In April 1924 Rabindranath Tagore arrived in Shanghai for a lecture tour of China. Soon after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, Tagore had become an international literary celebrity, lecturing to packed audiences from Japan to Argentina. His message—that modern civilization, built upon the cult of money and power, was inherently destructive, and needed to be tempered by the spiritual wisdom of the East—had a receptive audience among many people in the West who had been forced by World War I to question their faith in science and progress. But when, traveling in the East, he exhorted Asians not to abandon their traditional culture, he was often heckled and booed.
In Japan in 1916 Tagore’s warning against the “special modern enthusiasm for Western progress and force” was mostly contemptuously dismissed. However, it was in China that Tagore’s praise for Asia’s spiritual traditions faced the fiercest opposition. The poet Qu Qiubai, who had been a student of Buddhism before embracing communism, summed up the general tone of Tagore’s reception in China when he wrote, “Thank you, Mr. Tagore, but we have already had too many Confuciuses and Menciuses in China.” Repeatedly assaulted with hostile questions, Tagore was forced to cut his tour short.
In the years after World War I, China was one of the largest and one of the weakest countries in the world. In previous decades, Western powers, and a rising Japan, had repeatedly forced unequal treaties and harsh indemnities upon the country. However, like Qu Qiubai, many leading intellectuals such as Chen Duxiu, editor of the radical journal New Youth and a founder of the Communist Party of China, called for a total rejection of Chinese tradition. They wished China to become a strong and assertive nation using Western methods, and they admired such visitors as Bertrand Russell and John Dewey, whose belief in science and democracy seemed to lead the way to China’s redemption.
This intellectual consensus had formed early in China’s modern history. Growing up against a background of national humiliation and shame, the first generation of reform-minded intellectuals, such as Kang Youwei (1858–1927) and Liang Qichao (1873–1929), agreed that China needed to modernize, with or without its Manchu imperial rulers. After the disastrous Boxer Rebellion between 1898 and 1900, when Western powers and Japan crushed a popular uprising against foreign interference in Chinese affairs, even the tottering Manchus attempted Western-style reform. They abolished the traditional examinations for the civil service, established modern schools, and sent Chinese students abroad. Thousands of young Chinese were first introduced to modern sciences, engineering, medicine, law, economics, education, and military skills, and voluntary organizations dedicated to modernizing China sprang up in both China and the Chinese diaspora.
The collapse of Manchu rule in 1911, and the inauguration of the Chinese Republic, may have appeared to be speeding up China’s political and economic transformation. But warlords supplanted the Manchu rulers, and plunged much of the country into …