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Gu Temple

The Abbot

[和尚灯]

In the spring of 2003, while climbing Fengqi Mountain [凤栖山], about sixty kilometers west of Chengdu, my friends and I stumbled upon an ancient Buddhist temple hidden in a thicket of trees. Guangyan Temple [光严禅院], also known as the Gu Temple [古寺], harkens back to the Sui dynasty (581–618 AD). Built on the slopes of a mountain, the temple is divided into two parts: an upper and a lower section. In the upper section, I encountered a scene of neglect: overgrown plots of grass, and crumbling pagodas, which housed the bones of deceased Buddhists. Two halls of worship were in ruins. In contrast, the lower section was abuzz with the noise of activity generated by a long stream of worshippers and tourists. The chanting and the strong smell of incense wafting from the newly renovated halls reminded me of its recent prosperity.

The then 103-year-old Master Deng Kuan [灯宽法师] was the abbot in the Gu Temple. He lived in a spartan room at the back of the lower courtyard. Unlike those abbots in the movies, Master Deng Kuan didn’t look distinguished at all: he was short, with small eyes, and always wore a yellowish woolen hat. He had to sit by an electric heater all the time because he was extremely sensitive to cold. The master was a heavy smoker and puffed on his tobacco pipe every few minutes. At the urging of his nephew, he also took a couple of sips of milk through a straw. He was extremely hard of hearing. Each time I asked a question, I had to shout in his ear. Eventually, after much shouting, coupled with occasional interpretations by his nephew, I managed to piece together this interview.

In September of 2005, one year after this interview was completed, I read in a local newspaper that Master Deng Kuan had passed away. [Note: Liao visited the temple on a number of occasions.]

* * *

Master Deng Kuan

LIAO YIWU: Master, you look really good, very healthy.

MASTER DENG KUAN (DK): I was just hospitalized for two months in Chengdu. I’m falling apart. My body is stiff. Amitabha, Merciful Buddha. Now that I can’t move around that much, I have a lot of time for meditating and thinking. I’ve been thinking a lot about the things that have happened to me in this life. Unfortunately, I’m only lucid half of the time. Some days, I’m so out of it that I have no idea where I am, what day it is, and who is standing beside me.

Have you read anything about our temple? In the Ming dynasty [1368–1644], Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang gifted this temple with an official name, “Guangyan Buddhist Temple.” Later on, Master Wu Kong [悟空祖师], Emperor Zhu’s uncle, became enlightened at this temple. If we count him as our first abbot, I’m now the eighth abbot in the past six hundred years.

I was born in 1900 when China was still under the Qing emperor Guangxu. My secular name was Chen Jingrong. Since my family was poor, my parents sent me to this temple at the age of seven so I could get fed. So that was how I started out as a monk. My teacher, Master Zu Run, was an eminent monk in the region. He was well-known for his knowledge and his righteousness. Apart from teaching me the Buddhist scriptures, he also invited scholars to the temple to teach all the young novices how to read and write. Thanks to him, I grasped the basic literacy skills in a few years.

In 1928, I walked over ninety kilometers to Chengdu to get ordained in a big temple there. Following my ordination, I was enrolled at a Buddhist school run by Master Chan An. After I graduated in 1930, I studied at two more temples, and continued to receive guidance from various eminent monks. In 1944, after a decade and a half of traveling and studying, I returned to the Gu Temple. Initially, I worked as an official greeter, coordinating daily worshipping activities. In 1947, I was promoted to be the abbot. I stayed in that position until the Communist takeover in 1949.

LIAO: Your life has spanned the entire twentieth century. If we use 1949 as a dividing line, your life is pretty much divided into two equal phases. But you seem to play down the first half of your life with only a couple of sentences.

DK: When you turn one hundred, and look back on the early part of your life, a couple of sentences are sufficient. Otherwise, I can go on for three days and three nights. I have personally benefited from the teachings of over thirty grand masters of Buddhism. You could write a whole book about every single one of them.

LIAO: Sorry for the interruption. Please go on with your story.

DK: This temple was first built during the Sui dynasty. Since then, over thirty convents and temples have been built along the Qingcheng mountain range, with Gu Temple as the main center of worship. At one time, this temple housed over a thousand monks. Over the centuries, as old dynasties collapsed and new ones came into being, the temple remained relatively intact. This is because changes of dynasty or government were considered secular affairs. Monks like me didn’t get involved. But the Communist revolution in 1949 was a turning point for me and the temple.

After 1949, the new government launched the Land Reform movement. Many former landowners in the region were targeted. Several were executed, their property seized and redistributed. One day, a government work team raided the temple. The team consisted of government officials and peasant activists. They set up a tribunal inside the temple to dispense justice. They called me a “rich temple owner” and declared that I was under arrest. My captors dragged me onto the stage, stripped me of my kasaya, and forced me to stand in front of a large crowd of villagers, with my arms pulled up behind my back in the jet-plane position. One by one, peasant activists stood up to share with the crowd about my “crimes.” I was accused of accumulating wealth without engaging in physical labor, and spreading feudalistic and religious ideas that poisoned people’s minds. Some even suggested investigating my past activities under the Nationalist government because I was collaborating with the rich to exploit the poor. At the end of each speech, the head of the work team would stand up and shout slogans like “Down with the evil landlord!” and “Religion is spiritual opium!” Then the whole crowd followed his lead with slogan shouting. Emotion soon ran very high: people spat at me, punched and shoved me. About thirty to forty monks were hunched over side by side with me on the stage. They were categorized as “bald lackeys of the rich landowner.” The landowner was, of course, me.

LIAO: This is the first time I heard about the term “rich monk.”

DK: It came as a shock to me as well and it was hard to cope with those unfair charges. All monks abide by the vow of poverty. In the pre-Communist days, many of us came from very poor families. Once we accepted the teachings of Buddha, we vowed to stay away from all human desires. In this vast province of Sichuan, there were over a hundred temples. No matter which temple you go to, you will find the same rule: monks pass on the Buddhist treasures from one generation to the next. Since ancient times, no abbot, monk, or nun has ever claimed the properties of the temple as his or her own. Who would have thought that overnight all of us would be classified as rich landowners! None of us had ever lived the life of a rich landowner, but we certainly suffered the retribution accorded one.

LIAO: What happened after those “struggle sessions”?

DK: Soon the struggle sessions turned into public beatings. Getting spat on, slapped in the face, and kicked in the back were common occurrences. Many times the local militia would show up at the temple at random and drag me to a room for interrogation. During one interrogation in the wintertime, a village militia chief and his men stripped me of my shirts and pants, and then hung me from the ceiling. It was so painful that I passed out in about ten minutes or so. They poured cold water onto my body. When I came to, my right arm was dislocated. Even today I still experience excruciating pain when I try to raise this arm. Sometimes I was beaten up for some ridiculous reasons. One time, an official called me to his office and ordered me to turn in one hundred golden bowls that I had allegedly hidden inside the temple. The official said a junior monk had revealed the secret to the work team. I had no idea what he was talking about. I didn’t even own a regular porcelain bowl, not to mention a bowl made of gold. When I told them that I didn’t know, they accused me of lying and hung me from a tree. Then, several villagers went to search the monks’ living quarters. Believe it or not, they did find one hundred bowls in the corner of the kitchen. To their disappointment, however, they were bowls made of pottery, not gold. Finally, I understood what the whole fuss was about. Since each bowl could hold only one jin [500 grams] of rice, we called it the “jin bowl”—which sounds the same as “gold bowls” in Chinese. The situation was truly hopeless.

By the way, during the Land Reform movement, the local government seized all the Buddhist treasures and confiscated hundreds of hectares of pristine forest and farmland from the temple. We were not alone. Temples around the whole country suffered a similar fate.

LIAO: I have checked some historical records and found that many prominent monks suffered persecution during that time. For example, Master Kuan Lin from Chengdu’s Wenshu Temple was brutally tortured by local peasants. They broke his legs and arms, and pulled his teeth out. He collapsed and passed out on the floor. His torturers thought they had killed him. Out of fear, they sent him to the hospital, and luckily the doctors were able to save his life. Master Qing Ding at Zhaojue Temple was sentenced to lifelong imprisonment in 1955. That was because he had been a cadet in the Huangpu Military Academy under the Nationalist government before he became a monk. He ended up spending twenty years behind bars. Master Wei Xian, the former abbot at the Ciyun Temple near Chongqing, was arrested in 1954 for his efforts to establish a Buddhist school. He was jailed for twenty-seven years. The list goes on.

DK: The Land Reform movement was just the beginning of a series of disasters that befell the temple. In 1958, Chairman Mao launched the Great Leap Forward campaign, calling people in China to find ways to mass-produce iron and steel so China could catch up with industrialized nations like the U.S. It was also the beginning of the collectivization campaign. No household was allowed to keep any private property or to cook at home. People were ordered to eat at communal kitchens and dining halls.

I put myself at the mercy of heaven and decided to go with the flow. I registered with the local village leader, who gave me permission to lead ten monks to look for iron-containing rocks in the mountain, and to participate in the production of steel. Peasants built a makeshift furnace inside the temple. We were a bunch of laymen and had no idea what an iron-containing ore looked like or how to produce steel from those rocks. The government sent a young scientist, who gave us a quick thirty-minute crash course. Then, confident in their newly acquired knowledge, people rolled up their sleeves and worked in groups to scout the mountain for iron-containing rocks. Many villagers ended up by gathering lots of dark-colored rocks and stones, and dumped them into the furnace.

Meanwhile, the local government also called on people to donate every piece of metal they had in their homes: farm tools, cooking utensils, basins, locks, metal hoops, even women’s hair clips, and to melt them down to produce steel and iron. There was a popular slogan: To turn in one piece of metal is to wipe out a foreign imperialist. We monks didn’t even have a home, but we didn’t want to lag behind the others. We sniffed around the temple like dogs. We found incense holders, metal collection boxes, bells, and locks. We pried and hammered off the metal edges of the wooden incense tables, and even smashed and knocked down the small bronze statues on the four corners of the temple roof.

Near the entrance of the temple, there used to be a pair of royal cast-iron cauldrons given by Emperor Yongle in the Ming dynasty. None of it survived the Great Leap Forward. Since the royal cauldrons were huge, made with thick cast iron, it took over twenty strong and tough men to smash them with large sledgehammers. The loud echoes of the hammering sound could be heard miles away. Besides, melting those thick, ancient cast-iron pots was no easy job. People chopped down hundreds of big trees to fuel the furnace.

It wasn’t long before the mountain was stripped bare. When I first entered the monastery here, there were hundreds of hectares of trees, many of which were rare species, such as ginkgo, nanmu, and ancient cypress. But during those crazy years, they were all cut down. Have you seen that big thousand-year-old tree outside the temple? The tree was left untouched because it grew on a cliff and people couldn’t reach it. Nowadays, visitors have been telling me how precious and beautiful that tree is. Little do they know that there used to be seven big trees around here, each was thick enough for three people to circle around. That one left was the ugliest and quite useless. The other six were cut to feed the furnace.

