ACROSS THE HIMALAYAN GAP
Tagore and China
THE CONTROVERSlAL GUEST: TAGORE IN CHINA
SISIR KUMAR DAS
-Tagore: "First Talk at Shanghai", Talks in China (1924)
Jiangxueshe (Beijing Lecture Association) invited Rabindranath
Tagore in 1923 to deliver a series of talks.
This Association, established in September 1920, was one of the many
institutions that mushroomed in China in the wake of the May Fourth Movement.
Its main objective was to invite foreign scholars and to arrange lectures by
them for Chinese intellectuals. The
Association had earlier invited John Dewey (1859-1952), Bertrand Russell
(1872-1970) and Hans Driesch (1862-1941). They spoke to a limited number of
scholars, but their lectures were more or less well received and Russell
certainly made a great impression on Chinese intellectuals. The Association
intended to invite Rudolf Euken and Henry Bergson but did not succeed.
The invitation to Rabindranath Tagore created an unprecedented uproar
which eventually culminated in strong hostility against him as well as
against Liang Qichao (1873.1929), President of the Association, by the
radical student circles and some ultra left-oriented political leaders, This
essay examines the background and the possible ideological reasons for this
hostility which made Tagore the most controversial guest in twentieth
of information about the Chinese response to Tagore are varied and
divergent. Both Leonard Elmhirst and Kalidas Nag, who accompanied Tagore to
China, maintained diaries but they are yet to be available to the general
reader. The little that is
known about the contents of those diaries do not contain much to shed light
on the motivations of the concerted attack against the poet.
A few publications from the Visva-Bharati at that lime, however,
offer valuable information about the poet's sojourn in China, although they
contain precious little about the Chinese criticism of Tagore
Four years after the death of the poet, Kalidas Nag edited a slender volume,
Tagore and China (1945) which gave
some more information, The most detailed and valuable work on the subject is
the revised version of the doctoral thesis of an American scholar; Stephen
Hay, published under the title Asian Ideas of East and West (1970). Hay has
gone through a large mass of material - contemporary newspapers both in
Chinese and English, unpublished diaries and private papers of many
scholars, including those of Elmhirst and Nag and presented a
is difficult to locate all the lectures that Tagore delivered in China. Some
are available in abridged form, and others in distorted form.
A few were reproduced in the Visva-Bharati
Bulletin and Visva-Bharafi
Quarterly. Most of them,
however, are to be found in Tagore’s Talks
in China, published soon after his return from China in 1924.
But for some reasons not known to us, Tagore banned the circulation
of that book and published a new edition, drastically revised, the following
year. Although these two books
have the same title, and the same material to a great extent, they differ
radically in their arrangement Certain parts of the essays included in the
1924 edition were not only deleted in the 1925 edition, but the essays were
rearranged under five headings : “Auto biographical”, “To My Hosts”,
‘To Students”, 70 Teachers” and “Leave-Taking”. The two essays
‘civilization and Progress” and “Satyam” included in the 1924
edition, were included in the new edition without any change, but three
lectures "At a Buddhist Temple”, “To the Japanese Community at
China” and “At Mrs. Bena’s, Shanghai” have been omitted. In fact, a
comparative study of these two texts shows that there have been changes of a
very serious and radical nature. Tagore took great pains to delete all the
information that was included in the first edition about places where tile
lectures were delivered, and also several perceptive passags.
The reasons for such changes are not knmvn. Although Talks
in China is one of the significant writings of Tagore in English, it
never received the attention it deserved either from Tagore schdars in
Bengal or students of India-China relations.
It is quite interesting to note that it was never translated into
Chinese although quite a number of Tagore’s other works were translated
into Chinese and were well received.
articles that appeared during Tagore’s visit to China in different
newspapers and journals are difficult to locate, some of them are already
lost or destroyed. A volume
entitled Lun Taige'er (On Tagore),
containing many articles on Tagore written by various Chinese scholars and
political activists during the period between 1921 and 1924, published by
Zhang Guangliang of the Institute of South Asian Studies of the Chinese
Academy of Social Sciences at Beijing in 1983 provides interesting materials.
The long article by Ji Xianlin, the Director of the Institute and an
eminent scholar, also the President of the Comparative Literature
Asscciation of China, is particularly valuable as it gives a scholarly
analysis of the factors responsible for the controversy about Tagore’s
visit. According to him, the
hosts of Tagore were political “reactionaries”, who wanted to make use
of Tagore to enhance their own political image and to find support for their
ideology. The other reason, suggested by Ji Xianlin, is the inherent duality
in Tagore’s work and philosophy. Tagore was an anti-imperialist and
intensely patriotic, but he was also a religious poet and a mystic.
His poems and songs did inspire the Indians in their struggle against
foreign rule, his poems and short stories indeed breathed a universal
spirit, but strands of escapism were also apparent in his writings. The
Chinese admirers of Tagore wanted to present him as a mystic without any
concern for human suffering, as a writer engrossed in a world of dream and
ethereal beauty without any understanding of the present reality This
interpretation of Ji Xianlin is partly prompted by a desire to tone down the
severity of the Chinese protest against Tagore and partly based on Mao
Dun’s criticism of Tagore, which we will discuss later.
is quite evident that the hostility that Tagore faced in China was partly
because of his hosts, all of whom were targets of severe criticism by the
radicals of that time. But that does not explain the extent of Chinese fury
against a foreign guest. Tagore
set foot in China on 12 April 1924 but the debate about him had started from
September 1923, i.e., almost within a few week of the announcement of his
visit. A group of poets and intellectuals, some of whom were abroad at that
time, came out openly to criticise Tagore’s thought and writings, which
they considered a great threat to the Chinese youth. They made occasional
references to Tagore’s hosts but the references were generally oblique.
