Documenting China through Early Twentieth-Century Bengali Travellers’ Eyes
During the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth, along with the surge of travels to the West, to Europe and England in particular, we also find Bengali travellers frequenting the eastern nation of China and the Far East. This paper will focus on four early twentieth century travel narratives of Bengalis visiting China for different reasons, namely Ashutosh Ray, Indumadhab Mullick, Benoy Bhusan Sarkar, and Rabindranath Tagore. Taken together as a whole their narratives give us a better understanding of a race and oriental culture which are mind-boggling in their diversity.
Keywords: China, orient, Bengali traveller, early twentieth century
During the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth, along with the surge of travels to the West, to Europe and England in particular, we also find travellers frequenting China. Though not crossing the proverbial ‘kalapani’ or black waters and hence not ostracized from contemporary Bengali society, the narrators of these travelogues to the east create a vast knowledge bank for the people back home. Though subjective on most occasions, the experiences garnered by these travellers create a micro-history which is as significant as grand narratives of cross-cultural encounters. Here it has to be remembered that though several Bengali people travelled to China, not all of them wrote down their experiences in the form of travel narratives. Thus the ratio of documentation versus actual physical journey is quite out of proportion.
This paper will focus on four select travel narratives of Bengalis visiting China in the first two decades of the twentieth century and try to show how through the different experiences narrated in their travelogues we can attempt to garner the different vignettes and try and form a sort of knowledge consortium of information about that nation, especially during a time period when communication was not easy as it is today. The writings of Indian travellers in Republican China have attracted limited attention. Madhabi Thampi in her scholarly work Indians in China, 1800 – 1949 (2005) has demonstrated the presence of a large number of Indian traders in China right from the beginning of the nineteenth century and also during the colonial period. Here brief mention will be made about the travel narratives of four Bengali travellers namely, Ashutosh Ray, Indumadhav Mullick, Benoy Kumar Sarkar and Rabindranath Tagore who visited China in the early twentieth century because of individual aspirations and approached the Chinese society from their unique viewpoints. Each of these travellers had absolutely different agenda to visit China and so their narratives have to be read and analyzed as per the specific context of their travel.
a) Ashutosh Ray
In the year 1900 in the month of August, a resident of Kolkata called Ashutosh Ray set sail for China in a P&O ocean-liner named “Shonda”. After the usual bouts of sea sickness, crossing Singapore, he reached Hong Kong on the fourteenth day. Taking the permission of the army chief, he disembarked there and gives us detailed descriptions about the place and the people. Living in different places in China for quite a few years, he returned to India and narrated his experiences which were published serially in eight instalments in Prabasi magazine in 1910-11 entitled Amar Chin Probas[i] [My Stay in China] and later published in a book form by Jadavpur University Press, Kolkata in 2013. At the very beginning of his narrative he writes that unlike other travellers who travel outside the country to a far off land either for pleasure (‘sokh koriya’) or for acquiring knowledge (‘gnanoparjoner jonno’), his sojourn to a foreign land was for pure need of sustenance (‘khanti peter daye’)(15). Though he does not mention the actual reason anywhere, his travel to different parts of China might have been related to his job. According to Amit Bhattacharya who has written the foreword to this book, Ray was probably part of the 16th Regiment of Bengal (Lancer) which had been sent by the British rulers in India to counter the revolution in China with severe brutality (10). The year 1900 was a year of severe socio-political strife. Along with foreign soldiers, missionary and Manchu forces, it was the period of the Buxar revolution. So it can be assumed that the journey of Ray to China had some connection with it (9). But whatever the reason might be, the narrative gives us plenty of information about China of the times.
