December 2010

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James Carter, Professor of History at Saint Joseph’s University and Chief Editor of the journal Twentieth-Century China, has recently published Heart of Buddha, Heart of China: The Life of Tanxu, a Twentieth Century Monk (Oxford University Press). To explore the life and work of this extraordinary individual, Carter embarked on a series of “travels with Tanxu,” spending time in Buddhist temples from Harbin to Hong Kong (with stops in Qingdao, Ningbo, Yingkou, and Shanghai along the way). Here, in an excerpt from the prologue to his book, Carter explains the challenges he encountered in tracing the life of Tanxu, an often enigmatic figure whose memoir raises as many questions for the historian as it answers.

The Present Past

A man opens the door. He wears the saffron robes and prayer beads of a Buddhist monk, his smiling face framed by a shaved head and long eyebrows. The face is more youthful than I expect of an eighty-year-old man who has lived through war, revolution, and dislocation in China. Inside, brightly colored idols and the smell of incense contrast incongruously with the gray January streets of the Bronx outside.

I greet him in Chinese. He responds in English. This exchange, with neither speaking his native tongue, underlines the fact that we are between worlds—many worlds: China and New York City; present and past; religion and scholarship. He is Master Lok To, a senior Buddhist monk; indeed, a patriarch of the Tiantai sect. Born and raised in China, he has lived in New York for four decades. I was nervous about how he would receive me, a staunchly secular American scholar forty years his junior. He has endured occupation and exile for his faith, while I’ve lived most of my life in tranquil, leafy suburbs. But he immediately puts me at ease, continuing to smile as he shakes my hand (unusual for a Buddhist monk, who will usually press his palms together in greeting), and the distance between our two lives dwindles.

He leads me into the next room and we sit down at a low table before a window overlooking the streetscape of storefront Pentecostal churches and takeaway Caribbean restaurants. Sipping tea, we talk, still mixing languages. As I look around the room, through an archway I catch a glimpse of my reason for being here: behind an altar to the Buddha, Master Tanxu looks out at me from a large painting on the wall.

* * *

This book is about Tanxu’s life; it is also about the history of modern China. At its core, though, it is about traveling between worlds. Tanxu, born in 1875 with the name Wang Shouchun, worked as a laborer, minor government official, fortune-teller, and pharmacist before leaving his family to become a monk and make a career founding Buddhist temples across China. Before his death in 1963, he witnessed and was part of a century of extraordinary change in China. Tanxu was constantly in motion, traveling throughout China by road, rail, river, and ocean. His travels took him from coastal North China, near Beijing, to the frontier of Manchuria. From there, he moved on to the heartlands of Chinese history and culture: the prosperous lower Yangzi Delta; the ancient capital of Xi’an; and Shandong, the home of Confucius. He left the mainland just twice: once to visit Japan, and then to the British colony of Hong Kong, where he spent the last years of his life. If we take him at his word, as a young man he even traversed the boundary between life and death, descending to the underworld and negotiating his return to the living.

To research this book I traveled Tanxu’s itinerary, following him across China, living and working in many of the temples he founded. I also touched him through his dharma descendants, in New York City and Hong Kong. Along the way, what began as a strictly academic monograph became a different kind of story, one that illuminates twentieth-century China through the details of an extraordinary life. And although Tanxu is squarely at the center of the story, I resist the term “biography” because the details of Tanxu’s life are a means to the end of understanding China’s recent history rather than ends in themselves. To the extent that Tanxu is intended as an instrument with which to gauge broader trends, this book aspires to be “microhistory,” a genre so eloquently described by historian Jill Lepore.

My travels with Tanxu were only possible because of his memoir, Yingchen huiyilu (YCHYL). The title means literally “Recollections of Shadows and Dust,” but is better translated as “Memories of the Material World.” Tanxu dictated this record to students at his seminary in 1947, and its 540 pages (different editions vary slightly) contain insights and observations of Tanxu’s personal journey, but also of China’s travails as it moved from empire to republic, through war, famine, and revolution. Tanxu struggled deeply, and boldly, with his own identity as a human being, and at the same time he was one man among many seeking to define what it meant—or could mean—to be Chinese in the twentieth century.

