This essay on Tagore’s unkind reception in China is from Pankaj Mishra’s forthcoming book, and is in a form adapted exclusively for Outlook by the author. The book is being released by Penguin India this week.
On April 12, 1924, Rabindranath Tagore arrived in Shanghai for a lecture tour of China arranged by Liang Qichao, China’s foremost modern intellectual. Soon after receiving the Nobel prize for literature in 1913, Tagore had become an international literary celebrity; he was also the lone voice from Asia in an intellectual milieu that was almost entirely dominated by Western institutions and individuals. As Lu Xun pointed out in 1927, “Let us see which are the mute nations. Can we hear the voice of Egypt? Can we hear the voice of Annam (modern-day Vietnam) and Korea? Except Tagore, what other voice of India can we hear?”
The Japanese novelist Yasunari Kawabata once recalled
“the features and appearance of this sage-like poet, with his long bushy hair, long moustache and beard, standing tall in loose-flowing Indian garments, and with deep, piercing eyes. His white hair flowed softly down both sides of his forehead; the tufts of hair under the temples also were like two beards and linking up with the hair on his cheeks, continued into his beard, so that he gave an impression, to the boy that I was then, of some ancient Oriental wizard.”
Packed lecture-halls awaited Tagore around the world, from Japan to Argentina. President Herbert Hoover received him at the White House when he visited the United States in 1930, and the New York Times ran twenty-one reports on the Indian poet, including two interviews. This enthusiasm seems especially remarkable considering the sort of prophecy from the East that Tagore would deliver to his Western hosts: that their modern civilisation, built upon the cult of money and power, was inherently destructive and needed to be tempered by the spiritual wisdom of the East.
But when, travelling in China, Tagore expressed his doubts about Western civilisation and exhorted Asians not to abandon their traditional culture, he ran into fierce opposition. “The poet-saint of India has arrived at last,” the novelist Mao Dun wrote in a Shanghai periodical, and “welcomed with ‘thunderous applause’”. Mao Dun had once translated Tagore into Chinese; but in his incarnation as a bitter communist radical he was increasingly worried about the Indian poet’s likely deleterious effect on Chinese youth.
“We are determined”, Mao Dun warned, “not to welcome the Tagore who loudly sings the praises of eastern civilisation. Oppressed as we are by militarists from within the country and by the imperialists from without, this is no time for dreaming.” Within days of his arrival in China, Tagore would face hecklers, shouting such slogans as “Go back, slave from a lost country!”
For many Chinese in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, India was the prototypical ‘lost’ country, one whose internal weakness, exploited by invaders, had forced it into a state of subjugation that was morally and psychologically shameful, as well as politically and economically catastrophic.
For ordinary Chinese, there were visible symbols of this Indian self-degradation in their own midst: Parsi businessmen from Bombay who acted as middlemen in the British opium trade with China; and Sikh policemen in treaty ports like Shanghai, Hong Kong, Hankou, whom their British masters periodically unleashed on Chinese crowds. Indian soldiers had done the bulk of the fighting in British wars in China for nearly a century after the first opium war in 1841. Indian soldiers from the 37th Madras Native Infantry feature in one of China’s most famous patriotic legends, the so-called Sanyuanli episode, in which the Chinese defeated British troops.
In actuality, the Indians in China mostly scored easy triumphs. Nearly 3,000 Indian soldiers assisted the British annexation of Hong Kong in 1841. More soldiers were later recruited from among the Muslims of the Punjab to man British garrisons in Hong Kong and Singapore. Indian clashes with local Chinese, which usually ended with the brutal suppression of the latter, were frequent. The biggest of these occurred in 1899 as the British moved to occupy the New Territories on Mainland China.