It’s really hard to imagine what happened then. People were exhilarated by Chairman Mao’s lofty vision of building a strong socialist country. I was assigned the task of working the bellows to keep the fire in the furnace going. I used to practice kung fu at the crack of dawn every day to stay fit and healthy. That rigorous training helped build up my stamina. While most people were on the verge of exhaustion and some had even collapsed, I was still full of energy, working the bellows nonstop for hours in a half-squatting position beside the furnace.

LIAO: You were almost sixty years old around that time, weren’t you?

DK: Yes, I was. But even the twenty-year-olds were no match for me. Villagers secretly gave me a nickname, “The Steely Mountain Soldier.” Anyway, after days and nights of hard work, we finally saw some results—a bunch of hard irregular-shaped pig iron. Some looked like beehives, with small pieces of rocks sticking over their surfaces. We waited until those lumps became cold and solid. Then we tested their quality by hitting them with a hammer. Guess what, they immediately crumbled into small dark pieces. So did our hope.

LIAO: Since you worked so hard during the Great Leap Forward, did the villagers think that you had redeemed your past wrongdoings?

DK: Not exactly. After the steel production campaign turned into a total failure, people resumed their daily routine. At night, after eating at public kitchens, they had nothing else to do. Once again, public rallies against the bad elements were resumed as a form of entertainment. We were at the whim of the village leaders. Whenever or wherever they wanted to hold a struggle session, all of the class enemies would be at their disposal. From 1952 to 1961, I attended over three hundred struggle sessions.

In those difficult years, I constantly thought about a legendary tale relating to the Gu Temple. In 1398, when Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of the Ming dynasty, died, his grandson Jianwen was crowned emperor. Jianwen’s uncle, the prince of Yan, possessed a strong military base in the north and formed a serious threat to Emperor Jianwen’s power. They engaged in a four-year armed conflict that eventually ended the reign of Jianwen. The prince of Yan usurped the throne. He called his era “Yongle” or “Perpetually Jubilant.” Emperor Yongle spent several years purging China of Jianwen’s supporters in a brutal manner. His nephew, the deposed ruler, escaped and then disappeared. Several years later, there was a rumor circulating that Jianwen had turned into a monk and was hiding inside the Gu Temple. One day, a spy dispatched by Emperor Yongle spotted the deposed emperor and relayed the news to the palace. The emperor immediately sent an assassin over. Right before the assassin arrived, Jianwen caught wind of it and disappeared. His would-be assassin found a poem written on the wall of a worship hall:

“Traversing the southwest in exile for forty long years,

gray has tainted my once dark mane.

Heaven and earth I once reigned, but now nothing remains.

Not even a hut to rest my soul.

Rivers and streams pass by silently; where do they flow?

Grass and willows turn green year after year;

this old countryman is choked with tears.”

The assassin jotted down the poem and presented it to Emperor Yongle. He read it aloud; tears streamed down his face. He waved the long sleeve of his robe and sighed: “Let my nephew go.”

LIAO: What a story. How did that relate to your predicament then?

DK: Emperor Yongle ruled China with brutality. His police and spies were planted all over the kingdom. Even so, Jianwen, his former nemesis, could find shelter inside the Gu Temple. But in Communist China, a harmless monk had nowhere to escape to.

LIAO: Chairman Mao certainly tried to wipe out the spirit of Buddha, and every other form of religion.

DK: No human being possesses the power to destroy Buddha in people’s hearts. This is because Buddha is as essential to us as the air we breathe and the water we drink. That’s where all kindness, forbearance, compassion, and wisdom originate. I would never have survived that difficult period had it not been for my belief in Buddha.

Let me tell you a story. A poor old lady named Wang lived near the temple. She secretly helped me for many years. Since I was a counterrevolutionary, she couldn’t talk with me when there were people around. While I was working in the field, she would walk past me, and stop briefly, pretending to tie her shoelaces. Then, she would bang her sickle on the ground a couple of times to get my attention. After she left, I would dash over to the place where she banged her sickle, and pick up the corn bread she had left there for me. It was in January of 1960, the onset of a nationwide famine. Many folks in the village had already died of starvation. That lady squeezed food from her tiny ration and saved it for me. She was the reincarnation of the Goddess of Mercy. Even now, I can still remember her courage and generosity and pray for her soul.

By 1961, half of the people labeled as members of the bad elements had starved to death. To reduce the number of people on the food ration roll, the local government simply deported me back to my birthplace in Chongqing County. I moved in with a distant nephew and lived the life of a peasant. In 1966, when the Cultural Revolution began, the Red Guards took the place of the village militiamen and became my new tormentors. I worked in the rice paddies during daytime and was forced to attend public denunciation meetings at night.

LIAO: So how did you manage to survive the various political campaigns?

DK: Buddha says: “If I don’t go to hell, who will?” I had to suffer to redeem the sins of my previous life. Otherwise, the suffering could befall someone else. That was how I motivated myself to live. Eventually, I simply resigned myself to adversity.

In those years, the worst part was that all Buddhist teachings were banned. We were not allowed to pray. Sometimes I would close my eyes and silently chant some scriptures. But then some villagers found out and reported it to village officials. I ended up getting more beatings for refusing to mend my feudalistic, superstitious ways.

LIAO: As an eminent monk, it must be very hard to live without praying or reading the scriptures.

DK: It was difficult. Deep in my heart, I never gave up my belief in the benevolence of Buddha.

For a while, I thought that I would be destined to farm and lead the life of a secret monk for the rest of my life. However, after over seventeen years, the tide started to turn. One day in 1978, a friend from out of town stopped by and told me that new leaders in Beijing had relaxed the government’s religious policy. People were allowed to openly practice Buddhism.

Initially, I didn’t quite believe his words and wanted to find out myself. But I didn’t dare to tell anyone because the local government was still clinging to the old Communist doctrine, even though Chairman Mao had died two years before. If I got caught, I was sure to get myself and my nephew into trouble again. So, I waited for a couple more days. One night, after the whole village was asleep, I quietly packed my bags and left. I ran and walked for about sixty kilometers in the darkness. By noon the next day, I arrived in Chengdu, and went directly to Wenshu Temple. There, I reunited with about thirty monks who had just returned. It was quite an emotional reunion for us.

I stayed at Wenshu Temple for over three years, working as a greeter and presiding over Buddhist ceremonies. Since I was pretty good at performing the “releasing the soul from purgatory” ritual, I gradually established quite a reputation in the region. In 1984, I think it was on July 15 on the lunar calendar, I was welcomed back to the Gu Temple to continue my service to Buddha. Over ten thousand residents showed up and filled every corner of the temple. People lit firecrackers nonstop, and the smoke shrouded the temple like a thick fog, which lingered around for quite a while before drifting away. There were gongs booming and bells pealing. It was quite a festive spectacle.

LIAO: You were eighty-four years old that year. When you smelled the smoke of fireworks and saw the crowd, how did you feel?

DK: My feelings were of joy and sadness mixed. From 1949 to 1978, China experienced the longest period of retribution for sins in history. For twenty-nine years, there were no real monks in Chinese temples.

LIAO: But in those crazy years, the government still kept the Buddhism Association.

DK: The Buddhism Association was simply an empty shell. All the monks were defrocked and put under the supervision of the village party chief. In many small temples around here, lay peasants kicked the monks out and converted the temples into residential quarters.

For myself, I felt lucky that I was still alive. I didn’t have time to dwell on the past. I was already old and ailing like a candle’s flame fluttering in the wind. The temple was in disarray with dilapidated buildings and broken walls. Weeds were growing everywhere. I couldn’t find a single room without a leaking roof. Wherever I looked, I saw the tragic results of manmade damage and years of neglect.

About thirty monks and lay Buddhists joined me at the temple. We didn’t even have enough beds. Many had to sleep on the floor. Occasionally, snakes and rats would sneak under our quilts. The young monks were very scared. I would often tell them: The rats are cold too. Let them in so they can get some warmth and good sleep. Even now, rats constantly get into my quilt, and a couple of them will snuggle under my chin. They are like my kids. One time, a naughty rat dragged my rosary beads away. So I scared it with the words: “You little rascal, what do you need that rosary for? You can’t eat it. Bring it back. If you don’t, I’m going to kill you with rat poison.” It must have heard me. Not long after, the rosary beads showed up beside my bed.

LIAO: You have done a great job restoring the Gu Temple.

DK: You are too young to see what the temple was like before. It’s far from being restored. Have you ever visited the upper part of the temple?

LIAO: Yes, I have.

Relic Stupas

DK: The Receiving Hall is being reconstructed on its ruins. If you pass the crumbling Hall of Burning Candles, you will see the forest of pagodas, where generations of Buddhist monks were buried. The tall pagoda in the middle held the body of our grand master Wu Kong, the first abbot of this temple. Grand Master Wu Kong had seen through the secular world at an early age and had always wanted to be a monk. When the prince of Yan deposed Emperor Jianwen, the grand master was traveling in India and Tibet to study Buddhism. On his way back, he stopped at this temple and experienced enlightenment. He shaved his head and was ordained here. Grand Master Wu Kong read extensively and became a well-known Buddhist scholar and practitioner. He reached nirvana, and passed away while in meditation, with his body in a lotus position. His disciples consecrated the Wu Kong Pagoda to hold his body. After over 550 years, the body miraculously remained intact, with no signs of decay. It became the most precious Buddhist treasure inside the Gu Temple.

Wu Kong Stupa

LIAO: I stood in front of the Wu Kong Pagoda and noticed that the shrine lies empty now. The characters engraved on both sides of the shrine are hardly recognizable.

DK: The characters were supposed to express the grand master’s ecstatic feelings of being enlightened and coming to the realization that “all worldly things are empty and transient, like the floating clouds.” During the Land Reform movement, a leader of the local militia led a group of armed peasants into the temple in the name of “eliminating superstition.” They started in the upper section. When the militia leader stopped in front of the Wu Kong Pagoda, he seemed to have been taken over by demonic forces. He raised his rifle with its bayonet, screaming, “Kill that Buddha!” He stabbed into the preserved body of the grand master twenty or thirty times. Soon, the rest of the mob joined him. Pieces of the grand master’s body were strewn on the ground. Then he ordered his fellow militiamen to round up all of the monks and parade us on the street for several hours. After we returned to the temple, we found out that the flesh on his body had already dissolved in the soil, leaving only his bones. When the bell struck midnight, I held back my tears, went secretly up to the forest of pagodas. It was painful to see his bones scattered on the ground. I quietly gathered every single piece and carefully put them in a bamboo basket. I found a place on the ceiling beam of the Guanyin Hall. With a makeshift pulley, I managed to send the basket up and put it on the beam. I thought it was going to be safe there, but I was wrong.

During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards from the nearby schools launched an assault on what they called the Four Old Elements: old customs, old thinking, old habits, and old culture. They ransacked the temples, burning and destroying anything that had survived the previous political campaigns, including the worshipping halls.

