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Updated: November 25, 2011 13:52 IST

Rabindranath Tagore's vision of India and China

Nirupama Rao
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FORWARD LOOKING: Rabindranath Tagore truly believed in the mutually beneficial interactive relationship between the two great civilisation of China and India.
The Hindu Photo Library
FORWARD LOOKING: Rabindranath Tagore truly believed in the mutually beneficial interactive relationship between the two great civilisation of China and India.

The poet reflected the spirit of an Asia which had traditionally lived in peace, pursuing the traffic of ideas and commerce in an open, inclusive way. This is his relevance to the 21st century.

There is a heightened focus on Rabindranath Tagore today, as we engage in preparations to celebrate the 150th anniversary of his birth. This year it will also be 87 years since Tagore made his memorable visit to China. He went to China with a message of love and brotherhood that he felt symbolised the essence of the ties between the two countries. From all we know, his visit captured the imagination of Chinese intellectual elite, some of whom were overcome with admiration for his eloquence and passionate espousal of the civilisational strength of the East, while others especially young students in some of the Chinese leading universities, drawing directly from the ideology of the May 4, 1919 movement, were vehement in their rejection of Tagore's critique of modern civilisation.

Popular in China

Even before his arrival in China in April 1924, Tagore was already a celebrated figure in that country. Chen Du Xiu, one of the founding fathers of the Communist Party of China translated Tagore's prize-winning anthology, “Gitanjali” as early as 1915. Guo Moruo, who was a writer of Tagore's status in China in the early decades of the People's Republic of China, was deeply influenced by Tagore when he was studying in Japan from 1914 to 1920.

Tagore truly believed in the mutually beneficial interactive relationship between the two great civilisations of China and India. He passionately advocated the reopening of the path between the two countries that had become obscured through the centuries. His international university, “Visvabharati,” played a pioneering role in the development of Chinese studies in India. The establishment of the first Sino-Indian Cultural Society, and then, “Cheena Bhavana” at Santineketan were corner stones for this cause. Scholars, teachers like Tan Yun-shan, who led Cheena Bhavan for many years, contributed greatly to modern India's understanding of Chinese civilisation and its modern development.

Tagore was a visionary, always forward-looking. In one of his lectures in China in 1924, he said, “I hope that some dreamer will spring from among you and preach a message of love and therewith overcoming all differences bridge the chasm of passions which has been widening for ages.” These were powerful words addressed to both the peoples of China and India, calling upon them to build a deeper mutual understanding. In speaking of the need for “eternally revealing a joyous relationship unforeseen,” he sought to promote the cause of China-India understanding, envisioning the ascent of India and China to a higher platform of civilisational leadership and fraternal partnership since they together comprise 40 per cent of humanity. In his view there was no fundamental contradiction between the two countries whose civilisations stressed the concept of harmonious development in the spirit of “vasudhaiva kutumbakam (the world is one family”) and “shijie datong (world in grand harmony”).


What is perhaps not well known is that apart from admiration for China, Tagore deeply felt the plight of the Chinese people. When he was all but 20 in 1881, he authored an essay vehemently denouncing the opium trade which had been imposed on China since that opium was mostly being grown in British India. He called this essay “Chine Maraner Byabasay” or the Commerce of Killing people in China. He expressed similar feelings of sympathy after the Japanese invasion of China writing to his friend, a Japanese poet, Yone Noguchi, that “the reports of Chinese suffering batter against my heart.”

I believe that Tagore's focus on Asia's unique identity is of particular relevance today as we seek to promote peace, stability and prosperity in Asia. Instinctively, he reflected the spirit of an Asia which had traditionally lived in peace, pursuing the traffic of ideas, the peaceful absorption of different religions without proselytisation, and trade and commerce across oceans that were not polarised but were neutral — literally zones of peace and a common economic space. This was an approach defined by secularism and a complementariness of interests. This balanced commercial equilibrium was enhanced by the concept of spiritual unity.

