In December 1928, a slight, bespectacled young man got his first glimpse of Gandhi. The Congress was holding its annual conference in Kolkata that year and thousands had flocked to it for a sighting of the famous leader – more than a lakh, according to the young man’s account.

That first sighting is described in the language of devotion. “His figure appeared rather frail but his face was shining and the eyes sparkling,” he wrote of Gandhi. “He spoke slowly in a rather low voice but with clear accent and beautiful tone. I was quite happy with this distant darshan and came back to Santiniketan satisfied in spirit.”

He was Tan Yun-Shan, a Chinese scholar who had just started teaching at Visvabharati University, founded by Rabindranath Tagore in Santiniketan. He would spend most of the next 50 years in India, setting up the Cheena Bhavana at Visvabharati and the Sino-Indian Cultural Society, shuttling between Delhi and Beijing with messages of goodwill even as the storm clouds gathered.

In 1931, Tan met Gandhi properly for the first time at Bardoli in Gujarat. Three years earlier, Bardoli had been the site of a major satyagraha and Chinese scholars travelling down to meet Gandhi were evidently still of interest to the colonial government. Tan recounts running into a “C.I.D.” officer who followed him to the Surat station and grilled him about the purpose of his visit.

The first visit stretched on for days, with much talk of Indian and Chinese civilisational values. While Tan presented Gandhi with a letter from the Dalai Lama, Gandhi attempted to convert the young Chinese scholar to vegetarianism.

The two men grew close over the next few years, and Gandhi would give Tan the name of “Shanti”. By the Side of Bapu, written by Tan and published in 1982, speaks of their time together. As he made a life in India, Tan came to be described by another name – the “Chinese Mahatma”.

Gandhi with the stretcher bearers during the Boer War. Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

‘Asiatics, as a body’

Chinese interest in Gandhi’s philosophy and methods of protest went back decades before Tan reached India. Historian Ramachandra Guha describes how Chinese activists supported Gandhi’s earliest satyagraha in South Africa, a protest against the Asiatic Registration Act of 1906, which came into force in the Transvaal. This racialised law, dubbed the “Black Act”, required Asians in the British colony to register themselves and produce a thumb-printed identity certificate on demand. It was directed specifically at Indian and Chinese communities in the Transvaal.

The Chinese in Transvaal, Guha notes, were organised under the leadership of Leung Quinn, partner at a mineral-water firm in Johannesburg. When Gandhi declared his opposition to the Black Act at a meeting on September 11, 1906, activists from the community were in attendance. Later, they were in the band of passive resisters who courted arrest with Gandhi. Quinn would join Gandhi in jail in 1907.

When the satyagrahis signed a pact with the Transvaal government in 1908, the three signatories were Gandhi, Quinn and Thambi Naidoo, a Tamilian satyagrahi. After Quinn was deported to Madras for his political activities, he wrote that the Transvaal protests were to defend the “honour of Asia”. The colonists had “thrown down the gauntlet” and Europeans should not “be surprised if Asiatics, as a body, take it up”.

Active collaboration between Gandhi and his Chinese colleagues appears to have stopped after he left South Africa in 1915, but his ideas had spread. “The Gandhian movement was very famous in China,” said Tan Chung, Tan’s son and a historian who taught at Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University for decades. “Sun Yat-Sen, the first President of the Republic of China, was inspired by Gandhi and mentioned Gandhi’s satyagraha movement in his speech on nationalism in 1925.”

While Gandhi and the Congress mobilised Indians for the non-cooperation and civil disobedience movements, China was also shaping its own nationalism. The Qing dynasty had been overthrown in the revolution of 1911 and Sun Yat Sen’s Kuomintang, or the Chinese Nationalist Party, formed the following year. The fledgling Chinese Republic, shored up by the Soviet Union, was turbulent. In the 1920s, it would see militarisation under Sen’s political successor, Chiang Kai Shek, struggles between left-wing and right-wing factions of the Kuomintang, purges, civil war and Japanese aggressions. Tan attended university in Hunan with Mao Tse Tung and other revolutionaries in the early 1920s.

Chinese and Indian nationalisms took divergent paths in this decade. “The Chinese reply to Western aggression was linked to Chinese eagerness to modernise the country, so the anti-imperialist movement copied the French and Russian revolutions, and departed from the principles of satyagraha,” said Tan Chung.

But the idea of pan-Asian solidarities still had takers on both sides. “Tagore saw the similarities of the semi-colonial status of China and the colonial status of India and advocated the solution to guard against it from ever happening again,” Tan Chung explained. “Tan Yun-Shan was influenced by Gandhi and Tagore when he was in China, probably more so by Gandhi.”

‘Sino-Indian Culture’

As a Buddhist scholar, Tan was drawn to India for its importance to the religion – his later years would be spent trying to set up a World Buddhist Academy in Gaya. But his journey to the country was also driven by “Tagore’s vision of Chindia”, as Tan Chung put it. Tan also believed strongly in shared civilisational values, many of which he located in Gandhi’s ideas.