The Yingchen huiyilu is invaluable as a source, but it is also frustrating. At times it is tremendously detailed, and many of its details can be cross-referenced with other accounts, building confidence in the reliability of Tanxu’s account. Elsewhere, however, the text is maddeningly silent; Tanxu leaves essential characters voiceless. In places like these, the historian has a choice: to remain quiet or to apply what R. G. Collingwood called “the historical imagination.” To build as complete a picture as possible, I have consulted other primary and secondary sources about the events, regions, and personalities that Tanxu describes, but also walked in his footsteps. The Yingchen huiyilu became a guidebook, leading me to more than a dozen cities across China. Often I found accommodation in the temples or monasteries that Tanxu helped found decades, and in some cases a century, earlier. I believe that sharing Tanxu’s experience—to the extent it was possible—brought me closer to understanding the man and better equipped me to relate his story, even as it made balancing objectivity and intimacy more challenging.

Tanxu’s memoir was not intended to provide an objective account of his life. He told his story to students seeking to understand where their master had come from and how his life had made him into the religious figure they knew. It is therefore prone to teleological explanations, often interpreting events as foreshadowing or pointing toward his eventual career as a monk. Occasionally, he describes as fact supernatural phenomena that are plainly impossible, according to secular, academic standards. I have chosen to present these events as Tanxu portrayed them, without evaluating their truth claims. Instead, by illuminating the cultural context surrounding these events, I use them to explicate the patterns of Chinese history and society over the past century.

The China of today, with its towering skyscrapers, high-speed trains and seemingly limitless economic potential, at first appears totally divorced from Tanxu’s world of ghosts and visions. As I retraced Tanxu’s steps, though, I found that the issues confronting China today are not so different from those that Tanxu observed one hundred years ago. Tanxu saw a weak and divided China, struggling to survive in the face of foreign invasion and internal division. Today, China is poised to be a world power, but the projection of strength disguises internal weakness. Dramatic changes to its economy, society, and culture threaten domestic stability, as coastal provinces develop rapidly but interior regions lag behind. In the past, Japanese invasions, European colonialism, and rural uprisings threatened social cohesion; today the threats are a frayed social safety net, masses of migrant workers, regional and ethnic tensions, and environmental degradation on an unprecedented scale. Now, as then, many Chinese find themselves wondering about their nation’s identity and future.

Tanxu believed that China’s material challenges had spiritual and intellectual roots and that China needed a stronger religious foundation if it was to survive and flourish. Today, the government fights “spiritual pollution” with internet firewalls and press censorship, but at the same time its elevation of greed and consumption to extraordinary levels (Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s contemporary economic growth, famously argued that “To get rich is glorious” in the new China) has contributed to a spiritual vacuum. Many are dissatisfied as the social safety net has frayed, and that disaffection looms ominously in times of political or economic crisis. As Tanxu did a century ago, many in China today have turned to religion. Buddhism, Daoism, and Christianity are all growing rapidly. The government grapples with religious groups it considers cults or terrorists, including the banned Falun Gong sect and Muslim Uyghur separatists in Xinjiang Province. Moreover, Buddhism lies at the heart of Tibet’s uneasy relationship with the Chinese authorities. Religion remains as powerful and as controversial in China today as it was in Tanxu’s time.

Reprinted from HEART OF BUDDHA, HEART OF CHINA by James Carter with permission from Oxford University Press.  Copyright © 2011, OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS

As 2010 draws to a close, many media outlets have begun releasing their year-end “best of” lists. We always take a careful look at these to see which China-related titles appear, and have seen more than a few familiar names pop up. At the New York Times, the “100 Notable Books of 2010” include Peter Hessler’s Country Driving and Yunte Huang’s biography of Charlie Chan, as well as Pearl Buck in China: Journey to The Good Earth by Hilary Spurling. Spurling’s work is also celebrated by Margaret Drabble at The Guardian, while both Pankaj Mishra and AS Byatt include Yiyun Li’s short story collection, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, on their Guardian lists. “Books of the Year” at The Economist included The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers by Richard McGregor, Country Driving, Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962 by Frank Dikötter, and Pearl Buck in China.

We’d also like to draw the attention of China Beatniks to another recently lauded book: Chinese Shakespeares: Two Centuries of Cultural Exchange by Alexander C.Y. Huang, which won the Modern Language Association’s Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for Comparative Literary Studies. Competing against titles from all fields of comparative literature (not just Asian), Chinese Shakespeares was recognized for its innovative approach to examining the movement of cultural forms across space. In its citation commending his work, the award committee notes that Huang “examines the way movement across geographical and geopolitical fault lines reaches into cultural forms and changes their meanings from the inside, often revealing possibilities that had lain dormant, unnoticed, or submerged in the texts’ cultures of origin.”

Huang, a faculty member in Pennsylvania State University’s Department of Comparative Literature, is also a co-founder and co-editor of two digital archives, Global Shakespeares and Shakespeare Performance in Asia. To learn more about Chinese Shakespeares, see Colin Mackerras’s review of the book at MCLC, as well as “Old Man Sha in the Middle Kingdom,” an article about Huang’s work at Research Penn State.

