Chinese Views of Tagore and Gandhi: Then and Now

Brian Tsui 徐啓軒, a postdoctoral fellow at the Australian Centre on China in the World, is starting a collaborative research project on Sino-Indian relations in the Republican period (1911-1949). He is also interested in Nationalist China’s right-wing, anti-communist revolution in the second quarter of the twentieth century. His doctoral thesis, completed at Columbia University, was on ‘China’s Forgotten Revolution: Radical Conservatism in Action, 1927-1949’.

It is noteworthy that The Hindu, the leading Indian English-language daily, has previously praised Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s concept of zhengyou 诤友 (true, or principled friendship) in unfolding relations with China. See Vidya Subrahmaniam, ‘A zhengyou Relationship with China‘, The Hindu, 10 June 2010; and, more recently, following Li Keqiang’s trip to India, Venky Vembu, ‘Not Just Niceties‘, 20 May 2013, as well as the Chinese-language report ‘印媒体称中国对领土问题强硬 须做中国的诤友’, Global Times 环球时报, 21 May 2013. Zhengyou is a founding principle of New Sinology 后汉学 and the Australian Centre on China in the World.—The Editors


On his first official visit to India in May 2013, Chinese premier Li Keqiang 李克强 charmed his hosts by reminiscing about how he was mesmerised by the ‘sage poet’ Rabindranath Tagore as a university student. There were Tagorean traces in the op-ed piece that Li later wrote for India’s leading English-language daily, The Hindu, to mark his arrival. He began by praising India’s ancient wisdom, the sublime beauty of the subcontinent and historical friendship across the Himalayas but quickly turned to eulogise the nation’s economic liberalisation and corporate might. He segued from Bodhidharma and yoga-loving Apple founder Steve Jobs to Bangalore’s software industry and the bonds that India and China had forged through their national liberation struggles.[1] In Mumbai, Li called upon the sister of Dwarkanath Kotnis, the volunteer Indian physician who joined the Eighth Route Army and died of epilepsy during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Later that day, he visited the Tata Group, the multinational conglomerate whose IT subsidiary operates out of six Chinese cities.

Tagore bust in Shanghai. Source: Sina English

Tagore bust in Shanghai. Source: Sina English.

This itinerary, like the combination of Tagore, communism and economic development in Li’s article in The Hindu, reflects a Sino-Indian relationship defined by commerce and a market logic, with cultural and historical elements being used to embellish utilitarian considerations. When referring to Tagore, Li made no mention of how the Indian thinker railed against modern industrialisation. This amnesia reflects how Tagore is understood in China today. Many young Chinese seem to have fallen under the spell of Tagore’s language. Weibo users frequently post verses from poems like ‘Lover’s Gift’ online as Valentine’s Day messages. In a society that embraces the very values that Tagore charged as barbaric and alien to Asia, his words are now avidly consumed. A Chinese specialist on Bengali literature suggests that Tagore’s poetry is popular because it is a ‘soothing balm’ for young urbanites weighed down by job and family pressures in a rapidly changing society.[2]

Tagore the Polemicist

When Asia’s first Nobel literature laureate visited China in April 1924, he did not set out to offer young Chinese happy relief from the monotony of modern work routines. Instead, he challenged his Chinese audiences to question the capitalist ethos. At elite Tsinghua College, he warned the students not to succumb to material comforts and money.  He attacked modern technology for creating a uniform jungle of concrete-and-steel buildings across the world’s major metropolises. He cautioned Beijing not to follow New York and London, noting that Shanghai and Calcutta had also fallen prey to ‘huge demons of ugliness’.  Cities, according to Tagore, must preserve the ‘marvellous beauty of human association.’[3] He regarded Eastern spiritual civilisation, by which he meant the combined heritage of India and China, as essential for healing a world despoiled by the bombs, commodity culture and predatory conduct of Western nation-states.

The transformation of Beijing in the decades after Tagore’s visit would suggest that the writer’s appeal fell on deaf ears. His praise for Buddhism and Confucianism stirred controversy and even protests among Chinese students in the 1920s. Back then, Tagore was persona non grata to young radicals. For men and women attracted to militant revolutionary politics, a return to Eastern traditions was no solution to the political, social and economic needs of the day. ‘We have had enough of the ancient Chinese civilisation’, read one leaflet that was distributed as Tagore toured the country.[4] Three months before the celebrated poet arrived in Shanghai, Sun Yat-sen’s Nationalist Party had just formalised an alliance with the Chinese Communist Party. The coalition promised emancipation of workers and peasants from economic oppression, an end to warlord rivalries and prolonged struggle against Western imperialism. The visitor’s plea for Oriental wisdom was seen as not only quaint but detrimental to the fight for an egalitarian, independent nation.

