Revisiting Tagore’s Visit to China: Nation, Tradition, and Modernity in China and India in the Early Twentieth Century


This paper aims to discuss the historical background of Rabindranath Tagore’s visit to China in 1924, which proved to be a failure because of harsh criticism from the Chinese side. The paper explores both the Chinese and the Indian sides of the story, examining key intellectual and cultural movements in the two countries in their early encounters with the West. The paper further argues that the difference in attitudes toward tradition demonstrated by the two countries during this period was an important difference worthy of further attention in our reflection upon the historical writing of the non-western world in general. This deep-rooted difference about tradition was a key reason of Tagore’s failed trip in China.

What is being “modern” and what is modern about “modern China”? These are important questions in the study of Chinese history. In the popular understanding of Chinese history, it is widely acknowledged that the “modernity” of “modern China” comes from a rejection of tradition. This dichotomy of “tradition vs. modernity” was also deeply inscribed in the study of Chinese history in the West by pioneers such as John King Fairbank. Despite much criticism, this conceptual framework still dominates much of our understanding of Chinese history, both academic and popular.

Students of Chinese history rarely look beyond the Himalayas at its crowded neighbor. In this essay, I would like to draw our attention to such a comparative project between Chinese and Indian history. The value of this comparison lies in the historical difference in the attitude and treatment of “tradition” in these two countries. India provides us with a path of history that is beyond our conceptual framework of modernity as rejection of tradition and therefore merits our own reflection. This crucial difference was demonstrated most dramatically when India meets China, specifically in the case when the Nobel Prize laureate Rabindranath Tagore visited China in the spring of 1924.

How to Cite

Ren, C., 2011. Revisiting Tagore’s Visit to China: Nation, Tradition, and Modernity in China and India in the Early Twentieth Century. ASIANetwork Exchange: A Journal for Asian Studies in the Liberal Arts, 18(2), pp.112–133. DOI:


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Chao Ren (Illinois Wesleyan University)



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