The severity of the radical intellectuals criticism of Tagore makes one
think that either they felt Tagore’s influence on the Chinese youth was
already quite pervasive and that it must be stemmed immediately, or there
was a strong possibility of the Chinese youth being swayed away by the
presence of Tagore. In either
case it makes little sense. Krishna Kripalani wrote that Vagore was hardly
known in China” when he was invited there, and implied that the
controversy that was generated was because of the ignorance of the Chinese
intellectuals. Facts, however,
are different. Soon after the news of the award of the Nobel Prize to Tagore
reached China in 1913, a Chinese scholar named Qian Zhixian wrote an article
in the East, in which he portrayed the poet as one dedicated to his
motherland and to the welfare of the mankind.
Many young Chinese studying in the USA, England and in Japan, were
familiar with the writings of Tagore. Guo
Moruo, Hu Shi and Xu Zhimo, for example, read Tagore in English when they
were abroad. And many more at
home who could read English came under the spell of the Crescent
Moon and Gitanjali Tagore’s
works were translated into Chinese as early as in 1915 and his first
translator was Chen Duxiu, one of the founders of the Comtiunist Party of
China. In the second issue of the influential journal Xin
Qingnian (New Youth), edited by him, Chen published translations of four
poems from Gifanjali (Nos. 1, 2, 25 and 35) with a note that Tagore was a
mystic but also a mentor of the Indian youth.
It was around this time when Guo Moruo, who accepted Tagore as his hero,
wrote the following poem in which he quotes the poet:
1916 Dongfang Zazhi (The Eastern Miscellany), the oldest and most widely
circulated Chinese journal, published one of the lectures of Tagore
delivered in Japan. This
lecture might have created an impression in China that Tagore was a sharp
critic of modern western civilisation and a man of spiritual temper.
But the other dimensions of Tagore’s personality could nol be
totally unknown to the Chinese reading public as several young writers of
promise had translated his poems, short stories and plays. Gitanjali was translated, though not the whole of it, and published
in various journals (apart from the New
Youth) by Zheng Zhenduo, Zhao Jingshen, between 1920 and 1923. In 1923
Zheng Zhenduo published his translation of The
Crescent Moon. Its
publisher, the Commercial Press, came out with a second edition of this
translation the following year which competed with another translation of
the same book by Wang Duqing published by the Taidong Press of Shanghai.
of Tagore’s stories began to appear in Chinese magazines from 1917, if not
earlier; funo Zazhi (Women’s Magazine) published two stories of Tagore, Chuti (Home Coming) and Dristidan
(Vision) in 1917. Chutiwas translated
three times before Tagore visited China, and Kabuliwala was translated six
times; four of the translations appeared in journals before 1924.
At least four plays - Chitra, Sannyasi, The Cyc/e of Spring and the Posf
Office - one novel (The Home and
the World) and two volumes of essays (Personality and Nationalism) were
available in Chinese translations. It
is difficult to obtain detailed information about all the translators but
some of them, Wang Duqing, Xu Dishan, Qu Shiying, Zheng Zhenduo, Bai Xiang
and Shen Yanbing (more well known as was Mao Dun), were promising writers of
that time. Wang Duqing (1898-1940), one of the founders of Chuaflgzao
she (The Creation Society), was educated in France and was a fine poet.
Xu Dishan (1893-1944), primarily a scholar and famous essayist, studied
Indian philosophy at Oxford. He
visited India in 1925 to study Sanskrit and Buddhist philosophy.
Qu Shiying (1900-1976) was a teacher at the Peking University and
Zheng Zhenduo (1898-1958), one of the founders of the Literary Research
Society and editor of Xiaoshuo Yuebao (The
Fiction Monthly], was a popular writer and a scholar of Chinese literary
It is important to remember that Xiaoshuo
Yuebao with which Mao Dun and Zhou Zuoren were associated, published at
least eight stories, three plays and a large number of poems of Tagore -
many of them translated by Zheng Zhenduo - before 1924.
is interesting to note that some of the critics of Tagore’s China visit,
like Chen Duxiu and Shen Yanbing, were among the Chinese translators of
Tagore, and pioneers in introducing Tagore to Chinese readers.
Their earlier admiration for Tagore’s literary achievement
prevented them from cdticising him as a writer even when they expressed
their reservations about inviting Tagore to China.
There was, however, a strong belief that Tagore was invited to China
to help Liang and his associates, particularly Zhang Junmai who had
co-authored the work Das Lebensproblem
in China und in Europe (1922)
with Eucken. To refute the
allegation Zhang had to make an announcement that he was unfamiliar with
Tagore’s thought before he had met him. “I have come to know that his
heart is full of love and beauty”, he wrote about Tagore, and added that,
“Mr. Tagore and I have.no connectron witn each other, and he definitely
did not come to China to assist me.”
That Zhang felt obliged to make a statement like this is an evidence of the
bitterness that existed between Liang and his friends on the one hand, and
those who opposed him on various issues since the last few years.
Since 1917 a wind of change was blowing through the country.
Its significant impact on intellectual activities was first felt on
the Chinese language and literature. Hu
Shi (1891.1982), a fine scholar of philosophy and literature and an ardent
follower of John Dewey’s pragmatism, started a movement in favour of bai
hua, the, language spoken by the common man, as against the time
honoured literary speech wenyan.
He received support from Chen Duxiu and was successful in radically
transforming Chinese cultural life. The
debate initiated by Hu Shi was prompted by a desire of the future
development of the Chinese language to make it an effective instrument of
modernisation of the Chinese life.
The use of the people’s speech in place of the antiquated literary
language not only forged a closer relationship between writers and readers,
but also led to a tremendous increase in the number of publication of
newspapers and magazines. Translations
from foreign languages also received a tremendous boost, which opened up a
window to the world. The forces
behind the language reform were but one aspect of a wide intellectual
fermentation. They slowly
extended to other areas challenging the validity and utility of the older
tradition. A group of
intellectuals, most of them educated abroad, criticised the traditional
values, including Confucianism and welcomed western thought and technology
to activise the dormant energy of China.
The May Fourth Movement was the culmination of the people’s anger
and humiliation provoked by the Versailles Treaty of 1919, following which
the intellectuals started
becoming polarised on various social, philosophical and political issues.
