The People Elsewhere

Unbound Journeys with the Storytellers of Myanmar

Lucas Stewart

Shortlisted for the 2018 Saroyan Prize


In a five year journey all across Myanmar, Lucas Stewart travels from Yangon in the south to the northern limits of Kachin State in search of the literary luminaries of the country’s recent past. He bonds with censored and jailed writers, poets, publishers and booksellers, recording their stories of heritage and resilience. In his conversations with students at an Aung San Suu Kyi rally or sharing stories with a Kayah farmer in his village house, the long-suppressed literatures and languages of minorities such as the Chin, Kachin, Shan and others shine through. The People Elsewhere is a vivid tableau of time and place, and an ode to the ethnic richness of Myanmar.

Penguin Books/Viking


…This book isn’t a memoir but a weaving of two stories. On the one hand it is a simple journey through the writers of a country that is undergoing a transformation many thought would never come; this is a story set in the ‘now’, where change can be seen and touched. The other story is much more complicated: it tells of a country in which the ‘now’ is not as important as the ‘before’, where history and the lessons learnt from it, cannot be easily set aside or forgotten…

Lucas Stewart, The People Elsewhere, Viking, 2016


Available from Penguin/Viking and in digital formats from Amazon.


Praise for ‘The People Elsewhere’:


‘Lucas Stewart’s book is an exquisite map of the many literatures of Myanmar, of the human impulse to express oneself through story and song… In scenes alternately warming and harrowing, it braids travel, history and literary criticism in a most ingenious way to give us an unforgettable portrait of a country long forgotten by the world.’

Chandrahas Choudhury, Author of Clouds and editor of India: A Traveller’s Literary Companion


‘The People Elsewhere is a vigorous and compelling travel parable … In a vivid and tenacious tour through some of the country’s militarily-sealed borderlands, Lucas Stewart explores with great generosity and kinship how previously banned or censored languages are still being preserved in some of remotest and educationally-marginalised areas in the world.’

James Byrne, Co-editor of Bones Will Crow: 15 Contemporary Burmese Poets


‘Lucas Stewart’s journey across Myanmar offers a fascinating insight and a rare glimpse of life through its storytellers … Anyone wanting to discover Myanmar’s rich cultural heritage and how these endearing, diverse and remarkable peoples did more than just survive will find this an important and essential read.’

Nick Danziger, Photojournalist and Author of Danziger’s Travels.


More by Lucas Stewart:


Hidden Words, Hidden Worlds

Dinesh Allirajah Prize for Short Fiction 2018 Winner – ‘Bakhur’

The Act of Insanity – Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Issue 25

Shadow Signatures: A Legacy of Burmese Pen Names – The Bamboo Sea

Hidden Worlds – The Irrawaddy, July, 2014

Myanmar’s Literary Talk Shows – The Diplomat, May 2014

The Kachin: Culture of the Mountain Lords – The Dissident Blog, March 2014

SADAIK Writer and Editor Lucas Stewart’s Personal Website


Master Nan Huai-ch’in Performs Tai Chi Ch’uan (1969)
南懷瑾先生示範太極拳 (民國58年)




In his youth, Master Nan Huai-ch’in [Nan Huaijin] was well known for his martial arts skills, skills which he retained well into his old age, as can be seen from a number of recordings available online. In early 2012, during a memorial talk, an early recording of Master Nan performing Tai Chi Ch’uan [taijiquan] was mentioned, and described as being difficult, if not impossible, to find. The speaker, Mr Zhou Xunnan, had this to say:






“Master Nan was recorded performing Tai Chi on videotape as an American student of his wished to learn and had specially asked Master Nan to come to Yehliu [for the shoot]. In those days, Yehliu was a rather desolate place, not at all like the tourist attraction it has become now. Master Nan greeted the sun rising from the sea with a Tai Chi form. He wore a long scholar’s robe and performed most beautifully. This recording must be very difficult to find in Taiwan nowadays because the only copy of this video of Master Nan demonstrating martial arts was sent to America for teaching purposes.”




However, the recording in question, has recently been placed online courtesy of the filmmaker, Tom Davenport.


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/90353185″>T’ai Chi Ch’uan 1969 from Folkstreams on Vimeo.



