Tagore in China

Issue 13 - Apr 2008

Stephen N Hay

In less than seven weeks, he had lectured in the country’s largest city (Shanghai), its nominal political capital (Peking), and in five of its twenty-four provincial capitals. He had talked with students and scholars, actors and artists, generals and politicians, poets, religious leaders, and an ex-emperor. Almost everywhere the general public had received him well. Many students had seemed receptive to his ideas, though he could not always be sure how much they had understood his English, or how faithfully and fully his translators had rendered his words into Chinese. Dissident voices had made themselves heard, however, and their chorus of disapproval grew louder as the poet’s tour of China progressed.

For his own part, Tagore admitted that he might have entertained a romanticised view of China, a “vision” formed in his imagination when he was reading the Arabian Nights and amplified by his impressions of the Chinese paintings he had seen in Japan.

Editorials from Chinese-language newspapers contain considerable scepticism concerning Tagore’s ideas and their relevance to Chinese conditions. The She-hui jih-pao (Society Daily) in Peking discounted the idea that Tagore had any serious purpose in mind at all: “He comes to China for sight-seeing, as he is an admirer of our country. He expresses his opinions, but he has no political and religious aims, nor any propaganda to be conducted here in China”. Therefore it was senseless either to praise or oppose his ideas.

From Shanghai, the Shen pao (Chinese daily news) vehemently rejected his message: “We cannot live without the benefits of material civilisation. To neglect them would mean that all our four hundred million people would be the victims of the material civilisation of other peoples. Would this not be terrible?”

Edited Excerpts from Stephen N Hay’s 1970 book, Asian ideas of East and West.

Outside Link: A related podcast from Shantiniketan (in Bangla)