Chen Duxiu and his friends associated with the journal Xin
Qinghian (New Youth) called for a total rejection of Confucianism.
If China were to find a place of honour in the world, then the
decadent culture of China sustained by Confucianism must be replaced by a
twin ideal - Mr. Science and Mr. Democracy. This iconoclastic approach to
the past had to be accepted in order to ensure progress.
Qichao who had staged the “Hundred Days Reform” coup d’etat along with
his mentor Kang Youwei in 1898, had a radical image in his younger days and
was the hero of Mao Zedong in his youth. He was the first in China
to write on Karl Marx and had a profound impact on the Chinese youth through
his writings on Rousseau and the French Revolution and by his scathing
attack on Confucianism. In his
early life he established an association, the main aim of which was to
acquaint the younger generation with the various facets of western thought.
But in 1919 when he went to Paris as a representative of China, there was a
change in him. He was
disillusioned by war-torn Europe. This
was further intensified by his meeting with Bergson.
Following this there was a shift in his position in respect of his
attraction towards Europe and he became a critic of the technological
civilisation of the west and blind faith in science.
He wrote at that time: “millions of people on the other shore of
the ocean are worrying about the bankruptcy of material civilization,
sorrowfully and desperately crying for help, waiting for your aid, our
ancestors in heaven, the sages and the older generation are all earnestly
hoping, you will carry out their task.
Their spirit is helping you.
The Chinese youth reacted to this appeal in two divergent ways.
The majority found it unacceptable but some intellectuals, the most
distinguished of whom was Liang Shuming, supported Liang Qichao.
Liang Qichao’s shift in position evoked sharp protests from the
young Marxists, particularly Zheng Zhenduo, Zhou Zuoren, and Mao Dun.
Chinese cultural tradition was at its peak and polarisation between the
Chinese intellectuals was almost complete.
February 1923 when Zhang Junmai, a disciple of Liang Qichao, emphasised the
necessity for a reassessmenl of the Chinese civilisation, Mao Dun and Chen
Duxiu declared unequivocally the worthlessness of the Chinese tradition and
rejected his cautious note for a selective approach to one’s ancient
heritage. People belonging to
various literary circles, too, were sharply divided on issues such as the
role of literature in society. Xu Zhimo was happy about his acquaintance with I A Richard, C
K Ogden, Lowes Dickinson, E M Forster and Katherine Mansfield, and deeply in
love with Lin Huilin, the beautiful daughter of Lin Changmin (a friend of
Liang Qichao and a member of the short-lived cabinet in 1917), Xu Zhimo’s
friend Qu Qiubai on the other hand was completely dedicated to Marxian
ideology. When Qu Qiubai met Xu
Zhimo and his circle of friends he felt they belonged to a world of dreams
blissfully ignorant about the surrounding reality, It was also the time when
Guo Moruo declared, "We are men on the revolutionary path and our
literature of today can only justify its existence in its function of
hastening the realization of social revolution... Now is the time for
propaganda, and literature is its instrument."
Shi, the non-communist liberal, who also played the role of a host to Tagore,
was a sharp critic of Liang Qichao’s view of western civilisation.
He believed that the civilisation which substituted machines for
human labour was more spiritual than, civilisation which continued to use
men as beasts of burden, When Liang Shuming was defending Confucianism, Hu
Shi was criticising Kongjjia
(Confucius and sons). But when
the debate between the two was continuing, Chen Duxiu attacked not only the
supporters of the ancient traditions but also Hu Shi, his one time intimate
friend. It must be remembered
that Hu Shi initiated the new literary movement with the support of Chen.
After his return from the USA, he joined Peking University as a Professor of
English and Philosophy. Al that time he was extremely popular among the
younger generation for his defence of Huxley’s agnosticism and the
pragmatism of John Dewey. He was a friend of Lu Xun and was universally
regarded as one of the pioneers of modern Chinese poetry.
Hu Shi, a scholar by temperament, devoted more time to scholarly pursuits
than to political debates.
However, despite his prominent role in the cultural reforms, his involvement
in abstract philosophical problems and refusal to participate in the left
movement also made him a target of attack of the members of the Communist
Party, which ridiculed him as an inhabitant of the ivory tower of academic
life. This was the man who evinced an interest in Tagore during the
latter’s visit to China in 1924.
person who expressed enthusiasm about Tagore’s visit in abundant measure
was the young poet Xu Zhimo (1895-1931).
Elmhirst met him and Qu Shiying, a young philosopher and
educationist, in April 1923 and discussed the possibility of Tagore’s
visit. They reported the
discussion to Liang Qichao and Zhang, and both of them responded to the
proposal hearily. For Xu Zhimo
it was a great occasion. He was
in Cambridge at the time when Tagore’s reputation in England was at its
zenith. A lover of Shelley and
Keats and of Katherine Mansfield, Xu Zhimo responded passionately to
Tagore’s poetry for its sophisticated grace and universality.
The Crescenf Moon haunted
him throughout his tempestuous life tragically cut short at the age of
He founded the Xinyueshe (The
Crescent Moon Society) in 1923, launched a monthly journal in collaboration
with his poet friend Wen Yiduo in 1925, called The Monthly Crescent Moon, and three years before his death he
established a publishing house -The Crescent Moon Publications. But his view
of literature isolated him from the group of writers represented by Guo
Moruo and others. As early as
in 1921 Guo had declared:
Zhimo’s enthusiasm about Tagore was interpreted rightly or wrongly as an
oblique criticism of Marxist view of literature.
Liang Qichao, Hu Shi, Xu Zhimo, Zhang Junmai, Liang Shuming, despite
broad differences among them, were thought to be members of a group opposed
to the newly organised Marxists, and since they were the people to take an
interest in Tagore, the poet appeared to have posed a threat to the
radicals. They must have thought that while the influence of Dewey and
Russell was limited to an extremely small circle, Tagore being a poet and
playwright, already popular in China, had greater potentiality of
influencing a larger audience. Therefore,
he must be opposed.
sailing for China, Tagore told the press that when he received the Chinese
invitation he felt that it was an invitation to India herself and as her
humble son he should accept it. He hoped that his visit would re-establish
the cultural and spiritual links between the two civilisations: “We shall
invite scholars and try to arrange an exchange of scholars.