In October, CCTV’s high-definition channel broadcast a new six-hour, eight-episode documentary on the famous husband-and-wife duo Liang Sicheng (梁思成, 1901-1972) and Lin Huiyin (林徽因, 1904-1955). Liang is renowned as a pioneering architectural historian, Lin as a writer, but their presence in China’s historical consciousness defies easy categorization. Both came from prominent families (Sicheng’s father was Liang Qichao, the scholar and reformer of the late Qing and early Republican period) and they left multifaceted legacies (their son, the noted environmentalist Liang Congjie, died in Beijing on October 28; American artist Maya Lin is Huiyin’s niece.)

Titled “Liang Sicheng Lin Huiyin,” the documentary was directed by Hu Jingcao (胡劲草), a 42-year-old video journalist. Like her subjects, Hu (who spent the 2000-01 academic year as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University) seems compelled to cross cultural and national boundaries. She previously made “You Tong” (幼童), an account of the 120 boys sent by Qing officials to study in the United States in the 1870s. Like that documentary, this new work draws extensively on previously unexplored materials from both the United States (where Liang and Lin studied for several years) and China, as well as Japan. It tells much of their story through the lens of their long and close friendship with John King Fairbank and Wilma Fairbank. Their photographs and their voluminous correspondence are drawn on extensively, along with interviews of their children (Holly Fairbank and Liang Zaibing as well as Liang Congjie) and many other people who knew them. The documentary’s official site has all eight episodes available for viewing; this page has an index of YouTube links for all the episodes, most in high-definition.

Benjamin L. Read, assistant professor of politics at UC Santa Cruz, interviewed Hu via email for China Beat, and also condensed and translated the exchange.

Lin Huiyin and Liang Sicheng

BLR: Perhaps you could start by telling China Beat readers about the cultural background surrounding Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin. People are obviously fascinated by them, perhaps especially Lin, her life and her poetry. What is the general impression of these figures that viewers in China will have before they watch your documentary?

HJC: The subjects of the documentary are very well known to the Chinese public, especially Lin Huiyin. She is seen as personifying the woman with both beauty and talent. Of course, there are other reasons for her fame as well. Last year, the influential Southern People Weekly selected the twelve most beautiful women in the history of the PRC, and Lin was number one. They wrote, in part:

It is often only through the light given off by a man that we see the woman behind him, particularly so for young women in the arts who emerged from the republican era. But Lin Huiyin is an exception. In her, we see the reflection of many outstanding men of the time, but in fact it is she who adds extra color and shine to their images.

Lin Huiyin is renowned for the group of outstanding men that swirled around her, and particularly the love stories that people never tire of relating. The most famous of these concern the poet Xu Zhimo and the philosopher Jin Yuelin, who remained unmarried his whole life due to his feelings for Lin.

It is always television shows that give the public most of its information about things. Ten years ago, a TV show called “The Days of April” brought Lin Huiyin to the attention of many Chinese viewers. But Liang Zaibing and Liang Congjie, Liang and Lin’s daughter and son, penned angry protests after seeing it. They wrote:

“The ‘Lin Huiyin’ in this show is just a spoiled little girl who only knows how to strike affected poses, make flirty gestures, sniffle and sob …”

“This show portrayed my mother merely as a pathetic figure hounded to the point of desperation by Xu Zhimo’s pressure, then grasping at the straw of Liang Sicheng to save herself, never escaping Xu’s clutches. This flies in the face of the historical facts.”

“Lin Huiyin was not like what you pictured!!!”

So what was she then?

In comparison, Lin’s husband Liang Sicheng has considerably less of this kind of “fame.” His name has been mentioned more and more often in recent years, though. The reason is that people have become increasingly unhappy with the living environment around them. As cities expand boundlessly, traffic becomes more and more clogged, and people become surrounded by tall, identical buildings, they feel that they no longer know where they are living. This brings the name Liang Sicheng to people’s minds. It has become a kind of spiritual talisman for people dissatisfied with the environment they live in. But then the question becomes: What exactly did Liang do?

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By Daniel Little

Chalmers Johnson, co-founder and president of the Japan Policy Research Institute at the University of San Francisco and long-time professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley and University of California, San Diego, died on November 20, 2010. (Here are several notices — The Atlantic, the New York Times, and The Nation.) In the past ten years or so Johnson has become widely known for his critical books about American empire (Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (2004), The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (2005), Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic (2008), and Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hope (2010)). The bulk of his career, however, was devoted to the study of China and Japan, and this posting examines one of his most notable contributions to these areas.