In China today, where revolutionary fervour is a distant memory, Tagore no longer stirs controversy. As the country continues along the path of capitalist modernisation that began in the 1980s, cosmopolitan Chinese readers have embraced Tagore as an icon of ancient Hindu spirituality but with no memory of his famous attacks on rampant modernisation. Thus, as the privatisation of land and industries previously under collective ownership continues apace and as Chinese liberals complain about the state sector’s corrupting effects on the ‘free market’, no one has invoked Tagore as a champion of culturally-rooted development.

The Chinese government and some intellectuals in China and elsewhere are wont to claim that the so-called socialist country is following an indigenous model of development. Yet, the visions and programs implemented are unmistakably Western capitalist derivatives. Across the public and private sectors, economic and bureaucratic rationalisation is everywhere evident. The situation in India is similar. There, Tagore, together with the nationalist leader Mohandas K. Gandhi who continues to be revered as the Mahatma, is seen mainly as a spiritual exemplar. The challenge that these two men once posed to colonial modernity, its institutions and developmental path have been ignored since the country gained independence. Today, India, like China, embraces rapid industrialisation, displaces subsistence peasants from arable land and encourages urban citizens to become avid consumers. For their part, the urban young in China and India aspire to attain Hollywood-inspired standards of material wealth.

Gandhi the Revolutionary

In the early twentieth century, it was the political messages of Tagore and Gandhi which inspired debates in both India and China. The Republican era (1911-1949) in China was a time when many intellectuals looked upon India with admiration. Liberals and revolutionaries on both the left and the right scrutinised the anti-colonial strategy that the Indian National Congress championed. Left liberals like the famed journalist Hu Yuzhi (胡愈之, 1896-1986) found civil disobedience and non-violent resistance promising but  scholars who embraced Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionary program such as Qian Shifu (钱实甫, 1909-1968) and Huang Jilu (黃季陸, 1899-1985) expressed doubt. Gandhi’s methods of mass mobilisation, even more than Tagore’s ambivalent views on nationalist politics, caught the interest of Republican Chinese observers.

Photo of Huang Jilu. Source: Ministry of Education, R.O.C.

Photo of Huang Jilu. Source: Ministry of Education, R.O.C.

They appreciated that India, like China, lost political and economic sovereignty under European colonialism and capitalist globalisation. Their assessments of Gandhi varied but all regarded him as a political leader fighting against hegemonic power structures.

Tagore and particularly Gandhi were widely discussed in Chinese intellectual circles less as inspired literary virtuosos than as engaged thinkers intervening in world affairs.

In 1922, Hu Yuzhi hailed Gandhi in the prestigious magazine Eastern Miscellany (Dongfang zazhi 東方雜誌) as one of the two greatest revolutionaries in the first half of the twentieth century. For Hu, Gandhi was an army-less nationalist activist fit to share the honour with Vladimir I. Lenin, who founded the world’s first socialist state five years earlier. Hu admired Gandhi even more than Lenin. He wrote that although the leader of the October Revolution set Russia on the course of social revolution, Gandhi’s impact on humankind was greater for he also dealt with fundamental spiritual concerns. While Bolshevists pressed on with their ‘policy of destruction’, Gandhi’s ‘passive resistance’ was of a different and more thoroughgoing order. Hu regarded Gandhi as offering a politics that agreed with the humanistic tradition of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Leo Tolstoy. ‘Gandhi-style nationalism’, according to Hu, was not only about freeing a great country from British colonisers. It was also an insurgency against the ‘hypocritical modern civilisation’ forced upon Asia by European imperialism. In Gandhi’s non-violent civil disobedience and plea to use native, hand-spun cloth, Hu saw a political ethics that addressed everyday individual behaviour. He saw Gandhi’s approach as offering effective social transformation, arguing that unlike top-down Bolshevik discipline, Gandhian mass activism was organic, spontaneous and peaceful. ‘Refusing to dance to the Europeans’ old tune’, Hu concluded, ‘[Indians] planned to bring down the [colonial] government by using no coercion, no guns, no bombs and without shedding a drop of blood.’[5]

