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Sunday, May 28, 2023

Tagore and China

by – Dr Das

May 7th is a special day for admirers of Rabindranath Tagore’s literary works around the globe, as it marks the birth anniversary of this literary icon. Fondly referred to as Rabindra Jayanti, it is a day that is observed with great enthusiasm and respect by his fans.

In 1923, Tagore was invited by the Beijing Lecture Association (讲学社 Jiangxueshe ) to give a series of lectures, which he did with great aplomb. The following year, he travelled to China at the behest of Peking University, accompanied by the talented Chinese translator and poet, Lin Huiyin, and the esteemed poet, Xu Zhimo. During his visit, Tagore met with some of the most brilliant intellectuals and philosophers of his time, including Hu Shih 胡適 and Feng Youlan 馮友蘭. It was a remarkable meeting of great minds that left an indelible impression on all those who were present.

Tagore’s visits to China in 1924 and 1929 were more than just trips, they were historic cultural exchanges that bridged the gap between two great nations. His first journey to China, in particular, was a defining moment in India-China relations. At the age of 63, Tagore set foot on Chinese soil on April 12, 1924, embarking on a journey that would transform both him and the nation he was visiting.

During his travels, India and China were both undergoing significant transformations. Tagore’s philosophy and influence on Chinese society helped usher in beneficial changes, leading to an increase in cultural additions and deductions that aided their prosperity and established them as one of the world’s most important nations.

Tagore’s fifty-day vacation in China was an unforgettable experience that helped the Chinese become more organized, powerful, and kind. He travelled from the south to the north of China, visiting key cities and palaces of interest along the way. On April 23rd, he made stops in Jinan, Tianjin, and Hangzhou, and finally arrived in Beijing, taking the train to get there.

Tagore’s main objective was to re-establish cultural and spiritual ties between two of the most significant nations in the world. His visits to China were a testament to the strong bond between the two countries, a bond that has stood the test of time despite the occasional bumps in the road. His legacy lives on today, inspiring future generations to continue building bridges of understanding and friendship between India and China.

Guo Moruo took Tagore as his hero, he wrote the following poem: 

“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 worlds 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.”

The Chinese saying, 吃水不忘挖井人 Chi Shui Bu Wang Wa Jing Ren, meaning “Drink the water (but) do not forget the well-digger,” perfectly encapsulates the legacy of Rabindranath Tagore in China. His contributions to India-China cultural relations were profound and long-lasting, making him a revered figure in Chinese culture.

When Tagore arrived in China in April 1924, he was already a well-known figure in the country. One of the founding fathers of the Communist Party of China, Chen Du Xiu, had translated Tagore’s prize-winning anthology “Gitanjali” as early as 1915, spreading the word about Tagore’s literary genius. Chen Duxiu- one of China’s most prominent early twentieth-century scholars – also played a significant role in introducing and promoting Rabindranath Tagore’s works to his homeland before vehemently dismissing the Indian bard.

Tagore’s popularity in China only grew from there, especially due to his strong opposition to opium usage among the Chinese people, which was being pushed by Western powers. Even before his voyage to China, Tagore, who was only 20 years old at the time, had denounced the British imposition of the opium trade on China, expressing kinship with the feelings of “colonial cousins.” This earned him even more respect among the Chinese people and added to his already-growing reputation in the country.

Tagore’s contributions to India-China cultural relations were truly exceptional, and his impact is still felt today. He planted the seeds of understanding and mutual respect that have led to the union of our two great civilizations, leaving a lasting legacy that will be remembered for generations to come.

When it comes to foreign writers with global recognition, only Shakespeare can rival the legendary Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore, who is often referred to as a ‘cultural bridge’ between India and China, left an indelible mark on both countries through his literary and philosophical contributions.

During his fifty-day tour of China, Tagore helped the Chinese people become more organized, powerful, and kind. He travelled from the southern to the northern regions of China, visiting key cities and landmarks, and spreading his message of peace, inclusivity, and open trade. His teachings embodied the spirit of Asia, a region that has always believed in peaceful coexistence and mutual prosperity.

