Professor Tan Yunshan remembered

Updated: 2011-07-14 15:55

By Binod Singh (

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In the thousand years of cultural exchange between the two Asian giants, India and China, there are several unknown stories we have been neglecting, knowingly or unknowingly. Perhaps our history writing has not been fair to remember all those names and personalities who have contributed to Sino-Indian cultural exchange. One of the very latest additions in the last century was that of Professor Tan Yunshan (1898—1983).

Last week at Beijing's Chang Baishan Hotel, the Ministry of Culture of the People Republic of China came forward to honor the legacy of Tan Yunshan and move forward the great tradition of mutual exchange and bonhomie between the two greatest and uninterrupted civilizations on our planet. Some of the greatest scholars of Buddhism from India, led by Prof. Lokesh Chandra, attended the conference and deliberated on the contribution of Prof. Tan to the study of Sinology in India.

The message I took back home from the conference was that Prof. Tan Yunshan was not just friend of Rabindranath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru or Mohandas K. Gandhi, but he was friend of all Indians across parties, languages, age groups and cultures. He and his family adopted India as a second home in the same way Tagore felt in China during his visit in 1924.

In fact, many of my colleagues felt that it was long overdue and it is never too late to recognize and give due honor, to the contributions of the Tan family, for a better Sino-Indian relation in the last century. Therefore, it was not just a great coincidence that when we are celebrating the 150th anniversary of Tagore's birth, we must also acknowledge and honor the great Chinese scholar who was instrumental in establishing the Cheena Bhawan (Chinese Studies Building) in 1929 at International University, established by Tagore.

Tan Yunshan was born in Chaling county of Hunan province, the youngest child of a Confucius scholar and teacher. His early education was at home from a father who ran an atelier in the traditional Chinese style. Studied Szu Shu, the Four Books of Chinese Canons. His father passed away when Tan was only 8 years old, and just two years later, his mother joined his father. Tan joined Hunan Teachers College, Changsha, graduating in 1919, where he came in contact with Western education, imported mostly from France and the United States. He did post-graduate studies in Comparative Chinese and Western Education. Tan also had a baptism in Buddhist Studies under the Rev. Tai Xu, the leading exponent of Buddhism in modern China.

In his early youth, Tan joined several cultural organizations and literary movements and worked closely with Mao Zedong for new China. In the year 1927, Tan met Indian Nobel laureate Tagore in Singapore for the first time. Tagore invited Tan to come to Santiniketan to teach, to which he agreed and the next year traveled to India for the first time and joined Tagore’s International University, Visva Bharati, Santiniketan, as professor of Chinese Studies. At the same time, Tan started taking lessons in Sanskrit and working on Indology. Tan wrote a number of poems and articles on Indian culture, religion, philosophy, customs and manners.

Together with the Great Indian poet Tagore, Prof. Tan lit the lamp of Sinology in India. Tan Yunshan managed to collect funds from various sources in various countries and finally established one of the best facilities to conduct research on Sinology in India. But unfortunately, during my trip to the University last year, I found that due to neglect by the University authorities, all those precious books are eating dust at the Cheena Bhawan. No renovation work has taken place since it was built.

In his later years, Tan moved on to the city of Bodhgaya, where Buddha achieved enlightenment. Here Tan's vision was to establish a World Buddhist Academy, and was able to acquire the necessary amount of land next to the Chinese Temple that he had helped build many years earlier.

We also must mention here that Prof. Tan was also the main mind behind the establishment of the Sino-Indian friendship society in Nanjing in the year 1933. And after returning to India, the India China Friendship Association was established in Kolkata with the help of Tagore. At the conference it was felt that we must revive these two cultural associations both in India and China. At the concluding session of the conference, Prof. Lokesh Chandra requested the Chinese side to consider establishing a "Tan Yunshan chair of Buddhist studies" at Visva Bharati University. Let us hope that this will be materialized in the coming years, which will boost fresh dialogue between the two civilizations.

In the year 1983, Prof. Tan took his last breath in India. There is no doubt that in the last century Prof. Tan Yunshan was a symbol of Sino-Indian friendship and solidarity. On his demise, then-Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi remarked: “Gurudeva and my father had affection and regard for him. He identified himself with Santiniketan and contributed immensely to a better understanding between the civilizations of India and China.”

The only thing we regret at this conference was that Tan Yunshan’s eldest son and our loving teacher Prof. Tan Chung could not attend due to health reasons. However a distant relative of his ancestral family from Hunan did attend the conference and shared many touching and unknown stories about the Tan family. Let me here salute the Tan family and pray for their good health so that they can inspire the young generation of our two countries to take the positive things of our cultures and leave the antagonism implanted by the “Clash of Civilization” theorists in the West.

Note: One can explore much more about Prof. Tan Yunshan and his life-long contribution to Sino-Indian relations in the manuscript titled "In the Footsteps of Xuan Zang: Tan Yunshan and India," edited by Prof. Tan Chung and available online at IGNCA website. A museum depicting Prof. Tan Yunshan's life and contribution has been erected and established near Shenzhen University, to which most of his belongings were donated by his family. A short documentary movie on his life is in the making now, and may be released by next year.

The author is of Indian origin and teaches at the School of Asian and African Studies of the Beijing Foreign Studies University. He can be reached at The views expressed here are solely personal and do not represent in any way the view of or any section of China Daily newspaper.