His earliest contribution to China studies was his 1962 book, Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power: The Emergence of Revolutionary China, 1937-1945. The core of the book was written as a Ph.D. dissertation at Berkeley, making use of archives of secret Japanese wartime materials collected by Robert Scalapino. (Johnson describes the origins of the book in “Peasant Nationalism Revisited: The Biography of a Book.”) The book was one of the early efforts to provide a more systematic explanation of the success of the Chinese Communist Party in mobilizing mass support during the Anti-Japanese War. The book became one of the linchpins of later debates about the Chinese Revolution. As a political scientist, Johnson was mindful of the inherent unlikelihood of a successful revolution anywhere, and this seemed particularly true in China in the 1920s and 1930s. Large-scale mobilization is inherently difficult to sustain, and local discontents rarely escalate to national scale. (Lucien Bianco made this point about China, writing in Peasants Without the Party: Grass-Roots Movements in Twentieth-Century China that “The essential difference between chronic peasant agitation and revolutionary action is that the latter is deliberately offensive in nature, whereas the former resembles the defensive reaction of a beleaguered organism. If peasant agitation was chronic … , it was because the occasions for such conduct were endemic in rural China” (4).)

Johnson’s book is based almost entirely on secret Japanese archives, and Johnson takes special care to attempt to validate these sources as legitimate indications of the nature of events in China during these war years. He believed that the fact that these documents were “secret” gave them an evidentiary status they would lack if they had been produced for the sake of propaganda or political influence by the army or other officials; but rather than representing an effort to spin events in one direction or another, they were intended as “realistic appraisal of military and political developments in China by Japanese leaders” (x). So Johnson is emphatic in arguing that these secret wartime archives provide a valid window of knowledge into both Japanese and Chinese strategies and actions.

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By Guobin Yang

Liang Congjie, professor of history and founder of China’s first environmental NGO, Friends of Nature, died on October 28, 2010 at the age of 78. His death was widely noted in the Chinese and international media: obituaries appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, and other major English newspapers and magazines. The major web portal dedicated a special section on its web site to Professor Liang. Friends of Nature, the organization which Professor Liang co-founded and led for many years, has posted a collection of commemorative essays from his former colleagues, friends, and followers and admirers. Much has been written about the man and his work by those who knew him best.

I met Professor Liang only once, when I interviewed him in his office in Beijing on December 20, 2004. Yet I have read his essay collections and occasional writings. I have followed the work of Friends of Nature for many years and interviewed some of its staff and volunteers. I receive and read regularly the newsletters sent by Friends of Nature. In 2007, when Brill began to publish the English version of the annual China Environment Yearbook edited by Friends of Nature, I had the honor of becoming a member of its international advisory board (the other member being Judith Shapiro) and have read all of the four yearbooks published so far. All this provides the “data,” so to speak, for my understanding of Professor Liang and his social impact.

Professor Liang’s role in the founding of Friends of Nature is well known. In my view, the significance of this event can only be fully appreciated by putting it in its historical context. Liang and his colleagues (Yang Dongping, Liang Xiaoyan, and Wang Lixiong) began to “lobby” government officials to establish such an organization in 1993. Still in the dark shadows of June Fourth, Chinese intellectual life at that time was quite dull. Between the aftershock of June Fourth and the rising tide of commercialism and market economy, the Chinese intellectual world was splintering. Many university faculty and graduate students left academia to “jump into the sea” of business, as others desperately tried to give meaning and relevance to a life in the ivory tower. In magnitude, the collapse of this intellectual world had few historical parallels. It may not be too much of an exaggeration to say that it comes close to the collapse of the Confucian world as captured by Joseph Levenson.

It was under these circumstances that Liang Congjie and his colleagues started to plan an environmental NGO. In a sense, the idea was perfectly natural: it was a logical way of seeking meaning at a time of intellectual crisis. Yet to choose neither money-making nor the proclamation of new manifestos, but such mundane action as building a small NGO working on environmental issues, was a radical step. China had long had environmental problems and intellectuals had long used their pens to lament them. In 1988, for example, Xu Gang’s work of environmental reportage literature, Woodcutter, Wake up! (Fa mu zhe, xing lai!), had had enormous impact. Yet environmental campaigns had always been organized by the government, and environmental protection was supposed to be the government’s responsibility. When Liang Congjie left the comfortable zone of using words to understand and change the world and turned instead to grassroots citizen organizing, he became a new type of intellectual, a public intellectual. In so doing, he changed the meaning of being an intellectual in China. By launching an environmental group independent of the government, he and his colleagues also changed the meaning of the relationship among citizens, the state, and nature. The message of this action is that citizens must participate in the governance of their own affairs.