Not surprisingly, pejorative descriptions of India and Indians became commonplace in the popular Chinese culture of the late nineteenth century. In 1886, one Chinese writer described the Sikhs as “red-headed flies”, an allusion to their red turbans. There were less flattering descriptions. In 1904, a popular Tokyo-based Chinese journal, Jiangsu, published a short story describing a dreamlike journey into the future by a feckless Chinese literati named Huang Shibiao (literally, ‘Representative of Yellow Elites’) and a mythical old man. Walking down the streets of Shanghai, they see a group of marching people led by a white man.
Shibiao looked closely at these people, and they all had faces black as coal. They were wearing a piece of red cloth around their heads like a tall hat; around their waists, they wore a belt holding wood clubs. Shibiao asked the old man: “Are these Indians?” The old man said, “Yes, the English use them as police.” Shibiao asked, “Why do they not use an Indian as the chief of police?” The old man answered: “Who ever heard of that! Indians are people of a lost country; they are no more than slaves.”
Later in the short story, in this dreamlike sequence, Shibiao sees a yellow-skinned man in a red Sikh-style turban; he turns out to be Chinese. The dream then quickly turns into a nightmare as Shibiao notices that everyone on the streets is wearing red turbans and that English is being taught in schools from textbooks designed by Christian missionaries. The story ends with Shibiao feeling profoundly disturbed by this vision of China being subjected to India’s fate.
There were exceptions, of course, among the Indians in China, who felt a Pan-Asianist solidarity with a country subject to blatant interference—if not, like India, outright occupation—of foreign powers. When, in 1900, growing Western intrusions incited a popular movement in China, known as the Boxers, and the imperial court in Beijing decided to back it, all the major world powers mobilised against the Chinese. Twenty thousand troops drawn from several countries, including Japan, marched to Beijing to relieve the siege of the diplomatic quarter and loot the city. Among the British contingent was a Rajput soldier with the Bengal Army, Gadadhar Singh, who felt sympathetic to the anti-Western cause of the Boxers even though he believed that their bad tactics had “blanketed their entire country and polity in dust”.
“The dazzling sun of the land of the Aryans has already set,” Singh wrote in his diary as he approached the coast of China. “Is the beautiful moon of China about to set?” Singh’s first sight of China was the landscape near Beijing, of famished Chinese with skeletal bodies in abandoned or destroyed villages, over whose broken buildings flew the flags of China’s joint despoilers—France, Russia and Japan. River waters had become a “cocktail of blood, flesh, bones and fat”. Singh particularly blamed the Russian and French soldiers for the mass killings, arson and rape inflicted on the Chinese. Some of the soldiers tortured their victims purely for fun. “All these sportsmen”, Singh noted in a book subsequently published in Hindi, one of the very few eyewitness accounts of the suppression, “belonged to what were called ‘civilised nations.’”
“Even hearts of stone,” Singh wrote, “would have melted and felt compassion.” “It was not necessary for my heart to be moved by pity,” he added, “because I had come to fight against the Chinese. But...I felt an emotion that was born not out of duty but in the mind.” Trying to understand his sympathy for the Chinese, Singh realised it was because the Chinese were Buddhist, like many Indians, and therefore “neighbours and fellow residents of Asia”. “There is not much difference,” he wrote, “between their colour and ours, their customs and manners and ours. Why did God inflict such a calamity on them? Should we not have come to their aid instead?”
Gadadhar Singh’s verdict on his fellow countrymen was damning: “In India, the municipalities used to engage Doms to kill dogs by paying them at the rate of two to four annas per dog...the only difference was that the dogs-killers in India used to be Doms, the man-killers here included also the civilised gentle Hindus.” One of them was the Maharaja of Bikaner, who with his counterpart from Gwalior personally participated in the Western suppression of the Boxer Rising.
Passing through Hong Kong on his way to Japan in 1916, Tagore saw a Sikh beating up a Chinese labourer. Appalled, he wrote of the “religion of the slave” that had addled the minds of Indian collaborators of the British Empire. “When the English went to snatch away Hong Kong from China,” Tagore recalled, “it was they who beat China...they have taken upon the responsibility of insulting China.”
