Prof. Tan Chung talks to Madhur Tankha about his stay in India and imparting knowledge of Chinese language and culture to Indian scholars.

An authority on history, eminent educationist Prof. Tan Chung has been a doyen of Chinese cultural studies in India for nearly half a century.

In honour of Prof. Tan’s 80th birthday next year, Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in collaboration with Institute of Chinese Studies had invited him to meet his former colleagues and old students at a two-day international conference on “New Perspectives on Intercultural Studies” in the Capital over the weekend.

Prof. Tan says the greater part of his career has been spent in imparting knowledge of Chinese language and culture to Indian scholars for two generations.

“I come from Hunan in China and am fondly called by some of my Indian friends as Hunan Brahmin. Let me tell you at the onset of this interview that India is my home. I have stayed 45 years here and only 25 years in China. I was not a scholar when I came to India but I had brought my heart to this country,” says Prof. Tan, who has been staying with his son in Chicago for the past nine years because of “health reasons”.

Condemning the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai, Prof. Tan says his heart goes to the grieving Indian families who lost their loved ones at the hands of terrorists who attacked various locations in Mumbai. “Even China is facing the menace of terrorism and the two countries should collaborate and root out terrorism. After World Trade Tower attack, the United States captured Al-Qaeda people from different countries and put them at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Of these captives, four were Chinese from Xinjiang which is known as Chinese Turkistan. Innocent Chinese workers were kidnapped and killed by terrorists in Pakistan. So we are also facing the brunt of terrorism.”

Son of famous Chinese scholar Prof. Tan Yun-Shan, the 79-year-old historian says his father was invited by Rabindranath Tagore to India. “When father came over to West Bengal, I was not even conceived. In honour of my dad, Tagore established Cheena Bhavana at Santiniketan. I was born in Malaya near Singapore in 1929. When I was just a little bundle of joy my mother took me to Santiniketan so that Tagore could shower his blessings on me. He named me Ashok and mother took me back to China.”

As a 25-year-old young man, Prof. Tan returned to Santiniketan in 1955 to follow in the footsteps of his illustrious father who “worked and died in India”. Prof. Tan contributed in building up the Chinese studies programme at Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University from 1964 till 1994. He later joined IGNCA. Stating that civilizations like India and China have had long-lasting beneficial and harmonious dialogue throughout history, Prof. Tan says through civilizational interactions, the parallel histories of different countries and regions have influenced each other to form multi-stranded and multi-coloured motifs. “Hence, these have left indelible imprints on each other. It is this understanding that has shaped my perspective to discern, discuss and assess inter-cultural interactions and heritage.”

Pointing out that the cultural intercourse between India and China was more than 2,000 years old, Prof. Tan says the great civilizations have contributed immensely to each other’s fund of goodwill and knowledge in various fields. “Buddhism was the main bridge to bring the people of the two neighbouring countries. Many Indian monks undertook the circuitous and perilous journey to China to spread the message and work of Buddha.”

Stating that holistic wisdom was the quintessence of Indian cultural heritage, Prof. Tan says even without its transcendental dimension, it looks beautifully modern and futuristic in any academic forum.

Prof. Tan’s guru mantra is that the young generation should not think about financial gain but try to achieve academic attainments. “Academic researches should not be run like business. Social sciences should never be undermined. Cultural studies bring about other benefits, though not necessarily financial ones.” Author of many books, Prof. Tan dwelt on the opium trade in his book “China and the Brave New World”. “This book along with ‘Triton and Dragon’ are textbooks for history courses in Indian and foreign universities.”

He edited “Dunhuang Art Through Eyes of Duan Wenjie” that is a reference book for art courses in the U.S. campus.

A Hindi film buff, Prof. Tan says his favourite movie is Raj Kapoor’s “Awaara”. “I also enjoy watching Satyajit Ray’s Bengali films. I think Chinese films have too much of American influence. My Hindi is not as good as my wife but enough to shop in Indian bazaars. During my stay in Delhi, I would often invite my students for a Chinese meal of dumplings on Chinese New Year’s Day.”