Mr Davenport describes the history of this recording as follows:


“This film was the one of the first (if not the first film) made on T’ai Chi in the USA. In 1969, very few Americans knew anything about it. I had been in Taiwan as a Chinese language student with the East West Center at the University of Hawaii and had returned for another year there as a photographer. During that year, I met Nan Huai-Jin who was a Buddhist scholar living in Taipei, and like many others from mainland China, was a refugee who had fled there in 1949 when the communists took over China. I had become interested in Zen Buddhism (Ch’an) Buddhism — an interest and a practice that has continued since — and had met Professor Nan through another American friend who had attended a seven day Ch’an retreat with him. I was about 28 years old.


My interest in T’ai Chi at this time was mostly as a form of meditation. Americans who were interested in modern dance were also interested in T’ai Chi, and this film was picked up by the Donnell Library in New York City which was one of main collectors of new independent films. It was my first film and was funded by the John D Rockefeller III foundation.


The audio track was done by my Yale Classmate Tom Johnson, who is a minimalist composer now living in France. He was experimenting with electronic “white noise” which here sounds like the sea, and used clappers and wind chimes to punctuate the white noise.


The film was made on 16mm black and white film and shot with an old Bell and Howell camera, that was designed as combat camera during WWII. In those days, the Nationalist Chinese were fearful of a communist invasion. We shot the film on the northeast coast about a half day from Taipei. I remember that a soldier who was guarding the coast tried to stop us, but Professor Nan knew someone high-up in the military and he talked to the soldier and eventually we got permission from him.”


The location where the film was shot, Yehliu [Yeliu], in northern Taiwan, now a national park, is the site of some very distinctive rock formations. The island visible in the background is Keelung Islet.




Filmmaker Tom Davenport is the founder of Folkstreams. He began his Zen practice in the late 1960s and leads the Delaplane Zen Group in Northern Virginia.


View another short piece by Tom Davenport, ‘Bodhidharma’s Shoe’, an account of a seven-day Zen retreat.


View another recording of Master Nan demonstrating Tai Chi:

Wang Hui - Peach-Blossom-Fishing-Boat-1

Peach Blossom Springs

In the Taiyuan period of the Jin Dynasty (AD 376-396), there was a man from Wuling, who was a fisherman by trade.

One day, he was fishing his way up a stream in his small wooden boat. Not paying attention to how far he’d gone, he suddenly came upon a wood of peach trees that he had never seen or heard of before. On both banks for several hundred yards there were no other kinds of trees either, and the fragrant grasses beneath their boughs, were patterned with peach blossom, and peach blossom only.

Surprised yet filled with curiosity, the fisherman went on further, determined to find out more about this wood. He found that the end of the wood and the source of the stream both came together at the foot of a cliff, and in this cliff there was a small cave, in which there seemed to be a faint light. Leaving his boat, the fisherman went in through the mouth of the cave. At first, it was very narrow, only just wide enough for a man, but after forty or fifty yards, it then widened out again, and the fisherman found himself back out in the open.

The place that the fisherman had come to was level and spacious. There were houses and cottages, all arranged in a planned order; there were fine fields and beautiful pools; there were mulberry trees, bamboo groves, and many other kinds of shrubs and trees; there were raised pathways round the fields; and the fisherman could hear the sound of chickens and dogs, in all the four directions.

Going to and fro in all of this, were people, both men and women, busy working and planting vegetables, herbs, flowers and spices. Their dress was not unlike the people who lived outside, but all of them, whether they were old people with white hair, or children with their black hair tied up in a knot, all of them wore smiles that spoke of their contentment, not only with their surroundings but also with themselves and the other people there.

When they saw the fisherman, they were amazed and asked him where he had come from. Intrigued by where that was, and what people did there, they then asked him other things about his daily life. Delighting in the fisherman’s answers and in his good company, the villagers then asked him to join them in their homes, where they put jugs of wine in front of him, killed chickens and prepared a sumptuous array of spice laden dishes in the fisherman’s honour.

When the other people in the village heard about this visitor, they also came to ask the fisherman questions. They told him that their ancestors had escaped from the wars and confusion in the time of the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC). Bringing their wives and children with them, all the people of their district had reached this inaccessible place, and had never left it since. Because of this, they had lost all contact with the world outside. They asked the fisherman what dynasty it was now.