The first generation of Chinese leaders and thinkers felt their disgrace—and Indian abasement before the British—much more keenly. India, conquered and then mentally colonised, had also been a cautionary tale for such Muslim activists and thinkers as Jamal al-din al-Afghani. But from the perspective of China, where despite its weaknesses a political-moral order based on Confucianism had endured, India seemed dangerously out of touch with its own cultural heritage. Indian philosophy and literature—which only Brahmans in possession of Sanskrit could read—had been a closed book to a majority of Indians; it was the European discovery, and translation into English and German, of Indian texts that introduced a new Western-educated generation of Indian intellectuals to their own cultural heritage.
As the Chinese saw it, foreigners had ruled the country continuously since the Mughals established their empire in the sixteenth century; there was no native ruling class capable of unifying the country. Musing on the fate of Asia, Liang Qichao identified India as a horror story about a “lost country” that had failed miserably in the international struggle for equality and dignity. “Small capitalists” from Britain had taken over an entire continent by training Indians to be soldiers; Indians enforced British policies at the expense of their own compatriots. For many of Liang’s peers—allies as well as critics—China was in danger of repeating that because her people had developed no sense of a corporate interest or national solidarity—the basis of European power and prosperity.
Thinkers from a generation younger than Liang’s, who would go on to participate in the May Fourth Movement in 1919, were particularly harsh on the uncritical Chinese admirers of Indian philosophy and religion. Liang’s mentor Kang Youwei earned the displeasure of Zhang Taiyan (also known as Zhang Binglin), who later distinguished himself as a scholar of Buddhism, for his praise of Indian literature and philosophy. “Indians,” Zhang wrote, “have generally not cared if their national territory is lost or if their race declines...Chinese determination is stronger than the Indian, and we can foresee that Chinese accomplishments will certainly surpass those of the Indians.”
Many Indians themselves believed this, and saw China as a likely ally in Asia’s liberation and remaking. Trying to redeem the disaster of the Boxer Rising, the Qing court established modern schools with a Western curriculum and sent Chinese students abroad, to Europe and the United States as well as to Japan. Thousands of young Chinese, including Mao Zedong, were thus first introduced to modern sciences, engineering, medicine, law, economics and military skills. The news, reaching the then fiery nationalist Aurobindo Ghose in distant India, provoked him to rapturous praise for an apparently rising neighbour:
“China has been educating, training and arming herself with a speed of which the outside world has a very meagre conception. She has sent out a Commission of Observation to the West and decided to develop constitutional Government within the next ten years. She has pushed forward the work of revolutionising her system of education.”
Exiled to Japan, Zhang Taiyan later wrote about his friendship with Indian revolutionaries living in exile in Tokyo, and his own distress at learning about India’s abysmal condition under British rule. He attended a commemorative meeting for Shivaji in Tokyo, convinced that the Hindu chieftain’s guerrilla tactics would be needed to drive the British out of India. During the First World War, some major Chinese leaders and activists, including Sun Yat-sen, assisted Indian revolutionaries, especially those belonging to the Ghadar Party, who often used Shanghai and Hong Kong as a transit point. Anti-British sentiment in the gurudwaras of China was intense when a ship carrying emigrants to North America was turned away in Vancouver, its passengers denied food, and then fired upon on their return to Calcutta. Soldiers in an Indian regiment mutinied in Singapore in the first such eruption of anti-colonial sentiment in the British army since 1857.