One has only to visit the caves of Ajanta or see the murals of Dunhuang in China to see the capturing through the eye of the artist of this vision of unity — with their depiction of various nationalities thronging royal processions or expressing their grief before a dying Buddha. In the Eighth century, an Indian astronomer named Gautama Siddhartha, was named the president of the Board of Astronomy of China. This tolerance and openness, lack of prejudice toward foreigners and outsiders, the spirit of enterprise and the absence of trade barriers, was unprecedented in the history of the world. I believe this is what Tagore meant when he said that we should have our past as a rough guide for the future.

Vision of unity

Even if Tagore's outreach to China did not evoke the intended response during or immediately following his visit, his approach looks prophetic with the passage of time. At that point in time, Tagore said in his final lecture in China, “I have done what was possible — I have made friends.” However, this was not just friendship between the poet and his fans in China, it was in many ways symbolic of the renewal of friendship between India and China and awakening of their potential. For instance, India and China were to launch the Panchsheel initiative exactly three decades later, drawing upon their civilisational values.

The tenacity of these principles in the modern world of complex diplomacy and realpolitik shows that what is ancient need not be antiquated. Both India and China are today arguably more modern and confident in outlook than in Tagore's days, although India, with its tradition of gradualism, is often accused of lagging in its drive towards modernity. Be that as it may, both India and China today have the maturity to admire our past, including the past of our contacts, without getting overwhelmed or swamped under its weight. Our effort, as a pan-Asia initiative under the East Asian Summit-process, to resurrect the glory of Nalanda, is a pointer in that direction. The vision of Asian unity conceived by Tagore nearly a century ago, is close to getting realised in the process of community-building in our region.

Tagore's encounter with China did not culminate with his trip there in 1924. The idea of India and the idea of China — civilisations that could never perish – were guiding principles for leaders like Nehru. Until the unfortunate border conflict of 1962, the concept of fraternal partnership between India and China had never been questioned. The estrangement of the 1960s and early 1970s expressed an aberration that went against the grain of the inspirational words of Tagore and his belief in the geo-civilisational paradigm of India-China relations. The scholar Patricia Uberoi speaks of the post-Westphalian compact where the institution of the nation-state is defined by territorial boundedness. She writes how “with this come notions of centre and periphery, mainland and margins, and the justified use of force in their defence.” Perhaps, as she says, Tagore would have thought of frontier zones as “revolving doors — as creative spaces where civilisations meet, and not as the trouble spots of contemporary geo-politics.”

It is that ideal of global sustainability that Tagore would have spoken to — where regional cooperation across territorial boundaries strengthens connectivities and diminishes the salience of protracted contest and conflict. Similarly the notion of intercultural give and take between India and China contradicts the theory of any clash of civilisations. This is a useful model for Asia as we see it resurgent once again, and we seek open, transparent, balanced and equitable dialogue structures and patterns of cooperation among all the regions of our continent.

(The author is Foreign Secretary of India. This is a shortened version of her recent lecture at the Singapore Consortium for China-India Dialogue. The full text is available at

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Tagor was a visionary for his words: "I hope that some dreamer will spring from among you and preach a message of love and therewith overcoming all differences bridge the chasm of passions which has been widening for ages." The day to have such an emotional and intellectual integrity between these traditional countries is not far away from now. The people from these two countries do prefer to have a strong ties between the countries. Let us hope and wait for the best.

from:  Ravi
Posted on: Jan 21, 2011 at 07:29 IST

Many Thanks to Hindu for covering this and publishing the full speech. It is a very educative lecture describing the nature of the civilizational relationship between India and China across millenia. When two friends separate; it is difficult to path up, but it is worth all the effort to make that happen since the re-united relationship is the need of the rest of the world. Tagore's early observations of the fall out of Western version of Globalization are not well understood yet. It is an India-China initiative (when it happens) based on the ideas of Tagore that can lead the world towards 'vasudaiva Kutumbakam' or 'shijie datong (world in grand harmony) in the real sense. I think that is the challenge of the current and future generations of Chinese and Indians.

from:  BM Bharadwaj
Posted on: Jan 20, 2011 at 16:52 IST

Good article. Lofty intentions indeed. As regards the ground realities, I remember reading that Wen Jiabao did not show much interest when Anand Sharma quoted Tagore on his recent trip here. That shows the contemporary Chinese world view, which is radically different from the roots that Ms.Rao is referring to (via Tagore). Actually, that is the crux of the problem, that is the reason for our "difficult relation" as it is usually referred to. Often trade is quoted as a silverlining. But that is a mistake, even the East India Company came to trade, rest is history. Not that such a thing can be repeated, or with such ease, but just to make a point. Realpolitik is too far removed from the lofty aspirations of noble beings. Be that our vision as it may, we must always stand on the ground.