Ashutosh Ray tells us how the ancient Chinese rulers believed that China was situated right in the centre of the earth and all other countries surrounded it. So the Chinese were unwilling to accept anything else from other cultures except their ancient beliefs. They hated people of all other nations and considered them as foreigners (26). They even believed that intelligence resided in their stomachs and they were harmless (26). The author gives us the description of the Chinese system of marriage, how women had no position in society at all, how they adopted the Manchu traditions, how most of them were educated and how the entire race possessed extraordinary memory. His narration also includes beggars on the streets, description of the palace, handicrafts, shops, markets, vegetables, and games. There is mention of various diseases and their treatments, and also about opium-smoking centres. He calls China a land of kites, mentions about the delicacy of the bird’s nest soup, the meat of the cat and the rat, and the pleasure with which fried locusts were consumed. Like most travel narratives, Amar Chin Probas is also full of comparisons with the Chinese and his home Indian/Bengali culture. Ray informs his readers how like the Indians, the Chinese people favoured male progeny and killing of the girl child was also quite common (36). He tells us about his visits to other cities like Tianjin, Tatar, Peking, Shanghai etc. His narrative ends without any information about his return to India or any particular date and year. After giving us a detailed description of his experience of bathing in the ocean in some place along the Manchurian border and battling with huge waves almost on the verge of drowning, and how two of his friends who were also bathing with him managed to save his life, he ends his narrative with two simple sentences: “This is my overall experience of living in China. Now I take leave of my readers” (72).
b) Indumadhav Mullick
The juxtaposition between ‘us’ and ‘them’, the binary of the ‘self’ and the ‘other’ recurs in the narratives of other travel writers as well. Indumadhav Mullick’s Chin Bhraman[ii] [Travels in China] published in 1911[iii] and Benoy Kumar Sarkar’s Bartaman Yuge Chin Samrajya [The Chinese Empire in the Present Age] published in 1922, are more well-known travel accounts of Indians who visited China in the early twentieth century. According to Narayan C. Sen, “In addition to describing the social and political situations in China at a crucial period of its history, these two works, written in Bengali, offer valuable insights into Indian perceptions of the Chinese people and society during the colonial phase of India-China interaction” (Sen 465). Indumadhav Mullick (1869-1917) and Benoy Kumar Sarkar (1887-1949) undertook the arduous journey to China for different reasons. While the former intended to visit the country as a tourist, the latter had a keen academic interest in Chinese history and society. Mullick’s visit to China in 1904-05 was short and limited to the southern coastal region: Hong Kong, Macao, Guangdong and Amoy (Xiamen). Sarkar, on the other hand, lived in China for about a year and travelled through Manchuria, Beijing, Nanjing, Shanghai and some other areas in the south. Because of their varying interests, aims and the duration of their travels in China, the topics covered in the two accounts differ significantly.
Mullick’s work is a simple narration of what he witnessed in, and on his way to China. Like most travel narratives, he begins by telling us about the ship and the farewell ceremony but does not mention any specific date:
At six o’clock early in the morning the ship left Calcutta port. Those who had come to bid me farewell, waved their shawls from the shore and left. I had never travelled by sea before – this was the first time. An unprecedented feeling occurred in my mind. It was neither fear, nor sorrow, nor happiness, — but a sort of uncertainty. (“On the Way to Rangoon” 13)
A very substantial part of Mullick’s narrative consists of the description of sea voyage. Sailing from the Calcutta port, the first two halts on the way were Penang and Singapore in the Malay Peninsula. Thereafter the long and rough journey through the China Sea came to an end as the ship reached Canton through Hong Kong and finally to Amoy. Since it was his first sea journey, we get intricate details of the ship and the co-passengers. Simonti Sen (2013) gives us an interesting analysis of Mullick’s travelogue, especially his penchant for providing authenticity:
Although the author’s style of writing is informal and chatty, yet in his emphasis on detailing, in his commitment o ‘realistic vividness’ (Like many of the travel narratives of the time the author also inserted several photographs alongside his own drawings to make his readers ‘see’ for themselves) and in his frequent incursions into the domain of history made Indumadhab’s narrative perfectly fall in line with the genre of travelogue writing of his time, so much so that one of the contemporary newspaper reviews likened his account to Washington Irving’s Sketchbook. (qtd. in Sen 148)
Though Chin Bhraman can be evaluated as the narration of a simple tourist, the little nuggets of history that comes out in the travelogue are also quite evident. For example, as he proceeded to Hong Kong, Mullick overheard some of his co-passengers on the ship discussing the Russo-Japanese War. “People of all nationalities [on the ship], he points out, “supported Japan. Even and old French businessman, I found, was sympathetic toward Japan.” In a note attached to this observation, Mullick writes:
The Russo-Japanese War ended by the time I completed this book. Due to the earnest efforts of the US President Roosevelt, the two countries have signed a [peace] treaty. The notoriety earned by Japan [because of the victory] is known to all. It is not my intention to deal with this topic in the present work. (qtd. in C. Sen 467).