Let me give you some background. In the Ming dynasty, Emperor Yongle had commissioned the construction of five halls of worship with glazed tile roofs. Despite their normal wear and tear, those buildings remained preserved and survived the craziness of the 1950s. One day in 1966 I snuck away from my hometown and climbed up the mountain to take a look at the temple. Before I approached the main entrance, I heard the singing of revolutionary songs. There seemed to be a lot of people in there. I walked closer and hid behind a tree. There were red flags everywhere, with the characters “Revolutionary Fighters” emblazoned on them. A large group of young people were on the roof of the Daxiong Hall—singing while pulling the glazed tiles out and then kicking them off the roof. I just stood there in a daze. After the roof had been stripped, the Red Guards began to punch holes in it. Inside the Daxiong Hall, there were eight floor-to-ceiling stone columns decorated with engravings of poems and paintings by well-known artists and calligraphers. The Red Guards tied thick ropes around the columns and pulled the ropes in unison until the columns collapsed. It was too traumatic for me. I just left.

Master Wu Kong Picture

I was told later on that the Red Guards toppled the other four halls with similar barbarous methods. When those buildings collapsed, people could feel the vibrations from far away, as if an earthquake had hit the region. Like the ancient saying goes: “No eggs can remain intact when the nest is destroyed.” As I mentioned earlier, I put the bones of Grand Master Wu Kong in a basket and hid it on the ceiling beam of the Guanyin Hall. When the hall was demolished, the basket mysteriously disappeared. Nobody knows what happened to the treasure.

Thanks to those young zealots, the whole upper section is now in total ruins. There is no way to rebuild those halls. In addition to demolishing the worshipping halls, the Red Guards also burned hundreds of royal edicts issued by emperors from various dynasties. They destroyed paintings by famous artists, as well as rare editions of books and scriptures, and smashed hundreds of Buddhist statues.

LIAO: In other words, most of the buildings we see now have been reconstructed in recent years?

DK: Since 1984, many pious Buddhist followers have begun to donate money and manpower. Little by little, we are able to build new worship halls and sculpt new Buddhist statues. It is starting to look like a temple now. Let me tell you: It will take at least 20 million yuan [US$2.4 million] just to restore half of the temple to its original scale. You know the saying: The fire burns high when everyone adds wood to it. We have set up a stone tablet, engraving the names of those who have contributed over 100 yuan [$12]. There are several thousand names on the tablet. A private entrepreneur has recently donated 30,000 yuan [US$3,500] to dedicate a jade Buddha statue in the newly built Receiving Hall. We have other revenues from the sale of incense and candles, as well as from our teahouse.

LIAO: Do monks have to pay taxes?

DK: We wouldn’t mind paying regular government taxes. But with the decline of moral values, corrupt officials, both big and small, are trying to milk what they think is a fat cow. Administratively, our temple is under the supervision of the Bureau of Religious Affairs, which is a subsidiary of the Department of United Front. Officials there are always looking out for ways to fatten their pockets. If we don’t pay money as a tribute to those “servants of the people,” they will threaten either to expel monks from the temple or to sell part of our temple to a private developer. As you know, many small temples in the area that resisted have been sold to private investors.

LIAO: You are a well-known religious figure in the community. How could they dare to do those things to you?

DK: Those Communist officials dare to do anything. Do you want to hear this? The car driven by the director of the United Front Department was paid for by the monks. He ordered each temple to contribute at least 5,000 yuan [US$625] so he could buy a luxury model. One time, the head of the county Religious Affairs Bureau visited me. I invited him to have tea at my private living quarters. He slammed the door shut, banged on the table, and pointed at my face: “You turned a deaf ear to my request. I want your temple to contribute 100,000 yuan [US$12,500] to the road construction fund.” I knew very well that the central government had already allocated funds for the road project. Local officials had embezzled a large portion of the money. They wanted the monks to fill in the funding gap.

LIAO: You could report him to the central government or sue him, couldn’t you?

DK: Monks take forbearance as a virtue. So I told the official: Monks beg alms. We rely on the kind contributions of Buddha’s followers. We’ll pay when our collection reaches the amount you have requested. He responded impatiently: Give me a deadline. I said calmly: If we can collect the sum tomorrow, we’ll give it to you tomorrow. If we have it in the indefinite future, we’ll pay you in the indefinite future. Upon hearing that, he became furious and began to swear at me with four-letter words. His loud swearing was heard by many worshippers in the temple. Several of them stormed in and eventually kicked him out. Corruption is a sin, but Buddha has mercy.

A couple of months ago, some officials showed up and set up their mah-jongg tables right inside the temple. They played that gambling game all day. Some ended up losing money. They walked into my room and wanted to get a loan from me. I did “lend” some to them. You know they will never pay back. Besides, they made a mess here, with food and cigarettes butts all over the floor. Before they left, they came to the worshipping hall, put their two hands in front of their chest, palm to palm, and knelt in front of a Buddha statue, chanting, “Amitabha,” Those scoundrels, what can you do? Right now, the Religious Affairs Bureau takes charge of all Buddhist, Taoist, and Muslim temples, as well as the Christian churches. The officials are so powerful, and can destroy you at a whim. The chief of the Religious Affairs Bureau shamelessly calls himself the parent of all gods. Many people use the phrase “covering the sky with one palm” to describe the government power over religion.

LIAO: This is ridiculous.

DK: Throughout ancient history, no matter how incompetent the emperors were, or how corrupt and decadent the royal courts became, one never heard about officials blackmailing and harassing monks.

LIAO: This is the first time I have heard about it, too.

DK: With all of this corruption going on, I don’t know when I will be able to raise enough money to pay for the restoration. I just have to let nature take its course.

LIAO: But, Master, you have already done a great job in restoring the temple to its former glory. You are now considered a Buddhist treasure in this whole region.

DK: That’s an exaggeration. Have you seen the newly restored Scripture Building?

LIAO: I’ve seen the outside, the white walls with black tiled roof. The building reflects the simplicity of the Tang dynasty [618–907] architectural style. I was told that the name engraved on the front of the building was given by Yu Youren, a well-known politician under the Nationalist government. His handwriting was far superior to those of Ming emperor Zhu Yuanzhang and Qing emperor Kang Xi, both of whom left their marks here.

DK: Mr. Yu Youren was climbing the Qingcheng Mountain in 1944. He overheard some monks talk about a Buddhist encyclopedia. The book, published in 1372, was a compilation of well-known Buddhist writings in seven thousand volumes. [《洪武南藏》] The whole project took thirty-one years to finish. Several hundred scholars and craftsmen were involved in the editing, hand-printing, and volume-binding of the book. Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang ordered two sets, each of which weighed over three tons. One set was lost in a major fire. The second set was stored here inside the Gu Temple. This Buddhist encyclopedia and Grand Master Wu Kong’s preserved body were the crown jewels of this temple, attracting Buddhists and scholars from all over the nation. The legendary tales surrounding this rare book greatly piqued Mr. Yu’s curiosity. He came into the temple and spent several days poring over the book. When the former abbot asked him to write a couple of words, he raised his ink brush and with one long stroke he wrote, “Scripture Building.” His calligraphy, like a flying dragon, was later engraved on the building’s front wall.

LIAO: With your permission, may I go up to the building and take a look at the book?

DK: The book is no longer here.

LIAO: Has it been destroyed by the Red Guards?

DK: Amitabha. No. In the summer of 1951, Yao Tixin, an intellectual, was appointed the Chongqing County chief. He had read about the book in the county almanac. Shortly after his appointment, he visited the temple and went up to the Scripture Building to examine the treasure. It was in the middle of the Land Reform movement. Many monks had been banished to the countryside, and I was going through those struggle sessions. Yao emerged from the building and issued an order to his subordinates: Since the abbot has been declared an enemy of the people, the temple doesn’t have the manpower and resources to maintain custody of this rare, voluminous treasure. The building will be sealed. He then invited some experts from Chengdu to make an appraisal. After they confirmed that the books were authentic, he packed the volumes into boxes and mobilized over a hundred porters to carry those boxes on shoulder poles—three tons total—all the way to the Sichuan Provincial Library in Chengdu. It’s been there for over fifty years.

LIAO: Thank Buddha that the book was protected. Otherwise, it would not have escaped the fire of the Red Guards.

DK: County Chief Yao must have been the reincarnation of a Buddhist guardian warrior. Other government officials were not as farsighted as he was.

LIAO: During the past several hundred years, how did the monks manage to keep the book of scriptures from decaying?

DK: Once a year, all the monks in the temple would gather and bring those volumes out under the sun. Our method was quite primitive. We were not allowed to touch the pages with our hands. We used a thin bamboo sliver to carefully turn over every single page to allow the mustiness to escape. Then we would put special tobacco leaves inside the book to prevent book-eating moths. Several hundred pounds of tobacco leaves were brought in every year. Airing the book was an annual tradition that had been passed down from generation to generation.

LIAO: Now that things have gradually returned to normal and there are no more political campaigns, are you planning to move the book back?

DK: In the past, it was the crown jewel of the temple. Now, it’s a national treasure. Any request to transfer the book has to be approved by the State Council.

LIAO: Aren’t you allowed to take a peek at it?

DK: There are all sorts of rules, and I haven’t had the luck to revisit the book yet. But the rigorous system put in place has not been foolproof. A monk in Peng County managed to use 12,000 yuan [US$1,500] to bribe the curator. He then made a pirated copy of one volume and sold it overseas.

I heard he made quite a fortune. I have gathered several abbots in the region and made a plea to the provincial government, saying that the temple should own the copyright to the book. Nobody listened to us.

LIAO: I don’t think staff members at the Sichuan Provincial Library will do the book-airing ritual and put tobacco leaves inside each volume every year. I wonder what will happen to the book.

DK: Everything has its preordained fate. We just have to let it go. By the way, you sound like someone who truly possesses the mind of an intellectual. Let me give you a picture as a gift. This is the picture of the body of Grand Master Wu Kong. The photographer’s Buddhist name was Xu Kong, and he used to live in Gu township at the foot of the mountain. In the 1940s, he was the first in the region to purchase an old magnesium flash camera. He carried the camera to the temple and took a picture of Grand Master Wu Kong’s body. He then sold the picture to a newspaper and the picture got lots of attention from the public. He eventually used this picture as a passport to visit Tibet because Tibetans were pious Buddhists and they worshipped [Tantric masters such as] Grand Master Wu Kong. When the Tibetan guards saw the picture, they all prostrated themselves on the ground to show respect. Guess what, he used his special status to travel back and forth between Tibet and Sichuan Province smuggling opium. He was never caught. During the Cultural Revolution, he was persecuted for his association with the temple. Other people also reported his opium-trafficking business to the authorities. The Red Guards tortured and locked him up in solitary confinement for several years. But he never admitted that he was the photographer for Grand Master Wu Kong’s picture. The day before he died, he sent his relatives to look for me in my hometown. I did go see him. After I arrived, his eyes were wide open and he was gasping for breath. I held his hands, one of which was making a fist like a ball. He murmured to me: “Wu Kong, Wu Kong.” Tears streamed down his cheeks. He then opened his fist and handed me a tiny negative, wrapped with layers of soft tissue and cotton. Before I even had the chance to say anything to him, he was gone.