If I can accomplish this, I shall feel happy."
These words were more than pleasantries, they were perfectly natural for the
man who had always nourished great love for China and who visualised a
centre of learning where the whole world would meet as if in a nest.
knowledge of China was not confined, as it has been alleged by some of his
critics, to a superficial acquaintance with Confucianism alone. It is true
he said in China, “I had in my mind my own vision of China, formed when I
was young, China as I had imagined
it to be when I was reading my Arabian Nights, the romantic China, as well
as the China of which I had caught glimpses when I was in Japan."
But any one familiar with Tagore’s works in Bengali knows about his
awareness of the suffering people of China since the earfy years of his
literary career. His articles China Maraner
Elyabasay (The Death Trade in China) published in the Bengali magazine,
Bharati in 1881; Samajbhed (Social Differences) written in 1901; and the
famous Chinemaner Chifhi (Letters of a Chinaman) based on Dickinson’s
Letters of John Chinaman published in 1898 are eloquent evidence of his
knowledge of and interest in Chinese affairs. Samajbhedwas based on an
English article entitled Tiger China and Lamb Europe” (published in
Contemporary Review, Lmdon) about the western barbarity perpetrated against
China. Tagore wrote that the present turmoil in China began with the
intrusion of Christian missionaries in that country, who in their arrogance
refused to recognise the necessity and the significance of diversities in a
social system. Civilised
Europe, Tagore observed, also refused to adhere to the principles of
Christianity, and disrupted an ancient civilisation with its brute force to
perpetuate its self-interest. In
this essay as well as in “Letters of a Chinaman” Tagore emphasised the
role of religion in Oriental civilisation, particularly the. Indian and Chinese. But
what he considered to be the most heinous crime committed by the British was
their role in the oprum trade. The
bulk of the opium imported into China was produced by the East India Company
and thus the British made India, against her wishes, a party to the
nefarious proposition. An
optimist to the core, Tagore, however, believed that China would eventually
discover her hidden strength to protect herself from the onslaughts of the
references to Chinese civilisation and contemporary Chinese life and
political turmoils are scattered in the writings of Tagore, and all these
comments and observations indicate his anxiety for the Chinese people.
It will be wrong, therefore, to think that Tagore had an idealised or
distorted vision of China when he visited that country.
What he did not have was adequate information about the changing
political scene after the May Fourth Movement and a clear understanding of
the ideological regroupings of the Chinese intellectuals. Nor did he realise
the intensity of the repugnance for Confucianism and aversion for a mortbund
feudal culture in China among the younger generation, and the strong
possibility of his being misunderstood in an atmosphere of seething internal
strife. The controversy about
him started long before he set foot on Chinese soil.
The theory proposed by Hay that Tagore’s role as a prophet was
mainly responsible for the controversy and disrespect shown to him appears
to be untenable in view of the fact that a powerful group was determined to
oppose him as soon as the news of his visit to China was announced.
Zhenduo, the editor of Xiaoshuo Yuebao (The Fiction Monthly) who had been
translating Tagore since 1920, published two special numbers of the magazine
in 1923 devoted to Tagore. In September that year he wrote a highly
emotional editorial welcoming the poet:
is due to arrive in China shortly. He may reach China by the time this issue
of our magazine reaches our readers.
can imagine Rabindranath Tagore in his flowing Indian garment touching the
Chinese soil after a long and arduous journey.
We welcome him with respect and affection. He comes through arcades
made of emerald-green leaves of pine; he stands on the podium covered with
fresh flowers, and we wait in folded hands for him, our hearts swelling in
joy, to listen to his words.
that is how we should extend our welcome to him, even when no felicitations
are adequate to express the minute fractim of our devotion and gratitude for
are not many in the world today who deserve our felicitations.
Among the few there are, Tagore is one and Tagore is the most
deserving. He has given us we
and light, he has given us consolation and solace.
He has shown us light in midst of darkness: he is our dearest
brother, an intimate friend and a comrade. In this strife-torn world of
today he has created a paradise of poetry, beautiful and noble, whose gates
are open to all men. It is like the light and warmth of the sun for all
without any distinction.
West, if not the whole world, is engulfed today by blood-red clouds and is
under the grip of a tornado of fierce envy. Each nation, each country, each
political group looks at the other in anger, each sings the songs of revenge
and dances wildly with the music of steel and guns. Each in greed like that
of a poisonous dragon wants to swallow the whole world. How many lives have
been lost, how many homes destroyed, how many fountains of jades and pearls
dried up, how many green fields turned red in Mood and how many woodlands
consumed by fire! Only one man - Tagore - stands like a colossus, his one
foot rests on the crest of the Himalayas and other on the Alps. In a voice
as powerful as thunder he spreads the message of peace and love.
bright dawn of the future will emerge from the darkness of East. The angel
of peace is on the move: he waits for us to respond. At times his voice gets
stifled but his music vibrates with hope for ever ...
comes, he comes with precious gifts for us. He brings the paradise of his
poetry, he illumines the surrounding darkness and reveals the essence of
life and the world.”
Zhenduo’s effusive admiration for Tagore was well matched by that of Xu
Zhimo whose article welcoming Tagore was also published in the same issue of
Xiaoshuo Yuebao. Xu who had just returned from a pilgrimage to the holy
mountain Taishan entitled his essay Taishan richu (Sunrise on Mount Taishan).