“What?” they said. They hadn’t even heard of the Han, let alone the Wei or Jin. So, the fisherman then explained to them everything he could of the world he knew, and on hearing about all these changes and upheavals in the world outside, the villagers all sighed with deep sorrow.

Afterwards, yet more villagers invited the fisherman to visit them in their homes and to talk with them more. Accepting their offers gladly, the fisherman stayed on in the village for several more days, feasting on freshly prepared food and enjoying their generous hospitality.

Finally, the time came for the fisherman to return home. Before he departed, the villagers all gathered round the fisherman and implored of him,  “Please, never speak to anyone outside, about this place or us!”

Nodding, the fisherman bade them all farewell.

Heading out through the cave, the fisherman found his small boat and then set off for home, following the same route as he had taken there. However, this time, he left marks, as he traveled home, to ensure that if he wanted to, the fisherman could find his way back to that wood of peach trees, and, in turn, the village and its people.

When the fisherman got back to the provincial town he called on the prefect and told him all about his experience. More than intrigued, the prefect at once sent for a group of men to accompany him on his own journey to this wondrous place. Yet, even though the fisherman was with the prefect and his men, they could not follow the marks he had left. Completely confused, as to which way was what, and what way was which, they had no choice but to give up their search and return to their small town.

Upon hearing of this matter, Liu Ziji, a highly reputed scholar from Nanyang, quickly offered, with the utmost enthusiasm, to go out with the fisherman and try once more to find a way back there. But this, alas, came to nothing either, for he fell ill and died.

After that, no one went to look for the stream anymore.

Tao Yuanming [陶淵明]

Translation: Gladys Yang


John Blofeld on the Chan School and the Heart Sutra

Excerpts from The Jewel in the Lotus: An Outline of Present Day Buddhism in China, published by Sidgwick & Jackson for The Buddhist Society, 1948, and Gateway to Wisdom, published by Allen & Unwin, 1980, by John Blofeld.

Chan Calligraphy

Chapter X: The Meditation Sect

This sect, more generally known in Europe by its Japanese name of Zen, is called Ch’an Tsung in Chinese, Ch’an being the equivalent of the Sanskrit word dhyana (meditation) and tsung meaning a sect. It has for over a thousand years been one of the most influential sects in the country and has played a great part in the development of Chinese philosophy and art, as well as making a peculiar impression of the psychology of the Chinese people. The interest which its doctrines have aroused in certain circles in the West is partly due to the labours of Dr. D. T. Suzuki, but mainly to the extreme freshness of its doctrines and the attitude to life of its adherents, which is in such sharp contrast to that of other religious groups.

The principle doctrine of the sect is that Nirvana can be attained in this life as the result of an experience known as sudden Enlightenment, which connotes sudden apprehension of our real nature and of the fact that this nature is identical with that of the ultimate reality underlying the appearances of all phenomena. […]

The word ch’an (dhyana) can be rendered into English as “meditation” or “pure thought”. Adherents of the Meditation Sect emphasise the importance of attaining Enlightenment through carefully directed concentration of mind and certain mental exercises, holding that the study of the scriptures is a much more uncertain road to that goal. Having little belief in the efficacy of words and acquired knowledge, they call their doctrine “a teaching beyond teaching”. Their method is to practise the eradication of wayward thoughts by concentration and to open their minds to that intuitive knowledge, which, they believe, will come to them as the result of prolonged mental efforts to obtain it. They hope to be able to recognise and understand the “intrinsically pure essence of mind” which is the common possession of all, though few are aware of it. This “essence of mind” is said to be our Buddha-nature, our true nature, obscured by the darkness of desire, aversion and ignorance, but of unchanging and unchangeable purity in itself. By intuitive wisdom, the fruit of rightly performed meditation, we can grasp this nature and realise that the individual is in reality a Buddha, or looked at from a wider point of view, “one with Buddha” and, indeed, the whole Universe. This method is still practised today by millions of people throughout the Far East, but often accompanied by the methods for obtaining Enlightenment advocated by other Buddhist sects.

