At first glance, it may appear to be just another ordinary block of 19th century ‘shikumen’ houses — a type of tenement unique to Shanghai with a stone gate at the entrance — but a stroll through the neighbourhood can unearth a treasure trove of the city’s rich literary history.
Simingcun, or Siming Village, as the neighbourhood is known, stands opposite the iconic Russian-built Shanghai Exhibition Center but is dwarfed by new high-rises and the expansive Yan’an Elevated Road that connects the west and east of Shanghai. The stone-gate row of houses that dates back to 1908 is highlighted by its red-brick exterior walls and rooftops that still bear the emblem of its developer, the Siming Bank.
It turns out that during two of his three visits to China in the 1920s, Asia’s first Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore had stayed in one of the shikumen houses that was home to a young Chinese poet Xu Zhimo, who was hugely influenced by the Indian bard. Xu and his wife Lu Xiaoman, both persons of letters, lived at No. 923 shikumen.
Unfortunately that piece of historical structure no longer exists. It had to make way for the elevated highway along with some of the 4,700-odd families who lived in the 15-km stretch and were moved out. Few houses however survived the bulldozers.
A plaque on the wall at the entrance of Simingcun lane on Middle Yan’an Road lists the literary and historical figures that once lived in this exclusive — but now decrepit — colony. The commemorative inscription of the Indian Nobel laureate is both in Chinese and English. It reads simply: Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941, Indian poet, litterateur).
Besides literary figures, it was also home to other celebrated names such as Zhou Jianren, the younger brother of father of modern Chinese literature Lu Xun, and Hu Die, an accomplished actress who played the leading role in China’s first talkie movie. The entrance to the complex was in fact guarded by sturdy Sikhs.
Tagore was already 63 years old when he first touched the shores of China on April 12, 1924. If anything, his seven-week stay in China — he visited Beijing, Hangzhou, Nanjing, Jinan among other places — was a public-relations disaster. It came at a time of massive political upheaval in the country and it was only natural that writers and poets got entangled into it without necessarily being party to it.
The so-called May Fourth Movement of 1919 extended all the way into the 1920s, born out of the humiliation that followed the signing of the Versailles Treaty at the end of the WWI that allowed Japan to take over Germany’s territorial rights in China, instead of being handed over to the Chinese. A nation’s pride had been hurt leading to mass demonstrations, most often violent, forcing writers and intellectuals to question the very basis of their society, which till then was deeply rooted in Confucianism.
Tagore’s Pan-Asian view and his dominant theme of “the crescent moon, adolescent heart and the quintessence of Nature” as Tan Chung puts it in his brilliant essay ‘Tagore’s inspiration in Chinese new poetry’, were being scorned as escapist stuff.
Regardless of criticism, Tagore drew crowds wherever he went and the Cambridge-educated Xu Zhimo, who was his official translator during the trip, stood by his hero despite drawing flak for his own writings. It was obvious that a nation in turmoil had no place, or patience, for devotees of romance and spiritualism, which was no impediment for a budding friendship between Tagore and Xu. It was probably the reason why Tagore stopped by Shanghai again in March 1929 while on his way to Japan and the US. The Indian poet avoided the spotlight and chose to put up with his friend Xu and his wife Lu at their place in Simingcun.
In the book A Thousand Miles of Dreams writer Sasha Su-Ling Welland recounts how Xu Zhimo “worshipped Tagore and his use of natural imagery as spiritual expression.” In the year before Tagore’s historic trip to China, Xu and some of his literary circle of friends formed a casual dinner and discussion salon named after Tagore’s book of prose poems The Crescent Moon.
Zhao Lihong, vice-president of the Shanghai Writers Association and a devotee of Tagore, described the friendship akin to a father-son relationship. “In 1928, Xu Zhimo spent a few days in Calcutta on his way back from Europe. His visit deepened their understanding and feelings for each other. He invited Tagore to come to China again, which he did in 1929. Tagore gave a name to Xu — Suo Sima. Xu, on his part, called him ‘Rubidadda’. Tagore was 27 years older than Xu Zhimo and introduced Xu and Lu as his son and daughter-in-law to his guests.”
A Shanghai Jing’an District government website describes the couple’s place in Simingcun in detail. ‘Their bedroom was in the second floor in front of a wing room which served as a smoking room for Lu Xiaoman and the hall in the second floor served as a reception with a couch attached for the guests. The study of Xu Zhimo was in the third floor... In 1929, when Tagore came to Shanghai again, the couple invited him to stay in a delicate small room on the third floor but Tagore took a fancy to the room with a big desk and full of books and magazines. At the request of the couple, Tagore was glad to paint a picture with a poem inscribed in Bengali and offered a purplish red Indian gown as a souvenir at parting.’
The Indian poet was to make another trip — his third and last — on his way back in June the same year. He again stayed with the Chinese couple. This time Tagore gave one of his Indian robes made of Amaranth silk as a parting gift to Xu. Tagore signed off the trip with a poem scribbled in Xu’s personal notebook: The mountain wishes that it could be a little bird, To be relieved of the burden of silence.
Xu died untimely in a plane crash at the age of 36. Lu Xiaoman, who was going through a difficult phase in her marriage with Xu, wrote a piece ‘Tagore in my house,’ where she wrote, “Though he didn’t stay for long, our (Lu and Xu’s) love enhanced because of him.”
Later this month, the Indian President Pratibha Patil is scheduled to unveil a bust of Tagore in Shanghai. It would be a perfect tribute to a man who still somehow finds his way into Chinese blogs and discussion boards on the Internet and who did his bit to foster cultural bonds between the two Asian neighbours back in the 1900s.
Bivash Mukherjee works with the Shanghai Daily