from:  Arijit Kumar
Posted on: Jan 19, 2011 at 19:15 IST

India and China has traveled a long way after the visit of Rabindranath Tagore. They are regarded as the two fastest growing economies. It is predicted that they would acquire a much higher position in the world economy 20 years down the line. And this position can be achieved by both the countries much fast if they share diplomatic relationship.

from:  Nikita Meel
Posted on: Jan 18, 2011 at 12:13 IST

This article is very interesting and I think it will be very useful for study to the students to make themselves more patriotic and thoughtful in neighbourly relations with China as well as other Asian countries. I think that similar studies about other Asian countries just like Cambodia, Vietnam and parts of Russia shall make a part on this newspaper column in future. Poetic versions of deathless poets of ancient asia may also useful to us to remember and study such as Jalaludeen Rumy, Omar Khayyam and Thiruvalluvar also Thunjath Ramanujan Ezhuthachan.

from:  P Gangadharan
Posted on: Jan 18, 2011 at 10:42 IST

Thank you Mrs Rao for the article. Indians and Chinese had been friends and we don't see any benefit if they turn to enemy. However one thing that make me uncomfortable is why Indians(including those in office) keep considering China as a threat? India wants China's support in UNSC reform, but how can China support India if it is regarded as enemy and threat?

from:  D Gupta
Posted on: Jan 18, 2011 at 07:57 IST

I'm deeply moved by this article. In the history of Sino-Indian relationship, the 1962 conflict was a deeply hurtful event, especially to the Indian military and governing elites. However, compared with millions and billions who have been benefited from the positive aspects of the relationship throughout history, the 1962 conflict only killed thousands. The hybrid rice technology pioneered by China probably has benefited many more people in the world including India than the thousands killed in 1962. The conflict was the result of a serious miscalculation and miscommunication on the part of the two governments. It's high time to put that behind as much as we can and focus on the positive aspects of the relationship. While Indians may think Chinese are born with a misgiving towards India, that is only partially true since 1962 and perhaps also related to Indian's feeling towards Chinese. Chinese have a culture that also has much built-in admiration towards Indian cultural, religious, and literature values. Chinese also deeply respect to the point of worship the ancient missionaries from India. The maintenance of peace and further friendship will greatly help both nations.

from:  Chris
Posted on: Jan 18, 2011 at 03:38 IST

A brillaint eye-opening article.

from:  suti
Posted on: Jan 17, 2011 at 19:11 IST

The article unfortunately has painted Tagore as a reformer,politician and a diplomat.But he was not awarded nobel prize on this basis. His talks and writings on Indian thought on Human living in Harmony especially after his meeting with Aurabindo in Pondy ashram should be printed again and they would prove to be more relevent to current situations in India.Reformers like Ambedkar and Periyar are known more than Tagore in those areas.

from:  Seshachalam Gopalakrishnan
Posted on: Jan 17, 2011 at 18:58 IST

India and China are two great ancient civilisation which used to have mutually beneficial interactions and inter-exchange of views, ideas, knowledge, skills and technology. That was truly globalisation both the countries and the world benefited from. Tagore was a true internationalist who always stood rock firm against chauvinism and racism. Tagore strongly condemned Japanese atrocities on China and Imperial plundering of China. He extended full moral support to the struggle of the oppressed Chinese people. In his 150th birth aniversary Tagore remains relevant. Congratulation to N Rao for drawing on Tagore. India and China should deepen cooperation and friendship.

from:  Purushuttam Roy Barman
Posted on: Jan 17, 2011 at 13:48 IST

I am very much sure that the way our diplomacy is working by following the principle of philosophy that respected Tagore discussed. The two countries shall have a very strong relationship towards the effective and strong economical development.
Madam Rao I really thank you for your efforts in coming up with this article.

from:  Ajay Verma
Posted on: Jan 17, 2011 at 13:11 IST
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