In his travelogue Mullick’s gaze is essentially that of an outsider who is keen to tell his readers about the uniqueness of the country he visited. He tells us what he learnt about Confucianism and Taoism; is upset by the attack of Chinese prostitutes who came to the ship but realizes that they were engaged in this profession because of “the sting of hunger”; describes in detail the practice of opium smoking that he witnessed in a particular house he makes generalized statements like “The common people of China are mostly illiterate…Very few people know English. Those who know little speak in ‘Pijin’ (i.e. Peking) English. Most people do not know how to read or write Chinese. The language is extremely difficult…Though it is spoken differently, the written language is the same throughout China” (qtd. in C. Sen 472). After all such observations, like most tourists, he feels nostalgic when leaving the land and so ends his travelogue by stating that though he does not know whom the romantic poet Shelley had actually addressed in his poem, he bids farewell to China by quoting from there:
And so thy thought when Thou art gone,
Love itself shall slumber on.
c) Benoy Kumar Sarkar
Unlike Indumadhav Mullick, Benoy Kumar Sarkar on the other hand was more than a mere tourist in China. He undertook the arduous journey to China for a different reason and so his work Bartaman Yuge Chin Samrajya [The Chinese Empire in the Present Age](1922) is both a travelogue and a commentary on Sinology. Dedicated to the leading Chinese intellectuals Kang Youwei and Liang Quchao, whom he calls “the first architects of modern China,” he wrote about Chinese history, politics, religion and culture after the completion of his journey. Sarkar reached China in 1915 after visiting Japan and Korea and his travelogue was published in 1922. On the nature of his travel account, Sarkar explains, “In one sense this is just a diary of a traveller, but it also includes material for the study of the science of civilization and human nature.” Indeed, this book offers significant insights into Chinese society and the vibrant intellectual life of Sinologists in Shanghai during the colonial period (C. Sen 473). Apart from the touristy kind of information that Sarkar offers after visiting several important landmark places in China, like the Summer Palace, Ming Tombs and the Great Wall, he also muses:
Was it necessary to build such a huge wall? Couldn’t they have used the money to build and protect the Wall to construct several strong fortresses? Moreover, couldn’t the army be trained and equipped instead? In the long run, this wall was not able to protect the country. …The gigantic wall stands today as a sign of gigantic madness. (Sarkar 48-49)
As Narayan C. Sen tells us further, the most impressive part of Sarkar’s travel account is his ability to incorporate information on contemporary Chinese politics, most of which he seems to have gathered from reading a wide variety of contemporary literature and by befriending some elite members of Chinese society. In the chapter on Beijing, which is subtitled “The Future of China’s Swaraj” he writes, “A serious political trouble is brewing in China …the republican form of government cannot survive”(Sarkar 63), and he goes on to explain the situation in details. Later, in the concluding paragraph of the book he warns that China’s destiny was linked to the war taking place in Europe, which he calls “European Kurukshetra.” In a pessimistic and yet farsighted note he writes:
I do see a resolution of China’s problems any time soon. Perhaps the war drums in Europe will be silent in a couple of years. But the effects of the Kurukshetra will linger on. After all, that is the Kurukshetra of the twentieth century. (Sarkar 435-36)
Though Sarkar spent most of his time living and researching in Shanghai, he also visited a number of towns in central China, including Zhengzhou, Louyang and Hankou. These sections provide a lot of touristy information but the last section of his book is mostly devoted to Sinology, the narration of intellectual life in Shanghai and making a case for Indians to engage in the study of China. Though he writes against acquiring superficial knowledge about China, the judgmental yardstick as prevalent in other travel narratives is also found in Sarkar:
So far no Western pundit has endeavoured to compare China and India. They do not understand what I have to say [about the comparison between India and China]. The Chinese, too, don’t understand as they have never been to India. The Chinese, like we Indians, consider their country unique. (Sarkar 222)
d) Rabindranath Tagore
Early in 1923 Rabindranath Tagore was invited by Liang Qichao, president of the Universities Lecture Association of Peking, to deliver a course of lectures in China. Subsequently he made the visit in 1924 accompanied by Kshitimohan Shastri, Nandalal Bose, L.K. Elmhirst and Dr. Kalidas Nag with the hope of re-establishing the cultural and spiritual links between the two nations. During his fifty-day long trip Tagore visited major Chinese cities and places of attractions enroute from south to north of China. He travelled to Shanghai, Jinan, Tianjin, Hangzhou and finally Beijing. On April 12, 1924 upon setting foot on China’s soil, Tagore made these emotional comments:
I do not know why coming to China seems to me like returning to my native soil. I always feel that India has been one of China’s extremely close relatives, and China and India have been enjoying time-honoured and affectionate brotherhood. (Talks in China 1925)
During his visit to China, Tagore was in Shanghai for six months and made several public lectures. China obviously cast a spell on the Nobel laureate because in his many talks there he waxed eloquent about his admiration for “its world of beauty”, “wisdom” and “touch of the human.” His visit created two-fold reactions among the people of China and he received both friendly and hostile reactions from them. Tagore was already sixty-three years old when he first touched the shores of China and if anything, his seven-week stay in China was a public-relations disaster. It came at a time of massive political upheaval in the country and it was only natural that writers and poets got entangled into it without necessarily being party to it. Nobody in fact warned him of the ground reality – political, social and ideological – there and therefore of the unsuitability of the poet’s discursive orientations in the given contexts. The so-called May Fourth Movement of 1919 extended all the way into the 1920s, born out of the humiliation that followed the signing of the Versailles Treaty at the end of the World War I that allowed Japan to take over Germany’s territorial rights in China, instead of being handed over to the Chinese. A nation’s pride had been hurt leading to mass demonstrations, most often violent, forcing writers and intellectuals to question the very basis of their society, which till then was deeply rooted in Confucianism. Tagore’s pan-Asian view and his dominant theme of “the crescent moon, adolescent heart and the quintessence of Nature” were being scorned as escapist stuff.
In several of his lectures, collected selectively later and published as Talks in China, Tagore highlights the uncritical acceptance of the ‘notion’ of Western Civilization by the Asian countries. Though many of the talks were informal, the poet admits his incapability of judging the Chinese people correctly:
But my visit has been short and unfortunately interrupted with engagements that have prevented me from coming into a close personal touch with the people who in the simplicity of their mind kept alive their country’s tradition.(“Autobiographical” 44)
Though Tagore’s China visit was extremely tempestuous, he met with organized hostility from the members of the Communist Party and was labelled both reactionary and ideologically dangerous, as far as his reaction as a traveller to a new land is concerned, he addressed his listeners to consider him not as a philosopher, but to “keep for me a room in your heart, not a seat on the public platform” (“To My Hosts” 59). In the lecture “To Students,” he stated that he could not bring himself to “believe that any nation in this world can be great and yet be materialistic.” He reiterated that he has found in his travels “that in a campaign against this organised cultivation of egoism, mere preaching is of no use.” (Ibid 67) He further stated that when he was first invited to come to China he did not know whether all of the students “wanted a man from India” (73). He knew his impressions of the country might be misleading:
We have come to you in only a few days time. Our visit becomes a picnic. We attend parties, amuse one another, hold teas, lectures, and keep engagements. Then we go back. It is all too easy. (“Leave Taking” 107-8)
In the same lecture he also tells his audience how on the first day he also had his expectations. He had in his mind his own vision of China, formed when he was young, China as he had imagined it to be when he was reading his Arabian Nights, the romantic China, as well as the China of which he had caught glimpses when he was in Japan (116). After telling the students that even though they might call him “uneducated, uncultured, just a foolish poet,” he would still retain the right to laugh at their “pedantic scholarship”(“To Students” 79). Soon after that he gives a detailed description only too appropriate for a traveller:
We travelled up from Shanghai to this town along your great river, Yang Tse. All through the night I often came out from my bed to watch the beautiful scene on the banks, the sleeping cottages with their solitary lamps, the silence spreading over the hills, dim with mist. When morning broke what was my delight to find fleets of boats coming down the river, — their sails stretching high into the air, a picture of life’s activity with its perfect grace of freedom. It moved my heart deeply. I felt that my own sail had caught the wind, and was carrying me from my captivity, from the sleeping past, bringing me out into the great world of man. (ibid 81)
Whatever unpleasant experiences he might have had during his visit to China, Tagore’s love for the country remained with him permanently. On the 21 February, 1941, a few months before his death, he wrote a poem titled Janmodiney [On My Birthday]:
Once I went to the land of China,
Those whom I had not met
Put the mark of friendship on my forehead
Calling me their own.