This picture has been around for sixty years. Look at Grand Master Wu Kong and how well his body was preserved—his face looked so kind and calm, his two earlobes hanging low, he looked divine.

wukong

LIAO: You have so many amazing stories. By the way, I have seen a portrait of Communist leader Deng Xiaoping in the hall for worship. He is not a Buddhist. Why do you put his picture up there?

DK: Without Deng Xiaoping, the temple would have been gone. He was the one who reversed Mao’s fanatical policies in the late 1970s, opened up China to the outside world, and relaxed government control over religion.

LIAO: During the past hundred years, you have experienced many ups and downs. You can’t attribute all your sufferings to karma and to the retribution of sins in our previous life, can you?

DK: I have lived for over a hundred years. I’m gradually ambling my way to the ritual of reincarnation. As a Buddhist, one needs to contain displeasure, anger, and complaining. I have tried to abide by these principles during the past decades and try not to dwell on my past. In recent years, many of the villagers who participated in torturing me have come to seek help because they are poverty-stricken and can’t send their grandchildren to school. I have given them money and support. The money is not mine. It was raised from Buddha’s followers. It’s a sin to keep the money. I remember very well what those villagers did to me in the past, but I don’t harbor any ill will toward them. When you start to blame and hate people, retribution will befall you.

Remember that local militia leader who committed the atrocities on Grand Master Wu Kong’s preserved body many years ago? He was so evil and full of hatred. Several years later, someone told me that the militia leader had found a big lump growing on his groin. He traveled all over in search of a cure but nobody could help. Eventually, his lower body became rotten and foul-smelling. He died a most wretched death. After he was gone, his wife and children starved to death during the famine in 1960. It was very sad. But how do you explain this phenomenon?

* * *

 Liao Yiwu [廖亦武]

The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up

《中国底层访谈录》

Pantheon Books, 2008

 [Chinese characters and notes in italics added by consulting the original Chinese text.]

L2

* * *

The Tiananmen Square massacre changed my life and my way of thinking. I heard about it on the radio and was filled with despair. Terrified and helpless, I shouted out these lines:

‘Leap! Howl! Fly! Run! Freedom feels so good. Snuffing out freedom feels so good. Power will be triumphant forever, will be passed down from generation to generation forever.'”

From these lines came Liao Yiwu’s poem ‘Massacre‘. A poem that was never published in China, only recorded. A poem that he was sentenced to four years in prison for writing and placed on the government’s permanent blacklist.

…After going to prison, I saw an aspect of China I had never seen as a poet. When I entered the prison, I couldn’t even speak. There would be a group of people pressing you to the ground, completely stripped, with one foot on your face, shaving your head, and using chopsticks to fuck you in the ass. I couldn’t understand this kind of thing when I was a poet. I didn’t know of these atrocities until they happened. When I was young, I didn’t want to know. They don’t have anything to do with poetry. After experiencing this, as a person whose occupation is related to language, I lost my voice. There is no way to talk about this violence using the language of an intellectual or a poet, and there is no way to convey the grief underneath the violence. You can’t understand the malicious language in the prison, the kind of savagery that exists.

It was the most dark and preposterous side of humanity. In order to adapt to that, whether you want or not, you become a witness. When you’re sleeping between two death row inmates, what kind of a poetic sense can you have? One prisoner is telling you how he cut his wife into pieces. Another is telling you he is going to escape through the sewer. Poetry is something so different from those kinds of people. And little by little I became like them. I was transformed…

Like the Chinese writer Ai Wu [艾芜] before him, Liao had been initiated into the world of those, “whom the world has abandoned.” An overwhelming and life-changing experience that is recounted in his graphic prison memoir, ‘For a Song and a Hundred Songs‘.

The prison book is pretty cruel. I was serving time in Chongqing. At one point they tortured me so much I smashed my head against the wall to try to kill myself. I passed out and then over the next few days the non-political prisoners came by and said, “Hey buddy, if you really want to kill yourself that’s a stupid way to do it. A better way is like this: you find a nail sticking out of the wall and smash your temple against it. It’s much more effective, believe us.” So this book is maybe more cruel than the others. The authorities said to me: “If you publish this book we’ll send you back to Chongqing.” There’s no way I’m going back there. That’s too terrifying…

Upon release from prison, Liao found himself homeless and wandered around Sichuan and Yunnan, earning what he could as a street musician and recording the stories of those he met living on the fringes of society,

I was with people who lived in the bottom of the society. And when I came out of prison, I was also living at the bottom of society. I know these people, the people of really low social status. And in these people, I see my own shadow. I identify myself with them.

We are a deserted group of people, but we are the majority. The so-called elite don’t care about us, but we are the mainstream of society.”

These interviews with, “hustlers to drifters, outlaws and street performers, the officially renegade and the physically handicapped, those who deal with human waste, the disposal of corpses, artists and shamans, crooks, even cannibals,” were published in Taiwan in 2001 as a multi-volume collection, entitled, ‘Interviews with People from the Bottom Rung of Society‘. A collection from which 27 interviews were selected, translated into English and published in 2008 by Pantheon Books, under the title, ‘The Corpse Walker‘, from which the extract above comes.

In this collection, the people’s lives and stories are presented as they are, including all of their imperfections, with little to no interruption from Liao himself.

If someone writes fiction or a novel, it’s okay. But if they write in a reportage style. And if people read it, then they know it’s the truth. It’s not imagination…

Through Liao’s avoidance of subjective commentary and opinion, the reader is left to engage directly with the person being interviewed, as if we are talking to them ourselves, making the experience not only more immersive and powerful but also more universal and human. In these people; the grave robber, the migrant worker, the former Red Guard, the Tiananmen father and the many others interviewed, we can, if we open our eyes, gaze upon our own shadows.

Works by Liao Yiwu

Further Reading:

Works by Liao Yiwu (English):

The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China from the Bottom Up, Pantheon (2008)

God is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China, HarperCollins (2011)

For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey Through a Chinese Prison, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2013)

Articles, Essays, Extracts & Interviews (English):

Liao Yiwu Documents (Text & Audio) – Digital Archive for Chinese Studies

The Public Toilet Manager – Paris Review, Autumn, 2005

The Leper & The Corpse Walker – Paris Review, Winter, 2006

My Enemies, My Teachers – Paris Review, Winter, 2007

The Peasant Emperor and the Retired Official – Paris Review, Winter, 2007

BBC Hard Talk (Interview) – March, 2008

The Survivor – Paris Review, Summer, 2008

Voices from the Bottom Rung of Society – PEN American Center, August, 2008

Nineteen Days – Paris Review, Summer, 2009

Liao Yiwu’s Persistent Voice – The New Yorker, March, 2010

Dangerous Words (Profile) – Loud Canary, June, 2011

Liao Yiwu Unbound – The New Yorker, July, 2011

Walking out on China – NY Times, September, 2011

An Evening with Liao Yiwu (Interview/Discussion) – PEN America, September, 2011

Christianity in China: God is Red – Huffington Post, September, 2011

Writer as a Recording Device (Interview) – Artspace China, November, 2011

This Empire Must Break Apart – The Wall Street Journal, October, 2012

Freedom is a Long Process (Interview) – Deutsche Welt, October, 2012

The Book I Wrote Three Times – Huffington Post, June, 2013

Liao Yiwu in Coversation with Paul Holdengraber – New York Public Library, June, 2013

Prison of the Mind – The New Yorker, July, 2013

Liao Yiwu Howls Against the Chinese Government (Interview) – PBS Network, July, 2013

China is Liao Yiwu’s ‘Nightmare’ (Interview) – Deutsche Welt, September, 2013

“If I’m Not Speaking That Means I’m Dead” (Interview) – Sampsonia Way, January, 2014

Read Full Post »

Dai Village

A Weasel & A Rare Swan’s Eggs

Forest covered the surrounding area for as far as the eye could see.

The British officials in neighbouring Burma often sent their people over to survey the land and build roads and bridges. Thus Britons, Burmese and Indians appeared in Banana Vale with their frequent taxes and other ‘fees’ which the widowed innkeeper had to pay. To her annoyance, unlike the Han merchants and grooms, these tax collectors not only flirted with her but tried to cheat her out of her money, and this disturbed and angered her more than anything.

Then, one day, an opium trader on the border, who was a frequent guest at the woman’s inn and who’d had his eye on the well-to-do widow for a while, took it upon himself to protect her from their demands.

“You cheat! How come she has to pay so much?” he argued on her behalf with a Burmese tax collector, telling him in a foreign language, “I tell you, I’ve been to both Myitkyina and Mandalay! I know how it works! You think that just because she’s a widow, you can take advantage of her like this? Well, listen, you can’t cheat me, can you?”

“It includes some wine money too,” the Burmese tax collector was forced to admit, seeing that the opium trader knew what he was talking about.

“Wine money? Nonsense! Why should there be any wine money? Do you deliver wine? I’ll bloody sue you if you don’t! Besides, even if you did include wine money it still wouldn’t come to that much!”

The Burmese man hummed and hawed but decided not to push his luck and left with only the tax money. The woman was naturally very grateful. From then on, every time she had any trouble with foreigners, she would look for the opium trader who was always helpful and attentive. He even brought back silk for the woman and her daughters from the big cities he visited, and left part of his savings with the woman for safe keeping. Every time the opium trader stayed at the inn and had his meals there, he would say, “Let’s eat at the same table. We’re all one family, there’s no need to lay another one.”

Gradually, he became a member of the family and when he thought the time was right, he proposed to the woman. She didn’t feel upset, on the contrary, she felt that to deal with the British officials and the Burmese tax collectors she really needed someone like him around. She knew he wasn’t a simple person like her second husband, but as long as she kept her money and valuables out of his reach then he wouldn’t be able to do her much harm even if he did decide to make any trouble in the future…

So the woman agreed and he moved in with her.

After he had become the innkeeper, life became much more leisurely for the middle-aged opium addict. He spent most of his time lying in bed like a lazy snake puffing away on his pipe. When he did get up, he would put on a pair of leather slippers and shuffle off to the meadow and the vegetable garden, his pipe dangling from his lips. If he saw the woman and her daughters with sweat running down their faces as they ploughed the fields and cleared the meadow, he would do nothing except say half-heartedly that perhaps the meadow needed to be widened this year or better vegetables ought to be planted.

His work-shy nature soon became insufferable. Fed up of doing everything, the woman decided that things couldn’t go on like this…

Feeling that it was improper to complain directly, she began to moan and groan about the business instead.

Unable to understand what she was getting at, he insisted they hire a man-servant.

The woman inhaled deeply before answering coldly, “You don’t understand. Ours is a small business and we eat what we produce. Things are hard enough today – how do we know how we’re going to manage tomorrow? How can we possibly afford to hire a man-servant? We would have done it a long time ago if we’d had the money, in which case we wouldn’t have needed you here to help. Nobody wants to sweat and slave away like a fool. Who wouldn’t like to eat and drink for free?”

The man’s eyes narrowed…

“But I heard that you’ve saved a lot of money.”