Even in the twenty-first century, Tagore’s relevance has not diminished. He remains a beacon of hope for those seeking to bridge cultural and social divides, and his legacy continues to inspire people across the globe. His ideas and teachings remain just as relevant today as they were a century ago, a testament to the timeless wisdom of this great cultural icon.

In May 2016, China published the first Chinese translations of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s collected works, a rare honour for the legendary poet who is revered by generations of Chinese people. In total, 33 volumes with 16 million words covering his poetry, essays, novels, and theatrical parts were published. To complete it, eighteen Bengali scholars from the CRI, the state-run Xinhua news agency, the Chinese foreign ministry, the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA), and the Central Communist Party School cooperated on a five-year project.


The popularity of Tagore’s Gitanjali in China extended far beyond Chen Duxiu’s translation in 1915. In fact, it sparked a chain reaction that led to an unexpected encounter between Mao Zedong and the Communist Party’s future co-founders. Mao’s first encounter with Chen Duxiu was documented in a 1917 article in Xinqingnian, and it was this article that helped to introduce Mao to communism. Mao later had the opportunity to study Marxism and attend lectures by Chen Duxiu, alongside prominent intellectuals such as Hu Shih and Qian Xuantong, at Peking University. However, Mao’s growing commitment to communism would eventually lead him to become a fierce critic of Tagore. Despite his admiration for Tagore’s literary prowess, Mao resented the poet’s perceived support of Western imperialism and saw him as a symbol of cultural oppression. Mao’s criticisms of Tagore became more intense as Tagore’s popularity in China grew. Mao’s followers even disrupted Tagore’s lectures and handed out pamphlets condemning him. Nonetheless, Tagore’s legacy as a cultural bridge between India and China continues to endure.

“Tagore is an Indian contemporary poet. He pushed for the continuation of Eastern spiritual culture. He received the ‘Nobel Peace Prize’ and is well-known throughout Europe. Indian teenagers looked up to him as a prophet. “His poetry is replete with religious and philosophical ideals.”

Tagore was an early modern Indian thinker and Renaissance patron who saw the benefits of mutual understanding and good ties between the two major civilizations, China and India. He was a big supporter of restoring the passage between the two nations, which had been closed for a long time. 

Tagore understood that for the relationship between India and China to flourish, it needed to be built on a foundation of cultural exchange and dialogue. He admired the wisdom of Chinese philosophy and was fascinated by the country’s rich artistic traditions. In turn, he shared with the Chinese people his own poetic vision and philosophy, which spoke to the human condition and the need for spiritual fulfilment.

Tagore’s efforts to bring the two eastern peoples together were groundbreaking in their time. He saw the potential for a new, vibrant partnership between India and China, one that would benefit not only the two countries but the entire world. Tagore’s belief in the significance of China in the modern world paved the way for future generations of Indians to embrace the country and its people as an essential part of the global community.

He expressed gratitude to his predecessors for their significant commitment to cultural relations between the two countries. Tagore was zealous about developing an unbreakable friendship. He was deep in thinking about how to bring the two eastern peoples, Indian and Chinese, together. Tagore was the first contemporary Indian to consider China’s significance in the modern world. 

When in China, Tagore in his final lecture said, “I have done what was possible — I have made friends.” The speech was indicative of India and China’s renewed relationship in many ways. This is not only a relationship between the poet and his Chinese admirers, but rather an awakening of potential and mutual understanding between the two countries. We remember Tagore for his efforts to re-establishing India-China friendship in current times. 

Tagore’s contribution to the advancement of Chinese studies in India was unprecedented. The foundation of an international university, Visva-Bharati, in Bengal, as well as the establishment of the first Sino-Indian Cultural Society and the Cheena Bhavana (Chinese Department) at Santiniketan, were all significant accomplishments. Many scholars, including Tan Yun-shan, made significant contributions to modern India’s understanding of Chinese civilisation and modern development. It is still a residence for Chinese professors conducting studies in India.

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