He writes a tract on “Ahimsa in Sino-Indian Culture”, for instance, tracing the roots of the idea in both civilisations. Gandhi translated “ahimsa” into English as “non-violence”; ancient Chinese Buddhist scholars coined the word “Pu-Hai”, which Tan translates as “non-hurting”.

Tan also claims authorship of the term “Sino-Indian Culture”. According to him, it was first used when the Sino-Indian Cultural Society was set up – in India in 1934 and China in 1935. “It has been therefore my firm belief, and also my humble mission, that we Chinese and Indians, the two greatest peoples of the world, should culturally join together and mingle together to create, to establish and promote a common culture, called Sino-Indian Culture, entirely based on Ahimsa,” Tan explains in the tract.


These shared values would be tested, however, by political events. In 1937, Japan invaded China, sacking cities, taking control of ports and railways. Chiang Kai Shek’s army pushed back and the Sino-Japanese War dragged on till the end of the Second World War in 1945. Japan, which fought the war as one of the Axis powers, also eyed British Indian territories. By 1942, it had invaded Burma, bombed Imphal and Calcutta in preparation for a full-scale invasion. At least initially, it was encouraged by a section of the Indian nationalists, led by Subhas Chandra Bose, who wanted Japanese help in overthrowing the British government.

An agitated Tan issued an “Appeal to Conscience”, widely published in Indian newspapers in September 1942. He urged Indians to join the fight against Axis powers, once again invoking civilisational values. This was not a fight between political blocs, he wrote, it was a “war between the Democratic powers and the Aggressive Forces... between freedom and slavery, between justice and injustice, between good and evil, between morality and immorality, between humanitarianism and brutality.” To the “British Authorities”, he urged that they “declare India independent and free immediately”. Apart from principled reasons, it was necessary to undermine the propaganda of “our common enemies”.

The Cheena Bhavana in Santiniketan. Picture credit: Bodhisattwa - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikipedia

Sino-Indian borders

While Bose made overtures to the Japanese, another section of Indian nationalists were closely involved in the Sino-Indian Cultural Society, quartered at the Cheena Bhavana. It would bring Tan in touch with political power in independent India. Future presidents of the republic, Rajendra Prasad, Zakir Husain and S Radhakrishnan were among its ordinary members. Nehru was the society’s honorary president from the 1940s.

Tan is said to have played a part in arranging Nehru’s visit to China in 1938 and then Premier Zhou Enlai’s visit to India in 1957. Cheena Bhavana was name checked in speeches and became a pit stop on official visits. Tan himself visited China on Mao’s invitation, first in 1954 and then 1959. His second visit was strained, with border clashes between India and China breaking out at the same time.

The idealism of the pre-Independence years, of “Hindi-Cheeni bhai bhai” and pan-Asian solidarity was wearing thin. People of Chinese origin, settled in India for generations, were suddenly regarded as “enemy subjects”. About 3,000 of them were rounded up and transported to Deoli prison camp in Rajasthan. Some were detained for months while others spent four-and-a-half years in Deoli. It was a rupture that has never quite healed. “The Deoli detention camps were a stain in the context of Indian history of governance,” said Tan Chung. “Hopefully, such a thing will never happen again. Tan Yun-Shan felt helpless.”

Despite years of trying to bring the two countries closer, even Tan was not exempt from suspicion. “Nehru saved our family from being sent to Deoli,” Tan Chung said.

The “mutual respect” between the two men endured. A month after the war, Nehru was back in Santiniketan to deliver the convocation address. Fresh from defeat, the prime minister started off talking about “Chinese aggression” but softened when he spotted Tan sitting in the audience. “Nehru threw out the official speech blasting China and said that the quarrel was not with the Chinese people but between governments,” recounted Tan Chung. Tan is said to have broken down.

He spent the rest of his life in India but seems to have turned his attention to Buddhist studies rather than fostering Sino-Indian ties. Tan died in Bodh Gaya in 1983, his “plea for Asia” long forgotten. The Cheena Bhavana, with its vast library and its pillared balconies, still stands in Santiniketan but has faded from national significance. High-profile state visits between India and China continue to invoke civilisational ties but exchanges between their people have dwindled.

Nearly 60 years after the border war, Indian and Chinese troops are massed along the frontier in Eastern Ladakh, bracing for a long winter as military and diplomatic talks go nowhere. Tan Chung went back to the pan-Asianism of his father to make a case for peace. “The tragedy of 1962 has a lesson,” he said. “The moment China and India reject the Western concept of “Nationalism” and rediscover their respective ethos of “grand harmony under the sun” and “the world is one family”, the border problem will be solved, the earlier the better; and the two countries can concentrate their energies on production, prosperity and harmony.”