It was a clever use of the syllable “Tai” which refers to the name of
Tagore (“Taige’er” being the Chinese transliteration of ‘Tagore) and
an attempt to identify Taige’er with the holy mountain. “My eulogy for
Tagore’s visit to China is the illusion I had at the time of sunrise,”
wrote Xu, “on Mount Taishan.” The illusion he had on the mountain was of
his transformation into a giant with uncombed long hair and outstretched
arms. Then Xu’s descriptive
essays turn into poetic prose :
giant with uncombed long hair, his vision dominates the unbounded sea of
clouds, which gradually dissolves into an universal ecstasy. His heroic
hymns now resound all the four corners of the world.....
another article entitled ‘Taige’er lai Hua” (Tagore’s Visit to
China) in the same issue of Xiaoshoo
would it not be an event worth pondering that a man of the East has own
universal admiration and acclaim on account of his personal achievement, and
such a man is not a product of Japan, a country known for its military power
and material prosperity, nor of Chit, a country which enjoys political
independence, but of India, a subjugated country?”
“What would be the
place of Tagore in world literature we cannot determine now. Whether he has
made original contribution to poetry, whether his thoughts represent the
renascent India or whether his philosophy is distinctive or not are
questions which we cannot answer now. But we are certain about the greatness
of his character. His poems and songs, his thought and work all may be
forgotten or outdated. But his
personality that emerges through all strifes and struggles is a memorial for
all time.... We welcome him warmly because his harmonious and elegant
personality can bring us immeasurable solace, open the imprisoned fountain
heads of our heart, guide us in our endeavours, correct our abnormalities,
temper our insolence and impudence, sharpen our nostalgia for the ancients,
expand our compassion and love, and lead us into a perfect dreamland.”
Wentian (1900-1976) joined the Communist Party in 1925 and eventually played
a crucial role to help Mao Aedong
Party leadership at Zenyi in 1935 before the historic “Long March” -
also wrote an article, “Poetry and Philosophy of Tagore”, in the same
in an equally exalted manner. A few excerpts from the article are presented
is a great poet and a great philosopher. His poetry contains his philosophy,
while his philosophy is his poetry.
his Cycle of Spring, Tagore says, ‘We, the poets, liberate mankind
from the yoke of desire.‘The function of true art is a thoroughfare
leading to freedom.
is not instruction. It gives
joy, not advice. But this joy is different from physical enjoyment. It is
the eyes of Tagore, both materialism and idealism are two extremes and both
are erroneous. ‘I believe there is a latent vitality in the beauty of a
small flower which is more powerful than the mightiest canon.
believe that in the voice of a bird, nature expresses itself with a power
which is more powerful than the thunder.’
shows an ardent love for Nature, and regards all aspects of nature as
manifestations of beauty. He
does not love nature for its own sake, he considers nature as a part of God.
people deny Tagore the greatness of a poet because he does not stick to
forms. In fact forms are but vehicles of fantasy and one of the means of
self-realization Indians never admire forms for the sake of form.
is a true inheritor of the Indian sages. His writings evoke many
possibilities of spiritual life. His songs already a part of the national
literature of the Indian people are created with words and ideas full of
vitality. His words delight our
ears while his ideas penetrate into our hearts. His poetry diffuses radiance
upon our hearts as they do to his own people.
Tagore, the poet of the Indian people, you are the poet of the entire
of the observations of Zhang Wentian were directed against the critics of
Tagore, particularly against Wen Yiduo.
Wen was in the United States from 1922 to 1925 but the news of
Tagore’s visit to China appeared so ominous to him that he wrote an
article raige’er piping” (Criticism of Tagore) in Shishi
Xinbao in 1923. Wen Yiduo (18991946) began his education in the
traditional manner by studying classics. Only during his college years he
developed an interest in English Romantic poetry.
During the May Fourth Movement he was involved in political
activities, prepared posters and propaganda leaflets though later he did not
indulge in politics any more. He spent more than three years in the USA
where he studied painting, and when he returned home in 1925 he was hailed
as the pioneer of the formalist movement in Chinese poetry. Some of his
early poems, such as West Coast”, “The First Chapter of Spring”,
“The Tears of Rain” and “The Red Candle”, are examples of his power
of creating close-knit stanzas and dazzling images. Being trained in the
classics. Wen was concerned
with the growing influence of Tagore on modern Chinese poetry and was partly
responsible for restoring orderly poetic structure against the tide of free
verse. In 1926 he wrote his
famous essay “The Form of Poetry” wherein he asserted, “No game can be
played without rules; no poem can be written without form.” His greatest
objection against Tagore was formlessness (meiyou
xingshl). “Tagore’s poetry not only has no form,” he wrote, “one
can also say that it has no contours. That is why his poetry is
characterized by monotony. If we read the corpus of his verse from start to
finish we are left with the impression of Pimpo, colourless, amoebae.
“These words remind one almost inevitably of Goethe’s criticism of
Indian art and sculpture. But Wen’s sense of form was mechanical and
external, which depended on strict metrical rules and sentence patterns. He
never cared to remember that he had read Tagore’s works in prose
translation and did not enquire about the nature of their forms in the
original. Many Chinese poets familiar with Whitman mistook Tagore’s
English renderings as a new variety of free verse. Wen’s classical taste
and love for rigour made him averse to any flexibility of metre. Wen’s
criticism of Tagore, however, went beyond the external formal features:
greatest fault in Tagore’s art is that he has no grasp of reality.
Literature is an expression of life and even metaphysical poetry cannot be
an exception. Everyday life is the basic stuff of literature, and the
experiences of life are universal things. Therefore, the palace of
literature must be built on the foundations of life. Metaphysics is far from
life, therefore, to make good literature. Literature becomes all the more
difficult to express through the experiences of life. If the metaphysical
poet lacks a good grasp of reality,
fear that he will forfeit his qualification as a poet.”
charges were made quite frequently against Tagore even by his compatriots
and Tagore took great pains in making them realise that his poetry did,
indeed, express itself “through the experience of life”. Wen thought
that Tagore had no love for mundane existence and was interested only in
life beyond the world. Wen
thought is no longer the thought of India because he is influenced by the
West. He proclaims ‘deliverance is not for me in renunciation’. But this
western thought in him is only superficial and the underlying essential
Indian thought is impaired. He longs for death much more than he sings hymns
for life. From an artistic
viewpoint, he is no more than an unknown traveller in this world.