Moreover, though Ch’an is called a wordless teaching, several books are now popular with the adherents of the Meditation Sect, especially the Diamond Sutra (Vajrachedikka Sutra), the Heart Sutra (Smaller Prajna Paramita Hridaya Sutra), and the Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, the Exalted Teacher and Treasure of the Law. […]

The Heart Sutra contains the essence of the teachings of the Meditation Sect in a very few words, and is given here in full as an example of Ch’an philosophy. It runs as follows:

* * *

When Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva was practising the profound Prajnaparamita (1), he perceived that the five congregates (2) were all void; and by so perceiving liberated himself from all sorrows. (3)

Sariputra (he said), matter differs not from void, nor void from matter. Indeed, matter is void and void is matter. And such also is the case with sensation, perception, discrimination and consciousness. (4)

Sariputra, all of these are of the nature of void. They are neither existing nor non-existing; not impure nor pure; neither growing nor decaying. Therefore in the void there is no matter, neither is there sensation or perception, discrimination or consciousness. And in it there are no eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body or mind. There is no form, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch and no knowledge. There is no that which is seen by the eye, heard by the ear, etc. up to no that which is conceived by the mind; no ignorance nor ignorance exterminated; no decay and no death, nor are they extirpated; no sorrow nor cause of sorrow, nor extinction of sorrow nor way to its extinction. There is no wisdom, nor anything to be gained by it. Because nothing is gained, so one is a Bodhisattva. Because of the Prajnaparamita, the mind is liberated. Because the mind is liberated, so one is free from worry and ignorant thoughts and can attain to the supreme Nirvana. (5)

All the Buddhas of the three periods attained supreme Buddhahood by way of Prajnaparamita. Therefore it is known that Prajnaparamita is the most divine mantra, the unsurpassed mantra, the peerless mantra. It can assuage all sufferings and is the Truth. Therefore I teach you the mantra of the Prajnaparamita, thus:

“Gati gati paragati parasamgati bodhi svaha.”

* * *

Heart Sutra 陳沛然

The Heart Sutra. Calligraphy by 陳沛然.

This translation is based on one made by the Teacher of the Dharma, Wei Huan (惟幻法師), a disciple of the Venerable T’ai Hsü (太虛法師). The meaning of the Sanskrit words of the mantra at the end is: “O wisdom, gone, gone to the other shore, arrived at the other shore, svaha,” but mantras are not supposed to be thought of in relation to the exact meaning of the words of which they are composed, some of them having no apparent meaning at all; they are valued and used for the sake of their esoteric meaning and particular sound, which, it is said, help to establish contact between human beings and the spiritual being to which the mantra employed is specially appropriate.

The Heart Sutra carries to extreme length the doctrine that not only form but the Dharma itself is void. Even the Four Noble Truths of suffering, the cause of suffering, the existence of a way to end suffering and the Noble Eightfold Path, which are often considered the keystones of Buddhism, are denied, though they are, of course, considered to hold true in the relative sense that anything exists at all. Thus it will be seen how the Meditation Sect emphasises the fundamental voidness of everything, including the Buddhist teaching itself, and even postulates that the consciousness of the thinker himself is void. The Buddha is represented in this sutra as having pondered over the existence of sorrow, sickness, decay and death, prescribed as an antidote in the Four Noble Truths and then, speaking as from a higher plane, to have stated emphatically that sorrow, death and the Four Noble Truths do not exist, in order to emphasise that absolutely nothing exists except in a relative sense.

Notes: For the sake of clarity, John Blofeld’s notes on the Heart Sutra, originally inserted directly into the text, have been relegated to the end of this post and are as follows.

  1. Arriving at the further shore by means of wisdom.
  2. Skandha.
  3. The five congregates are matter, sensation or the effect of on the senses of matter and or phenomena, perception or the mental awareness of having received these impressions, discrimination or the mental acts of liking or disliking the objects of these impressions, and consciousness.
  4. Sariputra was the disciple to whom Gautama Buddha is said to have delivered this lecture.
  5. “That which is seen by the eye” means that which results from the contact of the eye and the object which it perceives. So, also with the other sense organs and the objects which they apprehend.

