Pilgrimage to the birthplace of an Indophile Chinese icon & his Tagore-inspired school


With India and the rest of the world combatting against the coronavirus pandemic that started in China, April 1 coincidentally marks the official 70th anniversary of the establishment of India-China diplomatic relations. If one looks at the chequered but uninterrupted history of the India-China bilateral relationship, very few individuals can match the colossal contribution of late Professor Tan Yunshan (1898-1983), the man who not only consolidated age-old golden bridge between the two neighbours but also laid the foundation for a stronger friendship. One needs to understand that the two neighbours are not ‘nation-states’ but ‘civilizational states’ and the future interface between the two sides has to be based on ancient friendly civilizational dialogue.

In October last year, close on the heels of the recent heart-to-heart second summit between the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Mamallapuram and just a year before the two neighbours going to celebrate the 70th anniversary of their formal diplomatic ties, Professor Tan Chung, the erudite son of Professor Tan, helmed a symposium, commemorating the great contribution of his multi-faceted father, who heralded a new era of friendship between the two great and uninterrupted ancient civilizations. The venue was Chaling County, the closest urban habitat near Professor Tan’s birthplace of Changle village in China’s Hunan Province and I was one of the fortunate attendees of that enlightening three-day event.

In his keynote speech at the well-attended three-day event, featuring a slew of top-notch India-China experts from both the countries, Professor Tan Chung quoted a famous line from famous Tang poet Li Shangyin (813-858), “ As a silkworm won’t stop from spinning silk even in its’ old age”, even though I would try very hard, I would not be able to narrate the wonderful interface between the two civilizations in just one life.

The 91-year-old scholar, who taught at the National Defence Academy (NDA) in Khadakvasla before joining Delhi University as Lecturer of Chinese and subsequently, becoming head of the Department of Chinese and Japanese studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, followed into his father’s footsteps to India-China friendship through his scholarship and goodwill missions, and carved a niche for himself in the thousands of years of cultural exchange between the two Asian giants, recollected his fond memories of living in India and consolidating his father’s legacy.

However, the most memorable part of attending the event came when, along with UK-based Professor Yukteshwar Kumar, a former student of Professor Tan Chung and a leading expert of Chinese Studies, we decided to visit the birthplace of Professor Tan, who was not just a friend of Rabindranath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru or Mohandas K. Gandhi, but was also an old acquaintance of Mao Zedong and played a pivotal role in facilitating a special visit of China’s then Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek and Madame Chiang to Santiniketan in 1942. Prof. Tan Yunshan was also instrumental in arranging the visit of Zhou Enlai, the first Chinese Premier to Santiniketan. Visva-Bharati had conferred Deshikhottam on Zhou Enali in 1956.

As there was no public transport connectivity to Changle village, a couple of motorbikes were arranged for our visit to the birthplace of the man, who had adopted India as a second home since meeting Tagore for the first time in his life in Singapore in 1927 and subsequently, visiting Santiniketan a year later after being personally invited by Asia’s first Nobel Laureate. It was a memorable trip through the gravel road meandering through the misty mountains and the lush green sylvan surroundings to the non-descript hamlet where Professor Tan, who had started Chinese classes in Chinese Tagore’s Visva Bharati that went on to become a central university while the Chinese language-learning centre gradually turned into its famed Cheena Bhavan or the Chinese department.

Standing in front of the dilapidated humble hut, where the pioneer of Indo-China friendship in the 20th century was born in 1898 to a Confucianist scholar and teacher, and reminiscing about the humongous contribution made by Prof Tan to build a rock-solid foundation for the future relationships between the two countries, I was informed by Professor Kumar, who also taught Chinese in Visva Bharati, that we were probably the first visitors from India to the birthplace of the man, who breathed his last in the holy city of Bodh Gaya, the revered seat of Buddhism, after the completion of the pilgrimage of his legendary life in 1983.