To conclude it needs to be mentioned that from the few selected travelogues from Bengal to China during the first two decades of the twentieth century that have been discussed here, it becomes clear that though travel narratives have not been taken as a serious genre of study for quite a long time, as nuggets of subaltern history their importance needs to be acknowledged by us now. Instead of sole reliance on grand narratives to disseminate knowledge about nation states we can also string together the little bits and pieces of information and equally enhance our knowledge of places which were out of reach of the ordinary citizens of our country, especially during colonial times.
Note: Unless otherwise mentioned, all translations from the original Bangla texts are mine.
Bhattacharya, Amit. ‘Foreword Amar Chin Prabas’ by Ashutosh Ray. Jadavpur University Press, 2013, pp. 5-11.
Das, Sisir Kumar. ‘The Controversial Guest: Tagore in China.’ In Madhavi Thampi (ed). India and China in the Colonial World. Social Science Press, 2005, pp. 85-125.
Mullick, Indumadhav. Chin Bhraman. In Simonti Sen (ed.), Indumadhaber Chin Bhraman, Sarojnalinir Japane Banganari. Chhatim Books, 2010.
Ray, Ashutosh. Amar Chin Prabas. In Prabasi (1910-11). Rpt. Jadavpur University Press. 2013.
Sarkar, Benoy K. Bartaman Juge Chin Samrajya. Siddheshwar Press, 1922.
Sen, Narayan C. ‘China as Viewed by Two Early Bengali Travellers: The Travel Accounts of Indumadhav Mullick and Benoy Kumar Sarkar.’ China Report 43.4, 2007, pp. 465-84.
Sen, Simonti. ‘Exploring the East: Indumadhab Mallik’s Travel to China.’ In Somdatta Mandal(ed), Journeys: Indian Travel Writing. Creative Books, 2013, pp. 143-62.
Tagore, Rabindranath. Talks in China: Reports of Lectures Delivered in China, in April and May, 1924. Visva-Bharati Bookshop, 1925.
Thampi, Madhabi. Indians in China, 1800 – 1949. Manohar, 2005.
—. (ed.) India and China in the Colonial World. Social Science Press, 2005.
[i] The eight instalments of this travelogue appeared in Prabasi in the following issues: Pous,1317 (B.E), Magh 1317 (B.E.), Bhadra 1318 (B.E.), Ashwin 1318 (B.E.), Kartik 1318 (B.E.) Agrahayan 1318 (B.E.), Pous 1318 (B.E.) and Magh 1318 (B.E.)
[ii] Detailed discussions about this narrative are found in two scholarly articles penned by Narayan C. Sen (2007) and Simonti Sen (2013). Interestingly both the scholars spell the author’s Bengali name differently. Narayan C. Sen writes ‘Indumadhav Mullick’ but Simonti Sen calls him ‘Indumadhab Mallik.’
[iii] The original date of publication of the first edition of the book published by S.C. Majumdar in Kolkata was 1906. The second revised edition came out in 1911 along with a foreword by Saratchandra Dasgupta and also with 24 pages of press reviews appended at the end. Simonti Sen has edited this second edition.
Date: December 24, 2021