* * *

In a later work, ‘Gateway to Wisdom’ (1980), John Blofeld returned to the Heart Sutra and its teaching:


All the ordinary teachings of the Buddha are here transcended in the light of intuition of the void nature of existence. The five skandhas or components of an individual’s seeming personality are proclaimed to be void, as are the six sense organs (including mind), the six forms of sense perception, and the six types of consciousness to which they give rise. Even such fundamental teachings are negated as the twelvefold chain of causation leading from primordial ignorance, through becoming, etc., to decay, death and rebirth; the Four Noble Truths (that existence is inseparable from suffering/frustration; that the cause of suffering is inordinate desire; that the remedy is cessation of inordinate desire/aversion; and that this results from treading the Noble Eightfold Path requiring right attitudes and conduct of both body and mind); and the attainment of Nirvana through the exercise of wisdom. All these teachings, though absolutely valid at the level of relative truth apparent to us all, are found to have no pertinence once the void nature of reality has been fully realised and conceptualisation transcended. The reference at the end of the sutra to uttering the mantra of Highest Wisdom means not that the one just utters it, but that he lives the mantra by perceiving the voidness of all concepts, entities and beings without exception. The exoteric teachings of the Buddha must most certainly not be abandoned until the intuitive experience of voidness leads to brilliant, unwavering perception of the pure, boundless, shining void. The words to be recited are as follows:


Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva, while engaged in deep practice of the highest wisdom, perceived that all the five aggregates are void, and thereby passed beyond all forms of suffering.

O Sariputra, form differs not from void, nor void from form. Form IS void; void IS form. With feelings, perceptions, conditionings and consciousness it is the same. Sariputra, all these are marked by emptiness, neither coming into being nor ceasing to be, neither foul nor pure, neither increasing nor diminishing.

Therefore within the void there is no form, no sensation, perception, discrimination or consciousness; no eyes, no ears, nose, tongue, body or mind; nor form, sound, smell, taste, touch or thought; nor any of the others from eye-consciousness to mind-consciousness.

There is neither ignorance, nor extinction of ignorance, nor any of the others [twelve links of causation] down to decay and death. There is no suffering, no cause, no remedy, no path [thereto]. There is no wisdom, no attainment. Because there is nothing to be attained, Bodhisattvas, relying on this highest wisdom, are free from hindrances of mind. Being rid of these hindrances, they have no fear, are free from all upsets and delusions, and in the end attain Nirvana. It is by relying on this highest wisdom that all Buddhas of the past, the present and the future achieve Supreme Enlightenment.

Therefore do we know that the highest wisdom is a great and sacred mantra, a great mantra of knowledge, a mantra unsurpassed, unequalled. It can terminate all suffering truly and unfailingly. Therefore utter this mantra of Highest Wisdom thus – Gaté, gaté, paragaté, parasamgaté, bodhi svāhā. [gone, gone, gone beyond, wholly gone beyond! Enlightenment! Svāhā!]

* * *

Read another translation of the Heart Sutra by Red Pine (Bill Porter):

Royal Court of Ava 1

Lokanīti – The Nîti Literature of Burma

The Lokanīti was one of the most venerated works in Burma. It belongs to the Pāli non-canonical literature; to the gnomic literature of Burma. Today it is known more by its name than by its contents. It is most probable that it was prepared for a king’s ācārya (religious instructor), in order to help him discourse on ethics and polity, to pronounce moral maxims and give advice. Since it was in use in the royal courts of India, it could have been introduced into the court of Ava

Ludwik Sternbach S.O.A.S Bulletin, Vol. 26, No.2, 1963

  ‘The Lokanîti and Dhammanîti embrace a miscellaneous collection of subjects, and serve as suitable handbooks for the general reader for the study of prudential rules and principles of morality. The former is taught in almost every monastic school in Burma, and printed editions of it have helped considerably to extend its popularity. That a work of the kind should have charms for the Buddhist is not to be wondered at. He firmly believes that his future happiness depends upon his behaviour in this present life, and relies more on practical deeds rather than on the faith which his religion demands; and nothing could be more suitable to his wants than a literature which lays down for him, in pithy stanzas, and often in metaphoric language, a number of simply-worded apophthegms which are to shape his career in this world and fit him for a better sphere of existence when he leaves it ..’