His language is replete with abstractions, It is the dialect of some
other world, not the slang of the present world of ours.”
started with a misconception that Tagore’s poetry was an echo of ancient
India and wherever he found evidence of a life affirming attitude in Tagore
he dismissed it as superficial and irrelevant. One may argue for and against
Tagore’s grasp of “reality” but to describe his poetry as life
negating -We long for our own home villages in the same way Tagore longs for
his other world” - is a gross misunderstanding to say the least.
One feels that Wen’s
criticism of Tagore is lopsided. He said at the very outset of this article
that he would join others in “Welcoming Sir Rabindmnath Tagore” who was
a “distinguished guest” to China. Then he added that he must address
“ourselves - particularly our literary circles”, and started with a
criticism of Tagore’s thought. He wrote that an artist howsoever
successful would have his demerits and Tagore was no exception to this rule.
He admits that ‘Tagore can always point out some truth somewhere
unexpectedly”, and observes that his “poetry is elegantly pretty” and
“the greatness of Tagore’s poetry lies in his philosophy.” But his
criticism was rooted mainly in his anxiety about Tagore’s strong impact on
the young poets, “Our new poetry is already hollow enough, fragile enough,
rational enough, and formless enough. With the impact of Tagore it will
develop from bad to worse and finally become hopeless in future.
I wish to draw the attention of our literary circles to this fact.”
This is a confession that the detractors of Tagore (or rather the opponents
of Tagore’s China visit) were driven to criticising him not because of
their genuine disappointment with his literary achievement but because of
China’s internal politics, Wen obviously meant the experiments with free
verse and the sudden influx of short verses or aphorisms in China on the
model of Stray Birds.
Guo Moruo in his criticism of Tagore, which I will discuss later, also
expressed his displeasure with the popularity of stray
birds which he thought was a product of the influence of Japanese Haiku.
Not only Bingxin, but poets
like Yu Pingbo and Zhu Ziqing
Guo Moruo distinguished two major types of poetry with the help of the
metaphor of a bay. “I think the mind of the Poet”, he wrote, “is like
a bay of clear waters. It is calm as a mirror reflecting the myriad
phenomena of the universe. But
once the wind starts, the waves start to surge and all the phenomena of the
universe move within it.” The surging waves becoming the vigorous type of
poetry like Divine Comedy Faust and
Paradise Lost, and the song of Li Bo and Du Fu.
The ripples of the waves become the “quiet and lucid” type of
poetry of Guofeng of Zhou times, the short lyrics of Wang Wei, and the
Crescent Moon poems of Tagore.
Although by nature Guo had greater affinily with the poets of the first
group, he came under the spell of Tagore, the Tagore of the Crescent Moon in
October 1923 when the Tagore controversy was slowly gaining momentum, Guo
came out with an article criticising the Fiction
Monthly for lacking in serious analysis of Tagore and demanding a clear
exposition of Tagore’s from his host.
should we invite Tagore? Certainly not to demonstrate our geographical
proximity to the Asian poet, not because he is a Nobel laureate, or a knight
of the British empire (Guo forgot that Tagore had denounced his Knighthood)
or a world famous poet and a reputed orator in Europe?... What is our
expectation from him? Has any one tried to understand his thought and has
any one told us about it?.....We do not have any clear idea about his
thought nor do we have any genuine urgency to listen to him. It is going to
be like children playing with dolls and making Tagore an object of pity.”
may be noted that Guo jumped into the fray of the Tagore controversy not on
his own but his leftist friends persuaded him to lend his support to the
criticising campaign so that the vast youth of China should not be swayed to
the conservative camp. Guo had
such special feelings for Tagore that he hastened to announce that if anyone
thought he was anti-Tagore it would be a mistake.
Having made this clear he started his reminiscences. The supposedly
anti-Tagore article paradoxically turned out to be an account of Guo’s
nostalgia for the good old days when he was under Tagore’s spell:
first came to know the name of Tagore in 1914. In January of that year I had
gone to Japan for the first time. The
literary fame of Tagore was at its zenith at that time. In September I
entered the preparatory class of the first year of college. I was living
with a relative. One day he came with a few sheets in English and told me
that they were poems of an Indian poet. They were Baby’s
Way, Sleep Stealer, and Clouds and
Waves. I read them with
great amazement. First, these poems were written with such simplicity,
second, the prose style, and third, they were so fresh and lucid. Since that
time the name of Tagore became deeply imprinted in my mind. I wanted to buy
all his books but they were not easily available in Tokyo as they used to be
sold out as scan as they appeared in the market. It took me one year to
acquire a copy of the Crescent Moon. When I got the book, I felt exuberant like a child.
think spiritual feelings are products of man’s loneliness and suffering.
At that time I was far away from home, my mind heavy with the painful
memories of a broken marriage. The world before me appeared strange and
mysterious. The time between 1916 and 1917 was the most critical and
tempestuous in my life. At
times I was haunted by the idea of committing suicide, at times I thought of
renouncing the world and become a monk I used to ask myself whether to
accept the world with confidence or to surrender totally to fate. It was at
that time I read Gitanjali, Gardener,
The King of the Dark Chamber and One
Hundred hems of Kabir.
I still remember when I
got those books in the autumn of 1916 at the Kang Shan library I felt I
found my ‘life of life’, my ‘fountain of life.’ I used to rush to
the library as soon as the classes were over.
Sitting in a half-lighted corner I would read a book silently till my
eyes becoming moist with tears of gratitude and my body surging gently with
joy, the joy of nirvana.
was the attraction of this world more powerful or was I weak? Neither did I
commit suicide nor did I become a monk.
