You are here:
Gandhi and the Chinese Youth
Some time in 1925 a young Chinese student came out to India. He had heard of Tagore and Gandhi. He was himself a poet and writer of considerable promise. He joined Tagore's Visva Bharati at Santiniketan and there won instant popularity. Just when things seemed to prosper, however great trouble befell him. He was suspected of being a spy. He was watched. This upset him so much that he decided to quit. But whither could he go in a strange country? He wrote to Gandhi laying bare all his pain and sorrow. Gandhi was then in Calcutta, collecting funds for the Deshabandhu Chitta Ranjan Das Memorial. He had appealed for ten lakhs of rupees and was getting it too. The young Chinese received a prompt reply form Mahadev Desai, Gandhi's Secretary, asking him to come up to Calcutta and meet Gandhi. The youth wasted no time and was soon standing in Gandhi's presence.
Bapu looked him straight in the eye but there was great kindness in his voice as he asked, "The people at Santiniketan are my good friends - they always welcome people of other nations. Why did they suspect you? Are you a spy?"
The young Chinese answered with impressive candour: "They are good people: I like Santiniketan. They must have been misled about me. But I am deeply hurt by their suspicions. I am not a spy. I am only a student anxious to study India."
"I accept your word", said Bapu. "Shall I stand guarantee for you and send you back to Santiniketan. They would respect my pledge for your personal integrity."
He had taken stock of the youth and liked him. The young Chinese was deeply moved, his eyes filled with tears.
"Please let me stay with you," he begged impulsively. 'Let me enter your Ashram so that I can be with you."
"But," said Gandhiji with his never-failing smile, "my Ashram is a harder place than Santiniketan. You would have to do hard physical work in addition to your studies."
'The Chinese are accustomed to hard work, and I am not afraid," was the ready answer.
Gandhi then assented, and as he could not pronounce the youth's Chinese name, offered him the choice of two Indian names for use in the Ashram. The youth chose 'Shanti', and during all the years of his sojourn in India, he was known as Shanti. Shanti joined Sabarmati Ashram whereas, as earlier in Santiniketan, he soon became a favourite with everyone. He had the heart of a child and was full of fun. Little children were particularly fond of him for he could make endless toys for them almost out of nothing!
He was allotted the task of fetching water for the kitchen and washing clothes. Of course he picked up spinning in no time; for the Chinese are deft with their fingers. As the months passed a subtle change came over him. He began to work harder and harder. There was no task he would not do- he even joined the scavenging squad. He also studied Gandhi's writings carefully. Then one day he sat down to write. He wrote page after page and the pile before him mounted steadily. What was he setting on paper, labouring night and day? At long last he had finished; he neatly put the pages in order pinned them up and marched into Gandhi's room.
And this is what in effect, he said to Bapu. "I have set down briefly here the story of my life. Before I came out to India I lived a wild and wicked life in Singapore as hundreds of other young Chinese. I have felt an irresistible impulse to open my mind to you. Do please read this manuscript. Permit me to fast for ten days that I might purify myself. At the end of the fast I want to take certain vows, with you as my witness."
Gandhi was greatly surprised. He knew in a flash that Shanti was passing through a spiritual crisis. "I see your manuscript is a very long one. But I shall find time to read it. But don't start your fast until I have studied what you have written. A fast is a solemn privilege and one has to be worthy of it. Let me first find out what you need and what you seek.
Gandhi found time to read the manuscript, and was moved by the frank confessions of the young Chinese in whom Ashram life had quickened the impulse of introspection, penitence and self-correction. He sent for Shanti, talked to him kindly and with profound understanding and compassion. He permitted the fast, and Shanti for ten days subsisted only on water. It is a terrible ordeal for a Chinese to undertake, for he is by nature a lover of food. But Shanti held on bravely.
Gandhi visited him every day and spent with him fifteen to twenty minutes in talk with him. What exactly passed between them during these daily conversations one does not ,know. But Shanti seemed radiantly happy. Gandhi must, indeed, have impressed upon Shanti the real meaning and value of virtue and the sanctity of vows. Gandhi had always held that no vow should be taken except when the strain is born of spontaneous and overwhelming conviction. Vows taken lightly in a moment of emotion were worse than useless. At the end of the ten days' fast, Shanti did take certain vows but he did so with his eyes open. The vows were written down in duplicate copies and signed by Shanti. Gandhiji signed as witness. One copy Gandhiji kept for himself and the other Shanti took away with him. Shanti always said afterwards, he left like a man who had left a terrible burden behind.
Later Shanti went back to China. He edited a newspaper. As editor he always signed himself 'Shanti'. His ambition was to interpret Gandhi to China.