James GrayLokanîti, Trübner & Co, 1886

Further Reading:

Burmese Proverbs – Hla Pe

The Pali Literature of Burma – Mabel Haynes Bode

A Burmese History of Buddhism – Mabel Haynes Bode

A Burmese Tract on Kingship – Ryuji Okudaira and Andrew Huxley

The Song of Experiencing the Tao


Yung-ch’ia Hsuan-chueh

[Yòngjiā Xuānjué]





“There exists … a curious collection of songs composed by the southern school of the Ch’an Buddhists known as the School of Shen-hui. According to tradition, the songs were composed by a monk from Yung-chia in Chekiang called Hsuan-chueh, who was known to be alive in the year 713. But whether he was the real author of the forty-six Buddhist songs attributed to him is still uncertain.”




The roar of the lion is the fearless man speaking:

When the beasts hear it, their skulls crack open.

Hearing it, stampeding elephants lose their majestic powers.

Only the gods and dragons rejoice when it is heard in meditation.




He meditates when walking and when sitting.

Silent, speaking, moving, resting, his body is at peace.

In the face of pointed swords he remains eternally calm.

Many Kalpas ago our Master met Dipamkara, (1)

But already he was the “patient sufferer.” (2)




Purify the five eyes, possess the five powers.

If once you have known truth, you know the unknown.

In a mirror the body’s shape is easily discerned,

But in vain can you grasp the moon on the water.




They walk alone, and they are together –

Along the road to Nirvana, the Perfect Ones

With antique minds, pure-hearted, high-spirited,

With sunken cheekbones, despised by the common people.




Wander the streams and oceans, cross mountains and rivers,

Search for the Way, call upon masters, desire to enter the Tao.

No sooner have you come to Ts’ao-hsi, (3)

You will know that neither birth nor death has any meaning.




The moon shines on the river, pines sigh in the wind.

What happens in the quietness of eternal night?

My heart is confirmed in its pure Buddhahood.

My body is clothed in dust, dew, clouds and sunset.




An alms bowl subdues a dragon, a stick defeats tigers.

The two sets of gold rings sound ling-ling.

The priest does not carry his stick to no purpose.

It is the stick of the Tathagata, (4) a holy relic.




In the forest of sandalwood, only the trees grow.

The lion runs wild in these thickets.

In the silence of the forests none dares oppose him.

The birds fly away, the animals run from him.




The baby lion was ahead of the common herd.

When three years old, he roared tremendously.

Though the jackals compete with the King of the Law (5)

And shout for a hundred years, they exist to no purpose.




Let them slander me: I remain unmoved.

Who tries to burn the sky only wearies himself.

I drink the words of the slanderer as though they were dew.

They purge me; suddenly I enter the Ineffable.


If you find any virtue in evil words,
Then the slanderer becomes your spiritual guide.

Let neither offense nor slander provoke hatred in you.

How otherwise can the power of divine endurance be beheld?



  1. One of the Buddhas of the Past.
  2. The story of the “patient sufferer” is told in the Diamond Sutra.
  3. 漕溪, Caoxi. The town where the temple of the Sixth Patriarch, Huineng, was located.
  4. I.e. the Buddha.
  5. 法王, King of the Law, or Dharma.



Stele at the Six Banyan Trees Temple, Guangzhou.





The foregoing text, the Zhengdao Ge, was excerpted from the work “The White Pony: An Anthology of Chinese Poetry” edited by Robert Payne. It is also called “The Song of Enlightenment” and is well known by its Japanese name, the Shōdōka. Its author, Chan Master Yongjia, was a disciple of the Sixth Patriarch of the Chan School, Huineng, and this poem occupies an important place in the literature of Zen.


The White Pony” was published in 1947 and subsequently reprinted on numerous occasions. It remains an excellent anthology. Payne compared his rendering with a prior translation by Walther Liebenthal, published in Monumenta Serica, VI, 1941. The footnotes have been slightly modified.



‘The White Pony’ paperback edition.



The second illustration is of a stele engraved with this poem in the Six Banyan Trees Temple in Guangzhou, China.


Interested readers will fruitfully consult this page, which contains various different translations of the same collection of poems in its entirety, by translators such as D.T. Suzuki, and Charles Luk, among others.

永嘉玄覺 Yongjia Xuanjue (665–713) 證道歌 Zhengdao ge


The Chinese text may be read in beautiful calligraphy here:



Read more about Robert Payne in China here:

Gu Temple

The Abbot


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.


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


Pantheon Books, 2008

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


* * *

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