But, much to Chinese and Indian frustration, the elites of the ‘lost’ country remained loyal to the British. This became evident during the Paris peace talks following the First World War, which inflicted cruel disappointments on almost all major Asian countries. India was represented by a delegation hand-picked by the British, who predictably ignored the claims of the Congress Party. It included the Maharaja of Bikaner, who in 1900 had travelled to China on behalf of the British to quell the Boxer Rising (happily, he arrived too late to kill any Chinese). As soon as the European war broke out in 1914, the maharaja offered his services to India’s rulers, claiming that he was “ready to go anywhere in any capacity for the privilege of serving my Emperor”. Nearly 80,000 Indian soldiers were to die fighting in the Middle East and Europe. The maharaja himself had an uneventful little war—just a skirmish near the Suez Canal in 1915—before retreating to attend to his sick daughter in India. Delegated to the Paris Peace Conference, he became a striking figure at the discussions with his ferociously curled moustache and jewel-studded red turban, insisting on showing the leaders present the tiger tattooed on his arm (the French leader Clemenceau was impressed enough to undertake a shooting trip to Bikaner in 1920, from which he emerged with possibly the only positive short-term result of the Paris Peace Conference: two dead tigers).
In Paris, the maharaja fought most intensely to preserve the privileges of semi-autonomous kingdoms like Bikaner, and the British were only too happy to let him shoot his tigers in peace while holding out some suitably vague prospect of self-government for India. As Mao Zedong, who like many Chinese closely followed the deliberations in Paris, wrote, “India has earned herself a clown” but “the demands of the Indian people have not been granted”.
The May Fourth Movement began in 1919 as a spontaneous agitation by Chinese students against the decisions of Western powers at the Paris Peace Conference, where China, despite receiving serious representation, was deeply humiliated. Returning from their studies in Berlin, Paris, London, New York and Moscow, young Chinese had already begun to introduce and discuss a range of ideas and theories, including communism, that could strengthen China against the West. By general consensus, they now rejected their country’s Confucian traditions. As Chen Duxiu, secretary-general of the Chinese Communist Party, founded in 1921, wrote, “I would much rather see the past culture of our nation disappear than see our race die out now because of its unfitness for living in the world.”
For the May Fourth generation, the egalitarian ideals of the French and Russian revolutions and the scientific spirit underlying Western industrial power were self-evidently superior to an ossified Chinese culture that exalted tradition over innovation and kept China backward and weak. They wished China to become a strong and assertive nation using Western methods, and they admired such visitors as Bertrand Russell and John Dewey, whose belief in science and democracy seemed to lead the way to China’s redemption. In 1924, few of them were ready to listen to an apparently other-worldly poet from India hold forth on the problems of modern Western civilisation and the virtues of old Asia.
The previous year, a furious debate had erupted between Liang Qichao and like-minded intellectuals and the new radicals who were convinced that communism was the answer to both the crisis of the West and the disorder of China. Tagore’s host, Liang Qichao, was already under attack from young radicals, who also kept up a barrage of insults against the romantic poet Xu Zhimo, Tagore’s interpreter in China.
Like Liang, the more overtly Confucian and Buddhist thinkers had remained faithful to the imperative of China’s survival in the modern world, and tried to make their quasi-religious ideals useful to progressives and conservatives alike. For instance, the reformist monk Tanxu (1890-1947) tried to give to Chinese Buddhism a this-worldly orientation by making monasteries and schools and lay societies sensitive to the poor and uneducated in China.
But this was not enough for the young radicals. Writing on behalf of them, the Columbia-educated Hu Shi, a disciple of the educationist John Dewey and one of the more liberal of the “total westernisers”, mocked as nonsense the notion that a weak and passive China, which was in thrall to its physical and political environment, could ever satisfy the spiritual cravings of its people. The Communist Party decided to campaign against Tagore through its various magazines. “We must warn them,” Chen Duxiu wrote about the Chinese youth, “not to let themselves be Indianised. Unless, that is, they want their coffins to lie one day in a land under the heel of a colonial power.”
The angry polemic, part of a larger uncertainty about the place of China and India in the global hierarchy created by the West, made clear that no Chinese thinker could any more conceive of a domestic order without conceiving of China in the international order, and without entering very large and fraught debates about past and present ideologies. Thus, as soon as in 1924 Tagore “set foot in Shanghai, the gateway of Western imperialism”, as Mao Dun wrote, he provoked a political tempest, presaging other, more violent storms yet to come—those that would for ever alter the map of Asia.