My son was born in 1917. Just before his birth I asked for some
material help from my spiritual master, Tagore. I made a selection of poems
from his three books -The Crescent
Moon, The Gardener, and Gitanjali- and sent their translations to a
publisher at Shanghai. Tagore
was then not widely known in China. My
manuscript was rejected by the Commercial Press. I approached another
publisher, Chung Hua. and I failed again My spiritual ties with Tagore were
snapped I thought Tagore was a noble man, a sage, and I was an ordinary
mortal of little worth. His world was different from mine.
I had no right to be there”
this essay Guo observed that Tagore’s thoughts were pantheistic. He had
merely cloaked the traditional spirit of India with a western garb.
Guo evinced an interest in Tagore (as well as in Goethe) because of
his love for pantheism. He discovered pantheism not only in Goethe and
Tagore but in the Chinese tradition as well.
In a poem Three Pantheists (1919)
there was a change in his ideology. He came to believe that the philosophy
of historical materialism was the only way to solve the problems of the
world. Without a change in the economic structure the poor would
continue to suffer and the leisured class, to which Tagore belonged, will
talk of the reality of Brahma. the dignity of the soul and the delight of
love and use them as opium and wine for the intoxication of the masses. He
suspected a sinister design behind the invitation to Tagore.
Tagore comes to China as a tourist we welcome him. But if he is invited for
some purpose then I cannot but bandy words with his hosts. We wonder about
Tagore’s being invited to China this time.
Is there any particular part of Tagore’s thought that is admired by
his hosts and what would they demand from him?”
warned “we hope Tagore will not be a puppet of Beijing and Shanghai.” At
the same time Guo found it rather unpleasant that his one-time spiritual
master should be visiting China without his expressing even a token of
welcome. He remembered how Tagore had changed his “poetic style” after
visiting Japan. He suggested Tagore should ride on the waves of Yangtze, see
the expanse of the Dongting Lake, pass through the precipitous Wu Gorge,
ascend the Emei mountain, so that the “heroic nature of our country”
might contribute something to his writings.
This, perhaps, he thought would be “our only repayment to our
indebtedness to him.”
western scholars regard Guo Moruo as a severe critic of Tagore. They have
overlooked the fact that Guo used the world baoda (to repay one’s
indebtedness) in his “severe criticism” of Tagore. Keeping in mind
Guo’s deep feelings for Tagore one might feel that the use of the word
baoda is very significant. This article was an evidence of his spiritual
communion with Tagore. it was also an evidence of the historical reality
that the two had to part ways. In the context of China’s socio-political
milieu, a man of Guo Moruo’s talent and temperament would never admire
Tagore. In 1924 Guo had drifted far from Tagore.
sailed from Calcutta on the Japanese ship Atsuta
Maru on 21 March 1924. At Hong Kong, the Private Secretary to Sun
Yat-sen met Tagore with an invitation from Sun. Since the days of the
unsuccessful Reform Movement (1898), the best minds of China gathered round
SunYat-sen and in 1924 he was certainly the most respected leader in the
country. Sun requested Tagore to pay a visit to Canton.
is an ancient way of ours to show honour to the scholar. But in you I shall
greet not only a writer who has added lustre to Indian letters but a rare
worker in those fields of endeavour wherein lie the seeds of man’s future
welfare and spiritual triumphs.”
thought he was already late and did not want to delay his arrival in North
China. any further. Little did
Tagore realise that when he would reach North China he would be chastised
for his delay. His critics announced he was late indeed by a thousand years.
reached Shanghai on 12 April where he met Xu Zhimo who was to act as
Tagore’s chief interpreter, Zhang Junmai, and Qu Shiying. The following
afternoon Tagore delivered his first speech to a small and select gathering,
in which he made it absolutely clear that he was neither a prophet nor a
centuries you have had merchants and soldiers and other guests: till this
moment, you never thought of asking a poet. Is not this a great fact - not
your recognition of my personality, but the homage you thus pay to the
spring times of a new age? Do not, then, ask for a message from me. People
use pigeons to carry messages; and, in the war time, men valued their wings
not to watch them soar, but because they helped to kill. Do not make use of
a poet to carry messages.”
this very lecture he said:
am not a philosopher, therefore keep for me room in your heart, not a seat
on the public platform. I want
to win your heart, now that I am close to you, with the faith that is in me
of a great future for you, and for Asia, when your country rises and gives
expression to its own spirit -a future in the joy of which we shall all
repeated on several occasions that he was a poet, not a philosopher or a
prophet. In his welcome address to Tagore, Liang Qichao said,
“Rabindranath Tagore wishes to make it known that he is not a religious
teacher or an educationist or a philosopher, he says that he is only a
clearly indicates that Tagore did not have any particular mission, as
suggested by some of the critics, except to re-establish, what he called,
the spiritual relationship” between India and China. It is not that he did
not talk about the unity of Asia the spirituality of the East or the
materialism of the west. He did talk about all these issues quite forcefully
and unambiguously. He had been talking about these issues all his life.
days after Tagore’s arrival in Shanghai, Mao Dun wrote an article
entitled” Our Expectations from Tagore” in the journal
poet-saint of India has arrived at last. No sooner did the noble poet
dressed in a flowing saffron robe and a red cap, set foot in Shanghai, the
gateway of western imperialism, than was he welcomed with thunderous
applause. But if one examines the nature of this welcome one notices at
least a few discordant notes within it.
opponent of the western culture and a champion of the East has arrived. Now,
certainly he will show us the way and point out our mistakes. China will
find out its way to liberation. This is the hope of our scholars infatuated
with spirituality and orientalism.
the other hand a group of young lovers of literature thinks, ‘in this
strife-storm world Tagore has created a paradise full of beauty and grace
and tranquillity, an abode for the angels of poetry’....
too respect Tagore. We respect him because he is pure in heart. We respect
him because he feels for the oppressed and the underdogs. We respect him
because he is on the side of the peasants.
