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Indian idol in China

Tagore's anniversary is steeped in political meaning for the Asian rivals trying to mend ties, writes Reshma Patil.

world Updated: May 07, 2011 23:35 IST
Reshma Patil
Reshma Patil
Hindustan Times

In 1961, a clutch of Chinese intellectuals gathered in Beijing to reminisce about a bearded poet from Bengal. They called Rabindranath Tagore a symbol of Hindi-Chini friendship and released ten translated tomes of his writing to mark his 100th birth anniversary.

The next year, India and China went to war. From 1962 and for over a decade until the Cultural Revolution from 1966-76, Tagore translations came to a grinding halt in Beijing.

Fifty years later, the governments of India and China are vigorously recasting Tagore as a 'cultural bridge' beyond their still disputed Himalayan borders.

This year, the 150th birth anniversary of the thinker who captivated Chinese elite since his controversial 1924 tour of China is steeped in political symbolism.

"Who after all can deny the need for a harmonious society today?" said Indian envoy S Jaishankar on Saturday, making a present-day connection with the poet and the Communist Party's staple political catchphrase.

As a rising India and China confront how to mend frayed ties and expand trade despite longstanding barriers, they are relying on rewriting select heroes from their shared history.

The two most populous societies have produced no latest personalities with mass appeal to dispel suspicions and ignorance about each other in the present generation.

The fastest-growing economies are travelling back in time to Tagore, the most translated Indian writer for nearly a century since the Chinese Gitanjali was published in 1915.

On Saturday, in Beijing's Peace Hall strung with red lanterns, Chinese scholars hailed Tagore and promised better translations of his writing straight from Bengali instead of Hindi or English.

"An educational innovator and practical social activist," summed up Li Ping, deputy editor-in-chief of Commercial Press which hosted a party for Tagore in its eastern library in 1924.

The criticism of Tagore's 'oriental views' by sections of Marxist Chinese including some prominent founding officials of the Communist Party has been confronted and put to rest in recent books since the 1950s and till today.

"India is no longer a mystery, but the greatest neighbour of China," wrote prominent Chinese Indologist Wang Bangwei in the Peking University publication 'Tagore and China' in 2010. "We really need to pay greater attention to her - alas, there has been a deficiency on this score."

The Nobel Laureate came to China a few years after winning the Prize. The achievement shocked Chinese intellectuals who had dismissed their neighbour as a colonial poor cousin.

On Saturday, the Commercial Press released translations of Tagore on life, education and literature. Tagore was described as a philosopher, educationist and writer. Jaishankar said that Tagore's message remains relevant as Asian societies try to reconcile tradition and modernity.

"The debate will continue in India and China. The issues raised in 1924 are still being addressed," he said.

The question for Indian awareness campaigns in China will be how extensively Tagore can reach out to young nationalist minds who view India as a threat. The world's fastest modernising society leaves Chinese youth with less leisure for introspection and poetry.

"Every educated Chinese has read at least a short verse of Tagore in school," said Shen Dewei, who will graduate with a major in comparative literature this summer. "However, only a few youth who have spiritual needs really know how to read Tagore. Translations are not a good way to approach Tagore. You need to know English to appreciate him."

There is no ideological reawakening in the Chinese economic juggernaut today which can be compared to the passionate scholars whose literary careers were inspired by Tagore's 1924 visit.

"I read the Gitanjali when I was 17, just before the Cultural Revolution," Liu Jian, professor of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told HT.

In 1978, when the revolution ended, Liu was among the first batch selected by the new Institute of

Asia-Pacific Studies. For his first thesis, he analysed the stories of Tagore.

"In 1981, with the start of reforms, the Tagore craze appeared with the republication of his works," said Liu. In 1985, hundreds of copies of Liu's translation of Glimpses of Bengal were sold out the morning the translation arrived in the Peking University bookstore. "Not a single visiting foreign poet has impressed the Chinese so much."

India may need more icons than idols from a century ago in its public diplomacy in China.

Today, the 1980s-born Chinese live in the fast lane of the world's largest car market and second-largest luxury market.

"China now needs a renaissance," said Tagore expert Tan Chung in a chat with some members of China's cultural community in Beijing this week.

Premier Wen Jiabao who quotes Tagore in his speeches, regularly urges the Chinese youth who are gripped with a craze for television reality shows to cultivate the habit of reading at least on subways.

"In New York, everyone reads on the train," observed a Tsinghua university professor of politics. "But when I open a book on a subway in Beijing, I find I am the only one reading. People stare at me."

The twenty-something school teacher Yang Meijiao said she likes reading Chinese novels and romances.

"I know of Tagore, but I don't buy his books," she said disinterestedly. "I read all kinds of books but I never bought a Tagore book," agreed her friend and schoolteacher Wang Ling.

But the appeal of Tagore will probably expand in China's elite classrooms as improved translations appear. At the Tagore seminar, the student Shen lounged on the back row in black sweatshirt and jeans. His professor had sent him to listen in. "I came to experience India and meet real Indians for the first time," said Shen, a native of southeast Zhejiang. "It's important to understand the Asian and Indian spirit. I think India will prove that it can contribute to this world."

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