“How can you believe that rubbish! To hell with such rumour-mongers! You know that I’ve lost three husbands and I have had to feed and clothe their children all by myself. Yes, OK, I’ve starved myself in order to save a little here and there, but those foreign bastards tax me on everything. Like water, every penny I earn flows their way and I’m left with nothing!

He fell into a sceptical silence…

“Then you can use my money to hire a servant.”

“You’d be better off saving it for yourself,” the woman sneered, “After all, you’ll no doubt be needing it for that pipe of yours, won’t you? No, we are already lost, don’t you worry about us.”

Time passed but still nothing changed. So, one day, instead of beating around the bush, the woman asked him point-blank to help with the work…

“I tell you: my family hasn’t touched a hoe for three generations let alone swept up dung. No, I won’t. I can’t help.”

He could have been more tactful, but when he thought about the woman locking all the money away and hiding the keys he couldn’t help exploding.

The woman arched her eyebrows…

“And just who do you think your family is exactly? The royal family?”

“If they were, then what would I be doing here getting all worked up about your damned cheek?!”

Full of indignation he hurled his pipe into a wooden box.

“What, you’re offended?!”  the woman glared,  “Look at yourself! What kind of man do you think you are? You just lie around all day puffing away on that bloody pipe and eating all our food. With you around, my children and I are doomed! I swear, you’re just a ghost that my children and I had the hellish misfortune to run into when it was dark.”

“It’s not your bloody money I’m smoking is it!” he yelled back at the woman, pummeling the bed with his fist, “Screw you!

Oh! So you think you can frighten us with your threats, do you? I’ll have none of your yelling and banging in front of me!”

Although these arguments put a strain on their relationship for a while, they soon made their peace like any other couple, at least superficially. In spite of everything, the woman still felt that, however greedy and lazy the man might be, he was useful in dealing with foreigners. So in the end she let him have his way.

Yet, in less than six months, he had puffed away all his savings in his opium pipe. He had become more and more dependent on the drug and now smoked more than ever. He asked her for money shamelessly, saying that he knew how much money she had and smoking wouldn’t cost her much. She knew she couldn’t keep everything from him, so following his train of thought, she said, “I just want to save some money so that we can hire a servant. You don’t want me to slave away like a horse, do you? Also, look at Fusheng, he’s nearly thirteen now but he just plays around all day. What are we going to do about him? I was planning on picking an auspicious day and sending him to one of those modern schools in the city. We’ve suffered more than enough through not being able to speak another language!”

She had not actually been that keen on sending her son to school and all she really wanted to do was to save the little money they had. But since she’d been pressed to give a reason, she had to make it sound as if she’d already made up her mind…

“Send him to modern school?! You can’t feed a common weasel rare swan’s eggs! How much money are you going to need for that?”

He had always found the boy, who never called him ‘Dad’, a nuisance…

“Listen, I’ve got an idea: let the boy help you with the work. Isn’t that better than hiring someone else? Look at him: he eats so much every meal and he’s not a small child any more. If he doesn’t want to do it, just give him a damn good beating. Anyway, I don’t think he’ll end up doing any better for himself, even if he does go to school. Like father, like son. What else is he good for besides sweeping up horse dung? Yes, don’t look at me like that, I’ve been thinking of telling you that for quite a while, but I knew that you would shield him! Let me tell you this: that lazy little devil has long been nothing but a thorn in my side!”

Little devil? So what? You don’t take care of him anyway! However much he may eat, you haven’t so much as provided him with a bite. I just don’t want him to sweep up dung, I want him to go to a modern school and make something of himself. Just see if you can stop me. And I’m going to send him there early next month!”

She could and would have kept her anger under control had he not been so foul-mouthed about her son.

“Anyway, who are you to say that my son’s not school material? Shut your filthy mouth! I tell you: scholar-officials are not born that high and even emperors and ministers come from small cowherds. You’re not going to keep my son down. No, I know what you want: you don’t want me to spend the money on him just so that you can puff it all away in that damned pipe of yours! Well, your plan’s failed again!

Bloody hell! You really are thick as shit, aren’t you? OK, go ahead, go on, send him there tomorrow, see if I care! You really think he’s going to go far in this world? Right… Of course… I’ll make sure I keep my eyes open because I can’t wait to see that!”

So, to keep his pipe burning, he quarreled with her every day. Sometimes the woman would back down and throw him a wad of notes, which he would grab from her and mutter coldly, “You don’t have to treat me like a beggar, you know? You just wait till I’m doing business again. Yes, you’ll see, just one deal will bring me in a fortune and I’ll pay you back all the money you’ve lent me with interest and not a penny less. Believe it or not, there was a time when more money passed through these fingers every day than you’ve had in your whole life!”

“Then go back to the old days and stop bloody asking me for money!”

Ha! You think I’d be sorry if I left yo? I’ve been thinking of taking off for weeks!”

“Go on then! Do it! I’ll burn joss sticks to thank Heaven and Earth!”

When quarreling and fighting were of no avail, he stole. Any money lying around would disappear immediately and inevitably made the woman more vigilant than ever. Locking up every trunk and box which contained her savings, the woman moved them into her elder daughter’s room to prevent him from finding them. She then gave the keys to the trunks and boxes to her elder daughter, who hooked them on to a belt which she wore underneath her clothes.

With no money now left lying around, he had to get his opium on credit from passing traffickers and, when desperate, he mixed the ashes with water and drank that instead. They certainly weren’t the best of days for the addict and the only way he could deal with his constant craving for opium was to drink the wine that was supposed to be for the customers and send himself into a stupor both day and night. Having had a son by him by then, the woman just ignored him, however intoxicated he was. But the rest of the children cursed him behind his back, calling him ‘the boozer’ and ‘the chimney’ and prayed for his death so that he would stop stinging them all like some vicious insect.

Soon the traffickers started leaning on him heavily to pay bay back their loans. Scared of what they would do to him if he didn’t, his addled mind could think of only one way out – to steal the keys to the trunks and take it out of her savings…

So, one night, when the inn was quiet and everyone was asleep, he lit his opium lamp and, fortified by wine, went to prize open the elder daughter’s door. In a tropical place like that, the doors and walls were made of bamboo to let a breeze pass through. It didn’t take much to get the door open…

Carefully, holding his opium lamp, he crept into the room and found the girl in a deep sleep, covered only by a thin skirt that left her legs exposed. He had always loathed the girl, calling her a tramp and other names, but now staring at her lying there, he found her young figure bewitching. When he then lifted up her skirt and looked at her naked body underneath, his intoxicated state made him forget all about their kinship.

The violent urge of his flesh pushed him towards the girl’s body…

You bastard!… You drunkard!You beast!You…”

Her daughter’s loud and desperate cries woke the woman up. Immediately, she realised that the thief in their midst was at work again. Springing from her bed, she grabbed a heavy stick and called Fusheng.

Fusheng! Get up! Now! That drunken wretch is stealing our money!”

When Fusheng awoke and realised what was happening, he too jumped out of his bed and ran after his mother with a pair of scissors in his hand.

Inside the daughter’s room, the opium lamp sat on the desk gleaming with a faint, yellowish light. The woman thought that if he hadn’t stolen anything then she would just give him a mild beating and let him go. But when she saw what he was actually doing, she was overcome with the most furious anger. Pulling the drunken addict off her screaming daughter, she threw him to the ground and gave his vital parts a severe and bloody pounding.

Fusheng, young and innocent as he was, just thought he was stealing their money, so was standing by the door, with an angry look upon his face. It was only when he saw the drunken wretch lying on the floor, groaning with his bare backside in the air, that he realised what had been going on and flew into a rage.

Rushing forward, Fusheng stabbed the man in the back repeatedly with the scissors in his hand, until the drunkard had stopped kicking and screaming and Fusheng had assuaged his long pent-up anger at the addict and his nefarious ways.

“Are you in pain?” the woman asked her daughter anxiously, stroking her hair softly.

“Y-yes,” sobbed the daughter, burying her face in her pillow, “Yes Ma, I am…”

Shaking with rage, the woman didn’t hesitate and picking the stick up again, brought it crashing down upon the back of the man’s head. He let out a moan but soon was quiet and motionless, blood oozing from his neck, mouth, back and groin. Bending down the woman examined him for a while then her face turned white with shock and fear.

“W-what are we going to do now? The beast is d-dead…”

Tears fell from her cheeks. For an instant, her long stored hate and spite vanished and she found herself forgiving him. Gone too was her courage and her heart sank. But when she glanced at the wide-open, bloodstained, wrathful eyes of the dead addict, she came to her senses.

‘How could it be my fault?’ she thought, ‘It’s all because he couldn’t control himself!’

When she caught sight of his shamelessly exposed and bloodied privates, hatred and contempt filled her once again. Her courage returned and she quickly tied his body up with a rope and hooked it to a shoulder pole. She asked her elder daughter to help her carry the corpse and her son to light the way. They were to bury him in the mountains and that would be that. The woman’s heart was empty now and her only thought was to get it done as quickly as they could.

Outside, it was still pitch-black and the mountain path was slippery. They could see rain drops splattering where the lantern shed its light. Soaked through, they kept walking forward. Whenever they fell over they would immediately get back up again as if pushed onwards by some inexplicable force. By the time they had reached the mountainside, the rain had become a torrent, which crashed down on the nearby forests with a terrifying sound. Thunder and lightning silver-plated the valley and the forests. At every crack, flash and rumble they jumped with terror as if their very souls were being absorbed by the elements.

‘Is Heaven venting its anger because I killed my husband?’ the woman thought, ‘But why? Why?! I did the right thing! He was a beast! He raped his step-daughter! He wasn’t human!’

By the time they had struggled to the top of the mountain with the corpse, she felt as if she didn’t have the strength to even hold the hoe. But thinking once more about what the man had done, she immediately found what little strength did remain and started digging the grave, when…

Ma! Ma!” screamed her son and daughter, shivering with fear, water streaming down their bodies, “What’s that?! What’s that howling over there? Ma! It’s a leopard! A leopard!!

Dropping the hoe, the woman lost her heart and strength instantly. Pushing the corpse down the other side of the mountain, she ran home with her children as fast as they could, far away from whatever beast it was lurking out there in the darkness…

The next morning when the woman got up to clean up the inn and the dead man’s belongings, she felt little grief or guilt. She only felt the man had got what he deserved and that justice had been done.

Fusheng, who usually woke up late, also got up early to help his mother with the cleaning. When he saw her wrapping up the smoking things, Fusheng walked over and took the pipe and opium cup out of his mother’s hands.

“Ma, let me have these.”

“No!” she replied, “Listen, you won’t learn anything good through them. No, Fusheng, I really am going to send you to one of those modern schools. My son, I would be so proud of you if you worked hard and made a success of yourself.”

Usually, Fusheng would have insisted on having things his way, but today he didn’t. Like a good son, he nodded and handed them back.

“Yes, Ma, OK. Now, let’s throw these away!”

Ai Wu

Extract from:

Banana Vale, Panda Books, 1993

Banana Vale - Ai Wu

…The mountains in western Yunnan and Burma were originally known as the Savage Mountains. Everywhere was primeval forest with not a human trace. It is not known when the Daying River rushed into the Bamo plains through the Savage Mountains and flowed into the Irrawaddy River – along whose banks a southern silk route was established. It took three or four days to travel along the road on foot.