We respect him particularly because he is a poet of patriotism, he is
a source of inspiration for the Indian youth in their struggle against
British imperialism. And that
is why, we too, welcome Tagore.
we do not welcome the Tagore who loudly sings the praises of the Oriental
civilization, nor do we welcome the Tagore who creates a paradise of poetry
that has made our youth intoxicated and self-complacent.
We welcome the Tagore who works for the upliftment of the peasantry
(though we do not support his methods), the Tagore who passionately sings,
believe that the Chinese youth is generally traditional in his outlook, he
is weak because of his poor understanding of the reality, The Chinese youth
has kept his eyes closed and he is dreaming of a paradise for souls
overlooking the ‘thorns of life’. He thinks he can escape from the
reality by achieving a few moments of bliss.
We do not want this feeling to grow, nor do we want any further
stimulus that leads our youth towards ‘emptiness’, anything that tempts
him to believe that ‘everything can be achieved by doing nothing.’
that is the reason why we expect these two things from Tagore:
We hope Tagore will understand the weakness of the modern Chinese youth.
Because they are afraid to face the reality, they want to escape into a
world of illusion... In this sickening atmosphere we need someone who can
give strength to them; someone who can encourage them to face the reality
and to struggle with it.
We expect Tagore to oppose the imperialism of the West. He, with his intense
patriotism, will be able to demolish the slavish admiration for the West
prevailing among a group of people in China.
details see Chow Tse-tsung, The May
Fourh Movement (Stanford,
1959) p, 187f.
Tagore’s Visit to China”, No. 1, Pt. I, “From Calcutta to
Peking”, May 1924, Pt. II, “In China”, June 1924, p. III.
critical review of this book by Subir flay Chaudhud, see Jadavpur Journal of Comparative Literature, Vat. IX. Xu Zhtmo who
was Tagore’s interpreter in his entire China visit, left behind his
translations of the three speeches delivered by Tagore, i.e.. his first
speech in Shanghai (13 April), his speech in Beijing (1 May))and
farewell speech in Shanghai (22 May). These translations were published
in Xiaoshuo yoebao in 1924 and
are now included in Xu Zhimo Ouanji,
Vat. IV, pp. 169.216.
materials were used in the Bengali work by Sisir Kumar Das and Tan Wen,
Bitarkita Afifhi (Calcutta:
Prama, 1965); and also in Sisir Kumar Das, “Hostility During China
Visit”, The Statesman, 6 May 1965.
this piece of information I am indebted to Ni Peigeng of the Institute
of Foreign Literature of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and Hua
Yuqing of the Department of Chinese, Hangzhou University.
journal which became the mouth piece of the Communist Party of China
later, published Tagore’s “On the Sea Shore” from The Crescent Moon. in Vol. V, No. 3. 1918. It was translated by Liu
in Jonathan Spence, The Gate of
Heavenly Peace (Penguin, 1961), pp. 257-56. Lines in italics are
from the English edition
Zhenduo was the first Chinese biographer of Tagore. His biography of
Tagore, Tai Ge’er Zhuan, was
published in 1926.
in Chen-Pao, 31 May 1924,
quoted in Hay, op. cit., p.
Theodore de Bary et al. (eds),
Sources of Chinese Tradition (Columbia
University Press, 1960) Ch. XXVIII, pp. 820. 24, 625.29.
Amitendranath Tagore, Literary
Debates in Modern China, 19161937
(Tokyo: The Centre for East Asian Cultural Studies, 1967) p. 37f.
useful study of Liang see, Joseph R. Levenson, Liang Chi-ch’ao(Berkeley : University of California Press, 1970).
in Chow Tse-tsung, op. cit., p. 328.
Wen-ji, No. 7, p. 165, quoted in Julia C. Lin, Modern Chinese poetry (Seattle
and London, 1972) p. 221.
C. Lin, ibid, p. 35f.
became quite a politician in his later life, and even became Taiwan’s
ambassador to the USA. For Hu Shi’s life and thought see Sung Peng-Hsu,
“Hu Shih”, in Donald H. Bishop (Ed.), Chinese
Thought (Delhi, 1965) pp. 364-91.
Ou-fan Lee, The Romantic Generation
of Modern Chinese Writers
(Harvard University Press, 1973) p. 124f.
Poem to Goddesses (trs. David
Roy), Kuo MO-jo : The Early Years (Cambridge,
Mass., 1971) p, 143.
Nag (ed.), Tagore and China (Calcutta,
1945), p, 34.
in China (Visva-Bharati, 1925) p. 116.
Witold Rcdzinski, A History of
China, I (Oxford : Pergamon Press, 1979) p. 246 49.
op. cif., pp. 35-40,
(Translated with the hdp of Tan Chung and Tan Wen.)
Xu Zhimo quanji (Essays),
(trs. Tan Chung), Vol. IV, pp. 174.75.
XIII, No. 2, 1923.
by Patricia Ubemi, “Tagore in China”. China
Report, Vol. X. No. 3. May- June 1974, p. 39. Patricia’s
translation is adapted with slight modifications. Also see Ubemi,
“lagore in China : A Chinese Poet’s View”, lndian
Literature. Vol. XVI. Nos. l-2, 1973.
Vol. III. p. 445 (trs. Tan Chung.
or Xie Bingxin (1902-68) was a Chinese poetess who admitted her
indebtedness to Tagore in the preface of her book stars.
Moruo Wenji, 7 : 12 trs. Lin. op. cit., p. 203.
: 12, also included in Lun Taige’er, p. 66f. (Translated with the help
of Tan Wen.)
literature of yesterday is an unconscious sacred recreation for the
aristocrats who hold supremacy in life. Like the poems of Tagore and the
novels of Tolstoy, I feel as if they are only offering alms to the
hungry ghosts.’ Guo Moruo’s letter to Chenq Fangwu in
Zhonguo Xin Wenxue dati, Essay, Vol. I. p. 219.
in Hay, op. cit., p. 147.
Talk at Shanghai”, Talks in China (hereafter Tc), (1924). p. 19; TC
(1925). p, 59.
(1924), p. 13; TC (1925), p. 19.
©1998 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi
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