Sun Yat-sen’s invitation. Objectively speaking, his meeting with the deposed Manchu emperor, Puyi, and some warlords in northern and eastern China but avoiding the ‘cradle of revolution’ sent a wrong signal.”

The Left-inclined intellectuals opposed his visit as they feared that his thought might impede the leftist mobilization of the Chinese youths to break up with the tradition and opt wholeheartedly for the gospel of revolution.

They had reasons to fear. What Tagore said was significant. “I have no doubt in my mind that in the East our principal characteristic is not to set too high a price upon success through gaining advantage, but upon self-realization through fulfilling our dharma, our ideals. Let the awakening of the East impel us consciously to discover the essential and universal meaning of our own civilization, to remove the debris from its path, to rescue it from the bondage of stagnation that produces impurities, to make it a great channel of communication between all human races,” he said while addressing a gathering in China.

Naturally, Tagore was dubbed as a slave whose own country was dead. He was condemned for his audacity to brag about saving China spiritually that had not yet gone under. An important Communist leader in China wrote in an article a few days after he had begun giving lectures that they expected from Tagore neither pontification on the spiritual way of living nor treatises on his Gitanjali but a robust song inspiring them to march along, alluding to a famous Tagore song ‘Go alone if others ignore your call’.

The study is interesting, as the same question on the contribution of Tagore to the welfare of mankind kept haunting the Communists in India, at least the most hardcore section amongst them, too for a long time. The founder of the overseas Communist Party of India, M. N. Roy criticized the Tagorean thought without naming him, saying that the claim the Indian people as a whole was less morally corrupt, emotionally purer, idealistically less worldly, in short, spiritually more elevated, was based upon a wanton disregard for reality.

© Romit Bagchi

Previously published : Tagore,China –A tangled relation…china-a-tangled-relation.html

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