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Tagore and China


Part 1



"I say that a poet’s mission is to attract the voice which is yet inaudible in the air; to inspire faith in the dream which is unfulfilled; to bring the earliest tidings of the unborn flower to a sceptic world."

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

The 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[1]. 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 century China.

Sources 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[2] 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 detailed story in an immensely readable style and dramatic manner. Despite his sophistication of approach and elegance of presentation, Hay holds Tagore primarily responsible for the “failure” of his visit, which Hay thinks, was prompted by Tagore’s desire to play the role of a prophet rather than a poet, He also projects the idea that Tagore went to China to propagate an ideal of the Orient, an ideal of one Asia and the cause of spiritualism against the materialism of the west.  According to Hay, Tagore did not realise that the idea of the Orient was a gift of the western Orientalist, which was more a myth than a reality.  Every Asian country had its own version of the Orient and Tagore’s idea of Asia was different from that of the Chinese.  Tagore’s idea of a spiritual rejuvenation of Asia was rejected by both young and old.  The former with crude vehemence and the latter with gentle indifference.   Had not gone to China as a prophet and a spokesman of Indian spirituality Tagore would not have met such humiliation, Tagore left China with bitter feelings, Hay thinks, rejected by all the students, the scholars, the politicians and the poets and the artists.[3]

It 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.

Many 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[4].  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.

It 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.[5]  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.[6] It was around this time when Guo Moruo, who accepted Tagore as his hero, wrote the following poem in which he quotes the poet:

"The lead grey roofs of the fishermen’s cottages

Gleam darkly with a circle of red flame

Now crimson … now redder

Now orange … now gold

It is as ever the white radiance of the moon.

On the seashore of endless world's children meet

The infinite sky is motionless overhead and the

restless water is boisterous.

On the seashore of endless world’s the children meet

with shouts and dances.

Again I sit on the broken hulk on the shore

My little Ah-ho

Joins with a troop of children,

They play together on the sands.

Reciting this poem of Tagore

I go and play with them

Ah, if only I could become a pure child.[7]

In 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.

Translations 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 history.[8]  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.

It 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.”[9] 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.[10] 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.[11] 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.

Liang 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.[12] 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.[13] 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.

in 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."[14]

Hu 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.[15] Hu Shi, a scholar by temperament, devoted more time to scholarly pursuits than to political debates.[16] 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.

Another 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 thirty.[17] 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:

“I am a proletarian

Because but for my naked self

I possess no other private property."[18]

Xu 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.

Before 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."[19] 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. 

Tagore’s 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."[20] 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 in India[21] 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 west.

Numerous 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.

Zheng 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:

‘Tagore is due to arrive in China shortly. He may reach China by the time this issue of our magazine reaches our readers.

I 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. 

Indeed, 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 him …

There 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.

The 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.

The 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 ...

He 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.”[22]

Zheng 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 :

The hand of the giant

points to the East –

What is there

What is unfolded by the East?

There in the East is the magnificent glowing vision

There in the East is brightness, great and pervasive

He appears, arrives, he is here!

Let us sing

let us praise

it is the resurrection of the East

it is the victory of light…[23]

The 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.....

In another article entitled ‘Taige’er lai Hua” (Tagore’s Visit to China) in the same issue of Xiaoshoo Yuebao wrote:

“... 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?”

Xu continued,

“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.”[24]

Zhang Wentian (1900-1976) joined the Communist Party in 1925 and eventually played a crucial role to help Mao Aedong

assume Party leadership at Zenyi in 1935 before the historic “Long March” - also wrote an article, “Poetry and Philosophy of Tagore”, in the same journal,[25] in an equally exalted manner. A few excerpts from the article are presented here:

“Tragore is a great poet and a great philosopher. His poetry contains his philosophy, while his philosophy is his poetry.

In 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. 

Art is not instruction.  It gives joy, not advice. But this joy is different from physical enjoyment. It is spiritual joy.

In 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.

I believe that in the voice of a bird, nature expresses itself with a power which is more powerful than the thunder.’

Tagore 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. 

Many 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.

Tagore 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 humanity …..”

Some 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:

“The 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,

I fear that he will forfeit his qualification as a poet.”[26]

Similar 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 wrote:

“Tagore’s 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.”

Wen 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.”[27] 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.[28] 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 were also attracted towards short verses, obviously under the influence of Tagore.

Once 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.[29] 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 particular.

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. 

Why 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.”

It 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:

“I 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.

I 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.