I worked for six months at a place called Cogongrass Fields, which was situated in a small valley by the Daying River, and from where it took three or four days to get to Ganya. Ships from Bamo penetrated as far as the Burmese hinterland to which the railways reached so that exotic goods could be transported back to Bamo and thence to Yunnan. From Bamo and on into Yunnan Province, transportation of goods relied totally on horses, so some people had set up large horse ranches.

In the morning and at dusk, vendors and their horses would come to the inn for the night, creating a hubbub of noise at the otherwise lonely Cogongrass Fields. I was alone in Bamo with no means of earning a living, so, upon the introduction of a fellow provincial of mine – a sedan-chair carrier – I went back to Cogongrass Fields and became a sanitation worker and part-time shop assistant. The Ganya Flatlands, which the Daying River passed through, were rich farming land. In the slack season, groups of Dais would bring local products to sell in Bamo. My task was to take care of them and ensure they slept soundly and rested well.

Cogongrass Fields and the Daying River were under the jurisdiction of the British, so workers in charge of transportation and the repair of roads were stationed there, but the British officials made one tour of inspection to the Cogongrass fields only every two or three months. Consequently, Cogongrass Fields became a resting place for drug traffickers, smugglers and horse thieves. As I became familiar with them, we talked about everything and kept no secrets from each other. Thus, I witnessed the dark sides of society and at the same time the innate kindness of those living on the fringe.

I wrote down my experiences in the Jingpo Mountains and during my travels, compiling my stories into a collection called, ‘Journey to the South‘…

Ai Wu

March 14, 1992, Chengdu

Stillwell Road Map

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MASTER NAN HUAI-CH’IN

[Nán Huáijǐn, 南怀瑾, 南懷瑾]

March 18, 1918 – September 29, 2012

Nan_Portrait

Master Nan Huai-chin

 

 

Master Nan Huai-Chin, who passed away on this day two years ago according to the western calendar, was one of the most renowned and revered lay Buddhist masters in Asia. A great teacher in all three traditions of spiritual cultivation in China, namely the Confucian tradition, the Buddhist tradition and the Taoist tradition, he wrote over 40 books on these subjects. While Nan is regarded by many in China as one of the most influential Chán Buddhist teachers, he is little known outside the Chinese cultural sphere. Nan died at the age of 95 on Sept. 29th, 2012 in Suzhou, China.

 

For a glimpse of his experience, we note that he studied the ancient Chinese martial arts in his youth and mastered the works of Confucian and Taoist sages at the age of seventeen. Nan studied social welfare at Jinling University and later went on to teach at the Central Military Academy in Nanjing. In the late 1930s at the age of 21 years, Nan became a military commander at the border regions of Sichuan, Xikang, and Yunnan during the Second Sino-Japanese War. There, he led a local group of 30,000 men against the Japanese invasion.

 

In 1942, at the age of twenty-four, he went into a three-year cultivation retreat in the E-Mei Mountains, one of the four sacred Buddhist pilgrimage sites in China. It was there that he verified his experience against the Chinese Tripitaka and composed gathas for each of the thirty two chapters of the Diamond Sutra. In 1945, he left for Tibet to learn from Tibetan Masters and was conferred the official title of Vajra Master by the Hutuktu Kung Ka, a high ranking tulku of the Kagyu tradition. He was also the most eminent student of the renowned lay Chan Master Yuan Huan-Xian (袁煥仙), making him an adept in both the Chan and the Tantric Buddhist traditions. Master Nan’s Dharma name was Tōngchán (通禅).

 

Following the revolution in China, Nan moved to Taiwan in 1949 where he became a well-known university professor and author. His first book, “The Sea of Chán” was published in 1956 and was the first in a line of over 40 books and related materials published in his name.

 

Nan’s books have achieved a great deal of popularity in mainland China and Taiwan. In total, more than 20 million copies of his books have been sold in Chinese-speaking countries. Some of his more popular works have gone to a 20th printing in Taiwan and his works on Confucianism are used as standard university references in the mainland and Taiwan. There is no question that his teaching has transformed many young intellectuals and is one of the main forces of genuine Buddhist resurgence in China. His books are also well respected by the academicians. According to Thomas Cleary, who has translated one of Master Nan’s books:

 

“There is no question that Master Nan’s work is a cut above anything else available from modern authors, either academic or sectarian, and I would like to see his work gain its rightful place in the English speaking world. … [His] studies contain broad learning in all three main traditions of Chinese thought, Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist. Although this comprehensive purview was common to the greatest minds of China since the T’ang dynasty, it is rare among scholars today.”

 

The following article provides further biographical and bibliographical details up until the mid-1990s.

 

 

Master Nan went to the U.S.A. in 1985, and then lived in Hong Kong in 1988. Later he was invited to act as a bridge for the peace talks between Mainland China and Taiwan by both governments. He was involved in spearheading and promoting a wide array of cultural, educational and philanthropic initiatives, both in China and abroad. In 2006, Nan founded the 200-acre Taihu Great Learning Center (太湖大學堂) on the banks of Lake Taihu near Suzhou. The school curriculum is meant to combine the best approaches of traditional China and the West. It has unique emphases such as meditation, ethics and etiquette, traditional Chinese medical theory, and Chinese and English recitation. The name of the school is in reference to the Great Learning, one of the “Four Books” of Confucianism.

 

146430656

* * *

 

Books by Master Nan Huai-Chin in European languages:

Nan_Collected_Works

Master Nan’s Collected Works in Chinese

 

The vast majority of the books written by Master Nan have not been translated into the English language from the original Chinese. The following is an attempt at a comprehensive bibliography of the works translated into English and into French. The only other foreign language editions we are aware of (with the exception of Korean) are the translations into various European languages of ‘Tao and Longevity’ and ‘Grass Mountain’ from the English editions as indicated below.

 

* * *

 

Tao and Longevity - Huai-Chin  Nan - English Editions

Tao & Longevity English Editions

 

《静坐修道与长生不老》

Translated by Wen-Kuan Chu, published by Samuel Weiser Inc., 1984. Republished by Dongfang Publishing [东方出版社] in 2008. Originally published in 1973 by Lao Ku Books [老古出版社].

  • Tao e longevità. La trasformazione di mente e corpo’, Italian translation by Patrizia Nicoli, Astrolabio Ubaldini, 1986
  • Tao y larga vida : transformación de la mente y el cuerpo’, Spanish translation by Rafael Lassaletta, EDAF, 1990, reprinted 2001.
  • Das Tao des langen Lebens’, German translation by Katharine Cofer, verlag Hermann Bauer gmbh, 1991.
  • Tao i długowieczność : transformacja świadomości i ciała’, Polish translation by Marek Wasilewski, Zysk i S-ka Wydawnictwo, 1995.
  • Tao: Transformação da Mente e do Corpo’ Portuguese translation, Pensamento, 1995.

 

Tao and Longevity - Huai-Chin  Nan - Foreign Editions

Tao & Longevity Foreign Editions

 

Note: The two appendices, ‘Cultivating Samadhi and Wisdom though Ch’an’ 《修定与参禅法要》 and ‘Ch’an and Pointing at the Moon’ 《参禅指月》, together form the last chapter of the work《禅海蠡测》 ‘Chan hai li ce’ – ‘The Sea of Chan’, as yet untranslated into English. The Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, German and Polish editions are based on the English translation by the late Dr. Chu Wen-Kuan [Zhu Wenguang, 朱文光], one of Master Nan’s foremost disciples.

 

* * *

Grass_Mountain

Grass Mountain English Edition

 

《习禅录影》

  • Grass Mountain: A Seven Day Intensive in Chan Training with Master Nan Huai-Chin.’ Translated by Margaret Yuan [Liu Yu-Hung, 刘雨虹] and Janis Walker, published by Samuel Weiser Inc., 1986.
  • Chan : siete días de práctica intensiva’, translation into Spanish from the English edition by Jorge A. Sánchez, Editorial Ibis, 1992.
  • Góra traw: siedem dni intensywnego treningu ch’an z mistrzem Nan Huai-chin’, translation into Polish from the English edition by Maciej Kanert, Dom Wydawniczy Rebis, 1996.

 

Grass Mountain - Nan Huai Chin -  Spanish and Polish Editions

Grass Mountain Foreign Editions

 

Note: Consists of the translation of the transcripts of a seven-day Chan session in 1962, forming part of the series called Profiles of Zen Training, regrouping the accounts of a number of such sessions, first published in 1976 by Lao Ku Books. Includes a Chinese-English glossary.

 

* * *

如何修证佛法

《如何修证佛法》

 

《如何修证佛法》

 Published in English in 2 volumes as follows:

Enlightenment

Working Toward Enlightenment & To Realize Enlightenment

 

Translated by J.C. Cleary, published by Samuel Weiser Inc., 1993.

 

Translated by J.C. Cleary, published by Samuel Weiser Inc., 1994.

 

Note: This important work is based on a series of some 28 conferences given in 1978, and published in Chinese in 1989.

Read an excerpt from ‘Working Toward Enlightenment‘:

Read an excerpt from ‘To Realize Enlightenment‘:

* * *

Chinese_Zen_cover

The Story of Chinese Zen English Edition

 

《禅宗与道家》

Translated by Thomas Cleary, published by Charles E. Tuttle (Tuttle Library of Enlightenment), 1995.

 

Note: Consists of the first part of the dual history of Chinese Zen and Taoism. The appendix on the influence of Zen and the Zen monastic system on Chinese society present in the original Chinese edition was omitted in this translation, but subsequently reproduced in ‘Basic Buddhism’ (see below). Originally published in Chinese in 1968.

Read an excerpt from ‘The Story of Chinese Zen‘:

 

* * *

《中国佛教发展史略述》

Basic Buddhism - Nan  Huai-chin

Translated by J.C. Cleary, published by Samuel Weiser Inc., 1998. Republished by Jaico Publishing in India on a number of occasions, and by Dongfang Publishing [东方出版社] in China in 2008.

 

Note: Originally published in Chinese in 1987. The later Chinese-published English edition is slightly censored and lacks the chapter dealing with the history of Buddhism in Tibet, among other things (see below).

 

* * *

Zen_Tao

Zen & Tao Chinese Edition

 

《禅宗与道家》

Translated by Dr. William Brown, Top Shape Publishing, 2002.

 

Note: Consists of the second part of the dual history of Chinese Zen and Taoism, published as an e-book.

* * *

Diamond_Sutra_Explained

Diamond Sutra Explained English Edition

《金刚经说什么》

Translated by Pia Giammasi [Hue En, 纪雅云], Primordia, 2004.

 

Note: Consists of a translation of the Diamond Sutra from the Chinese of Kumarajiva, and Master Nan’s detailed commentary. The translator Pia Giammasi was a student of Master Nan’s. Based on a conference series held in 1988, and published in 1992.

 

* * *

Spiritual_Paths

 

《现代学佛者修正对话》

With William Bodri [包卓立], Top Shape Publishing, 2010.