Sharing the enlightening moment, Prof Kumar, who is also a recently-elected councillor of the city of Bath in the UK, told me, “Visiting Dong Changle village was nothing short of a pilgrimage for me, where the father of my Guru, Padma Bhushan Prof. Tan Chung was born. Prof. Tan Yunshan was born in 1898 and the village resembles my own small village of India. Prof. Tan Chung invited me to participate in an international conference at Chaling County and how could I deny? Despite my academic, administrative and research association with three universities in the UK now, and then being a councillor it was not easy to find a time and visit China during the middle of the academic term. But coming to Changle is certainly a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me”.

Being an alumnus of Visva Bharati, personally, it was quite heartening for me to be at the birthplace of the man, who not only set up the Cheena Bhavan, a premier institute of Chinese studies in India, but also quite religiously and rigorously raised funds to fulfil Tagore’s dream of realizing his university’s motto of “Yatra visvam bhavatyekanidam (where the whole world can find a nest). Interestingly, he didn’t take a penny from Tagore and his university for years and lived an austere life with his family on a regular stipend he used to get from the Chinese government until the birth of the People’s Republic of China, founded by his old acquaintance from Hunan, Chairman Mao.

It was quite unbelievable to even imagine that how a man from the sleepy village of Changle, which has still remained almost untouched by China’s gargantuan growth and rapid development over the past several decades, traversed a few thousand miles to set his foot on the Indian soil and left an indelible mark by sowing the seeds of harmony and brotherhood between the two neighbours of the “Himalayan sphere” – an idea that was later conceived by Prof Tan’s son Prof Tan Chung.

On our way back to Changsha, over three hours’ drive from Chaling County, we took a brief stopover at another place that has been a remarkable reminiscent of Prof Tan’s unflinching love for Tagore and unique educational model. When India became independent in 1947, Prof Tan returned to China with his family and it was in his home town Changsha where he built a school, modelled on Tagore’s vision of education and philosophy of learning. As Tagore started his Brahmacharya Ashram with five students and turned it into a full-fledged school of Patha Bhavan before gradually converting it into his dream university, Prof Tan’s Datong school was set up with the same dream and a mission in March 1948. His wife Mrs.Tan, Chen Nai-Wei became its first Principal and ran it for two years.

However, the inception of the new People’s Republic of China under Chairman Mao Zedong in 1949 saw an uncertain Prof Tan returning with his family to his second home, Santiniketan, lock, stock and barrel once again. His departure to India shattered his dream of upgrading the school to a higher educational institution or a university like Visva Bharati wasn’t materialized even though the school was run for many decades by his sister-in-law Chen Laisheng. Incidentally, the Chinese term “Datong” is the abbreviation of “Shijie Datong,” which can be roughly translated as “Vasudeva Kutumbakam” – the Tagorean philosophy with which Visva Bharati was established and encapsulated in its motto. English is not rich enough a language where one can truly mirror basic nuance of this concept.

“Many people do not know about Datong School of Changsha which Prof. Tan Yunshan founded in 1948 after seeing Gurudeva’s Patha Bhavana (in Visva-Bharati) and it was an absolute privilege and honour to visit the school,” Prof Kumar informed while strolling around the campus along with veteran China scholar Prof Manoranjan Mohanty, who was once a student of Prof Tan Chung before working with him at Delhi University.

Datong School was taken over by the Chinese government in August 1952 and in 1959 it became an important focal school of the city. However, in 1966, the school was renamed as the Anti-Japanese Aggression War School before getting back its original name of Datong Primary school in 1978. The current expansive and upscale building that we visited was constructed in 2015 under the provincial government funding. Although Prof Tan’s dream of upgrading the primary school to a full-fledged university like Visva Bharati remained a distant one even more than three decades after his death but his spirit and his unbridled passion for Tagore’s educational system lived on even more than three decades after his death. The model primary school in the heart of Changsha with its current student-strength of 6,500 also houses a gorgeous and modern museum dedicated to the incredible memories of its founding father, Prof Tan.

The small yet informative museum highlighted the larger than life of the man who had once lit the lamp of Sinology in India and built a time-honoured bridge between the two overwhelming neighbours. With his able son Prof Tan Chung tirelessly carrying forward his legacy and consolidating it further throughout the past few decades, the cordial golden bridge of bilateral relations between India and China has been standing tall irrespective of whether the consistent flow of water is remaining tranquil or turning troubled sporadically.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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