On April 12, 1924, Rabindranath Tagore arrived in Shanghai for a lecture tour of China arranged by Liang Qichao, China’s foremost modern intellectual. Soon after receiving the Nobel prize for literature in 1913, Tagore had become an international literary celebrity; he was also the lone voice from Asia in an intellectual milieu that was almost entirely dominated by Western institutions and individuals. As Lu Xun pointed out in 1927, “Let us see which are the mute nations. Can we hear the voice of Egypt? Can we hear the voice of Annam (modern-day Vietnam) and Korea? Except Tagore, what other voice of India can we hear?”
The Japanese novelist Yasunari Kawabata once recalled
“the features and appearance of this sage-like poet, with his long bushy hair, long moustache and beard, standing tall in loose-flowing Indian garments, and with deep, piercing eyes. His white hair flowed softly down both sides of his forehead; the tufts of hair under the temples also were like two beards and linking up with the hair on his cheeks, continued into his beard, so that he gave an impression, to the boy that I was then, of some ancient Oriental wizard.”
Packed lecture-halls awaited Tagore around the world, from Japan to Argentina. President Herbert Hoover received him at the White House when he visited the United States in 1930, and the New York Times ran twenty-one reports on the Indian poet, including two interviews. This enthusiasm seems especially remarkable considering the sort of prophecy from the East that Tagore would deliver to his Western hosts: that their modern civilisation, built upon the cult of money and power, was inherently destructive and needed to be tempered by the spiritual wisdom of the East.
But when, travelling in China, Tagore expressed his doubts about Western civilisation and exhorted Asians not to abandon their traditional culture, he ran into fierce opposition. “The poet-saint of India has arrived at last,” the novelist Mao Dun wrote in a Shanghai periodical, and “welcomed with ‘thunderous applause’”. Mao Dun had once translated Tagore into Chinese; but in his incarnation as a bitter communist radical he was increasingly worried about the Indian poet’s likely deleterious effect on Chinese youth.
“We are determined”, Mao Dun warned, “not to welcome the Tagore who loudly sings the praises of eastern civilisation. Oppressed as we are by militarists from within the country and by the imperialists from without, this is no time for dreaming.” Within days of his arrival in China, Tagore would face hecklers, shouting such slogans as “Go back, slave from a lost country!”