But 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”[30]

In 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) he wrote:

“I love my country’s Zhuangd

Because I love his pantheism

Because I love his making straw sandles for a living

I love Holland’s Spinoza

Because I love his pantheism

Because I love his grinding lenses for a living.

I love India’s Kabir

Because I love his pantheism

Because I love his making fishnets for a living.”

But 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.

“If 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?”

He 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.”[31]

Some 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.[32]

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.  He wrote:

‘It 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.”[33]

Tagore 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.

Tagore 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 philosopher.

“For 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.”[34]

In this very lecture he said:

“I 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 share.”

Tagore 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 poet.“[35]

This 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.

Two days after Tagore’s arrival in Shanghai, Mao Dun wrote an article entitled” Our Expectations from Tagore” in the journal Juewu (Consciousness):[36]

The 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.

An 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.

On 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’....

We 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.

But 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, ‘March alone’.....

We 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.’

And that is the reason why we expect these two things from Tagore:

1. 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.

2. 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.


[1] For details see Chow Tse-tsung, The May Fourh Movement (Stanford, 1959) p, 187f.

[2] Visva-Bhamti Bulletin, ‘Rabindmnath Tagore’s Visit to China”, No. 1, Pt. I, “From Calcutta to Peking”, May 1924, Pt. II, “In China”, June 1924, p. III.

[3] For a 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.

[4] These 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.

[5] For 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.

[6] This 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 Bannong.

[7] Quoted in Jonathan Spence, The Gate of Heavenly Peace (Penguin, 1961), pp. 257-56. Lines in italics are from the English edition of Gitantali.

[8] Zheng Zhenduo was the first Chinese biographer of Tagore. His biography of Tagore, Tai Ge’er Zhuan, was published in 1926.

[9] Published in Chen-Pao, 31 May 1924, quoted in Hay, op. cit., p. 214.

[10] See Wm. Theodore de Bary et al. (eds), Sources of Chinese Tradition (Columbia University Press, 1960) Ch. XXVIII, pp. 820. 24, 625.29.

[11] See Amitendranath Tagore, Literary Debates in Modern China, 19161937 (Tokyo: The Centre for East Asian Cultural Studies, 1967) p. 37f.

[12] For useful study of Liang see, Joseph R. Levenson, Liang Chi-ch’ao(Berkeley : University of California Press, 1970).

[13] Cuoted in Chow Tse-tsung, op. cit., p. 328.

[14] Guo Moruo Wen-ji, No. 7, p. 165, quoted in Julia C. Lin, Modern Chinese poetry (Seattle and London, 1972) p. 221.

[15] Julia C. Lin, ibid, p. 35f.

[16] Hu Shi 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.

[17] See Leo Ou-fan Lee, The Romantic Generation of Modern Chinese Writers (Harvard University Press, 1973) p. 124f.

[18] Prefatory Poem to Goddesses (trs. David Roy), Kuo MO-jo : The Early Years (Cambridge, Mass., 1971) p, 143.

[19] Kalidas Nag (ed.), Tagore and China (Calcutta, 1945), p, 34.

[20] Talks in China (Visva-Bharati, 1925) p. 116.

[21] See Witold Rcdzinski, A History of China, I (Oxford : Pergamon Press, 1979) p. 246 49.

[22] Lun Targe’er, op. cif., pp. 35-40, (Translated with the hdp of Tan Chung and Tan Wen.)

[23] . Xu Zhimo quanji (Essays), (trs. Tan Chung), Vol. IV, pp. 174.75.

[24] Ibid., pp. 166-68.

[25] Xiaoshuo Ma?hao, Vol. XIII, No. 2, 1923.

[26] Quoted 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.

[27] Wen yiduo quanji, Vol. III. p. 445 (trs. Tan Chung. 

[28] Bingtin or Xie Bingxin (1902-68) was a Chinese poetess who admitted her indebtedness to Tagore in the preface of her book stars. 

[29] Guo Moruo Wenji, 7 : 12 trs. Lin. op. cit., p. 203.

[30] Ibid, 7 : 12, also included in Lun Taige’er, p. 66f. (Translated with the help of Tan Wen.)

[31] Lun Taige’er. p. 72.

[32]  “The 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.

[33] Quoted in Hay, op. cit., p. 147.

[34]  “First Talk at Shanghai”, Talks in China (hereafter Tc), (1924). p. 19; TC (1925). p, 59.

[35] TC  (1924), p. 13; TC (1925), p. 19.

[36] 14 April 1924. Cuoted in Lun Taige’er, op. cit. pp. 73-77. (Translation with the help of Tan Wen.)  

Contd. Part 2...

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

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