In 1927, the Buddhist scholar, Tan Yunshan, travelled to Santiniketan on the invitation of Rabindranath Tagore to teach Chinese at Visva Bharati University. Subsequent years would see him develop close ties with the Guomindang and Congress leaders, secure Chinese state funding for the first sinological institute in India and mediate between the nationalist movements during the Second World War. That a relatively marginal academic, who participated in neither the May Fourth Movement nor any major political party, and who had little prior experience of India, could have played such an important role in twentieth century Sino-Indian relations raises questions over the conditions that made possible Tan's illustrious career. This article argues that Tan's success as an institution builder and diplomatic intermediary was attributable to his ideological affinity with the increasing disillusionment with capitalist modernity in both China and India, the shifting dynamics of the Pan-Asianist movement and the conservative turn of China's nationalist movement after its split with the communists in 1927. While Nationalist China and the Congress both tapped into the civilizational discourse that was supposed to bind the two societies together, the idealism Tan embodied was unable to withstand the conflict of priorities between nationstates in the emerging Cold War order.