 

Note: An expanded version of the original Chinese lecture series delivered in 1996 and published in two volumes in 2003 and 2004. Previously published as an e-book with the different title: ‘The Insider’s Guide to The World’s Best and Worst Spiritual Paths and Practices’.

 

* * *

Chinese_generation

《新旧的一代》,《亦新亦旧的一代》,《二十世纪青少年的思想与心理问题》

Translated by Joshua BenOr, Top Shape Publishing, 2008.

 

Note: An incomplete translation of this work on recent Chinese history and culture, omitting the final two chapters and the four appendices, essentially dealing with education and literature. Made freely available on William Bodri’s Meditation Expert website. The work was published under three different titles in Chinese, explaining the various renditions in English.

* * *

Nan_Senge_Book

《南怀瑾与彼得·圣吉》

Translated by Shi Hong, edited by William Bodri, Top Shape Publishing, 2008.

Nan_Senge

Master Nan & Peter Senge

 

Note: Translation of a series of lectures given for Peter Senge of MIT between 2003-2005. Consists of the first half of the Chinese edition, which includes the transcripts of further lectures for the ELIAS group, given in 2007. Published as an e-book.

* * *

 

 

Other Writings:

 

***

Dhyana_System

 

《禪宗叢林制度與中國社會》

  • Dhyana monastic system and Chinese society

Bilingual Chinese-English edition, English translation by Huang Fu 黄復. Published by 兿文印書館, Yi Wen Shu Guan, Taipei, 1964. Republished by Lao Ku Books.

Note: This edition contains both the Chinese text and an English translation in the same volume, according to the bibliographic sources we have been able to consult. However, as we have not been able to see this volume, any further information is welcome. The content would appear to be identical to the chapter ‘The Zen Monastic System and Chinese Society‘ appended to ‘Basic Buddhism‘.

 

***

Zhuge_Liang_Letter

Zhuge Liang’s Letter to my Son

南怀瑾老师讲诸葛亮《诫子书》

Translated by Steven Clavey, in: The Lantern: Volume VII, Issue 2 – Article #9

 

Note: Excerpted from the book 《禅与生命的认知初讲》 (Chan yu shengming de renshiUnderstanding Chan and Life) – a transcription of a series of lectures delivered at the Taihu Great Learning Centre in 2006, published by Dongfang Publishing, 2009. Published as an electronic article in the The Lantern, a journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

 

* * *

Lunyu_Biezai

《論語別裁》

《論語別裁》

 

Note: A partial translation of the first section of Master Nan’s seminal work on the Confucian Analects by Dr. Will Zhang, one of Master Nan’s students. Available to read online here:

 

* * *

《馬祖道一禪師語錄》

Ma-Tsu-De-gesprekken

Translation of: ‘Ma-tsu, de gesprekken’ from the Dutch by Julian F. Pas; introduced, translated into Dutch and annotated by Bavo Lievens; with a preface and commentary by Nan Huai-chin. Edwin Mellen Press, 1987. The original Dutch edition was published in 1981 by Wereldvenster.

 

Note: Prof. Bavo Lievens, who produced the initial Dutch translation of this work, was a student of Master Nan’s, and later wrote the book ‘The Mind Experiment’ partly based on Master Nan’s teachings.

 

* * *

Zhunti

Cundi Bodhisattva

《准提法修持仪轨简要》

 

Note: Illustrated description of the Zhunti (Cundi) Bodhisattva sadhana by Master Nan Huai-chin. Read online here:

 

* * *

 Wisdom_of_Asia

Master Nan penned the Foreword to Awakenings : Asian wisdom for every day, Olivier & Danielle Föllmi, Abrams, 2007. Also published in the UK as: The Wisdom of Asia: 365 days: Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Thames & Hudson, 2007.

Awakenings

* * *

 

* * *

Heritage_of_Change_Cover

Heritage of Change

《易经传承》

By W.A. Sherrill; East-West Eclectic Society (Lao Ku Books), 1972.

Heritage_of_Change_Frontispiece

Master Nan – Heritage of Change Frontispiece

 

 

Note: Wallace Sherrill was a Rear-Admiral of the US Navy who lived in both mainland China and Taiwan, where he studied with Master Nan. He also co-authored 2 books on the I Ching with Dr. Chu Wen-kuan; ‘An Anthology of I Ching’, and ‘The Astrology of I Ching’. This book, on the influence of the Book of Changes on Chinese culture as well as its practical applications, contains the syllabus of courses offered by Master Nan in Fu-Jen University, and thus gives an idea of the breadth and depth of his learning. A portrait of Master Nan also serves as frontispiece. The book has been digitized and made available here:

 

* * *

French Translations – Livres de Maître Nan en français:

 

Yi_King

《道家《易经》与中医医理》

Translated by Jean-Claude Dubois, Monica Esposito, Gabrièle Goldfuss, Vincent Durand-Dastès, preface by Catherine Despeux, Guy Trédaniel Éditeur, 1994.

 

Note: Consists of a series of conferences on Taoism, the Book of Changes (I Ching) and Traditional Chinese Medicine entitled 《道家《易经》与中医医理》, included in the volume 《道家、密宗与东方神秘学》 (‘Taoïsme, tantrisme et ésotérisme en Extrême-Orient,’ – ‘Taoism, Esoteric Buddhism and Oriental Mysticism’). The translation team was directed by Dr. Jean-Claude Dubois, who studied with Master Nan. Prof. Catherine Despeux [戴斯博], who wrote the preface, also studied with Master Nan.

 

* * *

Experience_Eveil

《如何修证佛法》

Translated by Sylvie Hureau-Denis, Françoise Toutain-Wang, Catherine Despeux, Shuhua Liang, Gabrièle Goldfuss, Éditions du Seuil, 1998.

 

Note: Consists of a translation of 10 of the 28 chapters of the original Chinese edition. Contrary to what one Chinese bibliography states, this translation was done from the Chinese, not from the English edition.

 

* * *

Sagesse_Chan

Compiled and translated by Liao Yi Lin, Guy Trédaniel Éditeur, 2010

 

Note: Consists of a lavishly illustrated anthology of texts and poems by Master Nan, translated and commented by Liao Yi Lin. Ms. Lin studied with Master Nan in later years.

 

* * *

Eveils

Maître Nan signa la Preface à Eveils : 365 Pensées de sages d’Asie, Taoïsme, Confucianisme, Bouddhisme, Olivier & Danielle Föllmi, Éditions de La Martinière, 2007.

* * *

Caveat:

 

Readers of the Chinese editions should be aware of the censorship of the PRC publications: one will note that any unflattering references to the Chinese Communist Party, any references whatsoever to the Kuomintang Nationalist Party, the Chinese Civil War, the Cultural Revolution, or criticisms of modern political ideology, are entirely lacking from the PRC editions. Furthermore, the Chinese-published English editions of ‘Tao & Longevity’ and ‘Basic Buddhism’ (both Dongfang Publishing, 2008) are similarly censored; the latter omitting the sub-chapter dealing with the history of Buddhism in Tibet, and any other reference to Tibet being inevitably preceded by the word ‘China’ in the genitive case, something neither present in the original nor in the original English translation.

 

Given that most of Master Nan’s books in English are out of print and some command high prices on the second-hand market, we suggest using a service such as Bookfinder in order to compare prices and purchase hard-to-find titles.

 

Readers who notice any errors or omissions are cordially invited to contact us in order to make this bibliography as complete and as accurate as possible. Thank you. Contact: thebamboosea[@]gmail[.]com

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Su Tung-po:

Tracks in the Snow

Su_Shi

In a previous set of articles on an illustrated Qing-dynasty memoir, 鴻雪因緣圖記 [hongxue yinyuan tuji] by Lin Qing 麟慶, we have presented a number of episodes from those memoirs, or commentaries on the book, along with the corresponding illustrations.

Yet the title of the work itself is worthy of note, being rendered variously into English as: A Wild Swan’s Trail; Tracks in the Snow; Footsteps in the Snow of a Solitary Goose; Record of a Goose Life’s Traces in the Snow; Wild swan on the snow; among many others. In fact, it is a reference to a famous poem by Su Tung-p’o [Su Dongpo], or Su Shi 蘇軾, a poet-official of the Sung [Song] dynasty, entitled « 和子由澠池懷舊 », which expresses the impermanence and ephemeral nature of a fleeting human existence.

和子由澠池懷舊

人生到處知何似,恰似飛鴻踏雪泥;

泥上偶然留指爪,鴻飛那復計東西。

老僧已死成新塔,壞壁無由見舊題;

往日崎嶇還記否,路長人困蹇驢嘶。

 

Calligraphy_2

This poem was written in reply to a poem by his brother, Tseyu [Ziyou]. Lin Yutang, in his biography, The Gay Genius: The Life and Times of Su Tungpo, says:

 

Lin_Yutang_Cover

“The brothers often ho, or “echoed” each other’s poems; to “echo” a poem is to answer it with another one using the same rhyme words. It was a good test of poetic skill, for the rhyming had to be natural, and this was one of the accomplishments of all scholars in ancient China. People looked for surprising, or delightful, or refreshing, tunes of thought, expressed with the prescribed rhyme words, and the lines had to have natural sequence. As in a crossword puzzle, the difficulty increased the delight when the rhyming was done with ease and without effort. In one of these earliest “echo” poems, written to Tseyu, Tungpo already revealed a complete mastery. Having to write a poem where the first two rhyme words had to be “snow” and “west,” Tungpo wrote:

To what can human life be likened?

Perhaps to a wild goose’s footprint on snow;

The claws’ imprint is accidentally left

But carefree, the bird flies east and west.

It remained one of Tungpo’s best poems. The flying bird was a symbol of the human spirit. In truth, the events and doings of Su Tungpo we are reading about in this book are but the accidental footprints of a great spirit, but the real Su Tungpo is a spirit, like a phantom bird, that is even now perhaps making dream journeys among the stars.”

Calligraphy_1

In his commentary on Lin Qing’s book, John Minford notes the reference and translates the lines freely as:

To what can this human life be likened?

Perhaps to a wild swan treading on the snow;

it leaves a few tracks and flies on blithely into the unknown.”

 Swan

In his Selected Poems of Su Tung-p’o, Burton Watson has translated the poem in full:

Watson_Su_Tungpo

 Rhyming with Tzu-yu’s ‘At Mien-ch’ih, Recalling the Past

Wanderings of a lifetime – what do they resemble?

A winging swan that touches down on snow-soaked mud.

In the mud by chance he leaves the print of his webs,

but the swan flies away, who knows to east or west?

The old monk is dead now, become a new memorial tower;

on the crumbling wall, impossible to find our old inscriptions.

Do you recall that day, steep winding slopes,

road long, all of us tired, our lame donkeys braying?

 

Rexroth_Cover

Kenneth Rexroth renders the entire poem as:

Remembering Min Ch’e

A Letter to his Brother Su Che

What is our life on earth?

A flock of migrating geese

Rest for a moment on the snow,

Leave the print of their claws

And fly away, some East, some West.

The old monk is no more.