The idea of freedom from imperialist domination was what made Gandhi’s spiritually-inspired politics significant for Chinese intellectuals like Hu. With varying degrees of admiration and scepticism, there were several essayists writing for Nationalist publications who presented Gandhi as comparable to Sun Yat-sen in founding a revolutionary movement. In 1938, Huang Jilu wrote a pamphlet for a series sponsored by Guangxi military strongmen Li Zongren 李宗仁 and Bai Chongxi 白崇禧. As a Nationalist elder who had occupied a succession of party and government positions in education and propaganda, Huang observed that Gandhi and Lenin shared the same basic animosity towards capitalism but found the Soviet project more promising than Gandhi’s. He noted that as a sovereign power, Moscow under Stalin had substituted regular diplomacy for world revolution. Domestically, five-year plans, the second of which had just been concluded, signalled a welcome retreat from social revolution. The plans demonstrated that Russia preferred gradual economic development akin to what Sun prescribed for China. In contrast, Gandhi’s vision for India was drastically different from both the Russian and Chinese models. His anti-modern and anti-violent approach to overcoming capitalism was primarily a religious or moral position with little proactive policy. Huang wondered if Britain’s industrial and military might was the reason for Gandhi’s and the Indian National Congress’s revolutionary inaction.[6]

Huang’s views were echoed by Qian Shifu 錢實甫, a Guangxi-based historian who contributed a book to the same series under which Huang published his treatise. Qian’s book, titled Sun Yat-senism, Leninism and Gandhism, examines how the three revolutionary ‘schools’ approached the politics of resistance. He wrote that all three shared the same aim of opposing reactionary forces and liberating the oppressed. He then contrasted Lenin’s politics of revenge with Gandhi’s politics of forgiveness, observing how the former’s commitment to the liquidation of the capitalist class differed fundamentally with Gandhi’s plea for peaceful co-existence among individuals. Reflecting the conventional wisdom of his times, Qian understood capitalism in its twentieth-century guise of large-scale industrialisation. He believed that of the three men, only Gandhi set out to destroy capitalism. Qian regarded Gandhi’s approach as flawed in this respect. Qian argued that capitalism could be reformed such that limits could be placed on private accumulation without hindering the process of modern development and he claimed that this was what Sun Yat-sen had set out to achieve. Qian even claimed that Lenin in his last years had converted to Sun Yat-senism by adopting the New Economic Policy. Qian wrote that while he admired Gandhi, he found his approach to capitalist modernity to be ‘weak and ineffectual’.[7]

These three Republican-era authors illustrate how modern Indian thought, and India, were perceived at the time. Their understanding of India as a nation that, like China, was undergoing revolutionary experimentation contrasts sharply with the abstract view of India and China as great civilisations now promoted in official Chinese rhetoric and shared by middle-class urbanites. So on the Chinese Internet, we find Tagore’s poetry being put to romantic use, of which a popular line is: ‘Listen, my heart, to the whisper of the world with which it makes love to you’ 靜靜地聽, 我的心呀, 聽那世界的低語, 這是它對你求愛的表示呀. We find Gandhi being quoted for spiritual solace: ‘Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony’ 幸福就是你的所想, 所說和所做的和諧統一.

Tata Consultancy Services in Dalian. Source: Tata Consultancy Services.

Tata Consultancy Services in Dalian. Source: Tata Consultancy Services.

In both India and China, Tagore and Gandhi once stood as visionaries of a viable Asian socio-economic alternative to Western capitalism. Both men have now been depoliticised and rebranded as gurus of love and peace.



[1] Li Keqiang, ‘A Handshake Across the Himalayas’, The Hindu, 20 May 2013.

[2] Chitralekha Basu, ‘Hope of the East’, China Daily, 14 May 2010.

[3] Rabindranath Tagore, Talks in China, Calcutta: Arunoday Art Press, n.d., pp.51-52.

[4] Pankaj Mishra, From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012, p.236. Click here for a Sinica podcast discussion of this work with the author in conversation with Kaiser Kuo, Jeremy Goldkorn and Jeffrey Wasserstrom, 19 October 2012.

[5] Hu Yuzhi 胡愈之, 《甘地的略傳》 (A short biography of Gandhi), Eastern Miscellany 東方雜誌, vol.19, no.10 (1922): 71-75; and, 《甘地與印度社會改造》 (Gandhi and social transformation in India), Eastern Miscellany 東方雜誌, vol.19, no.10 (1922): 75-78.

[6] Huang Jilu 黃季陸, 《如何認識總理》 (Understanding the Premier), Nanning: Mintuan zhoukan she, 1938, p.11.

[7] Qian Shifu 錢實甫, 《孫文主義 與列寧主義甘地主義》 (Sun Yat-senism, Leninism and Gandhism), Nanning: Mintuan zhoukan chubanshe, 1939, p.3.