Professor Liang was often viewed as a cosmopolitan. His parents attended the University of Pennsylvania for college, and he spoke fluent English, could be critical of elements of traditional Chinese culture, and decried anthropocentric developmentalism and scientism. Like many of his generation, however, Professor Liang seemed to be still a Confucian at heart. One might say he was a cosmopolitan Confucian. One of the most common words used to describe him by those who know him is 儒雅 ruya, which may be translated literally as “Confucian gentility.” He combined a sense of humility and human sympathy with the courage to speak out. In this, he reminded us of the Confucian official-literati in the imperial court. Reflecting the Confucian emphasis on education, Professor Liang and Friends of Nature attached special importance to the role of environmental education, running many such educational programs in Chinese schools.

Even his leadership style had a Confucian flavor. As a true Confucian teacher might do, he led by example and practiced what he taught. His business cards were made from recycled waste paper. The organization he built, he wanted to serve as a model for those who would follow. When I interviewed Professor Liang on December 20, 2004, he explained to me how seriously he treated his NGO work from the very beginning:

After its [Friends of Nature’s] establishment, I had discussions with several people. I said we must walk a very straight path (这条路一定要走得非常正), right. “Straight” has two connotations here. One is to set an example for other NGOs. The other is to show to the government that we are truly in the service of society and the public. I said that if we took one wrong step, then the government would say [to later NGOs], “Forget about it. Friends of Nature started many years earlier than you. Look at the mess it has made.” If this happens, it will block the development of NGOs in China. Therefore, we were really, eh, full of trepidation.

At the time of interview, Friends of Nature had a history of ten years. I asked Professor Liang what he considered the group’s most important contribution thus far. He said without hesitation that it was “the launching of the first grassroots NGO in China, a truly independent NGO.” When I asked him whether he thought there was an environmental movement in China, he responded, “There are several hundred environmental groups alone. How can people say there is no environmental movement in China? Only that the forms of our movement are definitely different from those in the West.”

It is important that Liang emphasized the founding of Friends of Nature as its most important contribution to Chinese society. In the years after its establishment, Friends of Nature became the kind of exemplar envisioned by Liang and his colleagues at the beginning. It demonstrated the possibility of civil society development in a state-dominated society and inspired many other grassroots groups to follow suit.

Liang explained to me in detail how delicately the group tried to manage its relations with the government:

In China, the government is dominant in everything…. Our relationship with the government would have to be one of cooperation. But if there is only cooperation and no criticism and supervision, what is the use of an NGO? Therefore, under the major premise of cooperation, we also supervise and criticize. This is a work of art.

An important outcome of this “work of art” is the diffusion of a new model of citizen action, a cooperative, but no less assertive, form of citizen participation and organizing at the grassroots level. Concrete in goal and moderate in means, this model has proved its efficacy and been adopted by many other citizen organizations. The re-articulation of the goals and methods of organized citizen action in China is among Professor Liang’s major contributions to Chinese civil society.

While pleased with the way Friends of Nature had grown, Liang lamented that “our organization is too small and our influence is too limited.” He felt he and his NGO colleagues were working against the powerful currents of commercialism, consumerism, and developmentalism. About China’s future, he could not help but show a deep sense of pessimism.

Yet for more than ten years, his courage kept him going against the tide in his mundane ways. He committed himself to practical action of the most ordinary kind, and believed that the world could not be saved by one saint or another, but only through the collective action of ordinary citizens. In an essay first published in 1995, one year after the founding of Friends of Nature, he wrote, “government management without public supervision and participation cannot possibly sustain environmental protection well in a country, a city, or a region.” More than ten years later, in 2006, at an award ceremony honoring Friends of Nature and other NGOs, he said the following:

Over the past twelve years, Friends of Nature has been dedicated to promoting public environmental awareness and encouraging the public to improve the environment by feasible means and actively participate in environmental decision-making and management. We strongly believe that the environmental awareness and participatory capacity of the general public are essential elements for the construction of a harmonious society.

Perhaps more than anything else, the combination of the image of an active and participatory citizenry with the Confucian image of a world of human-nature harmony epitomizes Liang Congjie’s vision as a scholar-environmentalist in action.

Guobin Yang is Associate Professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures at Barnard College and author of The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online (Columbia University Press, 2009). He has previously written at China Beat on “The Curious Case of Jia Junpeng.”

Photo via the New York Times.

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