There is a new gravestone for him.

On the broken wall of his hut

You can’t find the poems we wrote.

There’s nothing to show we’ve ever been there.

The road was long. We were tired out.

My limping mule brayed all the way.

 

(“Love and the Turning Year: One Hundred More Poems from the Chinese”, New Directions, 1970)

One very insightful reading of Su’s poem is that of Chan Master Nan Huai-chin (Nan Huaijin, 南怀瑾), in his commentary on the Diamond Sutra (Diamond Sutra Explained):

 

Master Nan Huai-chin

“Su Tung-p’o wrote a famous poem which came out of his Buddhist practice:

Human existence anywhere can be likened to what?

One ought to describe it as a bird touching down

On new-fallen snow, leaving by chance a track.

When the bird flies, does it plan to go east or west?

He posed the question; the course of one human existence can be likened to what? Like a bird on a snowy day, alighting on the snow for a moment, leaving a claw print, “leaving by chance a track.” The snow continues falling after the bird flies off, covering over the print, no trace remains. After the bird has flown off, whether it be north, south, east or west, the bird is gone and no print remains.

Most people’s goals in life are to raise a family, have a career, children, grandchildren, etc. The day one’s eyes close, limbs go limp and one passes from this world – when the bird flies – does one plan to go east or west? At that point, there is no such thing. These are Su Tung-p’o’s famous lines.”

 

Nan_Diamond_Sutra

(Nan Huai-chin, “Diamond Sutra Explained, translated by Pia Giammasi, published by Primordia Media, 2004).

Lastly, there is one other version of the poem available online, translated by A. S. Kline, entitled “Remembrance”.

 To what can we compare our life on Earth?


To a flock of geese,


alighting on the snow.


Sometimes leaving a trace of their passage.

 

That Lin Qing named his memoirs after such a poem shows his concern with leaving a “track” of some sort, on the one hand, and his sensitivity to literature – mentioned by Herbert Giles in the first post of this series – on the other.

Lin_Qing_Bird
(Click to enlarge)

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Letter to a Chinese Gentleman

《致一个中国人的信》

tolstoy2

Count Tolstoy

Tolstoy’s “Letter to a Chinese Gentleman” (“Письмо китайцу”), written in reply to Ku Hung-ming (Хун-Мину), and translated by Vladimir G. Tchertkoff, was published in English in 1907 by The Free Age Press. The letter was written in October 1906 after Tolstoy received some books from Ku – “Et nunc, reges, intelligite! the moral causes of the Russo-Japanese war” and the “Papers from a Viceroy’s Yamen“.

The letter was first published in German in November 1906 in the “Neue Freie Presse,” then in French in the “Courrier Européen“, in English in “The Free Age” and only lastly – and partially – in Chinese in 1907, both in China and in overseas Chinese publications (in Paris). The letter in full was published in Chinese in China only in early 1911, after Tolstoy’s death, in the “Dongfang” journal  (东方杂志).

Tolstoy_Letter

It shall be seen that Tolstoy and Ku were in close agreement on the baneful effects of modernization and the myth of progress.

Constitutions, protective tariffs, and standing armies have rendered the Western nations what they are: people who have abandoned agriculture and become unused to it, occupied in towns and factories in the production of articles that are for the most part unnecessary, people who with their armies are adapted only to every kind of violence and robbery. However brilliant their position may appear at first sight, it is a desperate one, and they must inevitably perish if they do not change the whole structure of their life, founded as it now is on deceit and the plunder and pillage of the agricultural nations.

To imitate Western nations, being frightened by their insolence and power, would be the same as if a rational, undepraved, industrious man were to imitate a spendthrift, insolent ruffian who has lost the habit of work and was assaulting him. It would be to successfully oppose an immoral scoundrel by becoming a similar immoral scoundrel oneself. The Chinese should not imitate Western nations, but profit by their example in order to avoid falling into the same desperate straits.

All that the Western nations are doing can and should be an example for the Eastern ones – not, however, an example of what they should do, but of what they should not do under any consideration whatever.

Tolstoy and Ku’s correspondence was not limited to this single exchange of letters; Ku sent a congratulatory telegram to the Russian author on his 80th birthday in August 1908, signed by many eminent Chinese cultural personalities.

Ku Hungming

Ku Hungming

Significantly, Tolstoy considered this brief letter – which can be read as a manifesto – as one of his most important works, along with his “Circle of Reading”. Further commentary would be therefore superfluous.

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Download the PDF:

Letter to a Chinese Gentleman

Notes:

Papers from a Viceroy’s Yamen” (尊王篇), the title of a book by Ku Hung-ming published in 1901, is a collection of rather vitriolic essays on Western encroachment in China, written in the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion.

The “Bogdikhan” (usually written as Bogd Khan) was in fact the title of the last Mongolian Emperor, a Buddhist Lama enthroned as emperor.

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Akutagawa

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

[Ryūnosuke Akutagawa]

A further installment in our series of pieces on and by Ku Hung-ming, [Gū Hóngmíng 辜鴻銘] (1857-1928).

 

The Japanese writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (芥川龍之介, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke), author of “In a Grove” and “Rashomon”, was told before going to China in March 1921: “If you go to Peking, you may skip a visit to the old Imperial Palace, but you must not miss a chance to see Ku Hung-Ming.” Akutagawa’s visit to China lasted four months but due to ill-health he did not write a single article until he returned to Japan. Incidentally, his visit to China also included an interview with the monarchist Zheng Xiaoxu (鄭孝胥), formerly a high-ranking official in the Qing dynasty administration, who was to become Prime Minister of the Japanese-controlled puppet state of Manchuko under the Emperor Puyi.

Ku Hung-ming, Gu Hongming

 

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“Akutagawa did have one other meeting with a Chinese intellectual, though not in Shanghai. Later in his travels, he met with the celebrated arch-reactionary Gu Hongming (1857-1928), who subsequently became an advisor to the warlord Zhang Zuolin. Gu was still wearing his queue, sign of fidelity to the Qing dynasty then ten years defunct, as he greeted his Japanese guest in English, the language they had in common and used for their conversation. While speaking nonstop in English, Gu wrote in Chinese on paper, and somehow Akutagawa conveyed the whole exchange into his travel narrative in Japanese.

 

Mr. Gu calls himself a man of east, west, south and north. He was born in Fujian province in the south; he studied in Scotland in the west; his wife is Japanese from the east; and he resides in Beijing to the north. He speaks English of course, but German and French as well. However, he is unlike [those associated with] young China. He does not have an inflated opinion of Western civilization. He heaps abuse on Christianity, republicanism, and the omnipotence of machinery. And, when he saw me dressed in Chinese garb, he said: “Not wearing Western clothing is quite admirable, though I do find fault with the lack of the queue!””

 

[The literature of travel in the Japanese rediscovery of China, 1862-1945 by Joshua A. Fogel.]

 

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Akutagawa dressed in Chinese clothing

 

[Akutagawa dressed in traditional Chinese garb, as per his description above.]

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“I have rented a temple in the Western Hills, to go there for week-ends, and perhaps for an occasional fortnight in the autumn or spring. It is about eighteen miles from Peking, and one can reach the place easily enough on horseback. Also one can go most of the way by motor, along the new road that branches off to the Summer Palace.

The train that goes to Men-to-kou, on the other side of the mountains, stops at a little station two miles distant from the village of Pa-ta-chu. The name means ‘The Hill of the Eight Sanctuaries’. My temple is one of the eight that mount up the hill-side among the oaks, the maples, and the stunted pines. Both temples and trees nestle in the hollows, where they are protected from the north wind, which keeps the hill-tops shorn of vegetation.

The word ‘temple’ comes from the Greek τέμνειν, which means ‘to cut out, to separate, to isolate’, alluding to the exclusive character of that which is sacred to the gods. But Chinese gods, though sometimes fierce and terrifying, are not exclusive. They like company and are not particular what company they keep.” (Varè, ‘The Gate of Happy Sparrows’)

“As on my former mission in China, I rented a temple in the Western Hills. It was an isolated temple close to Pa-ta-chu, but in a little valley of its own. It was called the Pi-mo-yen. So many translations were given to me of this expression that I never really knew what it meant. ‘The Precipice where the Spirit is Refreshed’ was one; another was ‘The Precipice where the Devil is Exorcised.’

The Pi-mo-yen was a live temple, that is to say it had an abbot and a priest living in it, and many pilgrims came to burn incense in front of the effigy of a Buddha in a little grotto inside the temple grounds, under a huge overhanging rock. The pilgrims used to pass through my quarters but without causing me inconvenience. The Abbot and I became friends, though we could not understand each other very well. Sometimes I used to go over my Chinese characters with him. But his pronunciation of the tones was different from that which I was used to in Peking.

The Pi-mo-yen was endowed with property of its own, and the farm produce used to be brought in and stored, so I had the impression of living in a Chinese country-house with all the interest that a country-house gives to its occupants. The place was very old and had once been a centre of religious instruction. It is mentioned as such in some Chinese books. A cousin of the Emperor Ch’ien Lung once lived there and wrote a book in which he described his travels in Turkestan and elsewhere. The title was Footsteps in the Snow of a Solitary Goose.” (Varè, ‘Laughing Diplomat’)

It was in a Buddhist temple in the Western Hills that I wrote the first chapters of this book. The temple is named Pi Mo Yen. In the eighteenth century a Manchu general, cousin to the Emperor Ch’ien-lung, stayed up there, like myself, and wrote a book. (His was a book of travel, with the quaint title “Footsteps in the Snow of a Solitary Goose.”) Close by were the Hunting Park and the tower whence the emperor used to watch his army manoeuvring on the plain. All around were signs of a past magnificence. (Varè, ‘The Last Empress’ ix, 1936)

This temple, one of the smallest and highest of those in the Western Hills, was known to the foreign community in Peking at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century as Pi Mo Yen [碧默巖]. Chinese sources, however, indicate its name to be Mi Mo Ya [秘魔崖]. Forthcoming installments will further illustrate the Western Hills, using pictures from Lin-qing’s book accompanied by excerpts from contemporary European sources.

麟慶:鴻雪因緣圖記 hóngxuě yīnyuán tújì volume 4 of 6

About the Author:

Daniele Varè (1880-1956) was an Italian diplomat who served chiefly in China, from 1908 until 1920. After he retired from the diplomatic service he devoted himself to writing, translating his own books into English, and writing some of them directly in that language. He wrote works of popular history, such as ‘The Last Empress’ (also published as ‘The Last of the Empresses’), and his novels, ‘The Maker of Heavenly Trousers’; ‘The Gate of Laughing Sparrows’; and ‘The Temple of Costly Experience’; thinly-veiled romans-a-clef, portray expatriate life in China during the end of the Qing dynasty and the beginning of the Republican period. His autobiography, ‘Laughing Diplomat’, was published in 1938. Sir Edmund Backhouse, in his memoirs, describes Varè as his ‘enemy’, doubtlessly because Varè paid him a back-handed compliment by comparing his work and himself with James Macpherson and his ‘Ossian’. – Se non è vero, è ben trovato, we may say.

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